With exports estimated at $4.3 billion last year (about four billion euros), three times its previous high, Bulgaria’s expanding arms industry has never had it so good.
The oldest armaments manufacturer in the nation, Arsenal, which already employs 7,000 people in its Kazanlak facility, is trying to recruit workers by providing coastal vacations and other benefits.
Even Bulgarians who fled the nation of the Balkans in search of employment abroad have been tempted to return.
At the factory gates, one newly hired employee told AFP, “When they hired us, they claimed there were orders to keep us busy for at least five years.”
The woman did not disclose her name and said, “I have only been here a week myself, but I already have three new coworkers.
Although you might expect it to be shouting about its accomplishments from the rooftops, the business did not respond to AFP’s requests for an interview.
Because of its longstanding relations with Moscow, Bulgaria has generally refrained from sending weapons to Ukraine, but Kazanlak’s expanding output is primarily aimed there.
Instead, Romania and Poland, which are neighbors, are purchasing its weapons and ammunition before transferring it to Kyiv.
As the Soviet bloc fell apart in 1989, Kazanlak and the “Valley of the Roses,” also known for its rose oil, suffered greatly. But, in the 2010s, conflicts in the Middle East rekindled interest in their affordable and reliable weaponry, including the AR-M1, the “Bulgarian Kalashnikov” rifle.
According to Yordan Ignatov, deputy chair of the regional chamber of commerce, the improvement at Arsenal “benefits the whole town.”
He said that Kazanlak’s unemployment rate, which was half the national average, was the lowest in the nation last year after Sofia.
As well, investment is booming.
Real estate agent Teodor Tenev told AFP, “Anything built is acquired.
Bulgaria specializes in ammunition for Soviet-era weapons, which are the ones that Kyiv uses the most. Still, it wants to use European funding to modernize its aging production facilities to start producing NATO-standard shells and other ammunition.
And there was more good news on that front on Monday when the foreign ministers of the European Union agreed on a two billion euro plan that included equally purchasing artillery ammunition for Ukraine.
Sofia, which stands to gain significantly from the agreement, opted not to sign the joint declaration to avoid making a diplomatic faux pas.
The state-owned plant has a new production line for the 155 mm artillery shells that Ukraine’s army needs. Breton’s visit was not open to the media.
Furthermore, it didn’t prevent EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton from beginning a tour of European arms producers in Bulgaria last week.
Breton went to the largest arms manufacturer in the nation, VMZ, located in Sopot, up the road from Kazanlak.
Matter of politics
In Bulgaria, providing weapons to Ukraine is a very delicate subject.
As the nation prepares for its fifth election two years later this month, the Socialists, the former communist party’s successor, and the rapidly growing ultra-nationalists are adamantly opposed.
Only one shipment of small guns and ammunition to Kyiv has thus far been approved by Parliament.
Pro-European then-premier Kiril Petkov walked a fine line to try to aid Kyiv soon after the invasion started.
Indirect arms sales persisted even after Petkov’s brief cabinet was toppled in June last year.
Colonel Vladimir Milenski, a retired general in the Bulgarian army, regrets that his country has not overtly armed Kyiv.
Being a member of the EU and NATO family while acting in a way that does not further the aggressor, Russia’s goals ultimately amount to backing it.
On April 2, Bulgarians will vote in hasty parliamentary elections, with the conflict in Ukraine dominating the campaign.