Russia and Bulgaria: End of a tumultuous affair?

Russia is unlikely to pull Bulgaria back into its immediate sphere of influence after the events of last few months.

Bulgarian PM Petkov
The invasion of Ukraine accelerated the Bulgarian government's efforts to move the country further away from Russia and towards the West, writes Bechev [Hristo Rusev/Getty Images]

“You call them diplomats, we call them spies”. That, in a nutshell, is what the Bulgarian government told Russia on June 28 when it announced it would expel 70 embassy staff for suspected espionage.

Russia’s ambassador to Bulgaria, Eleonora Mitrofanova, warned that Russia would close its embassy in Sofia if the planned expulsion goes forward, but Bulgarian authorities ignored the ultimatum. Less than a week later, on July 3, two Russian government planes transferred the expelled diplomats and their family members – a total of 180 people – from Sofia to Moscow.

Russia is yet to make it clear what its response will be, but Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov already stated that the Sofia embassy would not be continuing with business as usual.

The ongoing crisis is bound to change relations between Russia and Bulgaria. Yet the spat between the two nations is hardly without precedent. Indeed, few other European countries have gone through as many twists and turns in their relationship with Russia as Bulgaria.

During its modern history, Bulgaria has been a Russian protectorate, client, adversary, and pretty much everything else in between.

The Russian Empire’s 1878 victory against the Ottomans led to the establishment of modern Bulgaria. But the two nations were in conflict during much of the 1880s and 90s, with practically no direct diplomatic relations. Then, in the first world war, the two ended up on the opposite sides and faced each other on the battlefield. Things, however, worked differently in the 1940s. Sofia, despite being an ally of Nazi Germany, refused to declare war on the Soviet Union, let alone send troops to the Eastern Front. But then the Red Army arrived in Bulgaria in September 1944, heralding “a second liberation.” And soon after the beginning of the Cold War, the country came to be known as the Soviet Union’s “16th republic”.

The strength of the relationship between the two became uncertain once again after 1989. Bulgaria pursued membership in the EU and, after some hesitation, NATO. However, Moscow retained its foothold in Bulgaria’s energy sector, nurtured ties with its politicians and business people, and continued to have a strong influence over parts of the Bulgarian electorate harbouring nostalgia for the good old days under communism. During the decades that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, Bulgarian governments of different stripes were happy to accommodate the wishes and needs of Russian energy companies like Gazprom, Lukoil and Rosatom, in the hope of sharing the spoils.

But when the push came to shove, Sofia chose the West over Russia. In the spring of 2014, for instance, the cabinet dominated by the Russophile Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) chose to avoid a fight in Brussels over the fate of the South Stream pipeline, a joint venture with Gazprom. Vladimir Putin was forced to go with an alternative – TurkStream – and he explicitly blamed the Bulgarians for reneging on their commitment to Russia.

As a result of that perceived betrayal, today, there is no love lost for Sofia in the Kremlin corridors of power. Even after former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov ensured the expansion of the TurkStream line to Bulgaria between 2018-21, drawing a loan, the country did not return to the good books of the Kremlin. Actually, Sofia has long been viewed with suspicion by both the West and Russia. Russians considered Bulgarian politicians untrustworthy. The West, meanwhile, believed that they are in Putin’s pocket.

In other words, for a long time now, it was rather uncertain which side Sofia is closer to in the rivalry between the West and Russia. But the war in Ukraine has been a game-changer.

First, the costly invasion turned a majority of the Bulgarian public – bar a large group of Putin fans who still insist it is nothing but a necessary “special operation” – firmly against the Kremlin. The inflammatory rhetoric utilised by Ambassador Mitrofanova since the beginning of the conflict did not win many hearts and minds either.

Second, the conflict accelerated the current Bulgarian government’s efforts to move the country further away from Russia and towards the West. In less than six months, Kiril Petkov’s cabinet fast-forwarded the completion of an inter-connector pipeline with Greece and put an end to purchases of Russian gas, refusing to yield to demands for payment in roubles – Bulgaria won an opt-out from the EU sanctions on Russian crude oil, however, because of the large Neftochim Refinery, owned by Lukoil. It also fired a defence minister who was reluctant to call out the invasion of Ukraine, and agreed to host a NATO battle group. The expulsion of Russian diplomats was only the latest step on this trajectory.

Third, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, by way of allowing Petkov to openly assume an anti-Russia stance, forced other Bulgarian politicians and parties to follow his lead. For now, most political factions in Bulgaria – bar the Kremlinophile populists like those of Revival – appear convinced that openly and enthusiastically backing Putin is not a winning strategy.

For example, traditionally risk-averse Borisov, loathe of facing up to Russia, criticised the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats as “amateurish”, but still voiced his support for the move in principle. And after his party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), successfully passed a vote of no confidence against Petkov on June 22, he extolled his commitment to Euro-Atlanticism in order to galvanise internal and external support and increase his chances of regaining power.

BSP – a partner in the governing coalition – slammed the decision to expel Russian diplomats in order to please its Russophile voters, but not in such harsh terms as to burn bridges to pro-Western parties.

We Continue the Change (PP), the party founded by Petkov and Assen Vassilev, meanwhile, is rallying the troops for fresh elections, possibly in September, and hoping to hold on to power by doubling down on the current government’s pro-West policy positions. A recent survey showed they are running neck and neck with GERB.

Only time will tell how deep the rift between Bulgaria and Russia is. So long as PP and its pro-Western ally Democratic Bulgaria alliance run the show, Sofia won’t budge. A caretaker administration appointed by President Rumen Radev to oversee the election will most definitely assume a softer position. But the shift will be of rhetorical rather than substantive character. And even a GERB victory, as seen in rhetoric assumed by Borisov, would not mean an immediate overhaul of current policies.

The scaled-up NATO deployment and the diversification of natural gas supplies matter over the long haul. As Russian analyst Maxim Samorukov puts it, “Having wantonly destroyed so many economic ties – as well as goodwill – with Bulgaria in just a few months, Moscow has no chance of making any significant comeback, regardless of the composition of the next Bulgarian government.”

For now, it seems the long and tumultuous affair between Sofia and Moscow is well over.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.