Monday

30th Mar 2020

Opinion

Bulgaria’s turn to the West

  • Kerry in Sofia last week (Photo: state.gov)

Perched on the edge of the EU, Bulgaria rarely draws the attention of international media.

When it does, the news is anything but uplifting: the country’s fourth largest bank going bust, a bus full of Israeli holidaymakers bombed, yet another wave of street protests.

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  • Bulgaria remains highly dependent on Russian energy imports (Photo: gazdefrance.com)

Yet, the latest story is different.

The high-profile visits by US State Secretary John Kerry and his British counterpart Philip Hammond left many puzzled about Sofia had suddenly come into the spotlight.

The answer has to do with both the effort of the current centre-right government to rekindle ties with large Western allies as with geography and long-term political legacies.

The West’s confrontation with Russia has exposed the vulnerability of virtually all post-communist countries that joined the EU and NATO in the past decade.

While some like the Baltics and Poland have taken a hawkish stance others, including Bulgaria, engage in an increasingly tough balancing act.

Once known as the USSR's 16th republic, the country remains dependent on Russian energy imports while Putin has lots of starry-eyed admirers romanticising about the good old days. But it is money, not sentiments, that is at play.

The Kremlin’s decision to abandon South Stream sent shockwaves in Sofia as the multibillion project held out the promise of lucrative contracts for politically-connected construction businesses.

Energy sector reforms

The question is whether Bulgaria’s government will be able to leverage ties with the US, UK or other powerful Western states to level the playing field with Russia.

Kerry’s assurances that America will offer a helping hand to Bulgaria to diversify its gas supplies are an important symbolic gain for Prime Minister Boiko Borisov and Daniel Mitov, the foreign minister. Yet it is not very clear what the US could deliver, short of actually investing in linking Bulgaria’s gas grid with those of southern neighbours.

The construction of the interconnector with Greece (ICG), which could bring in Azeri gas in the future, is yet to begin. The one with Turkey is still being negotiated. In either case, money will come from the EU budget and national contributions.

So no US company has expressed an interest.

But it is up to the Bulgarian authorities to use the political momentum and make the business case for such a project.

In a parallel story, the government is in talks with Westinghouse to build a new unit at the Kozloduy nuclear power plant, which runs on Soviet technology, but lacks the cash to move forward.

Rosatom is taking legal action over the abandoned contract to build a second nuclear station at Belene. A defeat would give Moscow yet another trump card.

In truth many of the Bulgarian wounds are self-inflicted.

They stem from a chronic incapacity to reform the ailing energy sector, which has become known for cronyism, lack of transparency and high-level corruption.

Vested interests and bureaucratic inertia have delayed the modernisation of the infrastructure and overall governance, and diverted scarce resources into large-scale endeavours of questionable economic value, such as Belene and the Bulgarian section of South Stream.

Making friends in DC, Brussels or Berlin may be important but breaking up with other friends from amongst Bulgaria’s oligarchic class is critical.

Experience shows that a nudge from outside is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition.

European integration

The depressing reality is that Bulgaria has been lagging behind most of the EU in the quality of governance and the rule of law. The economic downturn across Europe and the captured state at home are both to blame.

Brussels’ Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) has not achieved much in overhauling the judiciary and stamping out corruption. The challenge is how to narrow the gap.

Winning sympathy in key Western capitals surely helps. It made a huge difference in a critical year like 1999 when Tony Blair lobbied hard for Bulgaria (and Romania) to start membership talks with the EU. But institutions and structures outweigh personal relations.

What Bulgarian elites should be pushing for is joining the inner sanctum of European integration.

Last week’s announcement that the government would pursue membership of ERM-2, the Eurozone’s waiting room, has enormous significance.

It gives leverage to current members to demand fresh reforms across critical sectors.

That will be a clear signal to investors at home and abroad, especially if the government is serious about the adoption of the euro. As the Baltic countries know, moving closer to the core of EU will upgrade security, in addition to bringing in economic benefits.

The Bulgarian government is right to reach out to the US. But longterm success may depend on revamping the good old EU transformative agenda.

Dr Dimitar Bechev is Visiting Fellow at LSEE Research on South Eastern Europe, London School of Economics (LSE), and lectures in international politics at Sofia University.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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