Bulgaria torn between old friends and new partners

Bulgaria torn between old friends and new partners
A man holds a poster with the Soviet red star symbol equalling the swastika as he shouts against Russia's intervention in Ukraine in front of the Soviet Army monument in central Sofia on March 4, 2014. Bulgaria is now facing its sternest test of loyalty to the European Union since joining in 2007.

SOFIA - Georgi Kadiev is, like many of his fellow Bulgarians, caught between Russia and the West.

A member of parliament with the ruling Socialist party, his government has gone along with sanctions on Moscow over its annexation of Crimea, but at the same time he feels the cultural and historical pull of Bulgaria's long association with Russia. "My father was an officer in the Soviet army," he said. "He spent his life shoulder to shoulder with the Soviet army. It's very hard to explain to him now that we should impose sanctions on Russia." Bulgaria has long been an anomaly in Europe, a country inside the European Union and the NATO military alliance, yet which feels close to Russia. That tension has been thrown into even sharper relief by the stand-off over Ukraine, with many feeling under pressure to choose between Moscow and Brussels.

Bulgaria is now facing its sternest test of loyalty to the European Union since joining in 2007 and has not wavered, even though it risks economic hardship and a domestic backlash could topple Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski's fragile coalition.

The danger for the government is that the nationalist Attack party - on whose support the Socialists rely to stay in power - could carry out a threat to withdraw their unofficial support if Sofia backs more EU sanctions against the Kremlin.

Bulgaria is highly vulnerable to the political fallout of the Crimea crisis compared to other countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain such as pro-Western Poland, or fellow 2007 EU entrant Romania, which had already begun to drift from Moscow in Communist times and is less hooked on Russian energy supplies.

Many former Communist countries in the EU kept ties to Moscow but most view Russia as a former occupier and still a threat. Bulgaria is different because it sees Moscow as a friend. When its economic and cultural ties are taken together, it is probably the EU state closest to Moscow.

But Sofia has gone along with initial EU sanctions against Moscow and its foreign minister said in an interview that it would not veto more punitive measures if they were imposed. "We are not going to impose a veto, in the same time we are not going to push for such sanctions," Bulgarian Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin told Reuters. "The risks for us are high. We are one of the most vulnerable countries. We have made that clear and our partners know that very well. Of course the biggest risk is the delivery of energy resources, especially gas," he added.

RUSSIA'S 'TROJAN HORSE' Bulgaria was seen as Russia's most pliable ally in Soviet times and to this day its leaders have to fend off accusations that the country is a "Trojan horse" inside the EU, secretly working in the interests of the Kremlin.

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