International IntriguePosted: July 30, 2013
[Spanish translation here]
Sofia, July 30.
Like most eastern European countries, Bulgaria has rarely been master of its own destiny. Things were decided either in Constantinople, or in Moscow, or more recently in Brussels and Washington. As part of the next layer, I will concentrate on the country’s geopolitical importance.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the West swiftly moved to incorporate eastern Europe in its expanding sphere of influence. Bulgaria became a member of NATO in 2004, and of the EU in 2007.
As far as Europe is concerned there is a disequilibrium in the relationship between Sofia and Brussels. Bulgarians long to be as free and prosperous as the West, but Brussels doesn’t really seem to care for them. They are a second rate member, outside of the Schengen area and outside of the euro. If the EU ever bothered to welcome Bulgaria in its ranks, it was most of all to prevent other powers (Turkey, Russia) from re-asserting their influence over the region.
From a Realpolitik point of view there is indeed no reason why the European Union should care too much for democracy in a corrupt little nation of seven million souls on its far periphery. But in the grand global scheme of things, Bulgaria is an important link between East and West. So forget democracy, forget freedom, opportunity, human rights. It’s all about energy. And Russia has everything to do with it.
During the Cold War, Bulgaria was the closest ally of the Soviet Union, and even today the Russians are considered more positively here than elsewhere in the former Warsaw Pact. They have considerable investments in the country and a big influence over the post-communist government. The Kremlin’s great project for which Bulgaria is vital is the South Stream pipeline.
If Russia is still of any importance internationally, it’s because they sell weapons, they got nukes, they got good chess and ice-hockey players, and because they deal in fossil fuels to a wide range of junky states. Many of those are in Europe, and they get their supply of natural gas through pipelines. At the moment the major pipelines pass through Poland and Ukraine. In order to bypass these troublesome countries and strengthen its hold on customers in the Balkans, the Putin government intends to build another pipeline under the Black Sea, through Bulgaria and Serbia up to Slovenia and into Italy.
The post-communist governments in Bulgaria are always most willing to collaborate with the Russians, while the right-wing governments have traditionally been more oriented towards Washington. The Americans have four military bases in Bulgaria, and just before being toppled the government of Boyko Borisov requested indefinite American military presence on Bulgarian soil.
For the West, Bulgaria is vital in keeping the Russians away from the Mediterranean, and has been so ever since the modern Bulgarian state came into existence in the late 19th century. Today, the country is also crucial as a link in an alternative pipeline project called Nabucco.
The idea behind Nabucco is to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russia as its natural gas dealer in favour or smaller nations which are more easy to control. The Nabucco pipeline would pass through Turkey, a loyal US ally, into the Southern Caucasus, through the Caspian oil fields, towards Central Asia, with offramps to the Middle East, thus completely avoiding Russian soil.
Since the project was conceived in 2002, the Russians have frowned on it with suspicion. It was in reaction to the Nabucco project that state controlled Gazprom announced the South Stream pipeline in 2007. The Nabucco project has one major drawback on which the Russians wanted to capitalize with their South Stream alternative: it has to tap into significant energy sources outside of Russia. The conquest of Iraq by US forces, and the constant western threat on Iran cannot be properly understood without taking the global energy question into account.
Bulgaria will host both pipeline projects, and so the Kremlin and the White House will prefer the Bulgarian government to be controlled by themselves rather than by, for example, the Bulgarian citizens.
Of course, there is a way around all these schemes, and it’s called ‘renewable energy’. If Bulgaria, or any other country for that matter, will one day want to be independent, they will have to switch to home-produced sustainable energy. And this is being done, indeed. The Bulgarian government has granted huge incentives for the creation of renewable energy supplies. Foreign investors jumped on it. Solar panels and wind parks popped up like crazy in the last few years.
Great, you’d say. Well, no. Picture this. In practice, the boom in renewables resulted in an overload of the antiquated infrastructure. The grid couldn’t handle it. So the government cut the incentives, which resulted in rising prices. It’s one of those strange occasions were a rise in supply (of something that’s basically free), caused prices to rise, which in turn caused the people to revolt, last February.
So we’re back at our starting point. Everything is more complicated than it seems. Renewable energy is part of the solution. Direct democracy is part of the solution. An end to foreign influence, be it Russian or American, is another part of solution. The difficulty is to find a way to fit all these things together. But we’ll have time to think about it, to talk about it. Tonight is day 47. Yesterday was day 46. And it was good. Lots of noise. More people than the day before, and great discussions until late at night, fueled by homemade wine. This time, for a change, the piano man played songs from Jesus Christ Superstar.
[With thanks to Stratfor Global Intelligence Agency for their reports. And to Wikileaks for leaking them 🙂 ]