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Bulgaria: Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, the driving force behind the country’s slow motion divorce from Russia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) and Prime Minister of Bulgaria Kiril Petkov (L) shake hands as they attend their meeting in Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine, 28 April 2022.
©EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO  |   Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) and Prime Minister of Bulgaria Kiril Petkov (L) shake hands as they attend their meeting in Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine, 28 April 2022.

“Ukraine will win this war”, stated Bulgaria’s Kiril Petkov on April 28, right after his meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy where they discussed how Bulgaria can contribute to the Ukrainian army, likely through repairing military equipment.

Petkov’s words were not always so assured. Where does Bulgaria stand in the knife-edge tension between the West and Russia is equally hard to define from the outside and from the inside as the government has been giving mixed signals all along.

Prime Minister and “We Continue the Change” leader Kiril Petkov’s visit in Ukraine is expected to draw further lines in Bulgaria’s divided political landscape, where one of the four coalition parties, Bulgarian Socialist Party, as well as President and former Petkov ally Rumen Radev and parliament far-right newcomers Revival are siding with the Kremlin’s rhetoric, although in different capacities. Earlier on April 28, Petkov visited the Bucha region, one of the most affected by the Russian army’s massacres: “This fight is not just Ukraine’s own fight, it’s a civilization choice we have to make.”

The visit happens after several tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions between Bulgaria and Russia, crossfires with Russia’s ambassador in Sofia and most importantly, as the country has to find new deals for gas resources. On April 26 Russia’s Gazprom announced that it’s cutting ties with Bulgaria as it's illegal for the EU country to pay for the supplies in roubles. Up to 90 per cent of the gas supply in Bulgaria comes from Russia and currently the country has 17 per cent in reserve and will rely on increasing supplies of Azeri gas via an interconnector with Greece. On April 27, Petkov described Gazprom’s move as blackmail, while Finance Minister and co-leader of We Continue the Change Assen Vassilev said this is an “economic war against Bulgaria”.

Prime Minister Kiril Petkov - from balancing the coalition to leading it

Calm and balanced attitude, with a dash of optimistic nativity, were part of Kiril Petkov’s brand. Petkov was born in Plovdiv in 1980, graduated business in Harvard University, became a successful entrepreneur and stepped into politics as a Minister of Economy in President Radev’s first interim cabinet of 2021. Petkov’s charisma clashed with the dramatic turns of the first months of 2022: the cabinet is long delaying measures on the inflation, gives mixed signals on whether the lifting of the controversial veto on North Macedonia’s ascension to the EU is impending and Petkov’s desire to find a consensus between the four parties has provoked increasing impatience in the society, including his supporters.

In the weeks since the onset of the invasion on February 24, it started to become clear that the coalition’s hesitant moves were a product of the three pro-EU parties trying to balance with the Bulgarian Socialist Party and by proxy, President Radev. Furthermore, the Socialists’ leader Kornelia Ninova is a Minister of Economy and is firmly against sending weapons to Ukraine, despite growing reports that Bulgaria is contributing to the Ukrainian army via third countries, mostly through Poland (Bulgaria has made weapons deals worth some 316 million euros between February 20 and April 13, most of them with Denmark, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, Slovenia, Poland, Romania, Lithuania and Estonia.)

Why Bulgaria changed the tone so late

Petkov and his party significantly hardened the tone in the last few days of April after more than two months during which the coalition condemned the Kremlin’s invasion but didn’t do much more.

The alliance appeared hesitant in sending military aid and increasing state support for the refugees despite that according to polls society’s trust to Putin’s politics has been shrinking (from over 50 per cent in 2020 to 15 per cent in April 2022 according to Alpha Research) and several large-scale demonstrations across the country demanded Bulgaria to take a firm stand.

In a TV interview which raised criticisms on social media, MP Kaloyan Ikonomov of “We Continue the Change”, said that although the party supports sending military help, the question is controversial for the society as “every Bulgarian holds Russia dear to one’s heart”, essentially playing with the Communism era narrative of Russia single-handedly liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in 1878 (in recent years and especially in 2022, more Bulgarians started feeling uneasy about the traditional March 3 celebrations, which commemorate Russia's victory).

Following Petkov's visit to Ukraine, the government is expected to make definitive steps to send military aid and not just humanitarian help. In the first days of May, the parliament is expected to vote for definitive military aid.

President returns to Kremlin’s rhetoric and clashes with Petkov

On April 27, President Radev criticized the coalition for cutting ties with Gazprom as that would put more economic pressures on the country: “The government owes the public a direct answer as to whose interests it serves”, warned Radev, who was re-elected for a second term in November 2021 as back then he was enjoying a high approval for his 2021 two interim cabinets and opposition to Borissov’s politics, involving alleged mismanagement of EU funds and corruption claims. In previous statements, Radev has also warned that sending military aid will only involve Bulgaria furtherly in the conflict and provoke the Kremlin’s rage. He also described Petkov’s visit to Ukraine as of limited use.

Surprisingly, Radev also criticized Bulgarian Socialist Party’s and Economy Minister Kornelia Ninova for not closely watching the alleged military trade to Ukraine via third countries. Paradoxically, Radev’s newfound hostility to the coalition he initially endorsed, might contribute to unifying it.

The tension between the coalition and Radev is opening a new page but the rhetoric is not a precedent for him: during his elections campaign, Radev described Crimea as a Russian territory and has previously spoken against the EU imposing sanctions on Moscow.

"Radev's position that by giving weapons, we somehow advance the conflict, is a disgrace as it lies on the false presumption that Russia will win the war”, confidently stated Finance Minister and We Continue the Change co-leader Assen Vassilev in a closely watched briefing with Petkov on April 27.

If the coalition fails, voters will search for new heroes of the day

Although in the last few days the governing duo of Bulgaria, Petkov and Vassilev, managed to again inspire their supporters, the disintegration of the coalition and a new round of elections is still a possibility. Despite reformist ambitions, We Continue the Change’s fast ascension to power is part of a toxic trend. Bulgarian voters tend to favor novices with little political baggage.

A quick rewind of the last two decades: former Tsar Simeon II (Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha), son of Boris III and exiled during the totalitarian regime, came back to Bulgaria and after a short campaign was elected in 2001 as a Prime Minister. Then Boyko Borissov, former bodyguard to the last Communist strongman, became a mainstay in local politics after being elected Prime Minister in 2009, despite alleged liaisons with the criminal world, and various arguable bits in his biography. Borissov’s GERB party governed until 2021, when Bulgaria, ravaged by COVID-19 and protests, decided it’s time for a change. In the three general elections in 2021, GERB had a pyrrhic victory in February, lost to new party There’s Such People in July and in November, the chaotic politics of There’s Such People made them lose public trust and pave the way in November to We Continue the Change.

If the cracks in the coalition widen, this might mean a comeback for Borissov, further votes for far-righters Revival and possible rise for 2021 interim PM Stefan Yanev, former advisor to Radev and Petkov’s choice for Defence Minister until he was sacked for pro-Kremlin rhetoric. Yanev is expected to launch a party of his own in early May, likely targeting people both on the far-right and the far-left.

Although Bulgaria seems to distance itself from Russia, both by ideology and economics, if the coalition disintegrates and loses public trust, a return to the old ways and harder dependency to Moscow might be imminent.

Tags: Ukraine , Russia , Bulgaria , Rumen Radev , War in Ukraine , Volodimir Zelenskiy
Turneul Stradivarius 2022
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