One vote that promises to strengthen Russia’s foothold in the European Union, has escaped the glare as eyes are fixed on populist threats in other European Union elections.
To benefit voters who feel let down by the bloc a decade after membership, they’ll revive economic ties with Russia, says Bulgaria’s two biggest parties even while affirming their commitment to the EU. By sinking sanctions against President Vladimir Putin’s government, vowing to go further are the Socialists who are neck and neck with Gerb before Sunday’s snap parliamentary ballot. In 2016., a Russia-friendly Socialist won the presidency.
Dubbed the “16th Soviet republic” during the Cold War for its affinity to Moscow, Russia is getting a warmer reception in Bulgaria, a NATO member of 7 million people even as Russia has been accused of meddling in elections from the U.S. to France.
Graft, a worker exodus and migration worries continues to doge the Black Sea nation, where there are resonating talks about an alternative economic path – a country that is still the EU’s poorest member. Bulgaria has accused Turkey of interfering to boost its influence and the vote is also stoking tensions with that country.
“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. “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.”
When his Gerb party candidate lost the presidential vote, Boyko Borissov’s resigned as prime minister and the early election follows that resignation. A March 20-22 survey of 1,033 people by Alpha Research showed that while the Bulgarian Socialist Party — successor to the Communist Party — has 29.1 percent, Gerb has 31.7 percent support among decided voters.
Neighboring Romania also joined the EU in 2007 and has grown faster and both the parties are tapping into discontent that the EU hasn’t delivered prosperity. But ranked the EU’s worst by Transparency International, the economy is hamstrung by a failure to tackle corruption.
Rethinking Russian energy projects will boost the economy, say Gerb and the Socialists. A 2,000-megawatt nuclear plant on the Danube River, on hold since 2012 and the South Stream pipeline to ship natural gas to southern Europe, shelved in 2014 over EU competition concerns, are included in that.
Industries such as construction were hurt by the EU’s Russian sanctions, which need all 28 members’ agreement to be maintained, the Socialists say. That view is shared by a nationalist alliance with about 10 percent backing that’s a potential coalition partner for the two big parties, the United Patriots.
Since both countries are predominantly Orthodox-Christian and share similar languages, some say pro-Russian rhetoric just exploits traditional bonds.
“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.”
According to the Sofia-based Institute for Market Economics, while household income doubled in the decade through 2016, to improve highways and railroads, Bulgaria received 11 billion euros ($12 billion) of EU funds in 2007-2013. These are examples of the bloc’s benefits. Compared with 1.5 percent for Russia, the EU buys two-thirds of Bulgaria’s exports. About 49 percent of Bulgarians see the bloc positively.
(Adapted from Bloomberg)