Bulgaria Backing Out

10217D35-36C7-4E4A-8798-E62DCD1434EE_mw270_s.jpgThis week’s energy reports have been replete with references to Bulgaria’s sudden change of heart regarding two major energy infrastructure projects with Russia.  On Friday, the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov made the surprising declaration that Bulgaria was planning to back out of the $1 billion Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline project and suspending construction of the Belene nuclear power plant.  This was apparently news to his own Energy Minister, who expressed incredulity and suggested no concrete decisions had been made.  Today there are reports of Sofia asserting a preference for the Nabucco pipeline over South Stream, implying that the balance may in fact be tipping in favor of eurocentricity.  What exactly has prompted this recoil from Russia?  The Financial Times cites environmental concerns, triggered by the Gulf of Mexico disaster and it also implies that Borissov, after just under a year in power, is edging away from the Kremlin-friendlier relations soldered under the country’s previous socialist Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev.  Today’s Forbes has an incisive, penetrating look at the long-standing geo-political tensions at play:

While there is no reason to doubt Sofia’s explanations for canceling the infrastructure projects, they come on the heels of the revelation by the Bulgarian government at the beginning of 2010 — and confirmed by the Foreign Ministry in April — that it was considering hosting elements of the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) in the country. It also comes right after a two-day visit to Sofia by the CIA Director Leon Panetta, who was apparently feted by the entire government during his stay.

In other words, Bulgaria’s relationship with the United States is on the upswing, which brings into question Sofia’s longstanding “special relationship” with Russia.

From Sofia’s perspective, it is dealing with a political landscape that has undergone great changes since 1989. Russia is largely disengaged from the Balkans on a strategic level. Its forays into a “strategic alliance” with Serbia are really flirtations more than concrete moves to forge an alliance that would give the Kremlin a foothold in the Balkans. While Russia seems interested in infrastructural energy projects in the region, Sofia does not want to commit itself to a Russian partnership on energy that would draw the ire of its Western allies. Meanwhile, Romania, its neighbor and historical rival to the north, is playing a more aggressive role in the U.S. strategy to counter Russian influence in Central/Eastern Europe by offering to host portions of the BMD system, pushing for a pro-Western change of government in Moldova, and fervently supporting Washington on most foreign policy decisions. Bulgaria does not want to find itself isolated between a progressively ever more pro-American Romania to the north and — even worse in many ways from Sofia’s point of view — an increasingly independent-minded and confident Turkey to the south. Bulgaria is particularly concerned about the latter because Sofia traditionally worries about Ankara’s influence over Bulgaria’s Muslim minority.

For the time being, Romania and Turkey are firm U.S. allies. It could therefore become quite dangerous for Bulgaria to flirt with Russia. Thus far, all indications in Russian foreign policy have pointed to the consolidation of its former Soviet republics as taking precedence over anything else. From there, Russia wants to nurture its relationship with Western European powers — particularly France and Germany — and rebuild its economy. Moscow does not plan to make any long-term commitments or serious forays into Bulgaria’s neighborhood. From Sofia’s perspective, this means that a continued alliance with a Russia not willing to invest large sums of money into Bulgaria, and not willing to return to the Balkans in force, is a dangerous proposition that could isolate it between its traditional rivals, Romania and Turkey.

The bottom line is that Bulgaria is left with very few choices. As a member of the Western alliance, Bulgaria is surrounded by firm U.S. allies. Russia’s noncommittal attitude toward the region forces Sofia to prove to Washington that it is as important an ally as its traditional rivals to the north and south. The question, however, is whether domestic politics will allow such a shift. Borisov’s declaration, and its subsequent immediate retraction, indicates that there is still a lot to hash out internally before Sofia makes its choice.

Read the whole Stratfor analysis here.