The chances for Bulgaria

Where will Sofia position itself after the transition from a unipolar to a bipolar world is over?

09:00 | 6 януари 2023
Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg
Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

By Martin Tabakov

One of the most far-sighted politicians in history turned out to be the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who predicted two centuries ago that the Balkans were a powder keg. And indeed, this region proved to be the starting point for the Great War that forever changed human history. Until very recently, the barrel looked empty and the gunpowder dry. However, the war in Ukraine has again exacerbated the contradictions in the region, which has raised the question of whether the major actors in international politics have decided to tame again their favorites among the Balkan states.

For Bulgaria, this issue is key one, since it has been on the wrong side of history several times, which has cost it two national catastrophes and nearly half a century of political, economic and cultural stagnation on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. Today, the country is once again at a geopolitical crossroads and must choose where to go. And this cannot happen without Sofia creating a clear and objective picture of the main threats to its national security.

The first and major challenge for Bulgaria's foreign policy is the attempt to be removed from the Euro-Atlantic space. The truth is that this dilemma is as old as our post-liberation history, which has always divided politicians and society into Russophiles and Russophobes. Now, however, the stake is much greater, because it depends on where Sofia will position itself after the transition from a unipolar to a bipolar world is over.

In this regard, the problems for Bulgarian national security come along three lines: systematic propaganda by certain factions against the country's geopolitical orientation, attempts to separate Bulgaria from its path to the Eurozone, and the creation of geopolitical illusions about Bulgarians belonging to other political families.

The truth is that the majority of the Bulgarian political elite and citizens see the West as the best and in many ways the only geopolitical alternative for Bulgaria for two reasons. First, the Bulgarian economy is closely related to the European one and there is no way to reproduce its economic indicators outside of it. The populist theses about how Europe robs Bulgarian producers and businesses can be very easily refuted by the statistics, which show that from January 1, 2007 to January 1, 2022, Bulgaria received and absorbed about €12 billion from European funds - four times more than the national budget. The situation is similar with the country's membership in NATO. The main reasons why Bulgaria was not involved in the Ukrainian war are the US nuclear umbrella and Article 5 on collective defense. Hardly anyone would doubt that if the country were to remain outside the Alliance, regional actors would immediately emerge and assert their traditional claims to the country's territorial integrity.

This brings us to the second challenge facing Bulgaria's geopolitical future – its integration into the Eurozone. The most popular myth here is that the country will lose the last remaining piece of its sovereignty - the Bulgarian lev. However, the reality is completely different - Bulgaria lost its financial sovereignty back in 1997, when it experienced the most serious economic crisis in its history since the Second World War. The currency board guarantees the stability of the national currency, but in fact it has long been unable to maintain its purchasing power outside of it. Adoption of the euro will allow the country to settle with a reserve currency under the supervision of the ECB. And this means that every time the Bulgarian economy is threatened with recession, the ECB will be able to print euros to be injected into the financial system. The inconvenient truth is that our membership in the Eurozone will finally eliminate populist appetites for Bulgaria to leave the EU, as this would be tantamount to bankruptcy.

Thirdly, it is worth considering how the supporters of the "other team" imagine the future of Bulgaria outside the EU and NATO? Until the start of the war in Ukraine, this camp worked hard to reorient the country back to Eurasia. Things changed radically when it became clear that the West had united in an unprecedented way behind Ukraine, and Russia could not win this war by conventional means.

The events of the past year have caused consternation among Eurosceptics and anti-Americans, as Moscow's losses proved an old thesis: Russia does not have the political, economic and military-strategic potential to defend its partners. It cannot be an alternative to the collective security system within NATO, its economy practically does not function after the sanctions packages imposed on it by the USA and the EU. Against this background, the rhetoric about the powerful Russian army that will defend Bulgaria and the high standard of living seems ridiculous.

Recently, the other point of view has also gained great popularity - the reorientation of Sofia towards Asia and the "Chinese world". However, this concept is also emptied of content for two reasons. First, China's foreign policy is not aimed at creating a global system dominated by Beijing. At its core is the concept of a system of commercial or, as Henry Kissinger calls them, tributary relations and partnerships to increase China's general well-being and its global image. Bulgaria also participates in this system, which is called the Belt and Road Initiative. Secondly, China already has an ally that uses as a starting point for its influence in the Balkans, and that is Serbia. The last deliveries of Chinese weapons to Belgrade arrived in the summer of 2022, and the Serbs are far more inclined to trust the Chinese than to consider joining NATO. For Beijing, Bulgaria will remain one of the most loyal American allies, just as it was one of the most loyal Soviet satellites during the Cold War. The truth is that if Sofia leaves the EU and NATO, it will not fall into the Russian or Chinese sphere of influence, but into the Turkish one. These processes, which are the basis of the so-called neo-Ottomanism, are detailed by former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu in his book Strategic Depth. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's attempts to maneuver between the US and Russia are further evidence of how countries that disapprove of US and EU policies can easily reorient themselves to the "disaffected" group headed by Ankara.

The second threat to security and stability in the country comes from terrorism. The myth that terrorism is an obsolete threat arose after the coronavirus pandemic hit and was further developed by some analysts after Russia entered Ukraine. However, the terrorists returned with the Istanbul bombing of November 2022, which proved that the disappearance of Daesh should not be considered a final victory. In the Bulgarian case, the cases of radicalization in the country are of particular importance, which have been observed since 2015. The EU's attempts to build mechanisms for the deradicalization of terrorists with the help of psychologists and educators have not been successful, for the simple reason that terrorists are not sick people, but individuals who are aware of the consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, politicians in the country are still in the habit of covering up these problems due to purely partisan interests. A large part of the radicalized persons belong to certain ethnicities, which form a significant electoral share of the votes for the parties in question. In this regard, the role of the security sector is key, which must develop comprehensive strategies for crossing the terrorist channels from the Middle East. This brings us to the painful conclusion that our Schengen membership goes through successfully meeting this challenge. There is no way Europe will allow Bulgaria into the Schengen area if the country does not have clear and reliable mechanisms for the prevention of trafficking in people, weapons and illegal migrants.

The third segment of Bulgaria's national security must be considered in the context of the ongoing military conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This problem has two sides. In the short term, the public and politicians must realize that war is an imminent threat, and a nuclear scenario is possible, though not that likely. Bulgaria, of course, can hardly be attacked directly, as this would trigger Article 5 of NATO's collective defence. But it will not be an exaggeration to say that the country has already been attacked several times by Russian hackers who crashed the websites of several Bulgarian institutions. Information warfare is on the rise and anti-Western propaganda is at its peak, as maintaining foreign policy influence in the country is a key priority for Moscow. In the longer term, the situation will further escalate if the conflict drags on. The economic imprint of the war is already consciously felt by the Bulgarians, and inflation and prices continue to rise. The problem is that under the influence of populists, the public tends to blame the West for this, not Russia, which started this war. One of the most common motives in this regard is the conspiracy theory about the enslavement of the Balkans by the Great Powers. Such a statement can be called conspiratorial even due to the simple fact that Bulgaria has nothing to give to the West, while the USA and the EU have already been investing in the region for two decades. In this sense, even if the war in Ukraine does not represent a direct threat to the Bulgarian national security, it is a prerequisite for a complete destabilization of the country. This is also evident from the inability of the parties to form a government in five consecutive elections, which released a political vacuum for the flourishing of alternative models in the face of eternal official governments.

Last but not least, the inability of the political forces to form a regular cabinet raises the question of whether Bulgaria has the political capital and capacity to govern itself, or whether the political model we inherited from the Transition needs to be changed. This, in turn, stimulated the nationalists in Bulgarian politics to develop their theses for leaving NATO and the EU or the transition to a presidential republic, whose model is very far from the Bulgarian political tradition.

The fourth challenge remains behind the curtain of politics, but it is of essential importance for the geopolitical orientation of the country - misinformation regarding European values and their perception in Bulgarian society. The problem here is that a large part of Bulgarian citizens do not understand the nature of the EU and NATO. When Bulgaria began its path to Euro-Atlantic structures, there were two major incentives that pushed society to prefer the West to the East: the economic crisis of 1997, which could only be fully overcome with the help of Europe, and the reluctance of the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin to engage with Bulgaria on the geopolitical scene. This gave the green light to the Euro-Atlantic forces in the country to permanently link Bulgarian politics with the European one. However, with the changing geopolitical climate and the rise of far-right movements, the West realized that it could not fight the threats from the East without uniting its allies under the sign of a new generation of values to replace the American messianism of the Cold War. The fact that today there is a huge number of Bulgarians who do not support the country's accession to Schengen is precisely due to the fact that they do not know the essence of the Schengen area and do not understand the dividends that Bulgaria will derive from its membership.

The good news is that the politicians realize that in economic terms, Bulgaria's pro-Western development has no alternative. The bad news is that the parties do nothing to explain this to the citizens and especially to their voters, partly to leave space for nationalist talk, partly to please those Bulgarians who are suspicious of the West. Here, the example of the debate surrounding the Istanbul Convention, which was never explained in detail and meaningfully to the Bulgarian society, is particularly indicative.

Last but not least, it is high time for Bulgaria to turn its attention to what is happening in Asia. It is only a matter of time before the US fundamentally changes the concept of NATO as a military alliance to guarantee European security. If Russia were to lose the war in Ukraine, it would mean a collapse of the Russian political system from which Moscow would not be able to recover for decades. NATO will then move to contain China, which will not please all European allies, but a compromise will be necessary unless Europe can build its own armed forces.

In this sense, Bulgaria will sooner or later become the object of geopolitical appetites on the part of Asian actors, who will consider the Balkans as a starting point for increasing their influence on the Old Continent. Sofia, of course, cannot afford to worsen its relations with Beijing, given the fact that China is the second largest economy in the world and major European countries such as Germany and France are highly dependent on it. And yet, Bulgarian politicians must realize that maintaining good partnership relations with the Chinese cannot and should not come at the expense of allied relations with the USA. Therefore, the best way for Bulgaria to balance between the two powers is in two directions: by continuing its support for the One-China Policy and its participation in the "One Belt, One Road" initiative. In parallel with this, the Bulgarian government must respect its alliance commitments within the framework of the Alliance and build a stable political image of a reliable partner that cannot become a conduit for foreign geopolitical interests in Europe.

In conclusion, we should note that the transition to a bipolar world is a huge chance for Bulgaria. An opportunity to rethink the mistakes of the past and to utilize all the opportunities that arise from the country's membership in the EU and NATO. Very often pro-Western Bulgarians are accused by their compatriots of becoming a conduit for foreign interests. This talk is a "trademark" of parties that promise political revenge and restoration of "the old days".

The problem is that the proponents of this rhetoric talk a lot without indicating what a Bulgaria cut off from Europe would look like. Past examples do not work because history shows that things in international relations never happen the same way under the same circumstances. Such political déjà vu is alien to rational thinking and expresses a populist drive for power. A similar political experiment is visible in Hungary, which is increasingly moving away from the European family – a huge paradox because only a decade ago Hungarians were one of the biggest supporters of the EU. Alas, this process is gaining strength in Bulgaria as well. And therein lies perhaps the greatest challenge to the country's national interest – to contain these centrifugal forces before they become irreversible.