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Why Putin is courting Bulgaria

In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin sharply attacked EU and NATO member Bulgaria for supporting Western sanctions against Russia - but now, his tone has noticeably softened. What’s changed?

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov's statement in early July sounded almost apologetic: "It's understandable that President Putin spoke very sharply with regard to Bulgaria. But we have been wrongfully accused, because it is not our wish, and not our goal to freeze relations with Russia."

Borissov was referring to economic sanctions against Moscow, for which Bulgaria, in its capacity as EU member, is partly responsible. More specifically, he was answering Putin's statement in Ankara at the start of December last year, when he unexpectedly announced the end of the South Stream gas pipeline project - a project that was very important for Bulgaria. Putin put the entire blame for the failure of the project at Bulgaria's door, saying that the country was not in a position to "act as an independent state."

Now though, there's a different tone between Moscow and Sofia. Earlier this week, Putin acknowledged that Bulgaria's NATO membership is a done deal. "We have to respect the choice of the Bulgarian people and continue to work with Bulgaria, independently of all the difficult questions in connection with different projects, including South Stream," he said.

Putin added that Russia and Bulgaria have historically enjoyed close ties. In Bulgaria, his words have been taken as a "clear signal of reconciliation" and "a completely new tone in bilateral relations."

Pipelines as political tools

Putin's remarks on Bulgaria were made on the sidelines of an official event in annexed Crimea. Still, he assured those present that Russia would develop its relations with Bulgaria "on all tracks." Though he likely meant just two tracks, both of which are connected with the current tensions between Russia and the West - and with Bulgaria's geostrategic location.

Putin with Buffy (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Pool)

Better times: In 2010, Borissov gave Putin this dog named Buffy

The first is Russia's pipeline projects, which, aside from their economic aspect, are an important tool in Russian foreign policy. The much-vaunted Turkish Stream that was announced in Ankara now appears to be as good as dead. And Russia no longer states so categorically that no more gas will flow to Europe via Ukraine starting in 2019.

At the same time, several observers say that South Stream has a good chance of being revived. Since there's been no official cancellation of the South Stream cooperation from Moscow, Bulgaria assumes that the project can still be saved. Speculation about a revival appears to have come from a source in Moscow. Russia needs the pipelines as a tool to assert political pressure. And Bulgaria could play a role in these plans.

Caught between East and West

The second track has to do with the Kremlin's attempt to undermine solidarity with NATO and the EU and to divide both organizations - when it comes to the issue of sanctions against Russia as well as security issues. Here, too, Bulgaria is solid ground for "covert measures."

Moscow still has important supporters in Sofia, mainly from within the ranks of the biggest opposition party in parliament. The Bulgarian Socialists reacted joyfully to Putin's latest statement.

"It's becoming more clear that we are being given a false impression of Russia," a party spokesman said. "Russia's real priorities are much different from the image of an aggressive, relentless state."

The spokesman repeated the Socialists' position against Russian sanctions and added: "Because of its geopolitical location, but also because of a deep spiritual and cultural bond with Russia, Bulgaria is called to act as a mediator and defuse the tensions."

The majority of Bulgarians would welcome such a role for their country. But most Bulgarian politicians are aware that it is unrealistic for a small country like theirs to suddenly assume such a key role on the international stage.

Borissov himself has even said as much. In an interview with the Russian news agency TASS, he let a few things slip to give the impression that Bulgaria was not supporting Russian sanctions out of any conviction, but rather because of outside pressure.

"I pray to God that most (EU and US) leaders agree among themselves swiftly and that the sanctions are revoked," he said. Until that happens, Bulgaria will remain divided on the issue of policy toward Russia, despite the latest comments from Vladimir Putin.

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