“You call them diplomats, we call them spies.” The Bulgarian government reported this to Russia on June 28, when it announced that 70 embassy employees would be expelled on suspicion of espionage.
Russia’s ambassador to Bulgaria, Eleonora Mitrofanova, warned that Russia would close its embassy in Sofia if the planned expulsion goes ahead, but the Bulgarian authorities ignored the ultimatum. Less than a week later, on July 3, two Russian government planes flew the expelled diplomats and their families – a total of 180 people – from Sofia to Moscow.
Russia has yet to clarify what its response will be, but Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already stated that the embassy in Sofia will not be business as usual.
The ongoing crisis will inevitably change relations between Russia and Bulgaria. Yet the dispute between the two nations is hardly without precedent. In fact, few other European countries have gone through as many twists and turns in their relations with Russia as Bulgaria.
Throughout its modern history, Bulgaria has been a Russian protectorate, a client, an adversary, and pretty much everything else in between.
The victory of the Russian Empire against the Ottomans in 1878 led to the creation of modern Bulgaria. But the two nations were at odds for much of the 1880s and 1890s, with virtually no direct diplomatic ties. Then, in World War I, the two landed on opposite sides and faced each other on the battlefield. In the 1940s, however, things were different. Despite being an ally of Nazi Germany, Sofia 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 and heralded “a second liberation”. And shortly after the start of the Cold War, the country was known as the “16th Republic” of the Soviet Union.
The strength of the relationship between the two again became uncertain after 1989. Bulgaria sought EU membership and, after some hesitation, NATO. However, Moscow maintained its foothold in Bulgaria’s energy sector, nurtured ties with its politicians and businessmen, and continued to exert a strong influence on sections of the Bulgarian electorate nostalgic for the good old days under communism. In the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bulgarian governments of various stripes happily accommodated the wants and needs of Russian energy companies like Gazprom, Lukoil and Rosatom, hoping to share the spoils.
But when it came down to it, Sofia chose West over Russia. In spring 2014, for example, the cabinet dominated by the Russophile Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) chose to avoid a dispute in Brussels over the fate of the South Stream pipeline, a joint venture with Gazprom. Vladimir Putin was forced to choose an alternative – TurkStream – and he specifically accused the Bulgarians of abandoning their engagement with Russia.
As a result of this perceived betrayal, no love for Sofia is lost in the Kremlin’s corridors of power today. Even after former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov secured the expansion of the TurkStream line to Bulgaria between 2018-21 by drawing a loan, the country did not return to the Kremlin’s good books. In fact, Sofia has long been viewed with suspicion by both the West and Russia. Russians viewed Bulgarian politicians as untrustworthy. The West, meanwhile, believed they were in Putin’s pocket.
In other words, it has long been quite uncertain which side Sofia is closer to in the rivalry between the West and Russia. But the war in Ukraine changed the game.
First, the costly invasion has turned a majority of the Bulgarian public firmly against the Kremlin, with the exception of a large group of Putin supporters who still insist it is just a necessary “special operation”. The inflammatory rhetoric that Ambassador Mitrofanova has used since the conflict began has not won many hearts or minds either.
Second, the conflict accelerated the current Bulgarian government’s efforts to move the country further away from Russia and westward. In less than six months, Kiril Petkov’s cabinet accelerated the completion of an interconnector with Greece and halted purchases of Russian gas, refusing to give in to demands for payment in rubles – Bulgaria won an opt-out from EU sanctions on Russian gas However, crude oil because of the large Neftochim refinery owned by Lukoil. It also sacked a defense minister who reluctantly called for an invasion of Ukraine and agreed to host a NATO strike group. The expulsion of Russian diplomats was only the last step on this path.
Third, the Russian invasion of Ukraine forced other Bulgarian politicians and parties to follow his example by allowing Petkov to take an openly anti-Russian stance. At the moment, most political factions in Bulgaria – apart from the Kremlinophile populists like those of Revival – seem convinced that openly and enthusiastically supporting Putin is not a successful strategy.
For example, the traditionally risk-averse Borisov, who loathes surrendering to Russia, criticized the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats as “amateurish” but nonetheless supported it in principle. And after his party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), successfully passed a no-confidence vote against Petkov on June 22, he hailed his commitment to the Euro-Atlantic to garner internal and external support and increase his chances of regaining power Energy.
BSP – a partner in the governing coalition – criticized the decision to expel Russian diplomats to please its Russophile constituents, but not so harshly that it would sever bridges with pro-Western parties.
Meanwhile, We Continue the Change (PP), the party founded by Petkov and Assen Vassilev, is assembling troops for new elections, possibly in September, hoping to stay in power by doubling down on the current government’s pro-Western positions. A recent survey found them to be neck and neck with GERB.
Only time will tell how deep the gulf between Bulgaria and Russia is. As long as PP and its pro-Western ally, the Democratic Bulgaria Alliance, run the show, Sofia will not back down. A caretaker government tasked with overseeing the elections by President Rumen Radev will certainly take a softer stance. But the shift will be more rhetorical than substantive. And even a GERB victory, as seen in the rhetoric adopted by Borisov, would not mean an immediate overhaul of current policies.
Increased NATO involvement and diversification of natural gas supplies are important in the long term. As Russian analyst Maxim Samorukov puts it: “Having willfully destroyed so many economic ties – as well as goodwill – with Bulgaria in just a few months, Moscow has no chance of making a meaningful comeback, regardless of the composition of the next Bulgarian government . ”
For the time being, the long and turbulent affair between Sofia and Moscow seems to be over.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.