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Bulgaria

Bulgaria

  • Bulgaria has historically close relations with Russia due to shared cultural ties as well as energy dependence
  • Bulgaria has considerable internal political divisions with respect to Russia
  • Facing pressure from pro-Russian groups, the current government is pursuing a rather ambivalent stance towards Russia

Relations with the Russian Federation


Below-radar supporter. Concerns about Russia, but given complicated historical relations and local context, has most of the time stayed away from being vocal about the Russian aggression.[1]

Bulgaria is a more recent EU and NATO member with deep historical and cultural ties to Russia. Bulgaria is highly dependent on Russian fossil fuels; thus far, however, the government has steadfastly followed EU guidelines and rejected several Russian pipeline projects. Though not explicitly pro-Russian, the political mainstream in Bulgaria seeks to reconcile a firm pro-EU and pro-NATO stance with friendly relations with Russia. Bulgaria considers sanctions an obstacle for its own economy. At the same time, over the past few years, Bulgaria has grown increasingly aware of the threat Russia poses to the rest of Europe. Yet thanks to the deep penetration of Russian interests in the economy, combined with domestic corruption, Bulgaria must also contend with powerful Russian efforts to influence policy.

This situation of ‘state capture’ further complicates Bulgaria’s response to malign Russian influence. As such, Bulgaria’s relationship with Russia is best described as ‘below-radar supporter’, where concerns are tempered by historical relations and local context, and there is avoidance of vocal criticism. According to the latest Eurobarometer, 72% of Bulgarians had a positive view of Russia. On the other hand, another poll found that Bulgarians “do not believe that Russia can be a model for development and provide more credible guarantees for prosperity and security than membership in the EU and NATO.”[2]

Political acknowledgement of the threat


Internal political tensions in Bulgaria between pro-Russian and pro-Western factions have contributed at times to a less than coherent message about the role of Russian influence in the country. For example, in 2014, a team around former Defence Minister Velizar Shalamanov drafted a NATO strategy paper that named Russia as a threat to Bulgaria based on concerns including “propaganda warfare, Russia’s links with politicians and business people, energy dependence and influence over the media”.[3] However, after a domestic uproar and pressure from Russia, former Prime Minister Georgi Bliznashki withdrew and revised the report, eliminating explicit mention of Russia’s information war against Bulgaria.

Thus, although Bulgaria has seen some political acknowledgement of Russian disinformation and attempts to exercise hostile influence, competing (pro-Russian) voices try to drown out the message. These include several radical pro-Russian parties and political groups that fuel Soviet nostalgia and are critical of the West, such as the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the far-right and ultranationalist Ataka, the new centre-left Alternative for Bulgaria, and the National Movement of Russophiles.[4] Leaders of the BSP and ABV attended a United Russia congress in June 2016.[5] These actors, although they remain on the political fringe, serve as Kremlin proxies within Bulgaria, suppressing any notion of a Russian threat while working to advance Russian interests within the country.

The only major Bulgarian party that have sought to distance the country from Russia is the centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB).[6] Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (GERB) exercises greater restraint in his rhetoric to avoid disaffecting his pro-Russian coalition partners. In particular, he is politically constrained by a loose coalition of three nationalist and pro-Russian parties, the United Patriots.[7]  Furthermore, Rumen Radev, the current President – though constitutionally independent – is supported by the Bulgarian Social Party and his political agenda remains unclear. He has repeatedly questioned EU sanctions against Russia and expressed his interest in balancing Bulgaria’s Euro-Atlantic orientation, while maintaining a mutually beneficial relationship with Russia.[8]

Government activities against Russian influence & disinformation


Bulgaria has thus far undertaken little concrete action to address the threat of Russian disinformation and hostile influence operations in the country. Despite extensive proliferation of pro-Russian disinformation by way of home-grown media outlets (e.g., A-specto, Duma, Rusia Dnes, Ruski Dnevnik), the Bulgarian government has been very slow to address this problem, and conspiracy theories are rife amongst the public.[9]

In 2014, former President Rosen Plevneliev stated, “90% of the media in Bulgaria work for Russian masters.”[10] Given the competing political interests in the country, Bulgaria has often vacillated between “policy resistance and capitulation” with respect to Russian pressure and attempted influence.[11] Nonetheless, the current Bulgarian government is supporting a tougher stance on Russia, despite opposition from the domestic radical fringe and public preference for a more “risk-averse” approach.[12]

On sanctions, Bulgaria mostly continues to follow the lead of EU heavyweights like Germany and France. However, Prime Minister Borisov has publicly announced that he would seek lifting of sanctions against Russia: ““During our term as chairman of the EU, we must work politically and diplomatically to lift sanctions from Russia”[13] Under Borisov, Bulgaria has also refrained from expelling Russian diplomats out of its country over the Skripal poisoning. An opinion poll has revealed that 88% of Bulgarians support their government in its decision.[14]

Furthermore, with Krassimir Karakachanov being the Defence Minister, a former member of the State Security agency in Socialist Bulgaria and a pro-Kremlin figure is occupying a strategically important position.[15] Nevertheless, the government continues to be committed to both the EU and NATO, as well as to multilateral security and cooperation via other European and international institutions.[16]

The Bulgarian government has, for the first time, drafted an official document, signed by Prime Minister Borisov, that contains sharp criticism of Moscow and views Russia as a threat to its foreign policy. According to the report on the state of national security in 2016, “Russia’s actions are a source of regional instability and threaten our main goal: a united, free and peaceful Europe.”[17]

The approach of intelligence agencies to Russian interference


The 2015 annual report on the state of national security names several threats originating from Russia that pose a risk to Bulgaria: the destabilization of eastern Ukraine; escalation of existing (frozen) conflicts; intensive attempts by Russia to restore and expand spheres of influence through military, economic and cultural means, including pressure on other states’ foreign policy; hybrid war, involving attempts of foreign countries to influence public opinion through disinformation, propaganda campaigns, media manipulation, use of social networks and populist parties; and energy dependency.[18]

Given Russia’s high stakes in the country, Bulgaria is also a key target for Russian intelligence operations. Earlier this year, Bulgarian officials revealed that a Russian spy delivered a document to the leader of the pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party detailing a strategy for the country’s presidential campaign. This document provided instructions for planting fake news and drawing attention to rigged polls, along with criticizing the West and calling for an end to sanctions on Russia.[19]

Activities of the non-governmental sector


In Bulgaria, there are no relevant non-governmental initiatives explicitly dedicated to tackling the issues of Russian disinformation and other subversive influence operations. However, a few Bulgarian think tanks and academic/expert fora are occasional contributors on this front.[20] These include: the Center for the Study of Democracy,[21] a public policy institute that analyses, among other things, the extent of Russian influence in Bulgaria and the post-Soviet space as well as Russian destabilization efforts with respect to Western institutions; Bulgaria Analytica;[22] and the Sofia Security Forum,[23] an NGO active in publishing and organizing conferences on matters of international security. There are no apparent initiatives dedicated to media literacy.


[1] “How do European democracies react to Russian aggression”. European Values. 22 April 2017. Available at: http://www.europeanvalues.net/russia/ 
[2] Public Opinion Poll: Bulgarian Foreign Policy, the Russia-Ukraine Conflict and National Security (2015). European Council on Foreign Relations. 26 March 2015.  http://www.ecfr.eu/article/public_ opinion_poll311520 
[3] Bechev, D. (2015) “Russia’s Influence in Bulgaria”. New Direction: The Foundation for European Reform. March 2015. http://europeanreform.org/files/ND-report-RussiasInfluenceInBulgaria-preview-lo-res_ FV.pdf  
[4] Junes, T. (2016). “Bulgaria: How Not to Mistake Russian Propaganda for Russian Policy”. openDemocracy. 30 November 2016.  https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/tom-junes/bulgaria-how-not-to-mis take-russian-propaganda-for-russian-policy  
[5] Conley, H. A., Mina, J., Stefanov, R. & Vladimirov, M. (2016). “The Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe”. CSIS. October 2016.  https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/1601017_Conley_KremlinPlaybook_Web.pdf 
[6] Conley et al. (2016).
[7]   https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/04/25/bulgarias-government-will-include-nationalist-parties-on-the-far-right-heres-why-and-what-this-means/?utm_term=.65d629d1984d 
[8] Kumar, I. (2017) “ Sanctions 'hurt' Russia and the EU, says Bulgaria President Rumen Radev”. Euronews. 16 February 2017.  http://www.euronews.com/2017/02/16/sanctions-hurt-russia-and-the-eu-says-bulgaria-president-rumen-radev  
[9] Junes (2016).
[10] Bechev (2015).
[11] Conley et al. (2016).
[12] Bechev (2015).
[13] https://uawire.org/bulgaria-to-seek-lifting-of-sanctions-against-russia-during-its-chairmanship-in-the-eu 
[14]  http://bulgarianpresidency.eu/poll-88-of-bulgarians-side-with-russia-in-the-skripal-case/  
[15]    https://sofiaglobe.com/2018/03/16/bulgarian-defence-minister-on-overhaul-deal-with-russia-mig-29s-could-be-used-to-2030/ 
[16] National Security Strategy of the Republic of Bulgaria (2011). Republic of Bulgaria.  http://www.dans.bg/ images/stories/Information/strategiya_za_nacionalna_sigurnost-bul-2011.pdf 
[17] Report on National Security (2016). Republic of Bulgaria.  ftp://193.109.55.85/30_08_2017/702-00-34_Godishen_doklad_sastoyanie_natsionalna_sigurnost_RB_2016.PDF 
[18] Report on National Security (2015). Republic of Bulgaria.  http://www.bta.bg/en/c/DF/id/1408996   
[19] Parkinson, J. & Kantchev, G. (2017). “Document: Russia Uses Rigged Polls, Fake News to Sway Foreign Elections”. The Wall Street Journal. 23 March 2017. http://bulgariaanalytica.org/cbbss/?p=11089 
[20] Bechev (2015); Conley et al. (2016).
[21] See http://www.csd.bg/ 
[22] See http://bulgariaanalytica.org/en/ 
[23] See http://www.sofiaforum.bg/front/index.php 

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