After years of profits from conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East, the Bulgarian military-industrial complex is responsible for 2.4% of the country’s GDP in 2017.
The Bulgarian economy could pride itself for the results in 2017. The country has become the leading exporter of many goods. In fact, Bulgaria became the second largest exporter in the world of raw duck meat, duck liver, canned cherries, asbestos clothes and asbestos shoes – and this brought a revenue of $68 million. Bulgaria also exported sunflower seeds for over $400 million and anodic copper for over a billion dollars in 2017. As the neoliberal newspaper “Capital” properly points out, many of these goods could have been exported a century ago, but there is also no shortage of modern products that succeed in foreign markets. The interior and technical components of some of the most premium cars in the world are made in Bulgaria, bringing the economy about $585 million a year.
The attention paid by the public sphere to these successes contrasts with the relative silence that accompanies the rise of the military-industrial complex in the country, most of which is a legacy of the Cold War. Bulgarian arms exports grew 5.2 times in absolute terms over the past five years, reaching 1.22 billion euros. While in 2013 it was responsible for just 0.59% of GDP, in 2017 it reached 2.42%.
The sector’s recovery, fostered by a series of large-scale conflicts, particularly in the Middle East, has significantly changed the socio-economic picture in the mountainous areas near the military factories. The problem is that unlike duck meat, there is not always such big demand for military production, especially small arms – it depends on the specific situation and the state’s readiness to allow local weapons to come to the hottest points in the world, for example Syria or Yemen, through supplies to Saudi Arabia.
There are already indications that the cycle of upsurge is coming to an end and the economies of the small cities near the factories will not be the only ones dependent on the willingness of the factories to shift to other types of production.
At the moment, such a transition seems unlikely, as the sector underwent rapid development and in only five years Bulgarian military equipment spread almost everywhere in the world. The interactive map below shows each of the 110 countries that have received Bulgarian arms in the last 5 years, as well as their price in euro.
Hold the cursor over the dots to see the value of military equipment exports to a particular country over the past five years
As it can be seen, supplies are not evenly distributed: Central and South America, East Asia, and to some extent, Europe, do not rely on the services of the Bulgarian military-industrial complex. On the other hand, the regions which are south and southeast from Europe, where most of the continent’s refugees come from, are among the largest users of Bulgarian equipment.
We can assume that when the Yemen blockade is over the desperate population will begin to seek salvation in Europe. By then the Bulgarian political elites, who flooded Saudi Arabia with guns yesterday, will be among the first to ask tomorrow, “What are all these people looking for here? It’s probably all part of a plot!”
In the past year, only Saudi Arabia has received military equipment for more money than all totals exported in 2014.
In each of the past three years, arms exports to the Middle East and Afghanistan have exceeded 50% of total sales. This high share is mainly due to Iraq, who is a constant client of Bulgarian arms factories, and Saudi Arabia, to whom exports have grown sharply in recent years. We can assume that part of the arms that go to the United States, Turkey, and Russia are eventually ending up in conflict zones in the Middle East.
Although there were indications in early 2018 that exports were slowing down and the peak may have passed, we probably will not see a sharp decline. The value of the contracts issued over the last five years is 1.86 billion euros higher than the exports realized during the same period. Some of these contracts will not be realized, but many of them are probably secure orders, which are to be fulfilled.
The fact that at the end of 2017 a Bulgarian delegation headed by the prime minister Boyko Borissov made a visit to Saudi Arabia shows the willingness of the two countries to continue their trade partnership, which is almost entirely in arms orders.
During the visit, the opening of an embassy in the Islamic Kingdom was agreed upon and in August the Council of Ministers allocated 1.6 million levas for this purpose. At the same time, Riyadh expelled the Canadian ambassador for appealing to Ottawa to release detained human rights defenders. Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi embassy in Turkey in October prompted diplomatic pressure and the first serious criticism of the Saudi-backed war in Yemen. Germany even decided to temporarily freeze supplies to the Islamic Kingdom.
In such an environment, Bulgaria prefers to maintain its role as a predictable partner who sells military equipment without asking any questions. Besides the moral problems with such behavior, the country risks making the economic development of entire regions dependent on the escalation of violence in the Middle East, instead of encouraging factories (the largest of which are state-owned) to invest in a transition to civilian production.
As the parliamentary opposition criticizes the government only in the sense that the current government does not sufficiently support the military-industrial complex in years in which the the state of affairs allows even greater expansion, we can expect no political change in the sector.
Ivaylo Atanasov is a Bulgarian journalist, political analyst and teacher. He is one of the editors of the Baricada.org website. His research interests are focused on classical liberalism and political economy, French and German materialism, theory and history of science, etc. He is working on a dissertation exploring the origins of the power of English philosophers since the dawn of capitalism. He is a professional runner who has won a number of prestigious awards.