Bulgaria Defense and Foreign Policy

By | January 11, 2021

Foreign policy and defense

Bulgaria is a nation in Eastern Europe. Its capital city is Sofia. Until the collapse of communism in 1989, Bulgaria was a sound state to the Soviet Union. Subsequently, the foreign policy goal was instead to approach the Western powers. Bulgaria joined the US-led NATO Alliance in 2004 and the EU in 2007.

bulgaria military spending and defense budget

The road to the NATO membership began in 1994 when Bulgaria joined the NATO-NATO North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) and Partnership for Peace (PFF). The application for NATO membership was submitted in 1997. Bulgaria supported the NATO bombings of Serbia in connection with the 1999 Kosovo crisis, despite the fact that a large part of the population was opposed to the war. Bulgaria became a full member of NATO in April 2004.

The application for EU membership was submitted in 1995. Weak economy, deficiencies in the justice system and widespread corruption meant that membership negotiations could not start until 2000, and Bulgaria did not join the Great Eastern enlargement in 2004. The aim was instead set in 2007. The EU placed tough demands on reforms and occasionally the Bulgarian EU entry was threatened by delays. The EU-criticized nuclear power plant in Kozloduj also posed a problem in EU adaptation (see Natural Resources and Energy). In April 2005, the EU and Bulgaria signed the so-called Accession Treaty. Despite several warnings from the EU Commission on remaining shortcomings, Bulgaria was able to become a member on 1 January 2007 (see further Modern history). However, criticism from the EU for insufficient efforts against corruption and organized crime has continued even after joining the Union. Bulgaria has withdrawn EU funds and has not been granted access to the EU Passport Schengen Union.

Relations with Russia

Bulgaria’s orientation towards the West has distanced the country from Russia, which in particular opposed the Bulgarian NATO membership. Until the collapse of communism, Bulgaria was the front of the Eastern Alliance’s defense pact, the Warsaw Pact, against the NATO countries Greece and Turkey. Now the border with NATO moved closer in one stroke. Russia and Bulgaria also have close historical and cultural ties, and Moscow sees it as its right to safeguard its strategic interests in the Black Sea.

Relations with Moscow deteriorated further in 2006, when the United States and Bulgaria signed an agreement to deploy about 2,500 US soldiers at four military bases in Bulgaria. Nevertheless, in 2008 Russia and Bulgaria were able to sign an agreement on the Russian South Stream project, which would draw a pipeline for natural gas from Russia, via the Black Sea and Bulgaria, to Western Europe. Construction began in late 2012, but in summer 2014 Bulgaria canceled its part of preparations under pressure from the EU because of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the conflict in Ukraine. In December of that year, Russia announced that the project had been halted as a result of EU sanctions, reduced gas prices and deteriorating Russian economy.

The unrest in Ukraine prompted NATO to decide on a strengthened military presence in Eastern Europe, and not least in the Black Sea region. In the spring of 2015, the government announced that a series of joint U.S. military exercises would be held, and that the number of U.S. soldiers in the country would increase.

Flight monitoring assistance

Due to Bulgaria’s weak air defense, in early 2016 Parliament also decided to seek NATO assistance with the monitoring of the Bulgarian airspace. In September, US fighter aircraft participated for the first time in aviation patrol. The increased Naton presence has caused protests in Bulgaria, where many are friendly to Russia. An opinion poll in the fall of 2016 showed that Bulgaria was one of only four NATO countries where people in common had greater confidence in Russia than in NATO.

President Rosen Plevneliev teased both Russia and Russian-friendly compatriots when, in a speech to the European Parliament in the summer of 2016, he accused Moscow of hybrid warfare to undermine the EU. That same fall, Russian-friendly former Air Force commander Rumen Radev won the presidential election, which resulted in the resignation of the government and a new election announced (see Current policy).

Contact with Turkey was long characterized by mistrust, but improved in the early 1990s when conditions for the Turkish minority in Bulgaria improved. In 1999, Turkish NATO soldiers were allowed to travel through Bulgaria on their way to Kosovo. It was the first time in 121 years that Turkish troops were in Bulgaria.

Other Balkans

Bulgaria’s relations with Serbia during the 1990s war in former Yugoslavia were complicated, mainly because of Bulgaria’s support for the sanctions against Serbia in 1998 and the NATO war against the province of Kosovo the following year. The relations were then good, although Bulgaria’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence in March 2008 caused irritation in Serbia. Already later that year, Bulgaria and Serbia and Romania signed a cooperation agreement to combat cross-border crime.

Relations with Macedonia were disturbed for a long time by the fact that Bulgaria claimed Macedonian territories and did not regard Macedonian as its own language. In 1992, however, Bulgaria acknowledged the Macedonian government, and in a historic agreement in 1999, Bulgaria renounced all territorial claims. A compromise in the language dispute was also reached.

The decision to establish formal relations with Macedonia created tensions in contact with Greece, which has continued poor relations with the Macedonian nation. However, this did not have any decisive consequences for the continued contact between the countries. At the end of 2012, Bulgaria and Greece jointly opposed Macedonia by blocking the neighboring country’s membership negotiations with the EU. The Bulgarian government blamed Macedonia for “poor neighbors” by “conducting an anti-Bulgarian campaign and distorting historical facts”. However, the decision was criticized by three former presidents, who considered the government punishing ordinary Macedonians.

Conflict with Libya

For eight years, relations with Libya were marked by a serious crisis. In 1999, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor (who later became a Bulgarian citizen) were arrested in Libya, accused of deliberately infecting over 400 children with HIV. The six were sentenced to death in May 2004. Following an appeal, Libya’s highest court suspended the death sentences in December 2005 and ordered a new trial. A year later, the six were sentenced to death again. In 2007, the sentence was converted to life imprisonment. The same year, the EU and Libya agreed that the convicted would be handed over to Bulgaria, where they were immediately pardoned.

The defense underwent major cuts during the 1990s and an adjustment to NATO was made prior to membership in 2004. The mandatory military duty was abolished in 2007. Bulgaria has participated in several international peacekeeping operations, such as the Eu Force in Bosnia and the ISA Force in Afghanistan. However, much of the country’s military equipment, in particular aviation, is still of older Soviet production, which has made Bulgaria still dependent on Russia for maintenance and supplies of spare parts. In 2015, however, Bulgaria signed a contract with Poland to have six of its fighter aircraft repaired there, to reduce dependence on Russia. Due to the country’s weak air defense, Parliament decided in early 2016 to allow NATO to take responsibility for protecting the Bulgarian airspace.


Army: 15 300 men (2017)

The air Force: 6,700 men (2017)

The fleet: 3 450 men (2017)

Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 1.6 percent (2017)

Military spending’s share of the state budget: 4.4 percent (2017)