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Circuit Breaker

A young politician has upended the geopolitical debate over energy that serves as a proxy for Bulgaria’s rival factions.

by Boyko Vassilev 5 December 2013

Are you with America, or are you with Russia?


That question has replaced the ideological cleavages in some Central and Eastern European countries, particularly in Bulgaria. Many commentators say the usual political terminology of right and left doesn’t work here, and that the only way to make a clear distinction is to say that the left is pro-Russian and the right is pro-American.


But a 37-year-old minister of economy and energy has scrambled that equation.


Dragomir Stoynev is a strange bird to begin with. He graduated from the Sorbonne and returned home to become the hope of the Bulgarian Socialist Party. Largely supported by pensioners, Socialists cherish any addition of young blood. In 2007 the promising economist acquired the post of economic adviser to then-Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev, who himself took the helm of the Socialist Party at only 35 and remains in charge 12 years later.


Yet Stoynev is no one’s lapdog. He has a reputation as an inner dissident and even intended to challenge Stanishev at the last party congress. Though he withdrew at the last minute, everyone took note.


He had more surprises up his sleeve. In late November Stoynev visited the United States and made an unexpected announcement. Bulgaria, he said, might consider building a seventh reactor at the Kozloduy nuclear power plant using American technology, produced by Westinghouse (of which Japan’s Toshiba owns 87 percent). Stoynev and Kozloduy’s director, Ivan Genov, who accompanied him on the trip, could barely hide their admiration for the technology they had seen.


Not that we were hearing this for the first time. The previous center-right government of Boyko Borisov had hinted on several occasions that reactor No. 7 should be built by the Americans. But few would have ever expected a minister on the left to agree.


Nuclear energy in Bulgaria has been typically associated with the left and Russia. Kozloduy was launched in 1974 with crucial Soviet assistance. It was the first nuclear power station in the Balkans, and the industrial pride of communist Bulgaria.


Thirty years later it faced dark days. Bulgaria was pressed to close the four small reactors of Kozloduy before joining the European Union. Many governments had wriggled out of making the unpopular move, but finally the cabinet of Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski bit the bullet. The Socialists whipped up strong support for the reactors, making their closure the first EU-connected initiative to generate widespread resistance in Bulgaria. And though the remaining two reactors stayed on, the public perception endured that Kozloduy was closed under Western pressure.


Saxecoburggotski’s government tried to contain the fallout by resurrecting a plan to build a second nuclear power plant, near the northern town of Belene. The Socialists embraced the idea. Belene was supposed to be a Russian project, and arguments for and against focused on the strengths and weaknesses of Russian technology and the issue of energy dependence on Moscow. The left pushed for another big industrial project on Bulgarian soil, while the right said Belene would be dangerous and costly and would tie Bulgaria fatally to Russia. Borisov, who inherited the controversy when he became prime minister in 2009, opposed the project.


The culmination came in January, when the then-opposition Socialists launched a referendum on Belene. The pro camp won by 60 percent to 40 percent. The balloting was declared invalid due to low turnout, but it was the first political battle Borisov had lost, and his GERB party was ousted from power in May’s elections.


Now Socialists are the major force in Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski’s cabinet. For their benefit, he has made some encouraging remarks on Belene. Bulgaria is in court with the plant’s Russian manufacturer, Atomstroyexport, over the project’s cancellation, and many expected that instead of paying a fine in the case Oresharski would instead resurrect Belene. Then the anti-government protests that erupted earlier this year over fuel prices eclipsed energy issues, and to the delight of the center right, it’s now the left that’s struggling to hold on to power.


In this moment came Stoynev’s visit, and his excitement: not about Belene, but about Kozloduy; not about Russian, but about American technology.


Now both sides are in a quandary. Those on the left want to defend Russian nuclear technology, but doing so would mean defying their own government. Those on the right want to stand by all things American, but then they risk lending a hand to a government they despise.


The unease has fueled small revolts from within. Some on the left mutter about “geopolitical pressure”; some on the right see in the Westinghouse approach “the American Belene.” One theory says Stoynev’s statement is killing the protests – giving some indication of the importance of the left-right, Russia-U.S. cleavage in modern Bulgaria – and robbing the center-right of its geopolitical backing. Yet it is doing the same to the puzzled Socialists, so it could well destabilize the government.


There are also traditional outbreaks of geopolitical imagination, because the Bulgarian AP-1000 Westinghouse reactor, if started, would be the first of its kind in Europe. Some suspect that the government concedes the reactor to the Americans in order to have a free hand to open up Bulgaria to a major Russian gas pipeline and possibly bring back the Russians on Belene.


Oresharski has acknowledged consulting with Stoynev on the Westinghouse trip before it happened, and he has hinted that he’s just finishing the job his predecessor Borisov started. Maybe they both adhere to the Bulgarian political myth that you can thrive balancing between the great powers.


Bulgaria feels something of the East-West divide so clear in Ukraine these days – although to a much lesser degree, as it has a more solid history as a state. It is also not split geographically, but rather biographically: if you come from a Russophile family, you are much more likely to vote left. Nobody cares about the historical irony: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and the founder of Bulgarian social democracy, Dimitar Blagoev, were strongly Russophobic.


Unlike in Ukraine, though, a fundamental question has been resolved: Bulgaria is an ally of the West. Now the task is not to set the rules, but to improve them – in the energy industry, as well in society. These issues are important, but Bulgaria will certainly not become the first country to leave the EU or NATO over them.


Unexpected moves like Stoynev’s are in a way refreshing. They show that the world is not black and white, and that Bulgaria can overcome its inner division. And they underline and important truth: you have to know what you want – and do it regardless of your grandfather’s convictions.

Boyko Vassilev 
is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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