SBulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who was crushing a no-confidence vote that would see his government lose, sighed as he joined a video call. “We have a tough few days ahead of us. We’re fighting hard to stay on the right side of history,” he said.
Petkov blames two issues for his coalition’s woes: corrupt interests and pro-Russian influence in Bulgaria, which he says have “bundled” to overthrow his government.
As a member of both NATO and the EU, Bulgaria has taken an unexpectedly strong pro-Ukrainian stance, despite its traditional ties to Russia, which supplied about 90% of its natural gas before the war.
“We surprised everyone in Europe and we surprised Russia with this strong policy,” he said, adding that the domestic crisis means Bulgaria is now risking reverting to its “traditional role of a soft state” in relation to criticism of Russia to return.
Opposition MPs toppled the ruling coalition after it faced internal disputes over the budget and the issue of a veto on EU enlargement talks for North Macedonia. Petkov and his allies have called these problems a smoke screen, saying the crux of the matter is the corrupt opposition to their anti-graft campaign.
But the failure of the governing coalition on Wednesday after just six months in power threatens, among other things, Bulgaria’s stance on the Kremlin invasion, which could fall victim to the political turmoil.
Unless Petkov can cobble together a new coalition, he fears a “drastic shift” in Bulgaria’s support for Ukraine.
“I’m afraid it’s going to be a much more timid, softer state on rhetoric against the war and some of our exports [of aid] Poland will decline sharply,” he said in an interview that took place before the no-confidence vote. “I fear that the strong stance at the level of the European Commission and Council will become much more of a hedge than a strong voice against Russia.”
This change in policy is not certain, as most members of his coalition have expressed support for providing arms and other military-technical support to Ukraine. But Petkov said an interim government could quickly strike a deal with Gazprom that would persuade Bulgaria to agree to a ruble system to pay for gas and be more cautious in its opposition to the war.
“Russia really wants to overthrow this government because it will show that governments fall if you don’t play with them,” he said. “It would be a great example of gas’s diversification strategy not working. And a less strong voice against them on sanctions and support for Ukrainians would be something they would prefer.”
Petkov, a policy-cleansing reformer, led a delegation to Kyiv in late April to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, where he negotiated a deal to repair Ukrainian heavy weapons amid internal opposition to direct arms sales to Ukraine .
He had also targeted the Kremlin, and at one point reached an agreement with neighboring North Macedonia and Montenegro to prevent Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov from flying to neighboring Serbia, forcing him to cancel the visit.
Petkov said: “It was an easy decision. I have made the decision that he will not fly. As simple as that.”
The split over the war brought him into conflict with President Rumen Radev, a retired general and air force commander, who said arms sales to Ukraine would only prolong the war.
Petkov said the two men disagreed over refusing to meet Gazprom’s demand for payment in rubles, a policy that eventually led to Russia halting gas exports to Bulgaria in late April. And Radev was “very decided against” arms deliveries to Ukraine via third countries. “We were very much in favor of it,” Petkov said.
Petkov, who is 42 and western-educated, said he believes Russian propaganda has created a strong incentive for politicians like Radev to choose neutrality. He believes that 20% of Bulgarians supported Russia in the war and another 60% “not. I don’t want to take a strong stance on the invasion.
“And maybe the President is just looking at the populist views. His personal views may align with them and he doesn’t see the same urge we have to take a leadership role on these issues and be on par with the European members and be as strong a NATO ally as we possibly can.” said Petkov said.
Political crisis has more immediate triggers than war. Corruption problems, allegations of mismanagement and EU expansion in the Western Balkans play an important role. Petkov said several days of mass protests showed there was strong support for his government on the streets. But in the halls of power, he said, the war has further polarized the sides.
“The war has actually shown very clearly who is on which side,” he said. “But unfortunately it has created more and more instability for the government because you have to make tough decisions.”