It wasn’t long ago that Kiril Petkov, 42, was still on the streets of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, demonstrating against corruption. The mass protests led to repeated new elections, in which Petkov’s “We continue the change” movement became one of the strongest forces and was finally able to form a government with the Socialists and two other parties. WELT AM SONNTAG reached him by phone.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Prime Minister, Bulgaria maintained close relations with Russia, but after the start of the war you immediately and clearly sided with Ukraine. How much do you feel the wrath of the Kremlin now?

Kiril Petkow: They’re putting on a big fight, you have to give them that. There were cyber attacks on our postal authority, which was then unable to pay out pensions shortly before Easter. The power supply was also attacked. You have mobilized all your strength. For example, a strange political opposition suddenly appeared. Demonstrators waved Russian flags in front of my office window. I thought they’d come in right away. Russia has many so-called friends and collaborators here. 118 employees were officially registered at the Russian embassy in Sofia. In our little country! We are now reducing the number, some employees have been expelled on charges of espionage. And: Russia turned off our gas overnight in April, on which we were very dependent.

WELT AM SONNTAG: You started with a different agenda: you want to fight the widespread corruption in Bulgaria.

Petkov: We recognized that both belong together: the fight against corruption and the fight against dependence on Russia. It is the same people who wake up in the morning wanting to steal something from the state and those who do business with the regime in Moscow. Putin uses corruption as a foreign policy tool.

WELT AM SONNTAG: What do you mean?

Petkow: When I came into office and we started cleaning up, we discovered interesting things. An adviser to my predecessor Boyko Borissov, who was prime minister for many years, had a brand new SUV in her garage. She was allowed to drive it, but the car was paid for by a construction company that had built the Balkan Stream pipeline. This pipeline, although paid for with 1.5 billion euros from Bulgarian taxpayers’ money, does not even supply gas to Bulgaria. It only serves Russia’s geopolitical interests because it routes gas past Ukraine via Turkey to Serbia and Hungary. I can cite many such examples. Prior to my tenure, our state-owned gas company had decided not to enter into a supply agreement with Azerbaijan, which would have diversified our supplies. Instead, the Russian state-owned company Gazprom should deliver again, even for a much higher price. It’s not just the timing that matters. We also identified employees of our secret services who received money from Russia.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Your predecessor Borissow was even arrested in the meantime, but quickly released. How are the investigations going?

Petkov: Unfortunately, Bulgarian law enforcement does not work independently. Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev is still under the control of the former rulers. We don’t have the majority in Parliament to remove him. But we knew beforehand that it would be a long fight. We work closely with the investigative authorities of the European Union because corruption in our country is often about EU money, which has been shared between a network of politicians and criminals. And we have agreed with Brussels that the payment of a large part of the Corona recovery fund is subject to the condition that an independent judge is allowed to review the Attorney General in the future. A majority in Parliament must now vote for this as well. Our party has only 20 percent. But with the prospect of the EU’s development aid being paid out, we put a big price tag on this measure.

WELT AM SONNTAG: You had previously criticized that the EU was too blind to the abuses in Bulgaria.

Petkov: We don’t want to tidy up our house for Brussels. We ourselves want to live in a clean house. So we will not only meet EU requirements, we will go well beyond them. But if we have to fight corruption and Russia’s influence at the same time, we need help.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Before the Ukraine war, you were 95 percent dependent on Russian energy, even more so than most other EU countries. How are things now?

Petkow: We managed to become independent almost overnight. We will renew the supply contract with Azerbaijan by July, which will secure a third of our needs. I was recently in Washington signing LPG deals with the US. A new pipeline connection via Greece will go into operation in the summer, which will also supply other EU countries.

WELT AM SONNTAG: The average income in Bulgaria is very low compared to the EU. Without Russian gas, energy will be more expensive – how do you plan to take citizens with you?

Petkow: We will support the people who have the least financial privileges with social measures as the costs of electricity and gas rise. We have to spend a lot of money for that. But we don’t leave anyone behind.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Will Bulgaria also support the oil embargo against Russia that the EU is planning?

Petkov: Unfortunately, when it comes to oil, we only have one refinery in the country, which also runs on Russian technology. We can’t replace them anytime soon. But if we now replace 95 percent of our gas from other sources, we have done Europe’s fair share in reducing fossil fuels from Russia.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Russia’s propaganda is influential in Bulgaria. In the corona pandemic, many citizens wanted either Putin’s Sputnik vaccine or none at all. How do you fight this?

Petkov: In fact, the methods of Russia’s propaganda are the same as in the Corona crisis. You tell wrong things. Clearly, Moscow’s main target is our government. Because we’re a political anomaly. We surprisingly came to power with our program against corruption. Moscow would rather have things as they were traditionally. But fake news on social media is everywhere, only here the intensity is very high. Moscow’s ambassador to Bulgaria has a channel on YouTube. She claims that Bulgaria only exists because the Russians used to protect us from the Ottoman Empire. A kind of liberation is now also happening in Ukraine. But the mood among the population is not so clear. 20 percent still support Russia, which is incredible. But the clear majority are worried because war is imminent and they think that I am taking a big risk with my strong position for Ukraine. So safety is an important issue.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Along with Romania and Turkey, Bulgaria is one of three NATO countries on the Black Sea. Russia controls Crimea and grabs Ukraine’s port cities. Is the previous deterrence of the West enough?

Petkov: We need more Alliance troops on the south-eastern flank. We have just decided in Parliament that more Italian troops will be stationed with us and planes from the Netherlands. All within the framework of the joint NATO strategy for deterrence. We also have to think about logistics. For example, that we ensure petrol deliveries across the Mediterranean and are not dependent on routes across the Black Sea.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Does everyone in your four-party coalition see it that way? According to media reports, its president, Rumen Radev from the Socialist Party, spoke out against securing Bulgarian airspace with NATO jets.

Petkov: Yes, but fortunately NATO secures our airspace. The President just complained about it. (laughs)

WELT AM SONNTAG: Your socialist coalition partner is also strictly against arms deliveries to Ukraine. Your government almost collapsed over this issue.

Petkov: The compromise is that we repair defective military equipment from Ukraine in-house. For example tanks. These aren’t arms deliveries. But it makes a big difference whether a tank is operational or not. We can provide this important support because we use much of the same Soviet-held military technology as Ukraine. Of course we also support Kiev’s accession to the EU, for us as a nearby country this is a question of national security.

WELT AM SONNTAG: In your neighboring country, Turkey, President Erdogan is speaking out against Sweden and Finland joining NATO.

Petkov: The situation is complicated. Turkey helped us to realize gas supplies via Azerbaijan. Our position is clear: we support accession. The bigger we are, the stronger.

WELT AM SONNTAG: You have already visited the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Was he surprised that Bulgaria of all countries contacted him so quickly?

Petkov: No, we had already met before the war. He knew we had common interests.