In the Kremlin's Grip Fears Grow Over Bulgaria's Russian Dependence

Bulgaria's close energy ties to Russia are causing concern among European officials -- they worry Moscow will use Sofia as a beachhead for its interests and drive a wedge between EU member states.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria: The country's government is considered to be closely aligned with the Kremlin.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria: The country's government is considered to be closely aligned with the Kremlin.


Concerns are growing within the German government that the European Union's most impoverished member state, Bulgaria , could fall into the grips of Moscow's influence. Internal reports, including those of the German foreign intelligence service, the BND, warn that Moscow may seek to expand its relations with the country in order to use Bulgaria as a political beachhead into the EU , and then use that power to divide the block.

Bulgaria is an easy target for the Kremlin because the country is almost entirely dependent on energy imports from Russia to survive. One third of its economic output is either directly or indirectly controlled by Moscow, the German reports indicate. Bulgaria's governing coalition -- of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms party, which represents the country's Turkish minority -- is considered closely aligned with Moscow. It includes an illustrious group of former Communist Party members, intelligence service workers and Bulgarian oligarchs who do business with Russian President Vladimir Putin's minions.

One of the country's most influential business magnates is banker Tzvetan Vassilev -- whose KTB bank handles much of the money flowing from Moscow into state-controlled Bulgarian industry, particularly the energy sector.

Does Russia Influence Bulgarian Lawmaking?

Relations are so close that Russia  apparently even has direct influence on Bulgarian lawmaking. Last week, various media reported the contents of a secret letter from Russian energy giant Gazprom to the Economics Ministry in Sofia. In the letter, the Russian state-owned company allegedly provided ministry officials with draft formulations for a law relating to the South Stream pipeline, a project that will carry Russian gas through Bulgaria to Austria. Much to the chagrin of the European Commission, the multibillion euro project is being led by Gazprom.

The government in Sofia has snubbed Brussels with the draft law because it redefines the Bulgarian part of the pipeline as a simple "gas grid interconnection" rather than a full-fledged pipeline in an effort to circumvent EU competition regulations.

EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, Germany's representative on the Commission, met with Bulgaria's energy minister and says the issue is now being addressed at the expert level. "If Bulgaria actually approves the amendments to the law, then we will react accordingly and undertake legal measures to ensure compliance with EU regulations."

The European Commission has been highly critical of the South Stream project, noting among other things that it violates EU energy market rules -- anti-monopoly regulations passed in 2009 aim to prevent producers from owning pipelines. In another alleged violation of EU policy, Bulgaria is also moving to exclude third-party suppliers from using the pipeline.

The Bulgarian Socialist Party maintains close ties to Moscow, but also to other social democratic parties across the EU. Party leader Sergei Stanishev is, for example, president of the Party of European Socialists, the umbrella group for social democratic parties within the EU, and also has a good relationship with Martin Schulz, the party's leading candidate in current election for the European Parliament. Stanishev and Schulz want to become, respectively, a member of the European Commission and Commission president, and the latter is grateful for the Bulgarian's support.

In late April, Schulz made a campaign appearance and gave a speech at a European election event held by the Socialists in Sofia, where he pledged to represent the country's concerns.

Dangerous Developments

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a fellow Social Democrat, is kept fully abreast of the Kremlin's strategy by his staff. Last Friday, he met in Berlin with Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev, an independent politician who is fighting openly with his government because he wants to keep Bulgaria on a course toward the West.

Plevneliev warned of dangerous developments across the entire region. He fears Putin could destabilize Bulgaria and the Balkans and seek to bring it under its sphere of influence. He also wants to limit the influence oligarchs have on his country's economy so that a situation similar to the current one in Ukraine cannot be allowed to spill over into Bulgaria.

In Berlin, the Bulgarian president pushed for a more determined stand against Russia in the EU. "We are currently experiencing a historical moment in which Europe should not be using calculators to add up the consequences of sanctions," Plevneliev said. "This is about defending European values and freedom and peace on our continent."

It's a message likely to have spurred mixed feelings in Steinmeier. His fellow party colleague Gerhard Schröder, who is currently employed by a Gazprom subsidiary, is planning a trip to Sofia next week to provide support for the Bulgarian Socialists in the European election.

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