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.
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.”