Transforming HIV prevention in Europe

This article is part of POLITICO Telescope: The New AIDS Epidemic, an ongoing exploration of the disease today.

The world’s battle to end the HIV epidemic is being fought on two fronts. The first involves getting as many people as possible who are living with the virus diagnosed and rapidly onto antiretroviral medication. This reduces the virus inside their bodies to such a low level that it is undetectable and therefore cannot be passed to others. The approach is known as “undetectable = untransmittable” or “U=U*.”

The second front is focused on protecting people from contracting the virus in the first place, even if they have been exposed to it — an approach known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. Taken as prescribed, PrEP makes a person’s body almost entirely resistant to HIV infection.

There is a critical need to bring forward new PrEP options that are informed by and designed for the communities that could benefit from PrEP in Europe.

Jared Baeten MD, PhD, vice president for HIV clinical development at Gilead Sciences

PrEP comprises antiretroviral drugs that can be taken intermittently, around the time someone expects to be sexually active. They protect against the virus in two ways: by increasing the production of antibodies in the cells in the rectal or vaginal lining, making them less receptive to HIV in the first place, and by interfering with the ability of HIV to replicate in the body.

Nearly 5 million people around the world have taken PrEP at least once — including about 2.8 million in Europe — and it has been shown to reduce the incidence of HIV infection during sex by 99 percent. In the European Union, new HIV infections have fallen by about 45 percent since PrEP was licensed in 2016, although this decline is also partly due to U=U.

PrEP as part of combination prevention strategies

Missing doses or running out of PrEP can mean becoming susceptible to HIV again. I via Shutterstock

Today, PrEP comes primarily in the form of an oral tablet, which has the advantage of being cheap to produce and easy to store. But it is not a universal solution. Because it needs to be taken regularly while someone is sexually active, missing doses or running out can mean becoming susceptible to HIV again. What’s more, in the same way that some bacteria are developing resistance to antibiotics, the HIV that does enter the bodies of people who have paused or discontinued their use of PrEP has a greater chance of being resistant to subsequent antiretroviral medications they may then need.

PrEP taken in tablet form is also an issue for people who need to keep their use of PrEP private, perhaps from family members or partners. Having to take a pill once a day or two or three times a week is something that may be hard to hide from others. And some people, such as migrants, who may not be fully integrated with a country’s health care system, may find it hard to access regular supplies of daily medication. Limitations such as these have prompted the development of alternative, innovative ways for people to protect themselves that are more tailored to their needs and life situations. These include longer-acting drugs that can be injected.

Like existing oral medications, injectable PrEP works by preventing HIV from replicating in a person’s body, but its effect lasts much longer. In September, the EU approved the use of the first intramuscular injectable that can be given every two months. Gilead is, until 2027, running trials of another injectable option, which, once the required efficacy and safety have been demonstrated, could be administered subcutaneously just once every six months. This would be more convenient for many people and more adapted to the circumstances of certain populations, such as migrants, and may therefore lead to better adherence and health outcomes.

HIV continues to be a public health threat across Europe, where in 2022 more than 100,000 people were newly diagnosed with HIV.

Jared Baeten MD, PhD, vice president for HIV Clinical Development at Gilead Sciences

Further ahead — but still in the early stages of development and testing — are patches and implants, which would provide a continuous supply of antiretroviral drugs, and immunotherapies. Immunotherapies would comprise a broad spectrum of naturally produced or manufactured antibodies against HIV, which, in theory, would pre-arm their bodies to resist infection.

As more types of PrEP become available, we will see a greater awareness of its benefits, as more people are able to find the version of PrEP that best suits their living conditions and personal requirements. This is a fundamental principle of “combination prevention,” or innovative interventions that reflect the specific needs of the people they are trying to reach.

Preparing for the future

Despite clear scientific evidence of the benefits of PrEP, there are still some hurdles we need to overcome to make it a powerful tool to end HIV altogether. These include investments and funding in prevention and availability, and programs to combat stigma.

Although the EU licensed PrEP in 2016, availability varies across the bloc. In France, the U.K., Spain, Germany and, more recently, Italy, oral PrEP is available at no cost to those who would benefit from it. In Romania, although PrEP is included in the country’s new HIV National Strategy, it is not yet funded, and it is only available via non-governmental organizations that rely on external funding sources. And in Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria, PrEP is not state funded and there are no current plans to make it so. In many member states, even though PrEP is technically licensed, in practice it can be hard to get hold of, in particular for specific communities, such as women, migrants or trans people. Potential users may find it hard, for example, to access testing or even doctors who are willing to prescribe it.

Jared Baeten MD, PhD, vice president for HIV clinical development at Gilead Sciences

Another key challenge that health systems and providers face is communicating the importance of PrEP to those who would most benefit, and thereby increase uptake. Many respondents in multiple studies have indicated that they don’t feel HIV is something that affects them, or they have indicated that there is a general stigma in their communities associated with sexual health matters. And some groups that are already discriminated against, such as sex workers, people who inject drugs, and migrants, may be hesitant to engage with health care systems for fear of reprisals. Again, injectable PrEP could help reach such key populations as it will offer a more discreet way of accessing the preventive treatment.

“There is a critical need to bring forward new PrEP options that are informed by and designed for the communities that could benefit from PrEP in Europe,” says Jared Baeten MD, PhD, vice president for HIV clinical development at Gilead Sciences. “At Gilead, we are excited to engage with communities and broader stakeholders to inform our trials efforts and partner with them in our goal to develop person-centered innovations that can help end the HIV epidemic in Europe.”

Europe is leading the world’s efforts toward ending HIV, but, even in the bloc, PrEP usage and availability varies from country to country and demographic to demographic. If the region is to become the first to end the HIV epidemic entirely, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the governments of member states will need to lead the way in fighting stigma, promoting and prioritizing HIV prevention in all its aspects including innovation in therapeutics strengthening the financing and funding of healthcare systems, and establishing effective pathways to zero transmission to end HIV entirely.

“HIV continues to be a public health threat across Europe, where in 2022 more than 100,000 people were newly diagnosed with HIV,” says Baeten. “HIV prevention is critical and has the potential to change the trajectory of the epidemic, but stigma and other barriers limit the impact that PrEP medications can have on reducing HIV infections in Europe. We all have a responsibility to collaboratively partner to make this work.”

*U=U is true on two premises: taking HIV medicines as prescribed and getting to and staying undetectable for at least six months prevents transmitting HIV to partners through sex. Undetectable means that the virus cannot be measured by a viral load test (viral load <200 copies/mL)

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Blockaded on all fronts: Poland and Hungary threaten to cut Ukraine’s export route to the West

As Russia once again bombards and blockades Ukraine’s Black Sea ports — through which the country exports its vast agricultural produce — Poland and Hungary threaten to cut off the country’s western exit routes.

Poland will unilaterally block trade with Ukraine if the European Commission fails to extend temporary restrictions on grain imports at least until the end of the year, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a meeting of agriculture ministers from five Eastern EU countries in Warsaw on Wednesday.

“I want to make it clear,” Morawiecki told reporters, “we will not open our border. Either the European Commission will agree to jointly work out regulations that will extend this ban, or we will do it ourselves.”

Hungarian Agriculture Minister István Nagy echoed Morawiecki, saying his country would “protect Hungarian farmers with all its means.”

Days after killing a deal to allow Ukraine to export grain across the Black Sea, Moscow unleashed a wave of attacks on the Ukrainian ports of Odesa and Chornomorsk — two vital export facilities — damaging the infrastructure of global and Ukrainian traders and destroying 60,000 tons of grain.

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borell, called Russia’s escalating offensive “barbarian” on Thursday. “What we already know is that this is going to create a huge food crisis in the world,” he told reporters in Brussels, adding that EU countries needed to step up alternative export routes for Ukraine.

Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest exporters of corn, wheat and other grains. Following Russia’s invasion and blockade of its Black Sea ports last year, the EU set up land export routes through its territory.

In the year since, export corridors set up by the EU called ‘solidarity lanes’ have carried about 60 percent of Ukraine’s exports — mostly along the Danube to the Romanian port of Constanța. The remaining 40 percent has trickled through the country’s own ports under the now-defunct Black Sea Grain Initiative brokered by the U.N. and Turkey.

But the opening of the overland routes also led to an unprecedented influx of cheap Ukrainian grain into neighboring EU countries — Romania, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia — which was bought and resold by local traders instead of being exported further afield. The glut has put the solidarity of the bloc’s Eastern members with Ukraine in its war of defense sorely to the test.

With an election looming this fall, Poland sought to appease local farmers — a vital constituency for the right-wing government — by closing its border this spring to Ukrainian imports. Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria followed suit while Romania, which didn’t impose its own restrictions, joined the four in calling for restrictions at EU level.

In May, the five countries struck a deal with the Commission to drop their unilateral measures in exchange for €100 million in EU funding and assurances that Ukrainian shipments would only pass through the five countries on their way to other destinations. 

It’s these restrictions, which will expire on September 15, that the five countries want extended.

Other EU countries have criticized the Commission’s leniency towards the five Eastern troublemakers, saying the compromise undermined the integrity of the bloc’s internal market.

Open the borders

Borrell said that, instead of restricting trade, the EU should respond to Russia’s Black Sea escalation by opening its borders further.

“If the sea route is closed, we will have to increase the capacity of exporting Ukrainian grain through our ports, which means a bigger effort for the Ukrainian neighbors,” he said before a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

“They will have to contribute more, opening the borders and facilitating transport in order to take the grain of Ukraine from the Black Sea ports. This will require from Member States more engagement. We have done a lot, we have to do more.”

Separately on Thursday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called on the EU to make “maximum efforts” to facilitate grain exports from the country.

“While Russia destroys the Grain Initiative, attacks Ukrainian ports and tries to make money on rising food prices, Ukraine and the European Union should make maximum efforts to simplify food exports from Ukraine, particularly by increasing the capacity of alternative transport corridors ‘Solidarity Lanes’ as much as possible,” he said.

During Wednesday’s meeting in Warsaw, agriculture ministers from the five EU countries signed a declaration calling on Brussels to extend and expand the trade restrictions, amid concerns that Russia’s renewed Black Sea blockade could further pressure their domestic markets.

Only Poland and Hungary threatened to take unilateral action if the restrictions were lifted.


Despite the threat, a senior Commission official said on Thursday it was “premature” to say whether there was a need to extend the restrictions beyond the September 15 deadline.

In recent months, officials have stepped up surveillance and customs checks, and Romania and other countries have significantly increased investment in infrastructure and investment to facilitate the transit of grain through their countries and to other markets, the Commission official said.

But in the year since the land-based export routes were opened, Poland has taken no major steps to improve its own infrastructure or the capacity of its Baltic ports. Analysts say it is unlikely the country will be able to repeat the feat come this summer’s harvest. The Polish government has repeatedly blamed Brussels for not providing enough help.

Despite the ongoing trade dispute, officials in Kyiv have been careful not to openly criticize their counterparts in Warsaw.

That’s because Poland has played a leading role in supporting Ukraine since the war broke out, acting as the main transit point for Western weapons and sending plenty of its own. It has also taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees.

“We highly appreciate all the work done so far within the solidarity lanes by the European Commission and neighboring member states,” Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, Vsevolod Chentsov, told POLITICO.

Still, he added: “Statements by some member states of the need to extend the ban on the export of Ukrainian agrarian production [cause] serious concerns.” Without naming Poland he said that this “politicizes” the practical reality of what is a logistical challenge “jeopardizes the effectiveness of the solidarity lanes.”

Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting

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If Bulgaria’s anti-corruption fight fails, Moscow stands to gain

By Nicolas Tenzer, Non-resident senior fellow, CEPA

Bulgaria’s fight against corruption is the best way to combat the Kremlin’s operations in the country, which risks becoming one of Europe’s weak links alongside Hungary, Nicolas Tenzer writes.

Former Bulgarian PM Kiril Petkov recently presented an ambitious seven-point plan to his new coalition partner GERB, whose leader, Boyko Borissov, was in power for more than a decade.

The plan notably includes a roadmap for judicial reform and a warning that the country must urgently flush out Russian influence in its security services if Sofia hopes to succeed in cracking down on corruption.

Yet despite the bold plans, after less than a month, their ostensibly pro-Western coalition is already flirting with collapse — underscoring a perpetual instability which is hampering the long-awaited fight against graft.

Sixteen years after Bulgaria joined the European Union, it remains the bloc’s most corruption-ridden country, according to Transparency International. 

Despite Brussels’ repeated exhortations, Sofia has made little progress in establishing a fully independent judiciary and limiting the particularly extensive powers of the Bulgarian public prosecutor and his unparalleled near-total immunity.

While concerns about overreach by the Bulgarian prosecutor have percolated for years, they have reached a fever pitch in recent weeks as allegations of misconduct by the now-former prosecutor general have mounted. 

Ivan Geshev was finally dismissed by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) in mid-June, but amidst controversy over his successor Borislav Sarafov and reports that Geshev is embarking on a political career, it’s clear that more needs to be done to address the situation, especially given that failure to do so risks increasing Moscow’s influence in Bulgaria.

The prosecution finally went too far

The dismissal of Prosecutor General Geshev came as encouraging news after the long list of allegations against him, as accusations of protecting oligarchs and political allies had significantly increased in recent months. 

In January, Geshev ordered raids on the offices of the FinTech company Nexo, alleging financial improprieties. 

The reality, however, is likely far murkier, given that Nexo’s team were known to support the political opposition — expected to get a mandate to form a government just days after the raids took place.

On top of these suspicions of protecting corrupt officials and targeting private companies for political purposes, there have also been suggestions, denied by the prosecutor, that Geshev’s office has slowed down investigations into the explosions of ammunition depots in Bulgaria reportedly carried out by Russian military intelligence.

In early May, Geshev even allegedly escaped an assassination attempt against him after a bomb exploded near his car.

However, the inconsistencies in the official report of the highway blast kicked up significant speculation that Geshev had invented the supposed attack as a tactic to attract sympathy and hamper any attempt to reform the Judicial Prosecutor’s Office, a method straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook. He allegedly even let a series of false reports about the case run unchallenged.

To make matters worse, the alleged bomb attack prompted a smear campaign against investigative journalists in the country, with several OCCRP journalists targeted in particular–perhaps unsurprising given that Geshev and fellow prosecutors have launched abusive legal proceedings against investigative journalists (SLAPPs) for years. 

Notably, Geshev has repeatedly publicly accused journalists of conspiring with criminals and politicians of plotting against him.

Even after Geshev’s ouster, serious problems remain

The fact that Geshev is now preparing for a political career — he announced he had founded his own party, Justice for Bulgaria, this Wednesday, that is meant to target GERB’s and Borissov’s voters — suggests that he is unlikely to tone down his aggressive tactics and accusatory rhetoric. 

What’s more, the conditions under which he was dismissed as prosecutor general —essentially a political compromise decided by the SJC, a commission whose composition and independence are disputed — hardly suggest a serious commitment to genuine judicial reform.

Controversy immediately arose over the appointment of his successor, Borislav Sarafov, to the point where judges protested vigorously, with the Union of Judges questioning some of Sarafov’s decisions and his professional competence and calling for an open and transparent procedure.

Sarafov’s name also made waves amidst the investigation surrounding the Anti-Corruption Fund, notoriously dubbed the “Eight Dwarves” case. 

The saga saw a prominent Bulgarian businessman flee the country after exposing a scheme in which the prosecutor’s office apparently conspired to seize control of the flourishing elevator business Izamet. 

Astonishingly, no penalties or charges have been brought forth thus far, and Sarafov’s involvement remains unexplained.

Despite opposition from the Minister of Justice, Sarafov’s appointment was confirmed on 22 June, casting doubt on the Bulgarian judiciary’s competence to impartially crack down on corruption anytime soon.

The Kremlin stands to gain

A perpetuation of the status quo in Bulgaria — a flawed judiciary and endemic graft —leaves fertile ground for foreign interference, particularly from Russia. 

As Petkov recently noted, “Moscow uses corruption to maneuver their foreign policy.” 

Russian influence is already a major pain point in Sofia; Defense Minister Todor Tagarev recently expressed his extreme concern at Moscow’s increasing malign operations in his country.

These Russian actions are nothing new: as Bellingcat investigative journalist Christo Grozev revealed, Moscow operatives were already behind an attempted coup in Bulgaria in 2016.

The Kremlin may well have had a hand in certain policy decisions in Sofia, too — seen, for example, in the fact that the Bulgarian government was the only one in the EU not to condemn the attempted poisoning of the Skripals in the UK in 2018, or the government’s failure to implement any of the EU’s sanctions against Russian citizens or companies. 

Russian influence also appears to have been decisive in toppling Petkov, a fervent supporter of Ukraine and the fight against corruption, after just six months in office last year.

Bulgarian political life itself is ridden with Russian influence — whether in the form of openly pro-Kremlin parties or officially pro-EU parties nevertheless willing to form alliances with pro-Russian factions or Bulgarian President Rumen Radev’s relatively complacent line towards Putin’s regime. 

Many of these elements have seen their own power grow amidst Bulgaria’s instability — it’s hardly surprising, then, that the authorities show little eagerness to combat the manipulation of information on social networks and in parts of the press.

Moscow’s malign influence is not without results

These factors have concrete and worrying results: according to a December 2022 survey, only 46% of Bulgarians (sharply below an EU average of 88%) believe that the war against Ukraine is Russia’s responsibility. 

As Bulgaria’s liberal defence minister pushes for increased arms deliveries to Ukraine, it is feared that Russian disinformation and interference operations will multiply, playing on conciliatory views within the ruling coalition.

Bulgaria’s fight against corruption is not only an indispensable battle in and of itself but is the best way to combat the Kremlin’s operations in the country, which risks becoming one of Europe’s weak links alongside Hungary. 

The long-awaited reform of the judiciary, in particular a reassessment of the chief prosecutor’s role, will be a decisive signal in whether Sofia can genuinely combat graft. 

Both the EU and NATO should take a firmer, more determined stance in urging the motley coalition in power to move in this direction.

Nicolas Tenzer is a guest professor at Sciences Po Paris and a non-resident senior fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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Bulgarian election contenders present their case on Euronews

While the security of Europe is in deep crisis, Bulgaria goes to elections for the fifth time in two years. Joining us for this special Global Conversation, are the two leading contenders, Kiril Petkov and Bojko Borisov.

Interview: Kiril Petkov

Sergio Cantone: Mr Petkov, thank you for joining us. This is the fifth election in two years. What will you do if you become prime minister to avoid the sixth one? Because the instability of Bulgaria could be also a risk for the rest of the European Union and the Western flank of Europe in times of war.

Kiril Petkov: Yeah, thanks for the question. Five elections is way too much for any democratic country to go through. But at the same time, what I’m seeing now on the fifth election is something different. Unity started to form around the idea of a pro-European strong Bulgaria in a way that was not happening in the previous four. We don’t want Bulgaria to have another election. We want our fundamentals to be changed from a new judiciary system that’s actually fair and also to stop the corruption as well. We believe that actually having a clear, transparent, minority government is better than a murky coalition, where nobody knows who controls what.

Sergio Cantone: A minority government must negotiate with the opposition or with parties that are not members of the coalition. Step by step. Any single reform, any single law or any single measure…

Kiril Petkov: I think that most of the political parties do realise that change is coming, hopefully in this election, but they realise that change is coming. So, most people, I believe, in the GERB party, this time, recognize that one way to participate in the change is just waiting for some political forces, like ours, to take over the whole power and just completely change it, or to be part of the change and monitor the process. So, for example, for the chief prosecutor…

Sergio Cantone: The prosecutor is a big problem, as you said. But at the same time, do you think again that with few numbers in the parliament, you would be able to remove it, to remove this?

Kiril Petkov: So that’s a big question. So, we’ll do it in two steps. The first step is what’s required by the Recovery and Resilience plan. By the way, this condition was put by our government.

Sergio Cantone: I do remember it, yes

Kiril Petkov: It was not a requirement from the EU, but it says that the chief prosecutor should have judicial oversight. There should be a judge, random, that should actually investigate the chief prosecutor. That’s unheard of up to now, because right now, as the chief prosecutor says, only God is above me. Now, it cannot be god above him only, it’ll be a random judge that will point out his steps.

Sergio Cantone: That’s the basis of the rule of law…

Kiril Petkov: Exactly. And so, what we believe is that this first step will pass because €5 billion are tied to this reform. So, it would be very hard for a political party to explain why they don’t want to have this €5 billion for the Bulgarian citizens by not willing to do it.

Sergio Cantone: Could you tell us why there is this direct link between this centralization of the investigation by the chief prosecutor and the corruption system?

Kiril Petkov: There is no current control over the internal feeling of a prosecutor whether he should investigate or not. It’s a trial, an Internal trial in his own mind. And this we need to also put control of. But the bigger problem is that the chief prosecutor has control of every single prosecutor, and he can send them to the far borders of the country and say: “for the next four years go and investigate there”. So, therefore, no normal prosecutor with a normal incentive structure would like to start any investigation against any of the big corruption scandals.

Sergio Cantone: So, the country needs stability and needs reforms. Would you be ready to create the grand coalition with GERB and with Boyko Borisov in the name of these major challenges that must be taken on by Bulgaria?

Kiril Petkov: We’re willing to show a positive program that has many coinciding politics and say we want to move the country forward in the parliament where all these things need to be voted, not only with Borisov with all the MPs

Sergio Cantone: But you were ready to detain him some years ago and, for the reform of the judiciary also. And now you are asking them to cooperate with you for the reform of the judiciary?

Kiril Petkov: We want to have a free and fair judicial system. And that would allow Borisov to feel, I believe, more comfortable, because I personally feel that his biggest fear is that we want to change one versus the other. Now we’re saying let’s democratise the prosecution office, let’s have judicial oversight, let’s have so that everybody feels that there is real fair treatment. And by the way, while he’s doing this to be permanent, if he decides to have immunity.

Sergio Cantone: Bulgarian society and Bulgarian public opinion is extremely polarised between, say, pro-Russian sentiments and pro-Western sentiments orientations. What do you think?

Kiril Petkov: You see, when we entered into power, the sentiment was that over 60% of the people were Russian-loving people. That was what we saw in the polls. Today, because of what’s happening with the war, it’s only about 20 to 25, a full drop from the high 60s to the low 20s. And two things were related to this. First of all, people started to differentiate between Russia’s history and the current Putin regime. Second, which is more important, I noted that the Bulgarians were afraid that we could not survive without Russia. We thought, oh, we’re fully gas dependent. We’re fully oil dependent. So, there was an embedded fear. With Gazprom, we showed that Bulgaria can diversify, we’re not dependent on Gazprom with the 0%. So, this fear went away. And I believe that this is probably one of the biggest problems that our society has faced. I’m not saying pro-Russian or anti-Russian. I’m saying that there is no fear, no fear to take an independent position on important things. And what I also saw in various articles that came out that said Bulgaria was one of the first countries to help Ukraine. People felt a sense of pride, a pride that this time Bulgaria was on the right side of history, it was early on, and it was recognized.

Sergio Cantone: The president of the Republic (of Bulgaria) was not very happy about your decision to sell ammunition and weaponry to Ukraine.

Kiril Petkov: Very clearly. And I think everybody understood what we did because it was early on in the war. What we did is to work with U.S., UK, Romanian, and Polish partners. So, Bulgaria actually sold to the US and the UK the weapons. So, we did not take the direct risk early on to Ukraine. They provided these weapons for free to the Ukrainians and they have… And it was really a win-win. So, the Ukrainians got key weapons early on. We represented a very big part of them. The US was able to have a stable supply, and the UK, for this and the Bulgarian industry did really well at the same time. So that’s, for example, a specific case of a win-win and being on the right side of history without taking a specific direct risk.

Sergio Cantone: Yes, but again the president, Rumen Radev, is still against it…

Kiril Petkov: Yeah, he’s against it. And I think that his version of peace is not what the majority of the Bulgarians believe. His version of peace is, let’s say if somebody attacks Bulgaria and takes the territory all the way to Varna and says, let’s have peace, and more than that, let’s not get any support so that we have peace. That’s not peace for us. The attacking country should go back to where they started from and then we can have negotiations. Otherwise, it’s not peace. It’s really authorising occupation.

Sergio Cantone: At the same time, a Russian company, Lukoil, still owns officially the most important oil refinery in the country in Burgas. Uh, so there are still strong relationships with Russia, and interests, economic interests

Kiril Petkov: True, True. What we did for the specific interest of Bulgaria because we don’t have a second refinery. And even though the Black Sea is a sea, Bosphorus is a high-risk situation, because it can be stopped at any point and because the Russian equipment was created to run with the Russian oil, there need to be sizable shifts on the equipment in order to start working with the Brent oil. We were able to talk with our EU partners and get one and a half years of derogation to have the supply. So, this is what the Bulgarians are seeing now.

Interview: Boyko Borisov

So, according to Kiril Petkov, the key reform is the reform of justice, but what does his contender, Boyko Borisov, think about it?

Sergio Cantone: Mr Boyko Borisov, thank you for joining us. According to the European Union and not only the European Union, but the reform of justice is also the key reform to struggle effectively against corruption. Do you agree with that?

Boyko Borisov: Every system is continuously reformed to improve and face new challenges. Naturally, I agree.

Sergio Cantone: The centre of a reform of a justice system is the reform of a general prosecutor’s office. It means that the general prosecutor’s office should have less power because according to the Venice Commission, it’s still a Soviet model. Would you agree to drastically reduce the power of the general prosecutor?

Boyko Borisov: We have a very well-developed system of judicial reform in which the watchword is the institutions’ control over the prosecutor general. And this will be adopted in the next Parliament.

Sergio Cantone: So, basically you think that anyway the system must change because if you think that all these activities were related to corruption and were related to any kind of government, say you also think that the system is not working. I guess so. You think that the problem is, again, related to the system, to the judiciary system, isn’t it?

Boyko Borisov: That’s why there’s a national consensus now that the system needs to change.

Sergio Cantone: In the name of reforms, in the name of urgency, of the emergency of this moment with the war in Ukraine and so forth and so on and so forth. Do you think that it would be possible for you to make a grand coalition with the Kiril Petkov party “Continue the Change”.

Boyko Borisov: I don’t know if it can be formed, but I know that if it is formed very quickly, Bulgaria will get out of the political crisis very quickly. Thanks to the self-control of the parties within the coalition, many right and good things will be done for Bulgaria. This is from the National Statistical Institute of Bulgaria, the official institution. It says that in five months Bulgaria has become three times more economically dependent on Russia.

It’s in all these graphs. We’ve imported Russian goods worth nearly 5 billion levs or two and a half billion euros, an increase of 158%.

Sergio Cantone: What would you do to change these trends, which of course we have to check anyway?

Boyko Borisov: We’re just not going to let our rivals do this. We’re going to import oil other than Russian, as we’re already doing. Then we passed a law in the parliament to prevent the import of Russian oil.

Sergio Cantone: Where is this oil coming from? There’s plenty of oil in the world. It’s important it’s not Russian. I think Iraqi now. Moreover, we in Alexandroupolis know we’ve a 20% state ownership in the LNG terminal. Right now we’re working very hard for an oil pipeline from the Alexandroupolis refinery, that would make it even easier to refuel with non-Russian oil.

Sergio Cantone: But the refinery is still owned by Lukoil. Legally speaking.

Boyko Borisov: Yes, but the rules in a country are made by the state,

not by some company. My political party voted for 100% diversification

not only from Gazprom but also from Russian nuclear fuel for Kozloduy.

Sergio Cantone: Do you think you made some mistakes in the past from this point of view in maybe constructing too many ties with Russia for the gas supply?

Boyko Borisov: Sorry, I’m going to disagree with you. The man who stopped South Stream and the government that stopped it, was my government.

Sergio Cantone: So you were against it?

Boyko Borisov: Yes, of course, and that’s why I stopped it.

Sergio Cantone: Since the beginning?

Boyko Borisov: Back then Putin and Lavrov went to Ankara and Athens and drove it through Turkey and Greece. Do you remember? If we go back in time, the main flow that was supposed to come from Azerbaijan onwards was Nabucco, which went through Bulgaria – Nabucco West, the European Union cancelled Nabucco and ran the gas through Turkey and Greece, bypassing Bulgaria. And I disagreed.

Sergio Cantone: If I’m not wrong, Nabucco was from Turkmenistan, trans-Caspian.

Boyko Borisov: That’s how they are: Turkmenistan, Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan.

Sergio Cantone: But the source was Turkmenistan.

Boyko Borisov: As it can’t come out of Turkmenistan, we had the southern gas corridor, that used to be Nabucco West and was going to go through Bulgaria to Austria.

Sergio Cantone: Bulgaria still remains a strongly polarised country with public opinion divided between, say, a pro-Russian sentiment and a pro-Western sentiment. How would you win over the pro-Russian sentiment to vote for you?

Boyko Borisov: GERB is losing 10% of voters due to our pro-Ukrainian policy. Before the war in Ukraine began, we tried to have a balanced policy on the Balkans. From the moment Putin attacked Ukraine, we had no sentiment and no change in position. Putin is the aggressor, not the Russian people and Putin must be stopped. This is a big difference. Sentiment is sentiment, but the moment they attacked the innocent Ukrainian people, we have no hesitation whatsoever. And who believes me? There are hundreds of thousands of GERB people behind me.

Sergio Cantone: when Russia says that what’s happening in Ukraine is an existential threat to its very existence, is that because we are ready to escalate, to escalate the conflict towards say as many people are saying, a third world war? Or do you think it’s a bluff?

Boyko Borisov: Whether it’s a bluff I don’t know. For the last two years,

President Putin has behaved like a different person. The West, of which I am part, should not allow this to happen. Of course, all diplomatic means must also be used to stop this bloodshed. People are dying there.

Sergio Cantone: Do you think that Bulgaria is threatened by this war? Directly threatened? There is a risk of a real conflict for your country or not.

Boyko Borisov: Bulgaria is a member of NATO and there is article 5.

Sergio Cantone: I know. But at the same time, if we look at other countries that are covered by Article 5, by NATO, like the Baltic countries, Poland, they feel particularly threatened by the risk of extension of the conflict. I’m just asking if you share their point of view to be among the most threatened countries of NATO.

Boyko Borisov: Of course, the risk exists. But if we don’t take the risk, it would mean allowing Putin to come to Bulgaria, to Poland tomorrow. That is why all the laws we’ve passed are for full diversification away from Russia in the energy sector, armaments and everything.

Sergio Cantone: These are the fifth elections in two years. So a source of instability. What would you do in order to avoid a sixth one in the next months? And especially, do you think you will be prime minister or not?

Boyko Borisov: The respect our enemies have for me is clear. Enemies from abroad. Enemies in this case, however, are irrelevant. I’ve been three times prime minister, but I hope that after the elections on Sunday, with the political leaders who are claiming to look like Euro-Atlantic supporters, even if they lie a little bit, we can form a government together.

Sergio Cantone: Now the economy. The economy. Because rule in a country is about the economy, especially in emergency situations. What is the state of the Bulgarian economy? Because the GDP was expected to grow more than it is actually doing.

Boyko Borisov: The Bulgarian National Bank says that there’s a huge debt, 90 billion levs. That’s 45 billion and something euros of foreign debt right now. In one year it has risen by 10%. When I was Prime Minister, along with Estonia, we held the record for the lowest foreign debt.

Sergio Cantone: How about the euro? Do you think that the country will be ready soon, to adopt the euro or not?

Boyko Borisov: When I was ruling the country, we entered the European Banking Union and the euro area waiting room. Others have to think. I am a man of action. We would already be in the euro area, along with Croatia.

Sergio Cantone: Anyway, even with these figures, you will soon recover. So basically and be able to adopt the euro.

Boyko Borisov: I’ve brought the country into the waiting room of the euro area and the European Banking Union. If I get the chance, I’ll bring the country into the euro area as well. Two years ago, we had all the technical criteria covered. Two years on – there’s chaos.

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