Photographer: Evgeni Dinev/Getty Images

The Under-the-Radar EU Vote That Opens the Door for Russia

  • Bulgarian top parties vow warmer ties with Putin after vote
  • Tensions with Turkey escalate before Sunday’s snap election

With eyes fixed on populist threats in other European Union elections, one vote has escaped the glare. And this one promises to strengthen Russia’s foothold in the region.

While affirming their commitment to the EU, Bulgaria’s two biggest parties say they’ll revive economic ties with Russia to benefit voters who feel let down by the bloc a decade after membership. The Socialists, neck and neck with Gerb before Sunday’s snap parliamentary ballot, vow to go further, by sinking sanctions against President Vladimir Putin’s government. A Russian-friendly Socialist won the presidency in 2016.

Rumen Radev

Photographer: Nikolay Doychinov/AFP via Getty Images

Accused of meddling in elections from the U.S. to France, Russia is getting a warmer reception in Bulgaria, a NATO member of 7 million people that was dubbed the “16th Soviet republic” during the Cold War for its affinity to Moscow. Still the EU’s poorest member, talk of an alternative economic path resonates in the Black Sea nation, which remains dogged by graft, a worker exodus and migration worries. The vote is also stoking tensions with Turkey, which Bulgaria accuses of interfering to boost its influence.

“Pro-Russian rhetoric is winning among circles of voters that include people who’re disappointed with the social model,” Ognyan Minchev, chairman of Transparency International Bulgaria, said by phone. “They’re easily persuaded by manipulation that diminishes the role of the EU and NATO in Bulgaria’s development and believe in a Eurasian alternative.”

The early election follows Boyko Borissov’s resignation as prime minister when his Gerb party candidate lost the presidential vote. Gerb has 31.7 percent support among decided voters, while the Bulgarian Socialist Party -- successor to the Communist Party -- has 29.1 percent, a March 20-22 survey of 1,033 people by Alpha Research showed. No margin of error was given.

Both are tapping into discontent that the EU hasn’t delivered prosperity: neighboring Romania also joined in 2007 and has grown faster. But the economy is hamstrung by a failure to tackle corruption, ranked the EU’s worst by Transparency International. The anti-graft Yes, Bulgaria party may not clear parliament’s 4 percent entry threshold.

Gerb and the Socialists say rekindling Russian energy projects will boost the economy. They include the South Stream pipeline to ship natural gas to southern Europe, shelved in 2014 over EU competition concerns, and a 2,000-megawatt nuclear plant on the Danube River, on hold since 2012.

The Socialists say the EU’s Russian sanctions, which need all 28 members’ agreement to be maintained, hurt industries such as construction. The United Patriots, a nationalist alliance with about 10 percent backing that’s a potential coalition partner for the two big parties, shares that view.

“We have a very firm commitment to the sanctions imposed on Russian companies and individuals linked with the annexation of Crimea,” Borissov told Nova private television on Friday. “But we support pragmatic relations of mutual benefit with Russia.”

Some say pro-Russian rhetoric just exploits traditional bonds -- both countries are predominantly Orthodox-Christian and share similar languages.

Turkey Tensions

“Everyone wants to attract voters who see Russia in a positive light,” said Ruslan Stefanov, economic-program director at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia. “After the election, they’ll go back to explaining how Bulgaria is a part of NATO and the EU.”

The bloc’s benefits are clear. Bulgaria received 11 billion euros ($12 billion) of EU funds in 2007-2013 to improve highways and railroads, while household income doubled in the decade through 2016, according to the Sofia-based Institute for Market Economics. The EU buys two-thirds of Bulgaria’s exports, compared with 1.5 percent for Russia. About 49 percent of Bulgarians see the bloc positively.

Russia isn’t the only hot topic.

The United Patriots sparked controversy this week by blocking border crossings over claims Turkey plans to bus over Bulgarian expatriates to vote for a party linked to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Borissov fanned tensions by saying Turkey is stirring calls for autonomy in Bulgarian border regions. Ethnic Turks comprise 8 percent of the population.

“We blocked the border checkpoints with Turkey today to keep buses with expatriates from voting,” Angel Dzhambazki, a European Parliament lawmaker and deputy leader of the United Patriots, said by phone from the border. “We’ll keep the blockade until the election ends. We’re letting through cars.”

About 150 police forced some 120 nationalist supporters to clear traffic at the main border checkpoint with Turkey, Kapitan Andreevo, 290 km (180 miles) southeast of Sofia, border police spokeswoman Lora Lyubenova said by phone. No one was hurt, she said.

Facing a third snap ballot in five years, many voters are fed up: polls show a fifth plan to stay at home. For those who do turn out, the domestic agenda -- the Socialists want to introduce progressive taxation, while Borissov cites Balkan disquiet as grounds for economic and political stability -- has been overshadowed.

“Unfortunately the two leading subjects in the election campaign are Turkey and Russia,” Borissov said.

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