The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyzes developments in the Middle East and the Balkans. IFIMES made an analysis of the developments in Bulgaria in the eve of early parliamentary elections, scheduled to take place on 2 April 2023. We bring the most important and interesting parts of the extensive analysis titled “2023 Parliamentary Elections in Bulgaria: Between Brussels (Berlin) and Moscow.”
In the Republic of Bulgaria early parliamentary elections will be held on 2 April 2023. At the elections 240 representatives/deputies of the Bulgarian National Assembly will be elected according to the proportional closed-list system. There is a total of 31 electoral constituencies from which, depending on the size of the constituency from 4 to 16 representatives/deputies will be elected. The election threshold is 4%. These are the fifth elections in the past two years, as it was not possible to establish a government on the basis of the results of the previous elections.
In 2016, the Bulgarian Parliament adopted a law on mandatory participation in the elections with the aim of increasing the legitimacy of representatives in the country. The sanction envisaged for the voters who neglect their obligation to vote at the elections is removal from the electoral roll. However, the removed voters have the possibility to be reentered into the electoral roll. Nevertheless, this does not resolve the problems. This is an undemocratic law because the right to vote implies that each voter can decide whether or not he or she would participate in the elections. Voters are not to be coerced to vote or sanctioned if they do not vote. Hence, this in itself is an indicator of ignorance/non-recognition of democracy, as well as of the undemocratic spirit of the regime in Sofia. Manipulations with the electoral roll are a reflection of fascization of the Bulgarian society. Bulgaria has a large diaspora, which traditionally does not participate in the elections.
As there are no accurate records, it is assessed that the diaspora includes between 2-2.5 million citizens. In example, in Turkey there are around 700,000 Bulgarian Turks, who had experienced a calamity in the 1980-ies of the last century. There are 300,000 Bulgarians living in Greece. Will they participate in the elections? The Movement for Rights and Freedom (DPS), an ethnic party of Bulgarian Turks, is trying to galvanize as many ethnic Turks as possible to participate in the elections.
The main fight will be fought between the We Continue the Change- Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB) movement headed by Kiril Petkov, Asen Vasilev and Hristo Ivanov and the GERB headed by Bojko Borisov. The Revival party, headed by Kostadin Kostadinov, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) that lag behind are pretty equal. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), headed by Korneliya Ninova will also enter the parliament. It is expected that the Bulgarian Rise (BV) party, the Bulgarian Left party and the There is Such a People (ITN) party, headed by Slavi Trifonov, will also pass the election threshold.
Bulgaria and Bulgarians cannot pride themselves on their history from World War II, as at the time they were allies of the Nazi Germany, and after World War II of the USSR. Bulgaria has never been sanctioned for is “historical sins” from World War II, because it later came under the umbrella of the USSR, which had generated deep frustration in the Bulgarian society.
The political polarization between Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and President of the President of the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party Bojko Borisov is still dominant.
During the decade of his rule Borisov established an authoritarian model of state management, which is directly connected and serves the interests of the narrow circle of oligarchs around him. President Radev frequently emphasized that the “mafia” controls Borisov’s government and the politicized judiciary in the country. It is believed that Radev leans towards Russia, while Borisov is a favorite of Angela Merkel, as well as the Russian President Vladimir Putin. As a result of such an international political marriage he was also favorably disposed to Donald Trump. Borisov is also connected with the leaders of the Visegrad group of countries (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia), and particularly the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (Fidesz/EPP). Another inevitable element in Borisov’s political mosaic is the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (AKP), with whom he has developed close relations. Angela Merkel (CDU/EPP) helped Borisov in the establishment of his GERB/EPP party. Merkel’s protective relationship to Borisov has damaged her image, because Borisov is closely linked with mafia structures.
Borisov even attempted to establish his “quadrilateral”, an association of states with a predominantly orthodox population that in addition to Bulgaria would include Rumania, Greece and Serbia- after the model of the Visegrad group of states with a predominantly Catholic population.
The Republic of Bulgaria is a country burdened with numerous problems. In this most underdeveloped EU member country citizens live on the verge of poverty. The economy is ineffective, financial resources are limited and mostly already exhausted. A strong element of oligarchy, which includes around 3,000 individuals, has been established and is now engaged in clan fights for distribution of limited financial resources and redistribution of power, property and contracts. The business and financial capital in the country is controlled by several superrich tycoons. In fact, majority of public tenders and resources from EU funds go through them. Crime and corruption are omnipresent and have become the prevailing “social technology” in management of public funds, as well as in all public spheres. The laws themselves create the conditions for corrupt practices and corruption has become a social norm.
Bulgaria is trying to find a new balance between its obligations towards NATO and the traditional sympathies for Russia. As a NATO member, Bulgaria is responsible for a 354 kilometer-long eastern border of the NATO alliance. The border on the Black Sear is less than 500 kilometers away from Crimea and directly neighbors with the area controlled by the Russian Black Sea fleet and the Russian air force. As Bulgaria has the obligation to control Russian military activities at the Black Sea, it is trying to find the right balance in its relations with the two sides. The Russian invasion on Ukraine has revealed the depth of relations that Bulgarians have with Russia. Lately Bulgaria once again called for negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, not knowing whose interests it represents in the process.
Emotional ties to Russia are deeply rooted in the Bulgarian society. The historical and cultural links with Russia and the sympathies for Russia are in collision with the fear spread through the media that Bulgaria could easily be pulled into a military showdown on the Black Sea. Russian President Vladimir Putin had stated that Russia and Bulgaria have historically enjoyed close ties and that Russia will develop its relations with Bulgaria “on all tracks”.
Essentially, only two “tracks.” Specifically, one track is the “South Stream”, which is an important economic project and an instrument of Russian foreign policy. The other “track” is the attempt of Russia to use Bulgaria to influence (dis)unity between the EU and NATO in order to divide both of these organizations with respect to the sanctions and the security policy, as it has partly already managed to do. That is why Bulgaria is a suitable ground for implementation of “secret activities and operations,” which can be corroborated by the fact that one of the main posts of the Russian intelligence service in the region is located in Sofia. Russia has numerous supporters among Bulgarian political elites and citizens, which could be characterized as pro-Russian orientation.
Due to its geopolitical position, as well as its close spiritual and cultural relations and connections with Russia, Bulgaria was “invited” to act as a mediator and alleviate the current dispute between Russia and the West. Majority of Bulgarians support such a role of the state. However, majority of politicians understand it is entirely unrealistic for a small country as Bulgaria, which is on the verge of poverty, to all of a sudden get positioned as a major peacemaker on the international scene. Nevertheless, Bulgaria has remained divided on the issue of its policy towards Russia.
Analysts warn that Russian security-intelligence services are deeply involved in the security-intelligence system of Bulgaria, which realistically undermines the security of NATO. This is why Bulgaria is referred to as the Russian “Trojan horse” in the Alliance. Therefore, inclusion of Bulgaria in exchange of highly classified intelligence can constitute a risk for NATO, which should conduct a review of security clearances issued in Bulgaria.
The victory of Joseph Biden in the US caused tectonic changes in relations to Boris’s allies, and particularly the Visegrad group of states, Putin and Erdogan. Another aggravating circumstance is the departure of Chancellor Merkel from power. Bulgaria’s conditions for the start of negotiations between North Macedonia and the EU were met with disapproval from European circles.
One should not forget the Bulgaria is a net user of EU funds, which means that it lives at the cost of other developed EU members (as it is not a member of the Schengen zone or the Eurozone).
The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) should expand its investigations because of reasonable suspicions that the EU taxpayers’ money was not spent for designated purposes in Bulgaria. The Bulgaria’s “purse” is in Brussels, while its heart is in Moscow. Within NATO, the trust in Bulgaria is shaken, because Bulgaria is still in the “arms” of Russia. The situation in Bulgaria would have probably been different had the state conducted in a timely manner lustration of members of the communist regime, which was an integral part of the Soviet system of control and influence. However, the problem is not just the period of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Strong relations between Moscow and Sofia go back to the period of establishment of the modern state of Bulgaria. Namely, Bulgaria would never gain independence as a state (which is only 100 km away from Istanbul), if it was not for the Russian army which literally liberated it in 1878, when the famous San Stefano peace agreement was signed. Under the Russian dictate, it provided for establishment of the Principality of Bulgaria stretching to the Ohrid Lake and Thessaloniki at the south. The large Alexander Nevsky cathedral, which towers over the city of Sofia, was built in the honor of Russian-Bulgarian friendship. Therefore it is rather unlikely that this centuries-long relationship will be broken, as it is evident that it do not decline even in the most difficult situations for Russia.
Analysts believe that Bulgaria is still balancing between Brussels (Berlin) and Moscow, as in such a way it maintains stability in a rather unstable country and environment.
Ljubljana/Washington/Brussels/Sofia, 30 March 2023
 IFIMES – The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, has a special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)/UN since 2018. and it’s publisher of the international scientific journal „European Perspectives“.