Middle East Technical University, Ankara Turkey
The collapse of communism in 1989 have changed the existing situation in the Europe and marked the opening of a new chapter of European history. Eventually, for the most of the countries belonging to the Warsaw Pact, this meant ‘a return to Europe.’ The post-Communist Bulgaria has followed a pro-Western foreign policy with its diplomacy being overall in step with the diplomacy of Western governments and organizations, including EEC/EU and NATO. Nevertheless, the most recent Bulgarian foreign policy seems to be in conflict with the EU’s agenda, for example, voters in Bulgaria elected a pro-Russian populist President on 13 November 2016. In this respect, this study is devoted to attempt to examine Bulgaria’s new pro-Russian foreign policy towards European Union by taking historical background of Bulgaria’s relations with Russia into account. It also provides a brief touch on the political life of the country. Thus, this study attempts to answer how Bulgaria disengaged from its proximity with the EU to adopt a pro-Russian foreign policy. Finally, conclusions are drawn with respect to the political and social prospects of Bulgaria within the EU.
Keywords: Bulgarian politics, pro-Russian foreign policy, the European Union, Presidential election
Introduction: Bulgarian foreign policy in New Europe
At a press conference on 22 January 2003, the US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has conceptualized Europe in terms of NATO membership and distinguished it into ‘old’ and ‘new’ categories. Rumsfeld, responding to a reporter’s question about how he saw European criticism of the US’s conduct over Iraq, stated:
“You are thinking Europe as Germany and France. I don’t. I think that’s old Europe. If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the East. And there are a lot of new members.”
Rumsfeld associated ‘old Europe’ with all NATO member states which had gained membership into the organization prior to its expansion eastwards in 1999. On the other hand, ‘new Europe’ included states of the former Soviet bloc which had either recently joined or were to join NATO and they tended to support the US, especially towards Iraq (Sedivy, 2012:2).
In addition, the term ‘new Europe’ should not be regarded as neologism which was first used and conceived by the US conservatives. In fact, this dichotomy was developed and used for the political purposes (Longhurst, 2005:18). Rumsfeld’s statement expressed a view which was shared by many political commentators and publicists, already in the second half of the nineteenth century. For example, the President of Czechoslovak Republic Thomas G. Masaryk wrote a book so-called ‘The New Europe’ which stated ‘new Europe’ as territorial changes after the First World War, especially those in Central and Eastern Europe (as cited in Katsikas, 2012).
Following the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union, many Central and Eastern European countries experienced thoroughgoing transformation of their political, economic and social structures and they turned their foreign policy to the West, a shift symbolically represented as ‘a return to Europe.’ Indeed, the countries had to transform into a new identity and experienced serious economic problems caused by the absence of systematic market reforms. In many respect, Bulgaria faced similar challenges to other East European states in the post-Cold War period. Bulgaria has turned towards Western institutions and economic models accelerated after 1998, and the country became a member of NATO in 2004 and of the European Union (EU) in 2007. It had to consolidate the countries newly established
democratic system and ensure a smooth transition from the economic system of the Communist era to a free market economy (Katsikas, 2012).
Despite the similarities of the post-Communist Bulgaria’s foreign policy with other East European states, Bulgaria’s historical relations with Russia and the Soviet Union makes the Bulgaria’s case study unique. Bulgaria embraces Russia and the Soviet Union as a friend and liberator, a view other countries did not share. Hence, Bulgaria has continuously walked a tightrope, balancing its relations with Russia and its status as a member of European Union and NATO.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria held its first presidential election in 1990. The last presidential election held in Bulgaria on 13 November 2016 have resulted in an outcome that will deepen the political crisis of the country, especially regarding its relations with the European Union and NATO, since a pro-Russian candidate Rumen Radev swept to victory with 59.4 percent of the vote, compared with 36.2 percent for the candidate of the ruling centre-right GERB party, Tsetska Tsacheva. The last election featured the most contenders also because the Prime Minister of Bulgaria Boyko Borisov announced that he would resign from the office if his candidate Tsetska Tsacheva was not elected as the President.
Communist ideology, based on the principles of Marxism-Leninism, was meant to play significant role in the political life of the socialist system, which Bulgaria adopted after the Second World War. At the very least, communist doctrine was used to justify policies a priori or a posteriori and for that reason (Katsikas, 2012:11) before examining Bulgaria’s the most recent pro-Russian foreign policy, it is necessary first to look at the historical legacy of Bulgaria, including two transformation from the most loyal ally of the Soviet Union in the former Warsaw Pact to a full member of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and then to see how Bulgaria disengaged from its proximity with the EU to adopt a pro-Russian foreign policy.
Historical Legacy of Bulgaria
In 1878, Bulgaria was liberated after almost five centuries of Ottoman domination and Bulgaria finally attained the freedom as a result of a Russian victory over the Turks in the Russo-Turkish war. The treaty of San Stefano, signed on 3 March 1878, established Bulgaria as an autonomous principality, encompassing nearly all the territories including ethnic Bulgaria, Thrace (south of the Balkan Mountains) and Macedonia.
Nevertheless, Britain and Austro-Hungary regarded the treaty as a dangerous expansion of Russian influence and the Congress of Berlin in June 1878 forced through a drastic revision and the territory of Bulgaria was carved into five parts. Whilst the lands in the north-east were given to Romania and Serbia as compensation, Macedonia and Aegean Thrace were returned to the Sultan. The southern Bulgaria (named Eastern Rumelia) formed an autonomous province under a governor appointed by the Sultan. The rest formed the Principality of Bulgaria, including the territory in the region of Sofia and the north of Balkan Mountains. Within a few years, political, judicial and administrative system of the Principality of Bulgaria took shape. In 1879, Sofia adopted the progressive Turnovo Constitution which guaranteed individual rights and freedoms. In the following two decades, a number of political parties were established, including the National Liberal Party and the Bulgarian Agrarian Union (Bugajski, 2015).
In 1885, the Bulgarians made the first and only completely successful step towards unification of Bulgarian principality with the autonomous Ottoman province of Eastern Rumelia. This act, which was a breach of the Berlin Treaty, met with strong disapproval from the Russian emperor, but was strongly supported by Britain and other powers (Pantev, 1996:16). Following 1886, Bulgaria experienced deep divisions in Bulgarian politics between the Russophiles who felt that the country simply could not go against the wishes of its liberator, and the nationalist who considered that Bulgaria had to pursue her own interest (Dimitrov, 2001:16).
Meanwhile, Sofia’s relations with Moscow broke down completely and in August 1887 a group of army officers carried out a coup d’etat on direct instigation of Russian diplomats. Stefan Stambolov organized a counter-coup; the pro-Russian orientation was soon counteracted by a pro-European one. During the Stambolov, the Prime Minister of Bulgaria from 1887 to 1893 and nicknamed as the ‘Bulgarian Bismarck’, modernization process catalyzed and the pro-European orientation reached its peak.
The country proclaimed its full independence from Turkey in 1908 after several revolts, including the Ilinden uprising in August 1903, centered in the Macedonian and Thracian regions. Bulgaria’s territorial claims contributed to fueling two Balkan wars. In 1912, Bulgaria joined Greece, Serbia and Montenegro in a war to drive the Turks once and for all from European soil (Otfinoski, 2004). The war ended in utter defeat for the Turks. The second Balkan War in 1913, Greece, Romania and Montenegro took the side of the Serbs against Bulgaria. Bulgaria was unsuccessful in its military campaign against Serbia and Greece and once again lost almost every inch of territory it had gained from the First Balkan war with the treaty of Bucharest. During the First World War, Bulgaria at first remained neutral but in 1915 it sided with Germany and Austria. The end of the First World War left Bulgaria in total disarray, both politically and economically (Otfinoski, 2004). It was forced to accept harsh peace treaty at Neuilly in November 1919 and lost all access to the Aegean Sea.
The interwar period were mainly spent overcoming the traumatic effects of the war and Bulgaria witnessed social and political turmoil and economic crisis, particularly after the overthrow of the Agrarian government led by Alexander Stamboliyski in 1923.
During the Second World War, Sofia imposed a royal dictatorship and capitalized on the German occupation of Yugoslavia and Greece to forge an alliance with Berlin to regain parts of Macedonia and Thrace. On 1 March 1941 Bulgaria joined the Tripartite Pact, as much frightened by Germany’s might as attracted by the promises of the recovery of the Aegean coast and consequently Macedonia from its neighbors, but it was once again the mismanagement of foreign policy that led to a fundamental rupture (Dimitrov, 2001:20). Bulgaria’s territorial advances, including access to the Aegean coastline, were again reversed at the close of the Second World War, as Sofia found itself once more on the losing side.
Communist forces, with Soviet military and political assistance, occupied Bulgaria in September 1944 during the closing stages of the Second World War. The occupation marked a fundamental rupture in the history of Bulgaria and led to the total repudiation of the political, social and economic system, attempting to construct an entirely new order (Dimitrov, 2001:22). For a few years after 1944, Communist forces eliminated all organized political and social opposition and held elections in order to legitimize their assumption of absolute power. A former General Secretary of the Communist International Georgi Dimitrov returned back to Bulgaria from the exile and assured leadership of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP). A new ‘Dimitrov’ Constitution was passed in December 1947. Under the Soviet supervision, Bulgaria was isolated from the West and conducted a full-scale drive towards state control over the economy (Bugajski, 2015). After the death of Dimitrov in June 1949, Vulko Chervenkov, compromised as a hard-line Stalinist and had lived in Moscow, had returned to Bulgaria in the footsteps of the Communist forces. In April 1956, Chervenkov was replaced by Todor Zhivkov, but remained as the Prime Minister and one of the dominant figures of the country.
In 1989, Central and Eastern Europe experiences historic and unprecedented changes when a number of apparently well entrenched Communist regimes collapsed one by one (Giatzidis, 2002). As a result of the wave of public protest and increasing pressure against the communist regime, on 10 November 1989, the Bulgarian Communist Party’s (BCP) monopoly on power ended. Todor Zhivkov resigned and was replaced by foreign minister Peter Mladenov as head of the BCP. During this period under the chairmanship of Mladenov, Bulgaria experienced a series of domestic political changes, including political parties, think tanks and ethnic minority groups, to transform itself into a modern democratic state.
According to Vesselin Dimitrov (2001:35), Bulgaria’s transition to democracy began not as a result of internal evolution but rather as a part of an attempt by some of Zhivkov’s colleagues to save their power at a time when the communist bloc was collapsing around them. Thus, Bulgarian transition to democracy after 1989, was not based on political principle, but rather o the much more pragmatic grounds as well as on the personal interests of BCP’s governing Politburo and Central Committee members. The BCP also needed to renounce communism and adopted a new name: the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). The parliament, controlled by the BSP, elected Andrey Lukanov, who is ‘surprisingly’ the former minister of foreign trade.
By that time, Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) entered into the political area as the chief democratic opposition alliance and Zheliv Zhelev became UDF’s first leader. In addition, Turkish minorities established a party so-called Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). Meanwhile, especially by the reformist within the opposition parties, supported to the creation of a fully competitive democratic system and they argued that the country’s foreign policy should be turned towards the EEC/EU. Also, the relations with the Russian Federation and the other former Soviet Republics had to be kept at a level that would not negatively affect the country’s accession to the EU. Nevertheless, there was also a common belief that integration into the EU did not necessarily mean that Bulgaria had to become a member of NATO.
Return to Europe: Bulgaria’s New Foreign Policy
During the Communist era Bulgaria earned for itself the reputation of the most loyal satellite and has no need to formulate its own foreign policy. The dissolution of the Soviet Union left Bulgaria without an important patron which had until then guaranteed national security, internal political stability, social support and economic support. In this sense, the very notion of independent policy making has had to be re-created after four and a half decades of almost colonial dependence (Dimitrov, 2001:93).
Moreover, Bulgaria’s loyalty to the Soviet Union in the Cold War should not be seen as a kind of involuntary enslavement. Indeed, the relationship between Bulgaria and the Soviet Union was certainly beneficial for both side. Bulgarian communist regime’s loyalty to the Soviet Union secured the country’s industrialization with the substantial support received by the Soviet Union in terms of both financing and raw materials. Bulgaria also after the consecutive defeats in the Second Balkan War, the First World War, and the Second World War, found its alliance with the Soviet Union, the necessary security cover to guarantee its interest. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, found in Bulgaria the only devoted ally in a region where it traditionally had an interest.
The end of the Cold War, the break-up of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of the CMEA and the Warsaw Pact meant that Bulgaria had to seek a new identity in a totally unfamiliar environment. Bulgarian foreign policy turned to the West, and the return to Europe has become synonymous with social, political and economic reforms. In this respect, Bulgaria has made efforts towards securing entry to the European Union, which has emerged as the central institution of the post-Cold War Europe. Along with the EU, NATO has emerged as the parallel and complementary instrument of European integration. On a deeper view, joining EU meant embracing Western values such as liberal democratic politics and a free market economy (Giatzidis, 2002:134). In addition, the country like other post-communist countries had experienced serious economic problems caused by the lack of systematic market reforms. Importantly, unlike some other Central and Eastern European states, Bulgaria had almost no experience of democratic politics prior to the Communist period. Indeed, this lack of the democratic tradition and culture make Bulgaria one of the most interesting and unique case for study among the former Communist bloc countries.
In this context, he official relations between Bulgaria and the EC (from 1 November 1993 the European Union) established in August 1988 and in May 1990 a Trade and Co-Operatation Agreement was signed. The next step was the criteria membership, formulated by the European Council in Copenhagen in 1993, and the Association Agreements, which together identified a path for integration into European structure. Finally, on 1 January 2007, Bulgaria joined the European Union.
Europeanisation, for Bulgaria, has coincided with the process of modernizing its political, economic and social systems beyond the harsh reality of communism and the even more daunting consequences of post-communism. It is thus reasonable to claim that, as with the other EU applicant states even though with a significant time lag, the processes of Europeanization and integration coincide with the transition to liberal democracy and market economy (Bojkov, 2004). Transition in Bulgaria has been marked by a period of initial political instability. A huge stumbling block for reforms has been the continuation of former communists in political power in the first years of transition (Bojkov, 2004).
While analysts have often praised the EU for acting as a powerful ‘anchor’ to this process, by providing political guidance, the EU leaders hastened to complete the Fifth Enlargement by including Bulgaria largely unprepared. Following accession of Bulgaria to the Union, the European Commission was not exceptionally successful in pressurizing the government to deal with their unresolved problems because of the politically complicated post-referenda context in France and the Netherlands and the increasingly negative attitude of the West European public towards future enlargements (Andrev, 2009).
Bulgaria’s Unfinished Project of Europeanization
From the centrally controlled communist regime to a pluralistic market oriented democracy, Bulgaria’s relation with the Soviet Union and later with Russian Federation was not as stable and smooth as is widely believed. There were moments of disagreements and conflicts between the two countries. For example, the Soviet Union did not support the unification of Bulgaria in 1885. During the harsh time of the Balkan Wars, Bulgaria expected the Soviet Union to be a mediator, but it did not happen and Bulgaria lost most of its territories. In addition, Bulgaria fight alongside with Germany and Austria against Russia during the Second World War. Hence, the history of Bulgaria has been marked by the competition between different preferences and orientations in the foreign policy.
On the other hand, there are historical and cultural reasons which can explain Bulgaria’s political proximity to Russian Federation. Since the national independence from Ottoman rule, there has been a strong Russophile among a large section of Bulgarian society, including a sizeable part of the political elites. The common Slavonic language which employs the Cyrillic script, Orthodox religion, and a strong peasant-folk tradition can be regarded as historical and cultural ties between two countries. This thesis also seems to be supported by the result of recent presidential election in Bulgaria.
Voters in Bulgaria, on 13 November 2016, elected pro-Russian populist president, deepening the political crisis of the country even further. Pro-Russia, anti-migration candidate Rumen Radev swept to victory with 59.4 percent of the vote, compared with 36.2 percent for the candidate of the ruling centre-right GERB party, Tsetska Tsacheva at presidential elections in Bulgaria. Having been the former commander of Bulgaria’s Air Force, Radev was backed by the opposition Socialist Party and is considered a Russia-friendly newcomer to politics.
Radev used his victory speech to reiterate his opposition for declaring Moscow as an enemy and called for EU sanctions against Russia to be lifted. He said “In his election campaign (Donald Trump), already elected, said clearly that he will work for a better dialogue with Russia. This gives us hope, a big hope, for a peaceful solution to the conflicts both particularly in Syria and in Ukraine and for reducing the risk of confrontation,” but Radev has also emphasized that an improvement relation with Moscow indeed does not mean a retreat for Bulgaria’s Nato and EU membership since there is “no alternative” for Euro-Atlantic values. Radev will take office on January 22 for a five-year term.
Overall, Bulgaria faces a political uncertainty amid political outsider Rumen Radev has won Bulgaria’s presidential run-off, inflicting a crushing defeat on the main ruling party’s candidate Tsetska Tsacheva, nominated by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. The results also constituted the first ever election loss of centre-right Prime Minister Boyko Borisov since the party was set up in the mid-2000s. Bulgaria’s pro-Europe Prime Minister Boykov Borisov said that “The results clearly show that the ruling coalition no longer holds the majority.” And he added “I apologise to those who supported us. I thought I was doing the right thing.” 
Thus, the results shows that the majority of citizens in Bulgaria still have the pro-Russian feelings while the West and Russia have been often regarded as two opposing others. In this respect, a transition from the communist regime to the EU, regarded as democratization and free market economy, may begin but never be completed since the overthrown of the old regime and the recovery of freedom are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the integration of Bulgaria to the EU. In this respect, the collapse of the communist system in 1989 was not automatically leading to Europeanization.
Having analyzed the actual situation in Bulgaria with the hindsight of the past experience, one could assume that the former have largely moved beyond the point of significant post-accession mobilization of their domestic political and social forces. Thus, democracy has been reconfirmed as the ‘‘only game in town’’ and the preferred regime for a sizeable part of Bulgarian society after the European accession (Andrev, 2009). In addition, European integration has operated top-down, from the supranational to the domestic level.
The main goal of this study has been to examine Bulgaria’s new pro-Russian foreign policy towards European Union by taking historical background of Bulgaria’s relations with Russia into account. Overall, the collapse of communism in 1989 have changed the existing situation in the Europe and marked the opening of a new chapter of European history. The socialist states were completely destroyed, and its place, a welfare state of the West European type is being created (Baeva & Kalinova, 2010:57). Eventually, many Central and Eastern European countries experienced thoroughgoing transformation of their political, economic and social structures and they turned their foreign policy to the West, a shift symbolically represented as ‘a return to Europe.’ Most notably, nearly all states from post-communist Europe had to transform into a new identity and experienced serious economic problems caused by the absence of systematic market reforms. In many respect, Bulgaria faced similar challenges to other East European states in the post-Cold War period. However, despite the similarities of the post-Communist Bulgaria’s foreign policy with other East European states, Bulgaria’s historical relations with Russia and the Soviet Union makes the Bulgaria’s case study unique. Moreover, Bulgaria has been a distinct case regarding its apparent inability to swiftly deal with the political and social challenges cropping up after accession, as well as to adequately respond to the process of Europeanization because of the unfinished political and socio-economic Europeanization (Andrev, 2009).
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 http://www.rferl.org/a/1102012.html (Accessed on 11/12/2016).
 http://www.dw.com/en/opposition-candidate-rumen-radev-leading-in-bulgaria-presidential-elections/a-36284829 (Accessed on 09/12/2016).
 Bulgarian nationalists in 1880s considered the interests of Bulgaria, but they were not against Russia as such.
 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/14/pro-russian-candidates-win-presidential-votes-in-bulgaria-and-mo/ (Accessed on 07/12/2016)
 This article was first published in the January 2017 issue of Diplomatic Observer magazine.