Bulgaria’s pro-EU prime minister Kiril Petkov took a hard line against Russia from the outset of its invasion of Ukraine, proclaiming that Bulgaria “will not bow . . . When we see something so obvious that we disagree with, we cannot keep quiet.”
Petkov sacked his defence minister Stefan Yanev for describing the conflict as a “special operation”, the Kremlin’s formulation, rather than use the word “war”. But now it is Petkov who could be on his way out after his coalition lost its majority last week over a row about support for EU enlargement, while Yanev is poised for a comeback.
If the government collapses, Bulgaria, traditionally Moscow’s closest friend in the EU, will probably be heading for its fourth election in just over a year. Nationalist parties sympathetic to Moscow, including a new one set up by Yanev, look set to make big gains and emerge as potential kingmakers.
“This government will probably not be able to continue,” said Hristo Ivanov, leader of the small liberal coalition member party Da Bulgaria adding there was no clear alternative ruling force. “Elections would only bring the same mess, except with more extremists.”
The latest political crisis in Sofia was triggered when Slavi Trifonov, a grizzled folk-rock singer turned populist politician, pulled his “There is Such a People” (ITN) party out of the coalition last week. Trifonov made the move in protest at the prime minister’s plans to drop Bulgaria’s veto on the start of EU membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.
The outcome of this latest crisis — with the removal of Petkov, a Harvard-educated, pro-western liberal, further political instability in Bulgaria and a continued block on EU enlargement, leaving the western Balkans in limbo — would suit Moscow.
Ilian Vassilev, a former Bulgarian ambassador to Russia, said the withdrawal of ITN from the coalition served Russian interests and showed that Moscow was still able to project power in the Balkans nation, a decade and a half after it joined Nato and the EU.
Vassilev said he believed “Russia triggered this crisis,” without providing any evidence for his claim. “Their main goal is to incapacitate the Bulgarian government and its ability to rule.”
ITN’s vice-chair and spokespersons did not reply to requests seeking comment. Russia denied any involvement in the Bulgarian political upheaval. “We have nothing to do with this,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Petkov took office in December after a long political crisis and two inconclusive elections, promising a pro-western course for his country and zero tolerance for corruption in the EU’s poorest nation.
When Putin’s troops poured into Ukraine, Petkov defied Moscow by refusing to pay in roubles for gas imports and said he would not renew a long-term import contract with Gazprom worth an annual $2bn, once it expires at the end of the year. In response, Russia ceased supplying gas in April.
The government expelled a dozen of Russia’s 120-plus diplomats, and last week denied overflight to Serbia for Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s plane.
Bulgaria has also offered aid to Ukraine, including important military assistance. Although the government has not acknowledged sending weapons, statistics published by the economy ministry show ammunition production and export has tripled this year.
“It’s not like Europe became massively interested in our often outdated arms technology and decided to stock up on it in a big way right now,” said a former defence official. “This is going to Ukraine for sure.”
Weapons and ammunition export must be approved by the government, making the current minority cabinet a favourable outcome for anyone trying to stop the shipments, experts and government insiders said.
The latest crisis was triggered when Petkov tried to hatch a deal with North Macedonia in December lifting Bulgaria’s veto on EU membership talks in return for concessions from Skopje.
Many Bulgarians dispute North Macedonian identity and the version of history taught in its schools. Surveys show less than half of Bulgarians support North Macedonia joining the EU, down from two-thirds in 2017, said Genoveva Petrova, managing partner of Alpha Research in Sofia.
Petkov said he would demand concessions — including changes in North Macedonia’s constitution, cultural sites and history textbooks to reflect a better image of Bulgaria.
But Trifonov complained his party had been bypassed in talks and accused Petkov of a “national betrayal”.
The North Macedonia issue is likely to loom large in an election campaign. It would play in favour of Rise Bulgaria, a nationalist pro-Russian party set up by Yanev, the sacked defence minister, and Revival, another far-right party. Each could win double-digit support, according to Petrova.
“The radical vote could win the elections,” Petrova said, although they would be unlikely to form a majority on their own. But beating them would require most other political forces to team up, including GERB, the centre-right party of Boyko Borisov, who was voted out of office last year after a decade in power tainted by corruption scandals.
Yanev, a career military man and former caretaker premier, told local radio he had no regrets about how he described the war in Ukraine. “I just quoted Putin and his choice of words meant he kept open the option of a diplomatic resolution.”
EU officials are hoping Petkov can cling on and salvage a deal with Skopje and help restore the EU’s standing in the Balkans.
Visiting Sofia last week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he sensed a “new willingness” by the EU to expand after Russia’s invasion to Ukraine.
“I see chances for progress,” Scholz said alongside Petkov. “We will stay in close exchange in coming days.”
German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said in March that Berlin “will not surrender this region in the heart of Europe to Moscow’s influence.”
Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga