Bulgaria is threatened by a strong anti-Western wave amid Russian propaganda, and the war in Ukraine and the lifting of the veto on North Macedonia could lead to “brutal Putinism” at home, while Skopje sees it as a game in Russia’s hands.
EURACTIV asked Bulgarian political analysts about the political price of lifting the country’s veto on the start of North Macedonia’s EU accession talks amid a political crisis in which one of the parties in the four-party coalition left over disagreements over the Skopje issue.
Bulgaria is under Western pressure to lift the veto but believes Skopje has failed to meet the conditions to do so.
“If Skopje does not make concessions and Bulgaria lifts its veto, it will inevitably increase anti-European sentiment. Bulgarians will immediately understand that the government is doing this under the dictates of our Western partners. The Vazrazhdane (revival) party will undoubtedly benefit from this,” Dimitar Ganev of trend sociological agency told EURACTIV.
Vazrazhdane is an extremist force led by Kostadin Kostadinov that has built on anti-Vaxxer and pro-Russian sentiments. In the current parliament, the group has 13 MPs out of a total of 240.
Political scientist Parvan Simeonov of the Balkans agency Gallup International confirmed Ganev’s forecast. He said that almost 70% of Bulgarians are against lifting the veto in Skopje and if that happens, the West will get “brutal Putinism” in Bulgaria.
Political scientists do not rule out that Vazrazhdane will become the second political force after former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s GERB party and become an inevitable factor in Bulgarian politics in new elections. This will happen when the current government, led by pro-European Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, is ousted.
Even if Vazrazhdane is also isolated in the next parliament, this force could continue to grow on the wave of anti-system narrative and benefit from Russian propaganda on social media. Vazrazhdane is also calling for Bulgaria to leave NATO and renegotiate the country’s EU membership.
A recent GLOBSEC poll showed that many more Bulgarians than other Eastern European EU states would support a withdrawal from NATO. The data shows that 38% are now against NATO membership, while 40% of Bulgarians support it.
Still, both Ganev and Simeonov said Vazrazhdane does not pose a direct threat to Bulgaria’s EU membership for the time being.
Polls show that over 60% of Bulgarians express a positive or somewhat positive attitude towards EU membership. According to Ganev, there is currently no threat to Bulgaria’s EU membership.
“The next government of Bulgaria will be formed on the basis of the country’s geopolitical orientation – East versus West,” commented Ganev. The current Bulgarian government was elected on promises to fight corruption and reform the judiciary, but the current hot topic has shifted to Russia.
“For Bulgarians, the EU is a rational choice, while the positive attitude towards Russia is emotional because of history, cultural similarities and the fact that Russia is not Bulgaria’s neighbour. The Bulgarians do not perceive it as an immediate threat,” commented Simeonov.
Both analysts acknowledged that Russian propaganda in the country had intensified in recent months. “Propaganda on social networks is a tool of Russian foreign policy, and it makes no sense to weaken it in recent years, but to intensify it,” Ganev said.
Macedonian political scientist Slobodanka Jovanovska commented that it was still unclear whether the government would survive, but said her compatriots “feel hostage to Bulgaria, which does not function as an EU member state, goes from election to election and decides nothing”.
On Russia’s influence in Bulgaria, she told EURACTIV that “there is a belief not only in Macedonia but also in Bulgaria itself that pro-Russian structures are using the bilateral affair with North Macedonia to hamper EU policies and destabilize the region.”
Macedonian journalist Erol Rizaov added that the Bulgarian veto is even stronger after the war in Ukraine because Russian influence in Bulgaria has increased dramatically. “There is not a single so-called ‘Russophile’ who does not vehemently defend the Bulgarian veto in the EU negotiations with North Macedonia,” Rizaov said.
Skopje fears that concession to even more demands from other countries will set a precedent. The government asks if they give in to these demands, they are asked to make others in the future.
Stakeholders have called for negotiations to start as soon as possible with other issues being raised at the opening of chapters. Otherwise, both Skopje and Tirana, whose fate is linked to its neighbor, could be exposed to influence from the East.
At the end of last week, the Bulgarian government was shaken after the leader of the populist party There Is Such a People, Slavi Trifonov, announced his departure from the governing coalition. His four ministers, including energy and foreign ministers, have also resigned. Kiril Petkov’s government also lost its parliamentary majority, leaving 109 MPs out of the required 121.
On Monday, Trifonov’s party began to unravel when six MPs announced their resignation amid allegations that Trifonov could be linked to the mafia.
Without a majority, the chances of Petkov lifting the veto are slim. Another important partner in the governing coalition is the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which is also opposed to any concessions to North Macedonia.