KAZANLAK, Bulgaria – The Russian songs blared and men in red USSR and Putin T-shirts danced as 7,000 people gathered for a recent celebration of all things Russian. But this was not Russia, this was EU member Bulgaria.
The event served as a reminder that 25 years after Communism, ties between Bulgaria and Russia remain strong – both have the Orthodox Church, the Cyrillic alphabet and their languages are similar.
But it also brought home that whoever wins the general elections on October 5 has to walk a tightrope trying to keep happy both their gas-rich Slavic cousins in Moscow and Bulgaria's bankrollers in Brussels.
"I object to siding with the EU and the United States against our brothers, to impose sanctions against Russia," said pensioner Milanka Kaloyanova, as she attended the Russia-themed festival near the central town of Kazanlak.
"Why? We can only lose," the 72-year-old told Agence France-Presse.
"Most of the Bulgarian people love Russia," agreed history teacher Danail Dimitrov, 38. "The current attempts to oppose our two brotherly Slavic peoples are doomed to failure."
Russia liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in 1878 and after 1945 it was on the Moscow side of the Iron Curtain as its staunchest satellite.
Bulgarian products from pickles to electronics were sold throughout the Soviet bloc and many are nostalgic for the past.
Today Bulgaria depends on Russia for 85% of its gas, while its sole nuclear power plant runs on Russian fuel and its oil refinery is owned by Russia's Lukoil.
Russian tourists throng Bulgaria' Black Sea beaches in the summer and Russians are the main investors in property in the country.
One foot in the West
But the country of 7.4 million people has also taken a decisive Western turn, joining the NATO military alliance in 2004 and the European Union 3 years later.
Even though it remains the poorest country in the bloc, it has received 6.85 billion euros ($8.81 billion) in EU funds since 2007 and its goods and people have free access to the 27 other markets in the EU.
"Sofia has a somewhat paradoxical status: it belongs to the institutions of the democratic world – NATO and the EU – but Moscow has a total control of its energy and the Bulgarian oligarchy defends Russia's economic and strategic interests," political analyst Ognyan Minchev said.
The crisis in relations between the West and Russia over Ukraine has made life suddenly much trickier for Sofia's government.
Western pressure was plain to see in June when outgoing Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski – flanked by two visiting US senators – announced that construction of Bulgaria's section of South Stream, a new Russian pipeline bypassing Ukraine, was suspended.
A month later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Sofia. Oresharski promptly changed tack and said he hoped Brussels would accept "the very good arguments" in favor of South Stream's Bulgarian section.
Forty percent of Bulgarians strongly oppose the Western sanctions imposed on Russia over the crisis in Ukraine and only 13% backed them, a recent poll showed.
The upcoming snap election comes only 17 months after the previous government of the right-wing Boyko Borisov was ousted by nationwide protests by people fed up with dire poverty and rampant cronyism.
After a bumpy interregnum by the Socialists, and with no noticeable improvement – 69% of people describe the current situation as "unbearable" – polls predict Borisov will return as premier.
In addition, the outgoing government has warned that this winter, the possibility of problems with gas deliveries is "very high and we are bracing for a crisis".
Relations with Russia have as a result featured prominently in the election campaign, with the ultra-nationalist Ataka party and some members of the Socialists calling for stronger ties with Moscow.
Borisov meanwhile has repeatedly hailed German governance and Chancellor Angela Merkel as a role model.
Yet at the same time, he has said that the construction of South Stream could resume – with the EU's agreement – "as soon as October". – Rappler.com