NATO's Eastern Flank Troubles. On April 2, 2023, Bulgarians voted in their fifth parliamentary elections in two years. Little is likely to change in the balance of power in the Bulgarian Parliament (the National Assembly) after this election round, with the notable exception of the rise in the share of pro-Russian and Euro-sceptic parties. Although there has been a pro-Euro-Atlantic majority in all elected parliaments over the past two years, the leading political parties have failed to form a stable government, leaving power in the hands of a succession of caretaker governments with clear links to Kremlin-controlled oligarchic networks.
What Has Happened. Popular support for Ukraine, the EU, and NATO has continuously declined, driven by relentless negative messaging from President Radev, his caretaker governments, and the ultra-conservative nationalists. President Radev has branded the political parties that voted in favor of military support for Ukraine in the last parliament as "warmongers". He has repeatedly threatened to veto further EU sanctions on Russia and has voiced China-like appeals for peace, aligning himself with Hungary's Viktor Orban.
Post-Election Stalemate. The preliminary results show a near tie at the top (with less than 2% difference between the winner Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria – Union of Democratic Forces (GERB-SDS) and the second We Continue the Change – Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB), but there has been a rise in the support of the ultra-right, anti-establishment Revival (Vazrazhdane), which has become the third-largest parliamentary party. This is likely to further embolden anti-EU and anti-NATO voices, enlarging the pro-Russian political space in the country.
Worst-Case Scenario. Vazrazhdane claims to have gathered half a million signatures in support of initiating an anti-Euro-adoption referendum, which it intends to submit for processing in the first week of April. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has also started gathering signatures on the topic of what has been a core Kremlin disinformation narrative of "safeguarding traditional values against the EU gender ideology." The anti-systemic There is Such a People Party (ITN) of the singer-showman Slavi Trifonov, which also re-joins parliament after an odd last hour surge in voter support in the current elections, has in the meantime prepared to call a referendum on changing the country's constitution from parliamentary to presidential republic.
All three referenda are likely to land for decision on the desk of President Radev for signature by October 2023, in time for the planned local elections, which could also coincide with another parliamentary election round if the current elections fail to produce a stable government. This could further tilt the playing field in favor of anti-systemic and pro-Russian actors.
What's Next. This impasse creates a dangerous political instability. Bulgaria needs a government with an ambitious reform agenda, but it cannot tackle everything all at once. With the raging war in Ukraine, the priority should be Bulgaria's national and international security, which means urgently dismantling Kremlin-controlled networks of influence. Countering strategic corruption linked to Russian malign influence could be the initial platform to form a working (and even constitutional) majority in the Bulgarian Parliament and to form a cabinet, even if only for a shortened term of 18 or 24 months.