(See also Part I and Part II)
In 2010 Borissov offered Putin a puppy of the unique Bulgarian shepherd species Karakachanska ovcharka. This was the highest point of their relationship, which has only deteriorated since, against a background of big energy projects which have failed to materialise.
Since then the list of collapsed plans includes Bourgas-Alexandroupoli, an oil pipeline bypassing the Bosporus, the Belene nuclear power plant, South Stream, a major gas pipeline, and Nabucco West, a smaller version of South Stream. In 2015 Borissov came to the Commission, warning of a Bulgarian energy ‘catastrophe”.
Borissov knows what he means. In February 2013 he had to resign following mass protests over the price of electricity. (He came back to power after early elections in 2014.)
Bulgaria depends on Russia for 89% of its oil, 100% of its natural gas, and all of the nuclear fuel needed for its Kozloduy nuclear power station, which has two functioning reactors, after four reactors, considered by Brussels as dangerous, were decommissioned as a condition for Bulgaria joining the EU. Similar reactors function in Finland.
The Bourgas-Alexandroupoli project was cancelled following a local non-binding referendum. South Stream collapsed after the then Commission President José Manuel Barroso made it plain that the EU executive would impose infringement proceedings on Bulgaria, because, as he said, the Bulgarian energy security and European energy security would be at risk if these rules are not observed. In fact, the Bulgarian-Russian bilateral agreement on South Stream was full of provisions contravening EU law. For example it gives preference to companies from Bulgaria and Russia, which is against EU competition rules.
In 2006 Russia’s unchanging ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov said Bulgaria would be his country’s “Trojan horse” in the EU. Later he explained that he means that “in the good sense”. If the Russian strategy was to weaken EU energy policies using Bulgaria as a soft spot, it failed. But the project failed too.
The Russians’ approach vis-à-vis Bulgaria has always been condescending, and since Bulgaria turned toward the West, Moscow tends to treat Bulgaria as an unfaithful wife. Many statements by Russian politicians have caused damage to bilateral relations, including that of a Russian MP, who said Russia “will buy Bulgaria”.
This time around, Bulgaria hopes that the second thread of Turkish Stream could come onshore near Varna, at the location planned for South Stream, and that the equipment purchased from Rosatom for Belene could be used somehow, although it is not clear how.
Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev has invited Vladimir Putin to visit Bulgaria in 2018.
On 3 March 2018 Bulgaria and Russia will mark the 140th anniversary of the San-Stefano Treaty, which put an end to the Russian-Turkish war and liberated Bulgaria. Many assumed that the visit would be on 3 March. But this is highly unlikely, as the first round of the Russian presidential election will take place on 18 March.
Putin is eligible to seek re-election for a second consecutive term, but hasn’t confirmed he will do so. My educated guess is that he will run, and visit Bulgaria after his re-election.