Bulgaria: A Tale of Two Europes 

By William Finlator

Bulgaria feels like a place that doesn’t belong. Tied between two worlds, it clings to both, but can’t find a home in either. 

The first thing you notice about Bulgaria is its emptiness. Your correspondent was astonished by the sheer amount of space. The outskirts of Sofia are especially strange – small, one-floor Soviet-era flats complement unused mid-sized skyscrapers and expansive empty shrubland. 

Bulgaria has about six and a half million people but is shrinking fast[1]. High rates of emigration complement an ageing population to make Bulgaria victims of a regional demographic crisis[2]

The young and the talented leave first. The liberties afforded by Schengen provide freedom to migrate, improving the livelihoods of those who emigrate but leaving their countries of origin worse off. Over 50% of young people with diplomas want to leave the country, with over half additionally planning never to return[3]

Reasons for emigration are not hard to comprehend. Bulgaria is stagnant. It is the poorest country in Europe by a longshot and has, unlike, much of the rest of Eastern Europe, been unable to catch up to its fellow EU members[4]

In part, the blame lies with political elites. Corruption is rife – ‘state capture’ by a rent-seeking oligarchy means investment in the basic bones and blood of the economy is lacking. European investment in infrastructure, for example, has a nasty habit of ending up in the pockets of lynchpins of the political system[5]

Bulgarian Russophilia

Bulgaria’s problems don’t end here. The country might belong within the EU, and many might feel European, but Bulgaria has a classic case of a split identity. More than most Balkan countries, it recognises the validity of the trials, struggles and goals of a Slavic Russia. 

Slavic solidarity has deep historical roots – before 1989, Bulgaria was nicknamed the ‘16th Republic’ of the Soviet Union, due to its enthusiasm for the Soviet project[6]. Bulgaria is notable for being one of the only countries within Europe that continued electing the ex-Communists. In 1994, the ex-Communist BSP fairly won a free election – a testament to the strength of support for old-style socialism[7].

As a result, unlike much of Eastern Europe, Bulgaria was slow and indecisive in its break from its Communist past. Well-managed, deep structural change of the sort seen in Poland and the Baltics has not happened – Bulgaria lacked the political will for change. 

The Split

Many grow frustrated and take it out on the political system as a result. Successive waves of populist rancour scream out for widespread reform but regularly fail to translate into anything beyond the superficial. 

Vlad ‘the Lad’, a Bulgarian publican, is potentially typical. He complains that all politicians are ‘corrupt’ and of the ‘few work opportunities’ left in Bulgaria.

Vlad expresses a basic and common rage at the political system. Becoming a modern European country with a high quality of life and a well-functioning political system is the dream – but it remains one that feels hopelessly distant. 

Some Bulgarians look east, not west. Sympathies run deep – the Bulgarian Minister for Defence, Stefan Yanev, was recently fired for making a Russophilic statement in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine[8]. For some, Russia and Bulgaria will always be Slavic brethren – partners in blood who care and fight for one another in tough times.  

The split expressed here is a key one. Bulgaria has close cultural ties to Russia, but at the same time, many are frustrated by stagnation brought about by its Soviet traditions and structural limitations – problems that only the EU can resolve. In both worlds, it seeks to establish itself; but in both, it remains an isolated figure.

Bokyo Borisov 

However, in recent months, things have changed at a pace. A recent election has thrown out an unexpected result and ousted the dominant force of 21st Century Bulgarian politics – Bokyo Borisov. 

Borisov requires an introduction. He is the head of GERB, a Bulgarian populist party. The party itself is loosely a soft ethnic nationalist one, but such a description misunderstands its nucleus. A better characterisation of the party is a political unit built around Mr Borisov, a highly charismatic and classically populist politician. 

Aleksander, a translator from Sofia, the state’s capital, paints him as a ‘plain speaker’ who taps into the ‘common man’ – or as Aleksander says more bluntly, ‘he’s a populist strongman’. 

For Aleksander, Borisov delivers little and focuses on image over substance. Aleksander notes he’s keen to be seen as strong and brave through leveraging his personal history as an ex-bodyguard and ex-firefighter[9]

Where he did act, Borisov opted for a tightrope dance between looking east and west. Borisov’s foreign policy, for example, balanced the two without abandoning either. But with this, isolation from both occurred. 

Originally, a pro-EU figure, Borisov became less clearly tied with the Union with time – as it tried to uncover his dodgy dealings. Nevertheless, Borisov relied on EU funds personally and politically and so couldn’t forgo close-knit cooperation[10]

At the same time, Borisov promoted close ties with Russia – Bulgaria and Russia constructed the ‘Balkan Stream’ pipeline. Borisov met Putin several times and retained good relations with him. Today, Bulgaria still gets almost all its natural gas from the country[11].

A New Dawn?

In November 2021, Borisov’s long political reign came to a spluttering end. Long overdue for some, this new dawn is perceived by many to be a cookbook for successful economic development. 

The new Prime Minister, Kiril Petkov, is exactly who you might want to run an emerging European economy – Harvard educated, young and serious, in one sense, he seems to represent a newfound maturity of the Bulgarian electorate[12]

For outsiders, Petkov represents more ‘European’ values – abandoning soft nationalism, he advocates a clear-out of a rotten system and cooperation with EU anti-corruption agencies. 

But in other senses, his victory is clouded by the continued limitations of Bulgarian Europeanism. The new leader is hamstrung by difficult coalition partners and a capricious electorate. If Bulgaria is to have a new dawn, it will be littered with obstacles and incredibly difficult compromises. 

Petkov’s Problems

For one, Petkov’s coalition partners are more united in their opposition of Borisov than in unity behind a programme. Aleksander is a supporter of Petkov, but suspicious of some of his coalition partners. Notably, Aleksander complains about the ‘corrupt Socialist Party’ – who he believes are no better than Borisov. 

The coalition is led by Petkov’s party, the PP, but it also contains two others – the Socialists and the populist ITN party. 

Both these parties are more interested in getting rid of the totemic Borisov than Petkov’s agenda. The Socialists have an older, Russophilic, nationalistic constituency – one that pines for the good old days. The party’s constituency looks back not forward, and so the Socialist’s conservativism may prove a big block to any meaningful change.

The ITN, meanwhile, is an unpredictable beast. Led by Slavi Trifanov, an eccentric ex-rockstar, the party has a loose-cannon quality about it. Its raison d’etre, anger against a corrupt political elite, seems far more likely to yield instability than the steady, sensible hand that Bulgaria needs. 

Many Bulgarian voters are also very fickle. If they don’t see quick results, support for a new party like Petkov’s can fall apart rapidly. 

Notably, before the 2001 election, the liberal populist ex-King of Bulgaria, Simeon II, founded a party that promised radical change in less than 800 days – he won the poll but after, shed political capital at an unprecedented rate. By the 2009 election, his party only achieved 3% of all votes[13].

For the PP, such a precedent is worrying. Simeon II and Mr Petkov are, in important ways, similar politicians. Like Simeon, Petkov is ambitious, promising widespread reform to solve most of Bulgaria’s pressing problems.

What’s more, the PP’s rise was just as rapid as Simeon’s. In the last election, the PP did not exist – and has relied on its ‘newness’ to ratchet up support[14]. With such shallow electoral roots, Petkov’s political future is uncertain at best.

Bulgaria’s far-right

Finally, Bulgarian nationalists retain a Russophilic bent. In a recent PR event, Petkov was pelted with snowballs by pro-Russian far-right groups[15]. Although this is hardly representative of Bulgarian mainstream opinion – which views Russia far more unfavourably after the invasion of Ukraine – Bulgaria still views Russia more positively than most Eastern European nations. After the invasion, 32% of Bulgarians are still sympathetic to Russia[16]

Notably, Russophilic parties, nationalist Bulgarian parties like ATAKA have gained and retained consistent support over the past twenty years[17]. Bulgaria’s far-right is larger, institutionalised and more Russophilic than most European countries. Any attempt to make a clean break with the East will have to reckon with the barbs of this significant insurgent political force. 

Continuity through Change

For many hopeful Europeans, Petkov is a ray of hope in a darkening room. There is some truth in such an analysis. Most notably, Petkov provides an important precedent in ousting an ageing strongman.  

However, Mr Petkov’s movement is like the classic case of a budget beef product. If you want to remain enamoured, don’t look beyond the superficial. 

Bulgaria is still a split country – and remains one dominated by the figure of Bokyo Borisov. The watchwords of grand and ideologically disparate coalitions formed to oust titanic political figures are compromise and conflict. In Petkov’s coalition, the only point of unity is opposition to one man, hardly the stuff of political progress. 

Bulgaria, fundamentally, has not made its mind up about where it belongs and why. Two beliefs about direction and place in the world still conflict. All the focus on change in Bulgaria over the past few months is misleading. The real lesson is one of and in continuity. Despite all the rhetoric, Bulgaria remains a deeply conservative country. It will take more than one election to change that. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Image: Pexels

[1] ‘Ever Shrinking Bulgaria Confronts Worsening Population Crisis’, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-01-25/ever-shrinking-bulgaria-exports-fertility-as-population-drops#:~:text=Bulgaria%2C%20the%20European%20Union’s%20poorest,estimates%20from%20a%202021%20census.

[2] ibid

[3] Cholova, B and De Weale, J, ‘Populism in Bulgaria, the Politics of Resentment’, Southeastern Europe, Vol 38, 2015

[4] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/DDN-20220323-2#:~:text=In%20contrast%2C%20Croatia%20(30%25,the%20lowest%20GDP%20per%20capita.

[5] https://www.politico.eu/article/bulgaria-sinks-under-pre-election-scandals-corruption-gerb-boyko-borissov/

[6] https://www.novinite.com/articles/167792/Is+Bulgaria+a+16th+Republic+or+a+51st+State%3F

[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17205431

[8] https://balkaninsight.com/2022/03/01/bulgaria-replaces-ousted-defence-minister-with-nato-envoy/

[9] https://www.france24.com/en/20200720-bulgaria-s-man-of-the-people-borisov-walks-tightrope

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/15/bulgarias-pro-brussels-pm-theres-no-better-place-to-live-than-the-eu

[11] https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/bulgaria-unlikely-to-stop-gas-deliveries-via-balkan-stream-pipeline/

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/20/i-will-free-bulgaria-from-corruption-kiril-petkov-speaks-out

[13] Zankina, E, ‘Populism, Voters and Cleavages in Bulgarian Politics’, Czech Journal of Political Science, 2017

[14] https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/11/12/bulgaria-elections-political-parties-stability-borissov-trifonov/

[15] https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/pro-russian-nationalists-throw-snowballs-at-bulgarian-pm/

[16] https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/russia-loses-bulgarian-supporters-due-to-ukraine-war/

[17] Zankina, E, ‘Populism, Voters and Cleavages in Bulgarian Politics’, Czech Journal of Political Science, 2017

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