July 22, 2024

(Bloomberg) — Bulgaria accused Russia of boosting euroskeptic sentiment aimed at blocking the country’s deeper integration in the European Union and adopting the bloc’s single currency.

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Fake news websites, coordinated attacks and political parties with “very close ties to Russia” are bent on undermining trust in the euro in a campaign that peaked over the summer, Finance Minister Assen Vassilev said in an interview late Wednesday. He added that the country would stick to its plan to swap currencies by 2025.

“We’ve seen the fake news, we’ve seen the Russian propaganda,” Vassilev said. “Russia would try to stop further European integration in general and try to destabilize any efforts in that direction by any country.”

The government in the EU’s poorest member wants to adopt the euro to boost living standards and deepen its role in the bloc’s decision-making process after meeting most of the formal requirements for years. But Russia’s war in Ukraine and Europe’s energy crisis helped trigger a spike in inflation — temporarily knocking it off the path of fulfilling criteria for entry — and fueled fears the single currency may drive prices higher.

The euro has also been a target by pro-Russian, populist and far-right parties, which have been gaining support across Eastern Europe.

Bulgaria’s pro-Russian Revival party, which supports Kremlin talking points and wants the Balkan state to leave NATO, launched a campaign against adoption this year and gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures in support of a referendum on the topic, which parliament rejected. Revival has also organized protests against the euro, where party supporters wave Russian flags and chant anti-western slogans.

Last week, Bulgaria expelled one Russian and two Belarussian priests on suspicions of espionage, temporarily closing the Russian church in Sofia. In response, the Bulgarian ambassador to Moscow was summoned. The move follows the unprecedented expulsion of as many as 70 diplomats last year by the previous government in which Vassilev was finance minister. Russia has denied trying to influence Bulgarian affairs.

Multiple studies have shown Bulgaria as one of the EU’s most vulnerable members when it comes to Moscow’s influence, a situation backed by long-lasting cultural and economic ties between the two countries.

Still, Bulgaria’s lev currency is already pegged to the euro under a currency board and monetary policy closely tracks that set by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.

And the mood is changing, according to Vassilev. Inflation is easing, and his government, which took office in June, is backed by a large pro-euro coalition of former rivals that united to end a years-long political crisis.

“Even though there is probably more pro-Russian sentiment and much more Russian propaganda here, Bulgarians are sensible enough to know where their interest lies,” he said. “People start seeing the benefits of not only being tied to the euro through the currency board that we have, but actually have the euro.”

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