Bulgaria is not just a geopolitical pendulum, but hopefully a country with its own dynamics and drive

An interview, which tries to look at the internal dynamics of Bulgarian society and its relation with the geopolitical context, in order to explain what is happening in this country in the last years

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat interviewed Vladimir Mitev on a number of issues, related to contemporary Bulgarian politics and society. Vladimir explained that Bulgarian political elites like to attempt to be a bridge, as seen in former prime minister Borssiov good ties with Trump, Merkel, Orban, Erdogan and Putin. With the formation of the government of Kiril Petkov apparently a “collective Borissov with human face” in geopolitical sense was attempted as the government was composed of four very different parties and had the hidden influence of president Radev in it. However, the Petkov government was an apparent attempt for a formula when “the West” and “the East” are in peace, which was changed after the start of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. The Petkov government was also an attempt among other things to gain the trust of the Biden administration and the European Commission and to attract foreign investment, but the few much lauded cases of foreign investment projects always had some kind of a catch. 

Now there is an interim government, formed by president Rumen Radev and in October 2022 new parliamentary elections will be held. There is a lot of talk about Bulgaria’s geopolitical dance between “the West” and “Russia”. But the theory of Bulgaria as a geopolitical pendulum doesn’t help in understanding its internal dynamics. Apparently, after the times of atemporality of Borissov Bulgarian society tries to modernize and to interiorize international/Western standards in its social life. A better way to look at Bulgaria is to try to looks at its politics as a complex balance in which the older elites of transition are in competition and cooperation with newer elites and in which anticorruption is both desired and feared, as it could change the power balances in society. A comparison with Romania, its anti-corruption and level of foreign investment could be helpful in understanding the dilemmas before the Bulgarian political elites.

Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to all the friends of Cross-Border Talks. This cross border talk is going to be very particular because my co-host and friend Vladimir is going to be our expert in this special issue. And we are going to discuss a couple of things about Bulgaria, his homeland. Well, you might have perhaps heard that Bulgaria is a pro-Russian country. You might also have heard that Bulgaria is a country riddled with corruption. And if corruption is destroyed, then there will be a huge new era for Bulgaria and Bulgaria and Bulgarian citizens. Well, those are myths. Those are some cliches that deserve to be discussed, that deserves to be rebuked, perhaps, and nobody is better to give you a clue about how Bulgaria is really like than the guy who has lived there all his life and who has watched Bulgaria’s political life, sometimes with interest, sometimes with despair, sometimes with hope. Well, Vladimir, hello.

Hello, Malgorzata, thank you for the introduction. Let me just say that I don’t have really specific insider knowledge, but I’m just maybe somebody living here and I’m maybe trying to make sense of things which sound a little bit uncoordinated sometimes or a little bit unconvincing on media. So let us try to have a little bit different look at Bulgarian society and politics.

Yes, indeed. Especially that you have changed your government for I don’t know what time in a row. And this is not the last change, because as you told me, this is going to be a caretaker government just for a while and you are going to vote again. So what is the political situation now? Who is leading your country in these unstable times we are living in?

Well, what we have now is a government that was formed under the aegis of the president Rumen Radev. And apparently it is full of people who are somehow pro-Radev or who are opposing maybe some of his political opponents. For example, these days, a few days after the government was formed, there are a lot of discussions about conflict between the leader of the Socialist Party, Kornelia Ninova and Rumen Radev or some of his people, some of his ministers.

It’s always tricky to discuss Bulgarian politics because our politicians are very mixed with one another. For example, now, Ninova and Radev seem to be in a conflict, but just when the elections for the first mandate of Radev took place, it was Kornelia Ninova, who launched the name of Roman Radev in Bulgarian politics. And for example, our listeners might have heard that recently there was some division between the former Prime Minister, Kiril Petkov and Rumen Radev. But we also need to remember that it was Rumen Relative who launched Kiril Petkov and Assen Vasiliev, the strong duo of the previous government into politics. And they also asked the people to vote for Rumen Radev during the elections for his second mandate which took place at the end of previous year.

So, in fact, Bulgarian politics is very mixed. Our politicians are in all types of combinations with one another. And maybe that is one thing I would like somehow to say, because I’m getting tired of all this branding and rebranding, who is pro-Western, who is Russophile. It often turns out that the same people usually can be and are categorized in both ways. And another peculiar thing is that we never find exactly what is the truth about that. I mean, things are somehow fluid.

For example, for a long time there was some campaign against Borissov, our previous strongman in politics, and he was accused of being pro-Russian because he built the Turkish stream pipeline. And apparently for a number of other reasons. He was also pro-Orban in his orientation. But we need to remember that he was on very good terms with Obama, for example. And the same thing with Radev. When he came to politics, he was accused of being pro-Russian. But after that, he somehow assumed the Three Seas Initiative as his project in politics, which is generally a project considered to be anti-Russian.

So in fact, we get a little bit of a more complex picture. Apparently for many and probably for almost any political politician in Bulgaria, there are some ways to brand him in different ways, in even opposing ways. And I guess people get perplexed if they don’t have a compass or they don’t have good notions to understand Bulgarian politics. And of course, I don’t believe people should care so much about Bulgarian politics when they are outside of the country, but in a way it is also telling about the international politics because we often hear about conflict between USA and Russia, for example. But these countries or societies, which have also good examples of cooperation. Historically and traditionally even we may argue that there was never a hot war, if I am not mistaken, between the USA and Russia. If we really start to think more deeply into the issues, we may discover that the issues are much more complex. And maybe that’s the reason I suggested that we have this discussion, and you also seem to be very fond of it. So let us continue it. Let us have an alternative take on Bulgarian politics.

So you say that everybody in Bulgaria can be labeled as pro-American, pro-European, pro-Russian, pro, whatever you want, because the politicians enter all kinds of constellations. They form all kinds of alliances depending on a temporary need. What is then the force behind all these actions? What is their actual motivation? If this is not ideology and not geopolitics, what do all these people fight for?

It’s too general or too large a question. But I believe Bulgarian politics, like any politics in any society, is some kind of superstructure over the economic base or the power base in society. So we have not only this traditional geopolitical choice between West and East, but there are also internal power centers. For example, Boyko Borissov is a general who came into politics from the internal ministry. And Rumen Radev is a general who came into politics from the army. So I guess there are a number of internal interests in Bulgaria as well. And my guess is also that these lobbies, let’s say, who compete or collaborate in Bulgarian politics, also have various external partners. So it is a little bit tricky to label people so universally or so simply as falling into one or the other category. For example, Kiril Petkov was announced in recent months to be a pro-Western politician. But we need to remember that his coalition partner was the Socialist Party, which is traditionally considered to be aligned with Russophile forces in Bulgarian society. And if we look at other parties, we can also find some kind of dualism, like, for example, Rumen Radev is aligned with the opposition current to the leader Ninova in the Socialist Party and there were some interpretations that other parties also have a little bit of a smaller twin. For example, the Turkish party and There is such a People party. Or some people hinted at a certain duality between GERB and the Revival party. So what we get in fact, is that it’s very simple to say somebody is with the Americans or somebody is with the Russians. There are different types of Americans and Russians. And I can certainly remember or recall the moment when Borisov was in power, he was on good terms with Trump, Merkel, Orban, Erdogan and Putin. So I guess that that is an interesting reality. I mean, in Bulgaria, a lot of high-ranking politicians are trying to be some kind of a bridge between various forces in the world.

And I can argue that the government of Petkov, which was formed at the end of 2021, was something like an attempt for “collective Borisov” in the geopolitcal sense in the Biden era, because Borisov was strong in the Trump era. And when Biden came, apparently some change took place in Bulgaria as well. So the Petkov government was formed by four parties, which were very different in terms of voters or orientation, and my guess is that they were trying to be some kind of Borissov-like bridge between various international forces and internal forces in Bulgaria. And of course the idea behind that government was to somehow dismantle the heritage of Borisov, which is a long story to be told. But basically Borisov for a long time was associated with corruption and oligarchical power. So there was this idea of dismantling Borisov heritage. But my guess is that given that there were various political tendencies in government, it was some again kind of attempt for a bridge. And there was a lot of talk, a lot of passion, when the Petkov government failed, but maybe it started falling in the moment when the war in Ukraine started and somehow internationally a part of the West entered in war with Russia. So I guess this government of Petkov was somehow set up for peaceful times.

Well, this is a very interesting question. That is a very interesting issue that you raised, the very notion of a country that intends to be a bridge between East and West. Bulgaria is not the first country that has tried this strategy. Actually, most of those who try to position themselves between East and West failed because there came a moment when they had to position themselves in one or another camp. And the war in Ukraine was like the last moment of decision for the countries that had not earlier made their choice. But I wanted to ask you about something a little bit different. Most of the countries that chose this bridge strategy explained that they don’t want to belong to any blocs because being in the middle ensures good ensures good living for the citizens because they can have profitable connections with both East and West. However, Bulgaria is one of the poorest countries in Europe. It is one of the poorest countries in the European Union. So it seems that the strategy did not really work, or there are different reasons for which Bulgarian citizens did not profit from this actually very good geostrategic location of the country. So what are the obstacles behind Bulgaria’s failure? Why did Bulgaria not develop even though there are so many factors that would seem that they are on the right track?

First of all, I’m not sure that being a bridge means exactly or always that you’re some kind of a neutral country because apparently Bulgaria or even Hungary or other countries who are in the region, have made the choice of belonging to NATO and the EU and looking for greater integration into. In the case of Bulgaria efforts for joining other organizations, including the eurozone, etc. are made. So my guess is that Bulgarians are very satisfied in general with belonging to the European Union and to the West and from this position, engaging not only Russia. Usually Russia is considered East, but I think Bulgaria also has some cultural proximity with other Eastern countries, maybe to the Middle East, and maybe that is also something which is used and known by our allies. So maybe Bulgarians could be good in many directions, not only in one direction, let’s say if somebody decides to use the country for something.

There are many reasons why Bulgarians are poor or have social issues and usually tend poorly in various social indicators, but we need to remind ourselves that Bulgaria was industrialized in socialist times on the basis of close cooperation in close commerce with the Soviet Union and in the times of transition. For a number of reasons, these ties were cut or reduced significantly, and a large part of the industry couldn’t remain in force. Basically, there was a lot of bankruptcy, a lot of unemployment. Many Bulgarians emigrated to Western countries for social reasons. So there was a price which Bulgarians paid in transition. And I would guess that the times of Borissov were certain attempts to somehow end the transition or rather make it, or, if you wish, make it some kind of permanent state, like a little bit of a static moment in the history of the country. But that turned out to be unsustainable because of the international situation. As we know Biden came to the White House, but also internally the flows of European money were more and more concentrated into the hands of those who are in power, and various political or economic forces remained outside of this flow. So they somehow organized and took down Borisov So now my guess is the Bulgarians, of course, I’m always hoping and trying to look positively, s my hope is that Bulgarians now are moving towards some kind of a greater complexity of society, towards greater interiorization of standards which are European or Western standards in various social spheres. And of course, any society is undergoing certain renewal. You can’t just stop time in a society. So I believe we are still continuing to shed the skin or change our society after the times of Borisov. And that is happening in the real world, which Bulgaria is also dependent on in the international context. And maybe in this international context, the Bulgarian leadership has somehow felt another formula is needed for power.

You said that Bulgaria needed to build its industrial power in cooperation with the Soviet Union. Of course, these times are gone, but perhaps there is cooperation that is the key to a kind of revival for Bulgaria, for Bulgarian economy, for Bulgarian society. It always contacts the external world used to help such a small society to open up, to find partners and to find impulses for development. Where do you find potential partners today? What projects can be successfully implemented?

Maybe I need to explain here that one hypothesis for the coming of power of Petkov was exactly that during the Borisov era there were very few foreign investments. I mean, if you compare it with Romania. Romanian foreign investment right now is, if I am not mistaken, around €90 billion and Bulgarian is a little bit over €30 billion. And each year in the last years, maybe including coronavirus era foreign investment in Romania was a few times higher than this in Bulgaria. So Romania, somehow, just to give an example, somehow managed to, for some reasons, to get to be more trusted by Western companies, maybe it undervalued the value of its workers just as Bulgaria, but maybe it also somehow made a policy of encouraging foreign investment through a number of initiatives. And for some reason in Bulgaria, the Borisov era didn’t attract a lot of foreign companies to Bulgaria, at least not in that dimension which Romania had. And maybe the coming of power of Petkov was associated with this hope that maybe when somebody who is younger, somebody who is more business oriented, and maybe he has a wife who is Canadian, so maybe more somehow more Western, let’s say, is image or English-speaking, because Borisov was not English speaking person. So maybe it was thought that when we have a young and bold person in power, we will attract more foreign investment.

And I noticed that in the Petkov era, which lasted only seven months, there was a lot of interest in society towards possible foreign investments and a lot of attention was paid to a few initiatives. But at the end of the day, any of these one or two major projects somehow has a downside. For example, in one case, a certain financial fund which wanted to modernize the Bulgarian energy sector was dubbed to be related to Russian interests, and that was a little bit of a scandal because, you know, officially it was a pro-Western government. And in another case, there was German investment in industry, but it turned out to be German of Albanian origin.

So, in fact, it is very complex, in fact, to do change in Bulgaria. But I believe also one of the reasons for Petkov to be changed maybe is that it is not enough just to have a human face. I mean, if the attempt was to, to make some kind of a “collective Borisov with the human face”, like again, this type of complex formula that satisfies any international and internal partner in which everyone is in power and everyone is in opposition, maybe that has not worked out. And I have heard previously a few years ago some discussions on media like Bulgarian older elites complaining that there is no sufficient investment in Bulgaria. And I am aware that from Western European point of view, greater implication in Bulgarian economy somehow is always related to anti-corruption. What comes out of that is that there is a complex equation of power. Basically, if greater amount of foreign capital is admitted to the country, it changes certain power balances and those who have taken power during transition or part of them might be unwilling to cede power to new entrants because sometimes, as we see in the case of Romania, during the golden era of its anti-corruption, sometimes this process of anti-corruption is very cruel to the victims of anti-corruption. So it’s a complex relation and in a way I’m happy I’m not a politician and I’m just some kind of commentator.

I guess the issue of anti-corruption is yet to be discussed in detail. If we go back to the Balkan topics, I am sure we will, because as you said, the Bulgarian society is changing after years of stagnation. There is finally something going on, even if it is going on only on a very limited level, within a limited circle of people of power. Still, there is something going on. The different relations are repositioned also towards Bulgaria’s external partners. So there are reasons to watch what is going on in this strategically located place between Europe and Asia. Well, thank you, Vladimir, for this talk. I hope that you explained a lot of things about Bulgaria to our listeners. I hope that our listeners will no longer think that Bulgaria is just the Russian Trojan horse in Europe, because this is the worst thing you can think about this country. Well, I would like to ask you to subscribe to our channel, to listen to us on different platforms when we are present and not to miss any episode of Cross-border Talks. Thank you very much.

Photo: A Bulgarian woman holds the slogan “Independence from Gazprom” at a protest against the supposed intentions of the interim government Donev. Could the contradictory, uninform and heterogenous essence of Bulgarian society lead it to progress? (nominated by the president Rumen Radev) to return to deliveries of Russian gas (source: Ivo Indzhov)

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