A crucial front against Russian intrusions

Bulgaria’s stand of integrity against Moscow’s bullying is a test for all of the European Union.

At a EU summit in June, Bulgaria's then-Prime Minister Kiril Petkov speaks with the media.

Not far from the war front in Ukraine lies another front – a nonviolent one – against another type of Russian intrusion on one of its European neighbors. It lies inside Bulgaria, a country that for most of this year worked hard to end Moscow’s malign influence on its democracy and create clean governance in the European Union’s most corrupt member state.

That effort in the Black Sea nation began last year after mass anti-corruption protests brought to power a Harvard-trained reformer, Kiril Petkov. The new prime minister quickly put in place many anti-corruption measures and shone a bright light on corrupt practices by organized crime. After the brutal invasion of Ukraine, he also ended a long tradition of pro-Moscow leanings among Bulgarian politicians.

In April, for example, Mr. Petkov stood up to bullying by President Vladimir Putin, which led to a cutoff of Russian natural gas supplies to Bulgaria. He quickly lined up gas supplies from the United States and elsewhere. “We needed to show that ... no one can blackmail the democratic world,” he told Euractiv news site.

Soon after, he expelled 70 diplomats and staff of the Russian Embassy on suspicion of meddling in Bulgaria. He also defied Moscow by helping North Macedonia move closer to EU membership. And he provided aid to Ukraine’s military, even visiting the country and witnessing a Russian military attack.

The invasion and Mr. Petkov’s reforms seemed to have transformed his country. “Bulgarians have experienced a European awakening, with many of them now feeling that they truly belong in the EU family,” wrote Maria Simeonova of The European Council on Foreign Relations.

Yet by late June, Moscow’s hand in Bulgarian politics reemerged. Mr. Petkov’s ruling coalition collapsed when one party pulled out, bringing in a caretaker government until an election slated for Oct. 2. He blamed the Russian ambassador.

“Russia really wants to take down this government because it will show that if you don’t play with them, then governments fall,” he told The Guardian.

Now the country is heading to the polls for what will again be a test for ending the two sides of the same coin: Russian meddling and high-level corruption. The election will measure “the integrity of the European Union – integrity in terms of both unity and ethical values,” Mr. Petkov wrote in The FCPA Blog. 

Bulgaria’s victories have become almost as important as Ukraine’s.

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