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Ukraine war exposes the Kremlin’s lingering reach in Bulgaria

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SOFIA — “Let us not stand divided. It’s time to say: Bulgaria is united,” Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told a crowd gathered at the Shipka monument on March 3, when Bulgarians mark the end of the centuries-long Ottoman rule. In response, a group of pro-Russian sympathizers and far-right supporters, some of them waving Russian flags and chanting “Russia,” booed his call for unity and even hurled snowballs at him.

The monument is located in a scenic mountain pass, a historic battleground during the Russo-Turkish War where the Russian army, aided by Bulgarian volunteers, repelled a major attack by the Ottomans in the summer of 1877. Despite calls to boycott the holiday in solidarity with Ukraine, because it is often seen as a commemoration of close ties between Moscow and Sofia, Petkov still made the hike to the peak, only to be greeted with snowballs.

The pelting was to be expected.

For years, Bulgaria has played a cautious double act, trying to balance itself between East and West and not anger Moscow. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 united Europe in condemning the war, the conflict has exacerbated old divisions within Bulgarian politics and society.

Only days into the fighting in Ukraine, Petkov had to fire his defense minister — a former brigadier general — who parroted President Vladimir Putin’s description of the conflict as an “operation” rather than a “war,” and suggested that Bulgaria should stay neutral, even though it is a NATO member. Although Petkov came to power in December pledging to chart a more westward trajectory, he still has to govern in a coalition with the Socialist party — the successors to the former Moscow-linked Communists — who shy away from sanctioning Putin.

If this weren’t all problematic enough for the new leader, Bulgaria is also awash with pro-Russian disinformation that pins the blame for the invasion of Ukraine on the United States. In handling relations with Russia, and also his own public, Petkov is negotiating a labyrinth.

Ties between Russia and Bulgaria — a member of both the EU and NATO — run deep, with the countries sharing historic, religious, and cultural ties. During Communism, Bulgaria’s ultra-close alliance with Moscow led to it being nicknamed the “sixteenth republic” of the Soviet Union. Even after the fall of the Iron Curtain, many people with links to the old order and its secret services continued to be part of Bulgaria’s political establishment. Widespread high-ranking corruption and oligarchic ties to the government allowed Moscow to further exploit those links.

Because of Russian clout in Bulgaria, some see the Balkan country as Moscow’s Trojan Horse in the EU. “The level of Russian influence in Bulgaria is unparalleled and makes the country quite vulnerable,” said Ruslan Stefanov, a program director at the Sofia-based Center for the Study of Democracy. “The conflict brought these old divisions to the front line.”

Parties from across the political spectrum tend to tip-toe around topics related to Russia and don’t do anything which might anger the Kremlin.

The country’s former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who dominated Bulgarian politics for most of the past decade, mastered the art of treading the tightrope between loyalties to the EU and NATO on the one hand, while maintaining friendly relations with Putin on the other. In 2010, when Putin visited Sofia, he not only sealed a gas deal — later suspended — but left the country with a two-month-old puppy, which would grow into a massive Karakachan shepherd dog, a special gift from Borissov.

Energy has long proved to be a key point of Russian leverage, and Petkov is insisting that any further sanctions imposed against Russia over Ukraine would have to grant Bulgaria an exemption over restrictions on oil and gas purchases. Western diplomats have long complained that Russian energy giants like Lukoil and Gazprom exercise too much sway in Bulgaria and prevented real diversification. Sofia was, for example, accused over many years of dragging its feet on the construction of a gas interconnector on the Greek border that would allow southeastern Europe to break dependence on Russia and pipe in supplies across Turkey from Azerbaijan, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Red lines on Red Square

The Ukraine war has given Petkov immediate fires to extinguish.

A few days prior to the theatrical display of Russian support at Shipka, Petkov dismissed Defense Minister Stefan Yanev after he made his controversial statements about the assault on Ukraine. Yanev’s remarks caused outrage on social media and led to calls for his resignation, but this wasn’t the first time his remarks sparked controversy. Last year he spoke against stationing NATO troops in Bulgaria and, in January, advised Bulgarians not to read the foreign media’s coverage about the growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine leading up to the invasion.

While Petkov publicly condemned the war, he found himself in an uncomfortable position over his Socialist allies.

Internal coalition squabbles also erupted shortly after Putin launched his assault on Ukraine on February 24. In Sofia, the parliament moved to approve a declaration condemning the war. After hours of debates the Socialists did not support the part of the declaration referring to sanctions. The only other party which did not sign the declaration was Revival, a far-right party and currently one of the most vocal Kremlin supporters. It’s not surprising that Kostadin Kostadinov, the party’s leader, is nicknamed Kopeckin, after the Russian coin.

“What we see now is straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook,” said Stefanov. “Russia has become an uncrossable red line for the ruling coalition.” In 2016, Stefanov’s think-thank published a study, called The Kremlin Playbook, which detained the scope of Russian influence in the country, estimating that Moscow-linked investment made up more than 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

While tensions in the ruling coalition are running high, political observers do not expect any serious turbulence for the cabinet.

“I don’t think the Socialists would take this to extremes, though,” said Dimitar Bechev, a lecturer at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies. “They are well aware that another election might further shrink their support.”

On Friday, Bulgaria along with Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia expelled a total of 20 Russian diplomats. In the meantime, the Russian ambassador to Sofia warned the cabinet not to send any military aid, amid a rapid souring of relations between the embassy and Bulgarian authorities.

This question of military aid puts Petkov in a bind: Sofia’s basic position is that it will give humanitarian aid but not weapons to Kyiv. Still, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin joined Petkov on Saturday to announce the formation of a multinational battlegroup of up to 1,000 NATO troops in Bulgaria.

President Rumen Radev, a former air force commander, initially nominated by the Socialists when he took over in 2017, also appears to be sticking to the “keep your head down” approach when it comes to Russia. Unlike Yanev, Radev’s pick for a caretaker prime minister last year, the president did not shirk from calling the Russian attack on Ukraine a war. He was also quick to condemn it.

However, since the invasion on February 24, he has been choosing his words about the conflict carefully, and often resorting to ambiguous rhetoric. He expressed worries about the impact sanctions against Russia might have on the Bulgarian economy, a talking point often repeated by the Socialists.

“Radev is a good barometer of public attitudes,” said Bechev. “He has managed to find the middle ground between expressing some criticism but without antagonizing his pro-Russian supporters.”

Radev, who was reelected for a second term last November, found himself in hot water last year when during an election debate in November he referred to Crimea as “Russian,” a remark that some analysts saw as an attempt to appeal to pro-Russian voters. His comment sparked criticism and forced his office to release several statements declaring that the annexation of Crimea was “in violation of international law.”

Petkov strongly condemned Russia’s invasion but still needs to make some concessions to coalition allies. Bulgaria quickly closed the sky for Russian planes but is hesitant to allow NATO troops on its territory, as others did. Sofia offered Kyiv humanitarian aid but not weapons.

Falling from favor

The outrage sparked by the war has also emboldened some progressive and pro-Western voices to renew demands to remove communist-era monuments with links to Russia.

Some called for the relocation of the monument to the Soviet Army, a landmark in the heart of Sofia, erected to mark the liberation of Sofia by the Soviet army during World War II. Several prominent public figures even protested the status of March 3 as a national holiday and suggested replacing it with another important date in Bulgarian history.

“Designating March 3 as a national holiday is a disgrace to our national identity,” said Ivaylo Ditchev, a Bulgarian culture anthropologist, in an open letter to the government.

However, many Bulgarians tend to see Russia very favorably — indeed Bulgaria’s the country where Moscow gets the highest approval ratings — 73 percent, according to a 2019 Pew Research poll. Bechev describes “ordinary Bulgarians who support the EU, drive a Volkswagen, but have a favorable view of Russia.”

Plamen Staikov, a 49-year-old electrician from Sofia, said he was not necessarily a “fan of Putin” but admires the pro-Kremlin Revival party. He is convinced the United States provoked the war in Ukraine. “After two years of the so-called pandemic – what is the best way to make money — to sell weapons,” he said. 

Staikov does not approve of Bulgaria’s decision to support EU’s sanctions against Russia and fears repercussions from Moscow.

“This cabinet is forcing us into a war,” he said. “They are foreign mercenaries. Who are we to impose sanctions against Russia? They have their right to defend themselves,” he said. “When they cut the gas and the oil, what are we going to do?”

On social media, divisions are running deep and emotions are high. Next to profile pictures adorned with the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag, many Russian trolls are rooting for Putin and echoing the Kremlin’s talking points on a war which they describe as a “special military operation” or conspiracy theories that the conflict has been provoked by the United States or that Washington has aided Kyiv in development of biological weapons.

Bulgaria has been a fertile testing ground for Russian propaganda and conspiracy theories for years.

“We have experienced the brunt of Russian propaganda for a long time. So there is a solid base where conspiracy theories about the war are now flourishing,” said Stefanov. “The worst part is that many Bulgarians consume the disinformation without even questioning it.”

Still, experts predict that the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine could force moderate pro-Russian sympathizers to reconsider their loyalties. A recent poll, conducted by the Sofia-based agency Alpha Research, shows that only four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the approval of Putin dropped to 32 percent, compared to 55 in July 2021.

Boriana Dimitrova, the agency’s managing partner, said that Putin’s popularity in Bulgaria would take a serious blow. “Bulgarians see Putin as a brave, strong, decisive leader who is ready to challenge the West and the United States as a world power,” said Dimitrova. “But with the invasion of Ukraine was a direct attack on Europe and many would see this as a threat.”

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