Caught between East and West, Bulgaria faces a fundamental problem of national identity. Culturally, politically, and economically, the Balkan countries have struggled to chart their own course, with players in the East and West often determining the shape of their history for them. Citizens of Balkan countries—including those of Bulgaria—long for broader recognition of their autonomy. Achieving this goal, however, will require deciding once and for all how they will deal, on cultural, political, and economic fronts, with the conflict between East and West.
Since the last century’s wars in the Balkans, the world has depicted the region negatively. Outsiders, like former President Bill Clinton, have spoken of Balkan “barbarism,” a perception which only exacerbates continued conflict. Often, Western journalists and politicians point to religious motivations for conflict in the region, suggesting that the lingering impact of the Ottoman occupation has left the citizens of Balkan countries more susceptible to extremist ideology; however, as Maria Todorova points out in Imagining the Balkans, aggressive nationalism is the actual cause. Each country now wants to create its own narrative and forge a separate identity from the Ottomans, Russians, and even its Balkan neighbors.
For some Bulgarians, EU membership threatens to erase their unique identity through Europeanization. Many believed that joining would not reduce the corruption that plagues the country, improve the economy, or diminish political instability. They feared that membership would instead promote liberalism in a traditionally conservative country. Meanwhile, the country remains wary of the cultures to the East, evincing a strong desire to separate from the vestigial eastern influence of the Ottomans and the perceived “backwardness, stagnation and foreignness” of their rule. In addition, conflicting memories of the Soviet Union remain. Older generations view the Soviet era as a time with more economic security and equality for the people, remembering the Russians as their liberators from the Ottomans. Younger generations, however, do not share this view, acknowledging the negatives of Soviet rule, such as increased corruption, instability, and economic stagnation. Thus, Bulgarians remain uncomfortable with both Eastern and Western identities, and they long to determine their unique identity independent of their relationship to these hegemons.
Both the East and the West offer Bulgaria strong political attractions and repulsions. Bulgaria sees its greatest security threat coming from Turkey in the form of a refugee crisis. At its height in December of 2015, roughly twenty thousand out of the thirty thousand refugees that had entered Bulgaria applied for asylum. The number of refugees entering the EU from the Middle East has since decreased, but the deal closing the main transit route through Turkey into Greece could fall apart at any moment, causing the refugees to seek alternate routes into Europe. To make matters worse, Turkey has even cut the border fence on multiple occasions, allowing migrants to transit illegally through Bulgaria’s closed borders, creating serious political tensions between the two countries. Although Bulgaria, as an EU member, is obligated to absorb its quota of 2,172 refugees, the nation simply cannot afford it.
When Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, most Bulgarians opposed membership and many still feel that the EU is “distant and unemotional” and offers “little understanding of local nuances and needs.” That being said, since Bulgaria joined the EU, incomes have risen, infrastructure has improved and international trade has increased significantly, indicating that joining was the right decision. Bulgaria’s exports to the EU have doubled, and sales account for two thirds of exports. For many Europeans, Bulgaria has become an attractive place to conduct business, as its 10 percent corporate and income tax rate is the lowest in the EU. Additionally, its pivotal location on the Black Sea promises a strong growth potential.
With this success, however, Bulgaria still remains the EU’s poorest country and, compared to other EU member states, faces serious economic stagnation, high unemployment, persistent corruption, and domineering oligarchs. Due to this stagnation, nearly two million people have relocated since 2007. The average monthly salary in Bulgaria is only 500 euros, compared to the EU average of 1,500 euros. Germany and Italy are the country’s strongest Western trading partners, but they alone will not be sufficient to keep Bulgaria securely within the EU’s sphere of influence because the Bulgarians’ current disillusionment with the EU is largely a result of the failure of the supposed economic benefits of EU membership to materialize. Recent threats to the EU have left many questioning how it serves to promote Bulgarian economic and security interests. Current levels of EU commitment to Bulgaria are pitifully low, and if the Union wants to retain some level of influence, it must devote more time and treasure towards influencing the Balkans’ political climate. If it fails to do so, its regional influence will soon fade, leaving a vacuum for Russia to fill.
Beyond security issues, both the East and the West present complex economic pressures on Bulgaria. For example, the country is entirely dependent on Russian oil and gas, and Russia is Bulgaria’s second largest trading partner, supplying 12 percent of its net import goods. The New York Times also reports that “investment with Russian roots, direct and indirect, accounts for more than 22 percent of Bulgaria’s gross domestic product,” citing a study that called Bulgaria a “captured state” of Russia.
Unsurprisingly, recent domestic political developments reflect the deep cultural, political, and economic divides between East and West that animate much of Bulgarian affairs. The country has held three elections in four years, and the consequences of the most recent election for Bulgaria’s East and West relationships are still uncertain. Boyko Borisov, a pro-EU politician, just started his third term as Prime Minister after stepping down in the fall of 2016. Although he has served as Prime Minister twice before, he resigned both times: once in 2013 after nationwide protests against poverty and, most recently, in November when his party lost parliamentary control. This most recent resignation came in the aftermath of a defeat by Rumen Radev, a Moscow-friendly general with socialist tendencies. Radev has made it clear he believes Bulgaria should focus more on its economic and political ties with Moscow and leave the EU, and he won nearly 60 percent of the vote. However Radev's victory over a pro-EU ruling candidate resulted in months of political uncertainty, which ultimately allowed Borisov to regain the Prime Ministry in March. Further, the socialist Kornelia Ninova, who was running to be the first female prime minister, also has ties to Moscow and has also criticized the EU: "We are the party that ushered Bulgaria into the European Union and NATO ... But we do not want to be a second-class member," Ninova told AFP news agency. Recently, Borisov has been working with Romania to build a second bridge over the Danube, connecting the two, in an attempt to improve infrastructure and relations in the region and attract more foreign investment. This effort is both an attempt to increase ties and investment with the EU and its surrounding Balkan neighbors. Additionally, Borisov has been meeting with various Balkan neighbors including Greece, Macedonia, and Albania to maintain and build upon the current ties. Thus, Borisov’s re-election shows that many Bulgarians still see their future lying with the EU and not with Russia.
Some Bulgarians see Borisov as a stabilizing influence who will maintain a careful balance between Russia, the EU, and NATO. However, after his initial loss of power to Radev, even Borisov has become more outwardly supportive of Bulgaria’s ties with Russia and more fearful of antagonizing Moscow-friendly Bulgarians. He has recognized Bulgaria’s historical ties and common culture with Russia, and he is aware of a new form of Moscow-leaning nationalism arising from economic necessity. Bulgaria must perform a delicate balancing act to maintain close relations with Russia without plummeting into its orbit again, all while preserving its cherished ties to the West.
After Brexit and the continued rise of the far right in Europe, the EU is not as stable as it once was. This, coupled with Russia’s desire to increase its sphere of influence, puts Bulgaria in the middle of a battle between the East and the West. Bulgaria’s citizens are sharply divided over this choice—a choice between full integration into Europe and giving into the nostalgia of the 20th century—and its future in the EU remains uncertain. Only time will tell what Bulgaria chooses, but its choice will have a profound impact on the chess match that is Russia’s dealings with the West.
Laura Rudman is a Contributing Writer for The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons.