Editor’s Note: In September 2016, two Army intelligence officers set out on a cross-country expedition across Bulgaria to explore its rich history, its communist past, and what these can tell us about ongoing Russian influence in the NATO member state. In a previous series, they explored the mysterious remnants of Soviet occupation of the Baltic States. This article is the first in a series detailing their Bulgarian journey.
The November election of Rumen Radev as president of Bulgaria has contributed to growing concerns that several former Soviet satellite states are drifting back into the orbit of Putin’s Russia. European anxieties have remained heightened since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, state-sponsored proxy war in Ukraine’s eastern borderlands, and a myriad of other events including meddling in elections that allow Russia to impose soft power. A rash of pro-Russian candidates have expanded Russian influence over former Soviet states, and many worry that Bulgaria may become the next Trojan horse state. Considering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unabashed ambitions to restore Russian greatness by hook or by crook, such political shifts take on more alarming context.
Further complicating a read on whether Bulgaria leans decidedly east or west is the narrow plurality recently won by center-right and generally pro-Western GERB party (headed by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov) in parliamentary elections. Still, in many ways President Radev personifies Bulgaria’s tightening diplomatic tug of war between courting a Russian East and a NATO-aligned West. The former MiG-29 pilot and chief of the Bulgarian Air Force served as an officer in a Warsaw Pact military, but has also received training at the United States Air Force’s Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base. His past statements supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea are worrying, and in light of other recent election results in Eastern Europe, Radev’s Russian sympathies have NATO officials wondering what Bulgaria’s trajectory may be: will it continue its balancing act between Western Europe and Russia or drift closer to the Russian geopolitical sphere of influence?
Transition from Communism to Capitalism
It’s clear that not everyone in Bulgaria has seen its move towards the West in a favorable light. The country’s transition from communist regime to capitalist democracy was not without turbulence; for Bulgaria, the transition was fast but insincere, with many of the political and economic elite during Soviet times retaining their power and wealth, and in many cases benefiting from the privatization of a command economy. This sentiment is echoed by Bulgarian citizens and expats alike, who were not shy to express their personal stories from one of the country’s most turbulent times.
Departing Sofia airport, we sat next to a Bulgarian expat who explained his experience during the transition in the 1990s. Inflation soared to over 300 percent, and “Hristo” (an anesthesiologist who wishes to remain anonymous) saw his salary plummet to the equivalent of seven US dollars a month. Hristo’s mother even had her ribs broken during an outbreak of fighting that occurred while waiting in line for cheese, after the Bulgarian government reverted to vouchers to address food shortages. The voucher system was enacted after the fall of the state economy, and created scenes similar to the breadlines of America’s Great Depression. Hristo emigrated to the United States, much like many other educated middle-class Bulgarians; since the fall of communism in 1989, more than two million people have left the Balkan state.
In Sofia, we saw firsthand a reminder of Bulgaria’s conflicted past. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (the democratic heir to Bulgaria’s Communist regime) had gathered at an imposing monument to the Red Army liberation. Armed with banners and flags adorned with the hammer and sickle or the mustachioed face of Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s first Communist leader, the ragtag band of pensioners, couples, and Bulgarian grandmothers laid a wreath at the monument base before marching off towards the city center. A befuddled group of teenage skaters briefly paused to observe the spectacle before continuing to launch themselves off of jumps and ramps installed in a corner of the monument plaza.
Russia: Bulgaria’s Liberator
Unlike the Baltic States where public perception of Russia is haunted by memories of occupation, Bulgarians tend to look more favorably on their Slavic neighbor despite hardships during the Soviet era. Bulgaria was under Ottoman foreign rule for nearly five hundred years, but was liberated by the efforts of nationalist partisans and the Imperial Russian Army during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878. Having lost international prestige during the Crimean War and sensing an opportunity to exploit slipping Ottoman control of the predominantly Slavic Balkan States, Russian forces struck the Ottomans, pushing them to the outskirts of Constantinople before accepting a truce. In addition to establishing an autonomous Bulgaria, the war’s conclusion with the Treaty of San Stefano greatly expanded Russian influence over the formerly Ottoman-controlled Balkan Peninsula and Caucasus regions.
On a rainy September morning, Siri’s relaxed voice starkly contrasted with our panicked ascension up a hill when our SUV began to slide backwards down the muddy road. Yet again, our advanced mapping software was no match for Bulgaria’s tricky network of unmarked thoroughfares. We pulled into the empty parking lot of the Pleven Panorama, an imposing red and gray brutalist wedding cake perched atop an otherwise unremarkable hill. Walking toward the main entrance, we were flanked by an honor guard of aged artillery pieces arranged in formation along our path. The panorama is only one of around two hundred monuments dedicated to the pivotal lifting of the siege, most built to coincide with the battle’s centenary in the late-1970s.
Unveiled in 1977 on the hundredth anniversary of the Siege of Pleven, the panorama was one of the few well-maintained Soviet-era memorials we visited. We were the only guests to visit that inclement morning. As soon as we purchased our tickets, the museum came to life with eager docents turning on lights and guiding us through the enormous battle. The abundance of attention made us feel like two senior members of the Bulgarian Communist Party paying a visit to the panorama, rather than a pair of adventurous Army intelligence officers road-tripping through the Balkan countryside.
Despite our guide’s limited English proficiency (and our limited command of the Bulgarian language besides “hello,” “thank you,” and “more rakia please”), it was clear that this monument was a testament to Russia’s prominent role in Bulgaria’s independence. We were led up the spiraling interior staircases, pausing at each level to observe imported military armament and grand oil paintings depicting the Imperial Russian Army vanquishing the evil Ottoman Turks. Making our way to the top of the panorama, we were treated to an enormous 360-degree painting of the defining moment of the battle. The artists had created a view of from the hill as it appeared in 1877, with thousands of Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Ottoman soldiers clashing as far as the eye could see. Russian flags were painted at pivotal points of the battle, with Ottomans soldiers dropping their weapons and fleeing at the sight of the two-headed eagle. It was clear the onlooker was meant to leave this place with a firm conviction that Bulgaria’s Slavic brothers paid in blood for their independence.
In 1944, Russia swept through the Bulgarian mountains and countryside once again, ousting the fascist government with some greatly exaggerated assistance from a predominantly communist partisan movement. With the force of the Red Army behind it, Bulgaria’s newly communist government quickly sided with the Allies (though the armistice concluded effectively placed Bulgaria under occupation and its troops under Soviet command), cementing its control of the country up until the fall of the Iron Curtain.
One of the first cities to experience “liberation” during the Red Army’s invasion of Bulgaria was Varna, the coastal seat of the Council of Europe’s Black Sea Euro Region and headquarters for the Bulgarian Navy. The bustling port city was actually renamed Stalin from 1949 to 1956 and rising up from the city’s northernmost point is an indelible reminder of Russia coming to the aid of its Bulgarian brethren: the Soviet-Bulgarian Friendship Monument. Remarking that the monument looked more like the bridge of a Star Destroyer than the outstretched wings of a bird it was intended to represent, we summited the hundreds of steps to the base of the brutalist monolith.
Under the inscription “Ancient and Eternal Friendship” and past the long-defunct eternal flame, it was apparent that someone had taken a sledgehammer to part of the concrete wall, exposing an empty hallway. A graffiti inscription translated with the assistance of Google read: “It’s really disgusting in there, there are corpses and dead people. But it’s intriguing.” Our sense of adventure piqued (and our logical side a bit unsettled), we crawled through to discover a dark staircase leading up and down. Ascending the staircase exposed the inside of the memorial and led us to its roof, where we peered across the Black Sea over gigantic flags of the EU and Bulgaria rippling in the coastal breeze. Descending exposed a strange subterranean staircase identical to the one above ground that lead to mysteriously large iron doors. We later discovered that the monument construction included a nuclear bunker, just in case their friendship with Soviet Russia got them into a thermonuclear scrap with the West.
Farther south along the Black Sea coastline in the resort town of Sozopol, (formerly home to a marine engineering academy and naval base), we stopped in an antiques store to scavenge for Soviet memorabilia. With every item we inspected, the owner generously provided historical context with a thick accent as if to increase the value of the piece. “See? This one Russian and Bulgarian,” she stated, pointing at the two enamel flags fashioned into a lapel pin. “Eighteen hundred seventy-eight!” she exclaimed. Having traveled nearly the entire width of the country, we had become quite familiar with the significance of this year. “Bulgarians were liberated from the Ottoman Empire with the help of Russia. Russians and Bulgarians always fight together, like brothers!” Despite her apparent appreciation for Slavic kinsman, we quickly came to find that other ordinary Bulgarians did not hesitate to express their skepticism towards Russia.
Scrambling to find parking for our oversized vehicle in Sofia, we were elated to find a crowded but not quite full parking lot next to the Monument to the Soviet Army and to encounter the lot’s talkative owner, Alex. An energetic entrepreneur who also managed several Airbnb apartments and had lived in Boston for a decade (claiming to party frequently with Mark Wahlberg), Alex was quick to share his thoughts on the BSP rally at the monument on the anniversary of Sofia’s “liberation.” He openly expressed his opinion on the party, along with anyone else who supported the Russian Federation. “These guys are total idiots,” he told us, though in far more colorful language. “Most of them aren’t even from Bulgaria and just want us to be connected to Russia again, like when Zhivkov was in power. But we like being part of Europe (referring to the EU) because it brings business.”
Alex’s suspicions of foreign influence at the rally were seemingly confirmed by the license plates on over a dozen Russian and Ukrainian vehicles in his lot just a few hundred feet from the rally. Nevertheless, it was also hard not to notice Alex’s glee in exacting capitalist profits from communist sympathizers, whom he charged to use his parking spaces.
Similar, if perhaps a bit more refined, sentiments were expressed to us in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city and EU Capital of Culture for 2019. Plovdiv’s history dates back to classical antiquity, and the landscape of its cobblestoned old quarter is shaped more by its Greco-Roman and medieval past than the brutalist buildings of Bulgaria’s socialist era. Situated around the corner from the thick marble slabs of a Roman amphitheater was a quaint but decadently apportioned Hotel Hebros, which we strolled into for dinner.
After enjoying foie gras and rabbit stew washed down with a bottle of Bulgarian red wine (all at a fraction of French or Italian prices), we conversed with our waiter, who informed us that the city was in the middle of hosting an EU presidential summit. Our erudite waiter (who was pursuing a graduate degree in macroeconomics), took the opportunity to express his pro-EU/NATO sentiments and how his opinion generally held true for Bulgaria’s educated youth. To our complete surprise, he also told us that we were dining in the two-hundred-year-old former home of the municipality’s Communist party leader.
Sentiments expressed by Alex and our overqualified waiter are not the exception to the rule in Bulgaria. A 2015 Alpha Research poll indicated that 62.8 percent of Bulgarian respondents said they would vote in favor of EU and NATO alignment if a referendum were held on the issue (compared with the 32.9 percent who would prefer alignment with Russia).
The notion that Russia is the traditional and true friend of the Bulgarian people is a convenient and romantic narrative leveraged during Bulgaria’s Communist period that is rooted in some historical accuracies, but the current geopolitical landscape seems to suggest otherwise. Bulgaria espouses duality in its national identity as a NATO member while keeping significant ties to Russia. Ironically, after five hundred years under the “Ottoman yoke” and aligned within the Warsaw Pact as the bulwark against NATO-aligned Turkey, Bulgaria finds itself obligated to defend its historic enemy in an alliance that could now force Bulgaria’s military in a fight against its former Soviet “brothers.” Further complicating security matters, Bulgaria and many of its neighbors still rely on Russia for military parts for maintenance of their older equipment. Bulgaria’s continued reliance exposes a crucial weakness if its military is ever required to take up arms against neighboring Russia.
Despite being a NATO member, Bulgaria’s military hardware is still mainly comprised of Soviet and Russian systems. The Bulgarian Air Force, whose fighter fleet is composed entirely of MiGs, was slated to get a significant upgrade to F-16s (like most Eastern European NATO nations have done). Then-Air Force Chief of Staff Rumen Radev suggested postponing the purchase until 2019, though even upgrading by this date may be in doubt now that he has assumed the presidency. Reliance on Russia for military readiness is not the only situation where Bulgaria must depend on the East; Bulgaria’s economic ties are just as interconnected with Russia as its military-industrial complex.
LEVeraging the Ruble: Russian Contributions to Bulgarian Economic Growth
Like many former Soviet satellites and Warsaw Pact nations, economic cooperation and business networks in Bulgaria have had longstanding ties to Moscow. Due to its historic economic ties and geographic proximity, Russian investment accounts for nearly 22 percent of Bulgaria’s GDP. Though Russia’s economic interests lie predominantly in the energy sector, its economic footprint affects many others, as well, including banking and real estate.
In the port city of Burgas, the influence of Russian energy companies is most apparent. Bulgaria’s sole oil refinery is located in the city and is owned by the Russian energy giant Lukoil, and accounts for nearly 7 percent of Bulgaria’s GDP (total Russian investment accounted for an average of 22 percent of Bulgarian GDP from 2005 to 2014). The sprawling network of pipelines and smokestack skyline on the outskirts of Burgas are a visual testament to the company’s influence in Bulgaria. But we encountered more subtle aspects of Lukoil’s exercise of soft power within the city.
Walking through the city’s main plaza, it’s hard not to notice the towering bronze “Alyosha” figure raising his left hand in victory eighteen meters above the square. Unlike many of the Soviet-era monuments we encountered, the Monument to the Red Army stands as pristine and unblemished as the day it was unveiled in 1954. In 2010, the municipal government restored the monument after being notified of structural damage to the statue’s base, and the refurbishment was bankrolled by Lukoil’s Burgas branch.
Lukoil is not alone in its monopoly within Bulgaria’s energy sector. The Russian state-owned company Gazprom remains Bulgaria’s sole provider of natural gas. And Rosatom, another Russian energy company, provides significant support to Bulgaria’s single Kozloduy nuclear power plant with two reactors supplying approximately one-third of the country’s electricity; the same plant was recently expanded by US-based Westinghouse Electric Company with encouragement from the US government.
A second nuclear power plant at Belene was called for in the 1980s but construction was halted in 2012 following massive corruption in the project and a legal battle between Russian company Atomstroyexport (a subsidiary of Rosatom) and the Bulgarian government. While former (and likely returning) Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov attempted to woo Putin with talks of resuming construction on the Belene power plant, the project remains stalled. Still, it offers a noteworthy carrot in the kit of incentives Moscow could wield to deepen ties between the two countries.
Considering three quarters of its primary energy resources come from Russia through Ukraine, Bulgaria’s construction of the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (ICGB) will help ease its energy dependence, which was highlighted during the cessation of trade relations between Ukraine and Russia following the 2014 occupation of Crimea. The ICGB pipeline will link Bulgaria to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline being built to transport natural gas from the Caspian Sea through Turkey to Italy. This massive energy project may dramatically shift Bulgaria’s energy dependence (as well as much of Western Europe’s) away from Russian gas reserves; however, these connector pipelines are in various stages of planning and construction. Until they start flowing, Bulgaria remains at the mercy of Russian energy companies, many state-owned or in the orbit of Putin’s inner circle and capable of being used as economic weapons should the Kremlin feel it necessary.
Energy is far from the only sector that Russian influence has entered, but certainly an important one. A longstanding holiday destination for the Soviet elite escaping Moscow’s cold, Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast has seen substantial Russian investment. Prominent Russians retain summer dachas along the “Bulgarian Riviera” including the former mayor of Moscow. Large yachts displaying the Russian tricolor often occupy the slips of Sunny Beach and Sozopol—a sight strikingly similar to Montenegro, where nearly 40 percent of real estate is owned by Russian politicians and oligarchs.
Speaking to a Bulgarian reporter on the eve of Radev’s election, Russian Duma member Piotr Tolstoy (great-grandson of the famous writer) remarked, “We hope, that if he [Radev] is elected to the Duma [referring to the Bulgarian legislative body], that he will maintain a benevolent policy towards by Bulgaria,” before continuing, “Of course. I’ll just buy it all. We have already bought half the coastline.”
An Assembly Divided: Friend or Foe?
The center-right and generally pro-European Union Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria party (GERB) pulled off a narrow victory in the general election this March to secure a slim plurality of parliamentary seats (ninety-five of 240) and installment of the prime minister. GERB will likely have to form a coalition government with blocs that do not share the same sentiment for the EU and NATO. The Bulgarian Socialist Party, championing pro-Russian and anti-Western messaging during the campaign, has seen their best results since 2005, presenting a challenge to pro-European policy initiatives for any incipient coalition. GERB has been in power for nearly a decade and is currently under the leadership of former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, though the party lost ground in the recent election. Like concerns about recently ascendant political leaders in Hungary and Greece, Bulgaria’s new independent but socialist-backed president may set the conditions for it to become a “Trojan Horse” state within the EU and NATO.
A large portion of Bulgaria and its politicians don’t buy into the “Slavic kinship” narrative, and view Putinism with skepticism and genuine concern. Former Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev even made strident remarks before the European Parliament last June on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and use of hybrid warfare. A report by 2014 by former Minister of Defense Velizar Shalamanov entitled “Bulgaria in NATO and in European Defence,” posited Russia as a threat to Bulgaria specifically through information warfare, Russian business and political links, energy dependence, and Russian influence in the media. The report even prompted a “mini-crisis” leading to several key parts being omitted or watered down, including language related to Russia’s ambitions in the post-Soviet space.
Such comments are more commonly heard from concerned Baltic and Polish politicians, and Bulgaria exhibited its diplomatic balancing act with Russia when Prime Minister Borissov nixed a proposal to establish a joint NATO-backed Romanian-Bulgarian Black Sea naval fleet in the same month as the former president’s remarks. The fleet would have presumably countered Russia’s naval forces in the Black Sea, and Bulgaria claims that it does not want to contribute to further militarization of one of its most important tourist attractions. If suspicion about Radev’s sympathy towards Russia proves to be true, many of Bulgaria’s hardline policies against Russia may soften up as it supports lifting EU sanctions.
From the Balkans to the Black Sea: Bulgaria’s Strategic Prominence
Much like its intended use in the Warsaw Pact, and despite its status as a NATO member since 2004, Bulgaria’s location still offers Moscow a strategically appealing opportunity to blunt NATO incursion in the Balkans, especially after Montenegro’s recent advances in NATO membership accession. A sympathetic Bulgaria’s 378 kilometers of strategic Black Sea coastline would deny NATO naval forces access to one of Russia’s most vulnerable borders, and Bulgaria—through actions like blocking the proposed NATO-backed joint Black Sea naval force—could serve as a wedge between various NATO countries (Greece, Turkey, and Romania) much like Moldova does to Romania’s north. From a geographic standpoint, the Kremlin would likely prefer a cluster of countries with varying degrees of Russian sympathies in its southwestern near-abroad over a contiguous bloc of NATO stalwarts such as in the Baltic States, whose fear of a Russian invasion has provided NATO with urgent relevance.
For Brussels, Bulgaria’s location dampens Russian influence in the Black Sea region and keeps NATO contiguous through the Balkans and Southern Europe. Inclusion of Bulgaria in NATO prevents political exploitation of nationalist sentiments between allies, such as resurfacing historical grudges between the Bulgarians and the Turks. Additionally, several of Bulgaria’s military bases now fall under joint US usage agreements, such as the Novo Selo Training Area that has evolved into one of NATO’s premier armored training facilities in Eastern Europe.
Maintaining Balkan stability has been a priority for both the European Union and NATO, and Bulgaria has already exhibited its commitment to NATO since 2004 through relatively generous contributions of personnel and assets for missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. However, Bulgaria’s new president may hinder its willingness to participate in external NATO missions, permanently host NATO allies on Bulgarian soil, or support NATO exercises directed towards countering a possible Russian threat—like the decision not so support a joint NATO-backed naval force in the Black Sea.
Recent Russian interference in the internal politics of Balkan nations has caused concern in the region following allegations of a Russian-backed coup attempt in Montenegro last October. If similar events were to occur in a current NATO member state, it would likely sow doubt within the alliance and raise an important question about the vulnerability of the Balkan States to Russian destabilization efforts.
Lion of the Balkans or Putin’s Pushover?
While it may be an overreaction to fear Radev’s potential preference for Moscow, soft power influence within Russia’s near abroad is a hallmark of Kremlin strategy. Viewed within the context of other Russian-sympathetic politicians being elected in the region such as Igor Dodon in Moldova, small signals of foreign policy changes can become (or perceived to become) a slippery slope towards a loss of confidence in institutions such as NATO and the EU. Bulgaria is in a position to set the example for managing relations with Russia and the West, and while a significant Russian minority is not prevalent in the country, Russia’s ability to exploit its historical and ethnic (Slavic) connections to Bulgarians for political leverage cannot be overlooked. Radev himself even stated that while he is inclined to stay in the EU and NATO, he is also drawn towards improving relations with Russia due to “deep historical ties.”
There may be a tendency to read too much into Radev’s election and what it may mean for Bulgaria’s future relations with both Russia and NATO. As the saying goes, all politics is local and domestic concerns tend to be a greater driver than foreign affairs. Despite Bulgaria’s rich history including centuries of Ottoman rule and collusion with the Soviet Union, its people still maintained a separate national identity. Still, there are plenty of reasons to remain wary, particularly if European election results continue to lean towards the East and shake the status quo; should Putin seek to further disrupt the EU and NATO states, Bulgaria—a former loyal Warsaw Pact country almost entirely dependent on Russian energy, deeply intertwined with Russia by trade, and reliant on Russian military hardware—looks to be an ideal candidate.
In Bulgaria, the Kremlin has many levers it can pull, but not all of them. Public opinion continues to favor maintaining Bulgaria’s membership in the EU and NATO over orienting foreign policy towards improving Russian relations. However, it is important to note the same poll discovered that Bulgarians (especially older ones) generally uphold their positive attitude towards Russia despite Russian actions in Ukraine. Ongoing European Union development projects including transportation and public utility improvements have provided significant investment in Bulgaria that should reduce the country’s reliance on Russia. The notion that Bulgaria is a “Trojan Horse State” may be an exaggeration, but extensive (and increasing) political relations, economic dependence, and historical ties to a newly revanchist Russia could dampen Bulgaria’s commitment to European institutions and set the conditions for a particular form of “state capture.” One should not assume that Russian-Bulgarian ties are inherently nefarious in nature, but the greater the scope and depth of penetration, the more easily influence can be achieved. Continued development projects, sustained NATO cooperation (including support to de-Russifying Bulgaria’s military hardware), and support for anti-corruption agencies may deny Russia many of the levers—so apparent in the monuments, infrastructure, and other symbols that dot Bulgaria’s landscape—it seeks to manipulate.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.