Bulgarians are voting Sunday in a parliamentary election that will determine whether the country continues to build a Russian gas pipeline that would give the Kremlin even more leverage over Europe's energy market — a project the European Union opposes. Here's a look at Bulgaria, the vote and the controversial pipeline:
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The Balkan country of over 7 million is very much divided in its loyalties. Bulgaria belongs to NATO and the 28-nation European Union, but many Bulgarians feel a strong kinship to Russia, and the country's extensive dependence on Russian oil and gas leaves it vulnerable to political meddling by the Kremlin.
Opinion surveys predict the biggest vote winner will be center-right GERB party led by a former prime minister, Boyko Borisov, who says he would only continue building Bulgaria's part of the South Stream pipeline if the EU approved. That's a sharp contrast with the Socialists, who want the project at any price.
Although Borisov's party is expected to win the most votes, polls show it will fall short of a majority, and the 55-year-old could face an uphill battle in building a coalition government.
WHAT ABOUT THAT PIPELINE?
The European Commission has pressured Bulgaria to withdraw from the South Stream project and the work has stalled. South Steam aimed to transport gas from Russia through the Black Sea to Bulgaria and then to several other European countries, including Serbia, Hungary and Austria. Moscow's hope was to bypass Ukraine, which is now a major transport route for Russian gas.
The EU opposes South Stream because Russia's Gazprom plans to both operate the pipeline and sell the gas transported through it — a violation of the bloc's anti-monopoly regulations.
Bulgarians have displayed overwhelming public support for the South Stream project, which is expected to bring jobs to the EU's poorest member.
SOCIAL UNREST SMOLDERS
First elected in a landslide victory in 2009, Borisov held power until 2013, when he resigned under the pressure of nationwide protests that turned violent at times. The protests were sparked by austerity measures, high electricity prices and allegations of corruption by officials.
But Tihomir Bezlov, an analyst with the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, says some people received money from GERB's political enemies to take part in the protests.
"Borisov believes that he lost power in 2013 because of the Russians and must be cautious," Bezlov said.
Borisov has promised better fiscal discipline, an improvement of the country's infrastructure and a better use of EU funds.
PLENTY OF CHALLENGES AHEAD
Bulgaria is struggling with corruption and a widespread disillusionment with the governing elite that is expected to result in a low turnout Sunday. A weak economic recovery is now also threatened by a Russian ban on European food imports and a major crisis in the country's fourth largest bank.
The Corporate Commercial Bank, or Corpbank, has been closed since it was hit by a run in June amid allegations of shady dealings by its managers, leaving about 200,000 depositors still unable to access their money. That has led to frequent street protests that factored into the July resignation of Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski's Socialist-led government.
A caretaker government in charge since then has not had the authority to tackle any of the major reforms Bulgaria needs in its judiciary, educational system or health care.
Political analyst Antonii Galabov expects more parties than the current four to enter parliament, which he said "reflects the deep fragmentation of Bulgarian society."
"The same faces are popping up on the TV screen, promising the same good things like last time. But life is getting harder, and now they even try to get hold of people's savings," said Donka Stamenova, a 53-year-old nurse who says she won't vote.
Associated Press Writer Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.