Securing Bulgaria’s Future: Combating Russian Energy Influence in the Balkans

June 21, 2018
Bradley Hanlon
Alexander Roberds
6 min read
Photo Credit: Pres Panayotov / Shutterstock
The Kremlin has launched a resurgent effort to solidify its control over Bulgaria’s energy sector.

The Kremlin has launched a resurgent effort to solidify its control over Bulgaria’s energy sector. On May 30, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to establish Bulgaria as a second point of entry for the “TurkStream” pipeline, which is intended to facilitate Russian gas exports to Turkey and Europe. The two leaders also discussed the potential revival of plans to construct the Belene nuclear power plant in Bulgaria with Russian assistance. In the past, Western pressure and European regulations helped combat Russia’s growing energy influence in Bulgaria, resulting in the cancellation of plans to build Belene and preventing the construction of the controversial South Stream pipeline. Yet Russia’s influence has persisted, owing to Bulgaria’s lack of energy diversification, the Kremlin’s infiltration of Bulgarian politics, and the deep cultural and historical ties between the countries. In order to foster sustainable resilience to Russian influence, Bulgaria must work more closely with its Western partners to secure alternative sources of energy, and European policymakers will need to acknowledge and counter Russia’s use of asymmetric foreign policy tools to exploit existing vulnerabilities in the country.

In the past, the Kremlin has weaponized its energy holdings in Bulgaria to further its influence in the country on several occasions. Officials and energy experts from the United States and Europe have accused Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom of actively fund anti-fracking movements and information campaigns in Bulgaria, as well as in neighboring countries, in order to maintain the company’s monopoly on gas deliveries. In 2012, “despite paying some of the highest prices in the world for energy,” Bulgaria issued an open-ended ban on fracking. In 2014, Gazprom used its powerful economic position to covertly lobby for changes to the country’s energy laws. The proposals were intended to further the now-defunct South Stream pipeline project, which the Kremlin hoped would expand its leverage over Bulgaria while simultaneously isolating Ukraine from the rest of Europe. The extension of TurkStream would have similar effects, increasing Moscow’s energy dominance in the region and leaving Bulgaria more vulnerable to future exploitation.

Another drawback of the TurkStream project is its disregard for the EU’s Energy Security Strategy, which encourages members to diversify energy supplies. The proposed expansion to TurkStream fails to diversify gas imports in any way. Instead, it merely offers an alternate route for Russian gas into Bulgaria, one that circumvents and isolates Ukraine. A more promising alternative for Sofia is to continue to pursue the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB pipeline), which would connect Bulgaria to the Southern Gas Corridor. The IGB pipeline, which received approval from the Bulgarian and Greek governments in 2009 but will not begin construction until late 2018, will link Bulgaria to the Shah Deniz gas field in Azerbaijan. If completed, the project could potentially eliminate Bulgaria’s dependence on Russian gas entirely, making TurkStream obsolete and allowing Bulgaria to balance its gas imports between Russian and Azeri suppliers. An additional alternative is to connect Bulgaria to the planned liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on the island of Krk, Croatia. When completed, the terminal will allow for the import of LNG from an array of global suppliers, reducing Moscow’s economic leverage over Sofia.

Significant Russian involvement in the Belene nuclear project may also increase vulnerability to future Russian interference. In the past, officials from Russia’s state atomic energy corporation Rosatom have used similar energy deals to expand Russian influence. In Hungary, Rosatom secured an agreement with President Viktor Orban to expand the Paks nuclear plant in December 2014. The deal involved a $10.8 billion Russian loan to allegedly finance the project and was preceded by the passing of a controversial bill to remove requirements for public competition for such energy projects and to extend the official secrecy around the project terms. One former lawmaker described the Paks-Rosatom deal as “camouflage” for the Kremlin “buying influence” in Hungary.

The Kremlin’s growing role in Bulgaria’s energy sector is not just a result of economic efforts, but also a product of political leverage employed by Moscow to sustain its influence in the country. In the past, Russia provided steady financial support to the pro-Kremlin, nationalist Ataka party, which now participates in the ruling coalition with Borisov’s GERB party. Additionally, in March 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that a former Russian intelligence officer delivered a strategy for influencing and undermining Bulgaria’s presidential elections to the pro-Kremlin leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). The strategy instructed the BSP to plant fake news, claim that polls were rigged, call for an end to sanctions on Russia, support Brexit, and criticize NATO. Rumen Radev, a pro-Russian candidate supported by the BSP, won the presidential elections in November 2017.

Outside of politics, the Kremlin exploits a strong foundation of historical cooperation and cultural connections with Bulgaria, including through each country’s respective Orthodox Church, and often invokes historical symbolism to build perceptions of closeness between the Russian and Bulgarian peoples. Following meetings with President Radev and PM Borisov in May, Putin carefully highlighted these connections, describing Bulgaria and Russia’s “common history” and reminding citizens of the “tens of thousands of Russian soldiers who perished fighting to liberate Bulgaria [from Nazi Germany].” Additionally, through the Russkiy Mir organization, the Kremlin partners with the Orthodox Church to promote Russian language and culture abroad, including through six “Russian Centers” in Bulgaria. Though historical and cultural connections are not problematic in and of themselves, the Kremlin’s soft power efforts in Bulgaria create an environment that is more tolerant of malign Russian influence in other areas. Illustrating this, a 2017 survey revealed that 70% of Bulgarians are sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin, compared to just 39% and 37% for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump respectively.

The potential expansion of the TurkStream project and the revival of the Belene nuclear power plant represent both an end and a means for the Kremlin. While the resurgence of these projects is the result of a long-standing effort to consolidate control over Bulgaria’s energy market, successful implementation would also facilitate the continuity and growth of Moscow’s influence over Sofia. Effectively countering Russian interference in Bulgaria will require a holistic and nuanced response that accounts for the range of vulnerabilities and tools at play in the country. European leaders should do more to help insulate Bulgaria from Russian influence by investing in Bulgarian energy diversification and increasing support for strengthening Bulgaria’s democratic institutions. For its part, Bulgaria must work to develop alternative sources of energy in cooperation with its neighbors and EU partners. The completion of the IGB pipeline would mark a major step toward achieving this goal, but Bulgaria should also consider other projects that would further diversify its energy supply. In the future, Bulgaria should take into account its position as a member of the EU and NATO when considering energy initiatives with Russia. These decisions have serious geopolitical implications for the rest of the continent, and Bulgaria must consider its obligations to its allies and partners, rather than only its relationship with Russia.