- Bulgarians will vote this Sunday for the fifth time in two years, hoping to break the political deadlock that has thrown Sofia’s foreign policy into confusion.
- Two Western-leaning parties are leading the polls, but the new government that comes out of the election will have to contend with a president many see as sympathetic to Moscow.
- Bulgaria has long been among Europe’s top producers of ammunition, and its support could be pivotal for Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia.
Bulgarian voters will go to the polls on Sunday for the fifth time in two years, hoping for an as-yet elusive result from the ongoing contest between Boyko Borissov of the center-right GERB party and Kiril Petkov, who leads the We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria anti-corruption coalition (PP-DB). Both are former prime ministers.
Bulgaria, a NATO nation since 2004 and a European Union member since 2007, has—at least publicly, been lagging behind its alliance and union allies in supporting Ukraine in its year-long defense against Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Hamstrung by months of caretaker governments, public Russophilia, endemic corruption, and a president who appears sympathetic to the Kremlin, Bulgaria is one European nation where Russian President Vladimir Putin will be looking for signs of fractures in the Western unified front on Ukraine.
Politico’s “Poll of Polls” currently has GERB and PP-DB—both of which are running on pro-Western and pro-Ukraine platforms—neck and neck at 26 percent each. Trailing them are the centrist, and main representative of the Turkish minority, Movement for Rights and Freedoms at 14 percent, and the far-right pro-Russian Revival party at 13 percent.
At first look, things appear promising for Bulgaria’s NATO-EU-Ukraine advocates. Depending on the results of Sunday’s contest, Bulgaria and its massive ammunition production capacity might also soon become a vital weapons dealer for a Ukrainian government desperate for more munitions ahead of Kyiv’s expected spring counteroffensive.
But whoever emerges on top from Sunday’s election will have to deal with independent President Rumen Radev, the former head of the Bulgarian air force, an ex-MiG-29 pilot, and, according to his critics, one of Putin’s most valuable friends within the Western bloc.
The Bulgarian Arsenal
Bulgaria is one of the largest producers of ammunition in Europe, and for decades was a crucial workshop for the mammoth Red Army. Since the fall of the USSR and through its transatlantic transition, Sofia has retained much of its military industrial capacity.
With the EU and NATO now desperately mobilizing to feed Ukraine’s hungry guns, Bulgaria is in pole position to benefit. The EU is turning fresh attention to Bulgaria in its bid to send a million artillery rounds to Ukraine, and to then begin restocking member states’ own depleted stocks.
In March, Bulgaria was among the nations visited by EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton in his “defense tour” hunt for shells. “Bulgaria has a good capacity to significantly increase production, within a timeframe that may be compatible with what we are looking for,” Breton told Politico.
“Where they can really offer a lot is in the ammunition sphere,” Mark Voyger—a former special adviser for Russian and Eurasian affairs to General Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe from 2014 to 2017—told Newsweek from Sofia.
“Bulgaria, ever since Soviet times, has been a major manufacturer of all sorts of ammunition, from Kalashnikov rounds to—and especially—the shells that go into the particular Soviet cannons used by the Ukrainian army,” said Voyger, who is now a non-resident senior fellow at Center for European Analysis and professor at the American University of Kyiv.
Bulgaria’s munitions companies are keenly aware of the opportunities. In February, a Soviet-era ammunition plant in the western mountain town of Kostenets reopened to make 122mm artillery rounds. The new shells will be the first to roll off the production lines there since 1988.
Bulgaria has yet to sign up to the European Defense Agency (EDA) ammunition provision program, which currently aims to send the million artillery rounds to Ukraine. Voyger said involvement could prove a “win-win” for Sofia, bringing much-needed jobs and profits to one of Europe’s poorest countries. In 2022, the country’s projected arms exports surpassed $3 billion, about five times the figure from 2019.
East vs. West
Not everyone in Bulgaria wants to help Ukraine.
A poll published in November 2022 found that around 48 percent of Bulgarian respondents considered themselves neutral in the ongoing conflict. Just over 23 percent said they supported Ukraine, while almost 21 percent said they still supported Russia.
The survey also found that Bulgarians were twice as less likely than their fellow EU populations to support the Western sanctions campaign against the Kremlin.
Military aid for Kyiv is an intensely charged issue in Bulgaria, where many voters and politicians alike retain deep cultural and emotional links to Moscow.
The sympathies are honed by pervasive Russian and pro-Russian propaganda networks, as well as by conspiracy theories spreading on social media and peddled by fringe parties, much like elsewhere in Europe.
Endemic corruption and influential organized crime networks, too, have facilitated Russian covert infiltration into the highest levels of the Bulgarian government. Mark Kramer of Harvard University’s Davis Center in 2021 characterized Bulgaria as the “weak link in NATO” after Moscow’s reaches into the nation’s Ministry of Defense and armed forces were uncovered.
Bulgarian fuel and shells played an instrumental part in assisting Ukraine’s military in the early stages of the invasion, but then-Prime Minister Petkov kept the support secret. In November, Bulgaria’s parliament voted in favor of sending weapons openly, following months of fierce debates.
President Radev responded by criticizing “war-loving” politicians. And after some EU nations signed onto the EDA ammunition plan, Radev told journalists that Sofia would only deliver munitions to its partners and allies when requested. “But not to Ukraine. Am I clear?” he said.
Months of dysfunctional caretaker governments have left Radev as Bulgaria’s prime political power. For critics, that means good news for Putin.
“This string of caretaker governments has provided him with a unique opportunity to execute powers well beyond his constitutional right,” Voyger said. “He has started to see himself as the only power, the only pillar of stability in an otherwise unstable political system.”
Another indecisive result, Voyger said, would be the “perfect outcome for Putin and for his cause in Ukraine, but also in the Balkans and in Bulgaria.”
Radev has certainly tried to avoid a showdown with Russia, which is one of Bulgaria’s biggest trading partners and a vital source of energy for the country, though Sofia is—like the rest of Europe—seeking to reduce its reliance on Moscow for fuel.
In February, while threatening to veto any EU sanctions that impacted Russian nuclear fuel, Radev decried the lack of “voices demanding peace.” The president said: “We hear cries for victory without anyone defining what victory is,” and added that he hoped there would be no repeat of the parliament’s November decision to supply arms to Kyiv.
“One year after the beginning of the war between Russia and Ukraine, the focus should be on how it can be suspended and on efforts to come out with a peaceful solution,” Radev tweeted the same day.
Ognyan Minchev, a professor of political science at the University of Sofia, told Newsweek the country’s foreign policy confusion must be seen through the lens of three “major cleavages” in the political sphere.
First is the battle between the “status quo” parties and their reformist opponents, second is the divide between advocates of the geopolitical East and West, and third is the traditional divide between the country’s left and right wings.
“There are growing voices about the necessity for Bulgarian political parties who are oriented towards the West—the European Union and NATO—to organize and create a government to guarantee Bulgaria’s belonging to the Western community,” Minchev said. “The problem is that consecutive elections after April 2021 have failed to produce that kind of government.”
“The pressure to form that kind of government is growing because the governments of President Radev—the consecutive caretaker governments in the last few years—are practically moving the country closer to the Eastern side of the strategic equation.”
A Messy Election
The election is just as tense as it is pivotal. Over the past week, hundreds of schools designated as polling stations have been forced to close due to bomb threats. Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev said the threats were Russian hybrid actions designed to cow Bulgarians and undermine the election. Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry by email to request comment.
Neither of the two frontrunners has a clear lead on the eve of the election, but it is unclear whether the two parties could work together after what has been a contentious period in Bulgarian politics. Any winner of Sunday’s vote will likely need coalition partners, which opens the door to smaller parties long aligned with the Kremlin.
Petkov and the PP-DB are “genuinely pro-Ukraine,” Voyger said. “Based on what they reportedly did last year, what they accomplished in that specific aid package to Ukraine, this tells me that they will probably be following a pro-Western course if they win.”
GERB is more “eclectic,” Voyger added, led by the veteran Borissov, an old-school bruiser and long linked to the organized crime networks that still hold massive sway in the country. But, Borissov is running alongside former Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov, a young pro-Western Atlanticist. “The question is whether Borissov will allow Mitov and others like him within the party to push the party in the right direction,” Voyger said.
PP-DB and GERB will emerge as the two largest parties, seemingly followed by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and Revival. The fifth party that will likely enter parliament is the pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party, the successor to the Cold War-ruling Bulgarian Communist Party.
Most polls do not include expected votes from abroad. A significant number of ballots will come from Bulgarians voting in Turkey, and more from the diaspora living across the EU. Vessela Tcherneva, the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations office in Sofia, told Newsweek she expects these votes from abroad to mostly be in PP-DB’s favor, perhaps giving them a one or two-percentage-point edge over GERB.
“It will be important who will come out first, because that party is going to get the mandate to form a government,” Tcherneva explained.
The winner may form a minority government, seek formal coalition support from smaller parties, or enter into a confidence and supply agreement with its defeated main rival in exchange for budget and ministerial concessions.
If PP-DB does win, “I think it will be difficult for GERB not to support them, although that’s not impossible,” Tcherneva said. “The problem is Borissov has been very much opposed to this option, publicly,” she added, though she noted that GERB’s loyal support base allows the party to quickly shift positions. If Borissov retains his position, some of the most prominent PP-DB figures may have to forgo ministerial positions to win GERB support.
A victory for Borissov, Tcherneva said, would likely see GERB team up with the Turkish party and the socialists. “This coalition is going to be bad for the country,” Tcherneva said. “It’s what people call the status quo. This is the notorious ‘captured state’ formula.”
The “disaster” outcome, Tcherneva said, would be yet another election and a continuation of Radev’s caretaker governments.
A new permanent government will be on a collision course with Radev, Tcherneva said. “If we get a permanent government now, it will clearly want to drive a different course in foreign policy, and Radev knows this very well,” Tcherneva said.
This week, the latest caretaker government voted to confirm more than a dozen ambassadors. “Radev wants to keep his access to the toolbox,” Tcherneva said.
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