Bulgaria‘s pro-EU Prime Minister Kiril Petkov took a hard line on Russia from the start of his invasion of Ukraine, announcing that Bulgaria “will not bow down. . . When we see something so obvious that we disagree with, we cannot remain silent.”
Petkov fired his defense minister, Stefan Yanev, for calling the conflict a “special operation,” as the Kremlin put it, instead of using the word “war.” But now it’s Petkov who could be on the way out after his coalition lost a majority last week over a row over support for EU enlargement, while Yanew is poised for a comeback.
If the government collapses, Bulgaria, traditionally Moscow’s closest friend in the EU, will likely be headed for its fourth election in just over a year. Nationalist parties sympathetic to Moscow, including a new one created by Yanev, appear to be making big profits and posing as potential kingmakers.
“This government will probably not be able to continue,” said Hristo Ivanov, leader of the small liberal coalition member party Da Bulgaria, adding that there was no clear alternative ruling force. “Elections would only bring the same chaos, except with more extremists.”
The latest political crisis in Sofia was sparked when Slavi Trifonov, a grizzled folk-rock singer-turned-populist politician, pulled his There is Such a People (ITN) party from the coalition last week. Trifonov made the move in protest at the prime minister’s plans to drop Bulgaria’s veto on the start of EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.
The outcome of this latest crisis — with the ousting of Petkov, a Harvard-educated, pro-Western liberal, further political instability in Bulgaria, and an ongoing deadlock on EU expansion, leaving the western Balkans in limbo — would please Moscow.
Ilian Vassilev, a former Bulgarian ambassador to Russia, said ITN’s withdrawal from the coalition serves Russian interests and shows Moscow is still capable of projecting power in the Balkan nation, a decade and a half after it lost NATO and the had joined the EU.
Vasilyev said he believed “Russia created this crisis” without providing any evidence to support his claim. “Their main goal is to disable the Bulgarian government and its ability to rule.”
ITN’s vice-chair and spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. Russia denied any involvement in the political upheavals in Bulgaria. “We have nothing to do with it,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Petkov took office in December after a long political crisis and two inconclusive elections, promising a pro-Western course for his country and zero tolerance for corruption in the EU’s poorest nation.
As Putin’s troops poured into Ukraine, Petkov defied Moscow by refusing to pay for gas imports in rubles and said he would not renew a long-term import deal with Gazprom worth $2 billion annually when he leaves by the end of the year expires. In response, Russia halted gas supplies in April.
The government expelled a dozen of the more than 120 Russian diplomats and last week denied Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s plane a flyover to Serbia.
Bulgaria has also offered assistance to Ukraine, including essential military assistance. Although the government has not confirmed the shipment of weapons, statistics released by the Economy Ministry show that munitions production and exports have tripled this year.
“It’s not that Europe has taken a massive interest in our often outdated weapons technology and has decided to stock up now,” said a former defense official. “It’s going to Ukraine for sure.”
Arms and ammunition exports must be approved by the government, making the current minority cabinet a favorable outcome for anyone trying to halt supplies, experts and government insiders said.
The latest crisis was sparked when Petkov tried to secure a deal with North Macedonia in December that would see Bulgaria’s veto overturned in EU accession talks in return for concessions from Skopje.
Many Bulgarians dispute the North Macedonian identity and the version of history taught in their schools. Polls show that less than half of Bulgarians support North Macedonia’s EU entry, up from two-thirds in 2017, said Genoveva Petrova, managing partner of Alpha Research in Sofia.
Petkov said he would demand concessions – including changes to North Macedonia’s constitution, cultural sites and history books to reflect a better image of Bulgaria.
But Trifonov lamented that his party had been sidestepped in the talks and accused Petkov of “national treason.”
The North Macedonia issue is likely to play a major role in an election campaign. She would play in favor of Rise Bulgaria, a nationalist pro-Russian party founded by Yanev, the sacked defense minister, and Revival, another far-right party. Anyone could gain double-digit support, according to Petrova.
“The radical voice could win the elections,” Petrova said, although alone they probably wouldn’t form a majority. But to defeat them, most other political forces would have to join forces, including GERB, the centre-right party of Boyko Borissov, who was voted out last year after a decade in power marred by corruption scandals.
Yanev, a career soldier and former interim prime minister, told local radio that he had no regrets about how he described the war in Ukraine. “I was just quoting Putin, and his choice of words meant he was keeping the option of a diplomatic solution open.”
EU officials hope Petkov can stick to a deal with Skopje and save it and help restore the EU’s image in the Balkans.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz said during his visit to Sofia last week that he sensed a “new willingness” in the EU to enlarge after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I see opportunities for progress,” said Scholz alongside Petkov. “We will remain in close contact in the coming days.”
Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in March that Berlin would “not leave this region in the heart of Europe to Moscow’s influence”.
Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga