War in Europe
Bulgaria between the fight against corruption and the support for Ukraine

Kiril Petkov

Bulgaria's Prime Minister Kiril Petkov attends a joint press conference during a meeting of NATO leaders of Southeast Europe in Sofia on March 28, 2022

© picture alliance / AA | Borislav Troshev

Priorities - between intentions and reality

The current government of Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was established in December 2021 to eradicate the corruption models created in the last 12 years under the leadership of the conservative GERB party and accelerate Bulgaria's development by using innovations in all areas of life, overcoming the Covid crisis.

The acknowledgment that corruption models in Bulgaria have deep roots in Russian influence and the networks of Russian, and Serbian services involving the former State Security implies that the fight against corruption should be aimed at curbing Russian influence and the network of former special services that captured former Bulgarian governments and the non-governmental sector, even the academic sector and much of business.

Russia's war in Ukraine will definitely rearrange the priorities of the government of Bulgaria in the coming days and weeks, albeit with a delay compared to other NATO and EU countries, where from the first days of the treacherous attack and even before the aggression began, planning took into account the impact of this inevitable and brutal war.

How defense turned out to be a priority

Without а significant improvement of the state of the security sector with a focus on defense and special services, Bulgaria will suffer heavy losses from the war, and efforts for judicial reform and innovation will suffer, including important priorities such as digitalisation.

An complicating factor in Bulgaria is the participation of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) in the ruling coalition, which with its support for Kremlin policy for the past 30 years (e.g. the party's position in the Kosovo conflict in 1999 and tensions in 2014 during the Russian occupation of Crimea) is creating trouble within both government and parliament today over the adoption of EU sanctions against Russia and the provision of military-technical support to Ukraine. The BSP strongly opposes a clear Bulgarian position against Russia under the pretext of avoiding "involvement in a conflict" and puts at stake the stability of the government in making such a decision.

The clear leadership the Prime Minister showed in the sacking of the minister of defense well before the first 100 days of the government were concluded at the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine signaled that Putin's "speakers" in the government would not be tolerated. At the same time, the Prime Minister is expected to further strengthen his influence with the support of parliament, assisted by a strong Security Council and by creating the position of Director of National Intelligence. The development of the much-needed comprehensive program for the transformation of the Armed Forces and the deployment of multinational units under the auspices of NATO, rearmament and release of Soviet equipment, effective preparation for interoperability, etc. will also strengthen the role of the Prime Minister and solidify his position, now often contested by the President as Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

The military aid to Ukraine as the most important test for the coalition, the Parliament and the President

Comprehensive assistance to Ukraine, including providing Soviet equipment before depletion of its resources is literally on the agenda of society and Parliament today. After a series of "Kremlin messages" at the highest level, such as: "the provision of military equipment  involves us in the war"; "We have no surplus weapons and ammunition"; "We need the equipment for our defense"; "The condition of the equipment and ammunition is not good for being sent to war"… and others., it is clear that the declaration of 6 former defense ministers calling for military assistance to Ukraine in early April, together with calls from hundreds of public figures, led to formal consultations in Parliament on two proposals, coming from the opposition as well as from a  governing political formation. The inevitable vote in plenary in the coming days will show "WHO IS WHO" in Bulgarian politics.

Just as military aid to Ukraine will not involve Bulgaria in the war, so the vote in Parliament will not lead to the overthrow of the government, but neither Bulgaria nor the government will be the same after this decision, as well as after the expected hearing of President Zelensky in the Bulgarian Parliament. On the contrary - this will be an act of final emancipation of Prime Minister Petkov from President Radev, who was the "designer" of 2 caretaker governments in 2021, from which the "mandate-bearing" formation "Continuing the Change" of the current government was born. The BSP will also have the opportunity to adapt its positions, and by distancing itself from the extremely populist and openly pro-Kremlin party in the Bulgarian parliament, Vazrazhdane, will remain in power. The expected support for the decision on military aid to Ukraine by other opposition forces will raise a serious question about the Euro-Atlantic agreement in Bulgaria and in the ruling coalition with long-term consequences.

Can Bulgaria influence the EU in the field of defense and security – and if so, how?

In the context of NATO modernization, the EU should establish a real program for rearmament and industrial cooperation for the development of the defense industry in Eastern Europe with increased and much better managed defense and security resources. Along with this, a model of EU development with an understanding of Russia's long-term isolation and accelerated reconstruction of Ukraine should be achieved. This way, all futile attempts of the past to position the EU as a factor in international politics today could be forgiven, and our Union, coordinated with the United States through NATO and other strategic partners in the G7, should pursue an autonomous and strong policy towards Russia and China, Eastern Europe and Africa.

It is absolutely clear that this policy cannot be without serious dimensions in defense, cooperation and in intelligence, achieving real energy independence from Russia and technological independence from China. This is a historic moment for Germany - whether it will be the engine of a change for the EU or will try to maintain a "balance" with Russia in defense of national economic interests.

How will Bulgaria participate in the formation of such EU policy?  Well, there is definitely no way trough obedience and by seeking exceptions for sanctions against Russia. But a very clear and active position on technological protection from China and participation in military support for Ukraine to expel the aggressor will finally pave the way for Bulgaria’s embarking on an accelerated recovery and EU integration.