Bulgaria: Hard Choice between Weapons for Ukraine and Unity of the Coalition

Saturday, 7 May 2022 , "Ukrainian Prism"

Bulgaria had long been perceived as a satellite of Russia. In Soviet times, it was often called the sixteenth republic, and Moscow always counted on the support of Sofia.

Until recently, this trend continued - Bulgaria refrained from harsh assessments of Russia's behavior in the international arena, vetoed Romania's idea of forming a NATO flotilla in the Black Sea, and waited for Russian tourists and investors, handing them Bulgarian passports for investments of over one million euros.

This is changing right now. The government of Kiril Petkov has set out to help Ukraine counter Russian aggression. However, it is not as simple as might be seen - the coalition includes a party that opposes such support and blackmails the collapse of the coalition. And an attempt to provide weapons to Ukraine has put the coalition on the brink of collapse.

Trend change

Bulgaria's first reaction to the Russian invasion was, of course, shock. 

Along with other countries in the region, Bulgaria has banned Russian aircraft in the country's airspace.The move was prompted by a natural desire to avoid involvement in the war and to ensure its security.

However, shortly after Ukraine announced its firm intention to apply for EU membership, Bulgaria began to show also a friendly attitude towards Kyiv. Along with the leaders of the EU member states: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia - Bulgaria also stated the need to urgently provide Ukraine with EU membership prospects and start membership negotiations immediately.

And more, Bulgaria has introduced a political taboo on the use of Russian narratives, including a "special operation." War is war, and those who did not think so have to bear political responsibility.

The Bulgarian Minister of Defense, Stefan Yanev, was the first to be punished. He allowed himself to declare that it is not "war" in Ukraine but a "military operation". In addition, earlier in December, the minister objected to the deployment of NATO troops in Bulgaria, saying it could increase tensions in the region.

Kirill Petkov dismissed the minister on March 1, although he is very close to the President, Rumen Radev, who also has sympathies for Moscow. On the same day, the parliament voted to deploy other NATO troops in Bulgaria - eight Dutch military aircraft and about 200 troops, to strengthen the Alliance's Eastern flank.

Along with other Western countries, Bulgaria has undertaken the expulsion of "diplomats" whose activities are incompatible with diplomatic status (in other words - Russian spies).

Countering the "fifth column"

The Russian "fifth column" has surely paid attention to the change in the Bulgarian vector. 

During the celebration of the anniversary of Bulgaria's liberation, supporters of the right-wing pro-Russian party "Revival" attacked Petkov with snowballs shouting "Russia!", "NATO go away", "Traitor!" 

On March 18, Elena Guncheva, a Russophile MP of the party "Revival", posted on Facebook a wish that one of Russia's missiles should hit the Bulgarian Cabinet if Bulgaria sent weapons to Ukraine, calling Volodymyr Zelensky a clown. As a result, Guncheva is now under investigation and accused of treason.

Russia's odious ambassador, Eleonora Mitrofanova, also stated the war against Ukraine was similar to Bulgaria's liberation from the Ottoman Empire and aimed to protect the "people of Donbas" from the "Nazi regime in Kyiv" for "common Christian values."

However, the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Kiril Petkov, was very determined. He called on Mitrofanova and forced her to apologize for the comparison, insisted that the Russian embassy should not interfere in Bulgaria's domestic politics, and called for an end to the war in Ukraine. Mitrofanova herself claimed that she was not addressing the Bulgarian people, but "Russian friends" in Bulgaria.

It seems that the Russian diplomatic mission realized that the Bulgarian people, in general, do not belong to such friends, and another nail in the coffin of the diplomatic cooperation between Sofia and Moscow was the recall of the Bulgarian ambassador to Russia.

Russia’s gas blackmail

In Sofia, they were aware of the need to overcome energy dependence on Gazprom. In particular, the head of Bulgargaz, Ivan Topchiisky, announced that Bulgaria will be able to overcome its dependence on Gazprom by the end of this year.

The demands of Gazprom to make payments for gas in rubles added fuel to the fire, and Sofia refused. Thus, Bulgaria turned out to be one of the two EU countries to which Russia cut off gas supplies.

Eventually, the finance minister of Bulgaria, Asen Vasilev, and European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, on April 28, agreed to set up a coordination center in Bulgaria for the management of gas and electricity infrastructure and procurement for the Balkan states and Italy.

Weapons for Ukraine

However, despite the already significant deterioration of relations with Russia, Sofia still refused to provide military support to Ukraine. 

Incumbent Defense Minister, Dragomir Zakov, said "We can’t give Ukraine something we don’t have." However, he noted that Bulgaria will instead strengthen its defense capabilities: development of artillery support capabilities, acquisition of 3D radars, construction of an air defense system, unmanned aerial vehicles, multi-purpose diesel-electric submarines, ammunition for naval vessels, coastal missile systems, and the acquisition of field communication equipment.

The Socialists, who are part of the ruling coalition, strongly opposed the provision of weapons to Ukraine and even threatened to leave the coalition, which would lead Bulgaria to another round of early elections and an extremely difficult coalition.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, tried to convince the Bulgarian government officials. He visited Bulgaria and stressed that the Bulgarian Parliament and Government are aware of Ukraine's needs - from ammunition to military aircraft.

After that, the debate over arms supplies to Ukraine intensified. Kiril Petkov, in particular, stressed that he believes that it is necessary to supply weapons to Ukraine. However, it was not possible to change the position of the socialists.

The culmination of the weapon debate was May 4, when parliament discussed the issue. And both sides compromised. 

After five hours of discussions, the Bulgarian parliament approved aid to Ukraine. In particular, Sofia will continue to support Kyiv in its move to the EU, as well as Ukrainian refugees from the war. However, in terms of weapons, Bulgaria has decided to limit itself to repairing Ukrainian military equipment.

Such a compromise will only partially meet Ukraine's needs. However, with the consent of the United States and other leading Western countries to supply Ukraine with heavy weapons, Kyiv's need for Bulgarian weapons appears to be significantly lower than a month ago.

The current trend indicates that Russia has been losing friends day by day. Even those who until recently were reliable partners are changing their positions. Neither the blackmail of Gazprom, nor the efforts of Russian diplomats, nor pro-Russian political forces, which are declining in the region, are preventing this.

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