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The Schengen Area is one of the European Union’s most popular innovations: A travel zone where citizens of 26 nations can cross each other’s borders without passports. It was a big deal, then, when the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, recently announced that the EU members Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania were ready to join the Schengen Area.

The three former communist countries had proven they were ready to adopt border rules common to all area members, manage their borders according to proper standards, share security info and demonstrate good cooperation between police agencies, Euronews wrote.

The commission issued its announcement despite opposition from Dutch and other EU leaders who don’t want to make it easier for citizens from the three relatively poor East European countries to migrate to the affluent West, EUObserver added.

For Bulgaria, located along one of the great European east-and-west crossroads, the announcement was especially significant because it demonstrated a real move forward in European integration, the country’s greatest diplomatic priority for more than 20 years. The hurdles that remained to access the Schengen Area were a reminder, however, of how far the country had to go to shed its communist past and the criminal bosses who assumed power after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Power struggles between former communists, crime bosses and their cronies, pro-democracy politicians, and pro-capitalist politicians have dominated Bulgaria’s politics for years, explained Bulgarian political scientist Dimitar Bechev in Politico. Recently, no single group has been able to secure and sustain power. In elections in October, the fourth held since April 2021, the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria political party (GERB) won a quarter of the vote – but they are still negotiating with other parties to form a coalition, wrote Balkan Insight.

GERB leader Boyko Borissov, a former prime minister, has ruled out running for the job again. As Miami University of Ohio professor of political science Venelin Ganev wrote for the NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, however, Borissov has threatened to undo reforms launched by the previous prime minister, Kiril Petkov, including reducing Bulgaria’s dependence on Russian energy.

Bulgaria is traditionally a Russian ally. Now a NATO member, however, it has suffered an energy crunch for refusing to pay Russia for energy in rubles, Reuters noted. Bulgaria has also welcomed Ukrainian migrants, SEE News wrote. It is starting to send military aid to Ukraine, too, Euractiv reported, over the objections of President Rumen Radev, a former socialist who has shown a tendency to sympathize with Russia, as the Modern War Institute at West Point concluded.

The country teeters on the edge of east and west in Europe as Russia, an aggressive nation ruled by oligarchs, hopes to make that continental division as stark as ever.

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