Bulgaria joined other Balkan countries last week in signing a security deal with the United States on high-speed wireless networks as part of a Trump administration campaign to exclude Huawei from networks 5G around the world.
Washington believes Huawei poses a threat to its national security and that of its allies and that the tech company was using its technology to spy on behalf of the Chinese government, a claim that Beijing says is motivated by U.S. business concerns. Washington has been urging allies for several years to avoid network equipment from Chinese suppliers such as ZTE and Huawei, especially for their 5G extensions.
Bulgaria joins its regional neighbors, the Republic of Kosovo, North Macedonia and Slovenia, as well as Slovakia, in signing 5G security agreements with the United States, as part of the so-called “network clean”.
The other countries that have joined so far are Romania, Greece, the Czech Republic, Poland, Sweden, Estonia, Denmark and Latvia. Two G7 countries, Italy and the UK, have banned Huawei from deploying 5G and despite reservations, Germany and France, as well as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal , should follow soon.
Bulgaria to win?
With 5G not yet launched commercially, no company is launching 5G services. However, the three operators in the Bulgarian market – A1 Bulgaria, Telenor and Vivacom – are preparing to provide 5G services sometime in 2020/2021. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov did not say whether the US agreement would affect the choice of suppliers available to Bulgarian operators. According to publicly available information, Nokia and Alcatel – as well as Huawei – are interested in developing 5G infrastructure.
But Bulgaria is in the midst of a political crisis, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic problems in its country. Bulgarians demand the resignation of Borisov and Attorney General Ivan Geshev, with protests in their fourth month and elections scheduled for next March.
Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU, with a GDP per capita of 10,000 dollars (8,560 €), 20% less than in Greece. Some 22% of the population of this country of 7 million people live below the poverty line. By the end of the year, the economy is expected to shrink 7.2%.
In addition to this powerful mix, Brussels expressed concerns about the lack of accountability of the Bulgarian Prosecutor General, the independence of its judicial system, the impartiality of its anti-corruption body, the links of media owners with political forces and the harassment of journalists.
According to Transparency International, Bulgaria has the highest level of vulnerability to corruption in the EU. According to the World Justice Project rule of law index, Bulgaria is tied with Russia in terms of government corruption.
Join the gang
It was against this background that in August, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Central Europe and warned of both Russian and Chinese influence on the continent. That same month, the Trump administration announced its Clean Network program to address “long-term threats to data privacy, security and human rights posed to the free world by malicious authoritarian actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party ”.
“Bulgaria’s decision is the result of Mike Pompeo’s diplomatic tour across Europe,” Warsaw-based Balkan expert Jan Mus, told DW. “The United States speaks with each of the states separately, promising agreements, economic and political. This reflects American influence in the region and its soft power. Everyone in the region wants to be ‘an ally’ of the United States. and / or have news related to a successful diplomatic visit to the United States, ”said Mus.
Others agree. “Bulgaria’s decision can be explained by a strong political message from the United States, delivered by Under-Secretary of State Keith Krach who is visiting Bulgaria and the region this week,” Georgi Kadiev told DW , opposition member. “Neither 5G nor Huawei are currently a problem in the Bulgarian political turmoil, with elections coming in six months, a lockdown on the horizon and anti-government street protests taking place every day.”
Kadiev says the government has most likely joined the network to avoid being rushed and questioned by the United States on corruption and other sensitive issues.
China and Russia are putting the pressure on
At the end of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his displeasure at Bulgaria’s delay in building the Trans-Balkan gas pipeline on its territory, which will allow Russian natural gas passing through the Russian Turkish Stream pipeline to d ‘to be delivered to other European countries. In 2019, meanwhile, Borisov discussed with Trump the possibility of supplying US liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Bulgaria.
Then there is China. “Since the global spread of COVID-19, China has become increasingly belligerent in its foreign policy and military actions, which has caused European nations to reconsider the nature of the regime and their state-to-state relations.” said Nicholas Eftimiades, professor at the University’s Penn State Homeland Security Program. In addition, the United States has been successful in its campaign to educate the world about the potential vulnerabilities inherent in 5G networks. The combination of China’s autocratic behavior on a global scale and a new awareness of 5G vulnerabilities is pushing European countries to reject Huawei. “
Many Bulgarians are fed up with their government, with protests going on for four months
Biden to stay the course?
“I don’t expect a Biden administration to significantly change the US stance towards Huawei due to the national security implications,” Eftimiades said. “A Biden administration would be much more likely to give in to Beijing’s policies. However, US-China relations are a bipartisan issue in Congress that will limit the actions of the next president.”
“Bulgaria has a generally Russophile population and a government that tries to navigate between Russia and the United States, as well as between Turkey and the EU. I guess the next Bulgarian government, with elections scheduled for the end of March, will be forced to take a firmer decision. Pro-American position, ”Kadiev concluded.
Mus, however, takes a more skeptical line. “Considering the fact that Obama once withdrew from a deal he made earlier with Poland against Russia, and the case of Kurds left to fend for themselves in the Middle East, stick to the sides of the United States against China seems like a risky business, ”he said.