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Bulgaria’s Arms Trade: Love, Peace and the Doner Kebab Doctrine

The continuing conflicts in the Middle East may seem too distant to most East Europeans. Not so to Bulgaria’s arms manufacturers and government, for whom the killings have provided a significant source of income. This article was first published in Serbo-Croatian by Bilten.

Last month the Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov made an official visit to Saudi Arabia. The diplomatic meeting was supposed to provide the groundwork for an inter-governmental committee aimed at avoiding double taxation. But the tax agreement and economic cooperation talks were largely seen as support for Riyadh’s attempts to secure arms imports in the midst of rising calls for a military embargo against the authoritarian monarchy.

“When there are talks about armament, rearmament, arms race, historically nothing good ever follows. In Europe, however, even if one soldier dies, this is a tragedy – we are the most humane”, Borisov asserted this October. But this did not stop his government, a few weeks later, to approve higher military expenditure for the otherwise socially austere 2018 budget. The defense budget for 2017 amounted to over 500 million euro of the total government budgetary expenditures, only to rise in 2018 by 60 million euro.

The Bulgarian PM frequently poses as a critic of militarism; he often counterpoises commerce and business as an alternative to war and nationalism. When he refused to join the anti-Russian NATO Black Sea fleet last year Borisov stated that “I want to see in the Black Sea sailing ships, yachts, tourists, love and peace”. He made a similar statement during the Saudi Arabia visit: “My politics has always been about peace, never against another country”. In practice the Bulgarian PM, however, is far from calling for  flower-power politics, and militarism may easily become reasonable as long as it is good for business.

The Diplomatic Afterlife of the Monarchy

Such high level diplomatic visit in Riyadh, according to the Bulgarian government’s press release, is the first in the history of bilateral relations. As mentioned, at the center of the discussions was “economic cooperation,” but governmental representatives forgot to mention that bilateral trade relations are negligible, apart from arms, which make up nearly 90% of Bulgarian exports to Saudi Arabia. In 2013 arms exports to the kingdom amounted to solely 500 thousand euro, and the figure grew to ca. 240 million in 2016, as the Bulgarian webportal Barikada shows. Bulgarian arms industry has been growing in the last years mainly due to exports to the Middle East which are worth by now more than 1 billion euro.


A curious element of the Bulgarian visit to Saudi Arabia is that, along with some of the ministers of the current Bulgarian cabinet, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was invited as a “guest of honour”. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha is an heir to the monarchy that existed before Bulgaria was declared a Republic after WWII: when Simeon was 9 years old, his family was exiled from the newly founded Popular Republic and eventually found a home in Franco’s Spain. He returned to Bulgaria in 2000 and, in one of the most spectacular episodes of post-1989 Bulgarian history, won almost 50% of the votes with his newly formed political party National Movement Simeon II (NDSV). During the visit in Riyadh, Borisov kept referring to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as “the king” and together they joined a medieval-like male-only sword dance with members of the Saudi aristocracy. Members of the governing coalition split when it came to accounting for the so-called “king’s” participation in the Bulgarian delegation to Saudi Arabia. GERB politicians claimed Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was instrumental for the good disposition of the Saudi elites, due to his transnational monarchical connections. GERB’s coalition partner VMRO, on the other hand, were led to speculate that his participation in the Bulgarian delegation to Saudi Arabia is related to the controversial restitution of 16 ha of forests in Bulgaria and of his family’s former palaces. The restitution of all properties, except one palace, was deemed illegal after the court made clear that these were never the private property of the former tsar’s family.

Krasimir Karakachanov, leader of the far-right VMRO, the current minister of defense and a vice prime minister, who also accompanied Borisov in Riyadh, stated that addressing Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as “your majesty is a matter of good manners”. The minister opposed a potential governmental decision to overrule the court judgement on the restitutional claims made by Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Rumors about the government’s determination for restitution, despite court decisions, have been circulating over the past few months. The alleged logic of the government was to somehow use Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’s supposed connections in transnational aristocratic elites in order to improve Bulgaria’s image abroad. In September he was appointed a member in a national political committee, supporting the Bulgarian EU Presidency next year. In exchange, the former monarch and ex PM, made some favourable statements about Borisov and was invited to the Riyadh delegation. Such an exchange of favours, led to concerns that the government might give the property Saxe-Coburg-Gotha is trying to claim as a gift, and enraged large sections of the public. The strong criticisms that arose made the government back down and deny it ever planned such a move in the first place. In an attempt to put rumours to rest, Volen Siderov, leader of the far-right Attack, also part of the government coalition, confessed to being a proponent of a monarchical rule but insisted that “property is ephemeral, unlike one’s soul”.

The Doner Kebab Doctrine

Back in Riyadh, Karakachanov asserted arms trade was never on the diplomatic table. He said that security cooperation is of prime concern in the bilateral relations. The vice prime minister was admiring the Saudis as they “invest huge sums in security, and in countering terrorism and extreme ideologies.” The Bulgarian and Saudi governments agreed to cooperate on issues of security through exchange of information, cadre and know how.

It remains unclear what Karakachanov understands as “extreme ideologies” and “terrorism” as there had been multiple indications that the “[d]onors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” according to one of the leaked US State Department cables proving such connections. Furthermore, the Saudi government itself is often seen as pretty extreme itself for its authoritarian character, and misogynist policies. Despite the festive tone of the reports on the Bulgarian officials’ visit to Saudi Arabia, the meeting coincided with the arrests of oppositional economic and political elites in the Kingdom.The Saudi interventions in Yemen were deemed war crimes and the country was condemned for the murder of thousands civilians in attacks on hospitals, funerals, and schools, as well as due to prevention of humanitarian aid. The Saudi humanitarian blockade, according to the UN, “threatens to plunge that war-ravaged country into a famine that could starve millions of people”. The European Parliament just adopted a resolution in which MEPs called for arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. The non-binding resolution implicated war crimes and talked of the indiscriminate airstrikes leading to civilian casualties, including children, and destruction of civilian and medical infrastructure. In fact, a similar resolution, with calls for arms trade embargo, was already adopted by the EU Parliament in 2016.

Additionally, last year Bulgarian investigative journalists found that significant quantities of Bulgarian-produced arms, exported from а private company, were used by the Al-Nusra Front in the siege of Aleppo. There are other similar reports, showing how Bulgarian weapon exports to Saudi Arabia have been diverted to be used by extremist organizations.

Bulgaria, clearly, is not the only source of arms for ongoing conflicts like the one in Syria. However, there is a certain air of hypocrisy around a Bulgarian far-right which has been actively campaigning against asylum seekers, but continues to back the business that fuels wars with arms and pushes people out of their homes in the first place. The Bulgarian PM’s pseudo-pacifism is no less deceitful. In one of his most recent “anti-militarist” statements, he complained that “In Europe elections are won by riding the anti-migrant wave.” He did not mean to criticise his coalitional partners from the extreme right, but only to promote closer EU ties with Erdogan as a means to force Turkey to withhold the refugees within its borders; the same refugees that are fleeing the wars Borissov’s newly found friends profit from.

It is no coincidence that Borissov’s “anti-militarist” foreign policy in Bulgaria is often derided as the “doner kebab doctrine.” The joke is based on a comment he made as a response to the suicide bombing at the Domodedovo Airport in Moscow in 2011. “We rely on a balanced foreign policy. The Arab world has business in Bulgaria: there is a doner shop at every corner. We hope the people who commit terrorist acts consider this.” In this naive worldview, it seems, petty business deals vanquish any rational assessment of the political situation, as well as humanitarian concerns.