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The perils of diplomacy: how a Christmas tree divided a nation

Christmas may be known as the season of love and kindness, but Bulgaria will remember Christmas 2018 as the season of division. A seemingly benign gift from Russia shed light on historical wounds and party politics as well as the surprising impact social media could have on bilateral diplomacy.

January 14, 2019 - Radosveta Vassileva - Articles and Commentary

The Christmas tree in question. Photo: Facebook profile of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Sofia.

On December 18th 2018, Russia donated a Christmas tree to Bulgaria for the second time. Like many other states, Russia is fond of using Christmas tree diplomacy to demonstrate friendship and goodwill. Nobody, however, expected that Bulgaria would quickly be divided into fierce Christmas tree critics and Christmas tree supporters on social media and in the streets of Sofia.

Social activists quickly identified the Christmas tree as Kremlin propaganda and organized protests next to the tree. Some were troubled that red stars were featured among the ornaments, reminding them of the USSR symbol. Others lamented that Russian Father Frost (Ded Moroz) and Snow Maiden (Snegourochka) lit up the tree instead of Santa Claus because “Ded Moroz died a long time ago.” Still others disapproved of the tree’s location – St Nedelya Square, which saw a horrifying terrorist attack orchestrated by Bulgaria’s communist party in 1925.

In parallel, supporters of Ukraine staged a flash mob. They decorated the tree with paper ships to raise awareness of the Ukrainian sailors currently kept in Russian captivity. In response, representatives of the Night Wolves, a Russian motorcycle club famous for their admiration of Vladimir Putin, “saved” the Christmas tree by removing the paper ships and then posted pictures on social media.

Some Christmas tree supporters lost their nerve. In a very emotional and not-so-refined Facebook post, the leader of the Revival party Kostadin Kostadinov, which is not represented in the national parliament, condemned the hysteria against the tree and referred to those who protested as “imbecile morons”. Established in 2014, this party is known for their anti-US and anti-EU sentiment. Klasa, a relatively unpopular media outlet, published this post as an article.

Holiday drama

Tension escalated when the Russian embassy in Bulgaria posted the article from Klasa on their Facebook page. Mainstream Bulgarian media drew attention to this “insult” to the Bulgarian nation, and many members of Bulgaria’s civil society were enraged. The Atlantic Council of Bulgaria, an organisation promoting North Atlantic values, demanded that Bulgaria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs take urgent action, but the ministry initially refused to intervene. After a social media storm, which was reported by mainstream outlets, the foreign affairs ministry informed the general public that it had contacted the Russian embassy in Bulgaria to explain that this Facebook post was straining bilateral relations between their two countries and was enhancing Russophobia. The embassy, nonetheless, did not delete the post. A bigger storm was in the making as both rival camps continued to fire.

In a Facebook post, former Bulgarian Ambassador to Moscow Ilian Vassilev recommended sending a formal notice to the Russian embassy to call for the removal of the post. “If the post is removed, the case ends. If, however, they do not remove it, the Russian attaché responsible for communications has to be recalled,” he underlined. Vassilev was also troubled by the size of the Russian tree as well as the fact that Bulgaria neither received a Christmas tree from NATO nor from the European Union.

Some anti-Kremlin journalists became “experts” in public international law overnight and asked that the Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria himself be recalled pursuant to Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations – a rather bold claim considering this provision, in principle, targets unacceptable activities such as espionage, terrorism, criminal conduct, etc. Radan Kanev, a former leader of a party that was current Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s coalition partner during his second governmental term, did not spare ad hominem and culturally insensitive comments. He implied the Russian Ambassador had put the infamous post on Facebook in a state of inebriation and blamed those celebrating Christmas on January 7th for “getting the mathematics wrong” and for using their “lack of mathematical literacy” as an excuse to drink from the date of the “real Christmas” until January 20th.

In turn, supporters of the tree argued that many public Christmas trees in Bulgaria are decorated with big stars. They also explained that the star ornaments, including the ones on the Russian tree, were all made in Bulgaria.

Christmas lessons

There are many lessons to be learned from Bulgaria’s Christmas tree controversy. From a historical perspective, one sees that wounds have not been healed – Bulgaria’s civil society has been divided into Russophiles and Russophobes since at least the 19th century. Russophiles pay homage to Russia as Bulgaria’s liberator because Bulgaria eventually regained its independence from the Ottoman Empire thanks to one of the Russo-Turkish Wars (1877–1878). Some of them are also nostalgic for communism. Russophobes, by contrast, associate Russia with the Soviet Union and remember the brutalities and humiliation associated with Bulgaria’s communist regime. They perceive Russia as an aggressor that wants to take advantage of Bulgaria.

It is also peculiar why the Russian embassy would show sympathy to the opinion of a relatively unknown politician and post it on their Facebook page. For years, Bulgaria has been plagued by rumours of Russian meddling in Bulgarian politics – should one read between the lines and see this as an endorsement?

Those interested in political science or sociology may be fascinated with the impact of social media on bilateral diplomacy. One single post on Facebook may ignite a conflict of unexpected proportions while a government may change its course of action just because of a social media storm. Is social media that powerful or has the tension between Russophobes and Russophiles in Bulgaria reached a tipping point in light of geopolitical imperatives?

Behind the tree

One may also dig deeper and consider who has an interest in putting fuel to a well-established fire, especially at Christmastime, when families gather and have a lot of time on their hands to discuss politics. In a prior article, I shed light on a classic strategy employed in Bulgaria: to induce a debate in order to deviate attention from more pressing issues. One may discern the same pattern here.

On December 18th 2018, the exact same day the “Russian” Christmas tree was donated, Magistrats Européens pour la Démocratie et les Libertés (MEDEL) announced they had sent a letter to the European Commission to raise concern about the lack of rule of law, rampant corruption, and pressure on the judiciary in Bulgaria. The organization also vehemently protested the conclusions in the latest 2018 report on the country under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism.

MEDEL, in essence, confirmed the fears of many. In 2018, Freedom House downgraded Bulgaria to a semi-consolidated democracy in its authoritative Nations in Transit report. In their latest Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International ranked Bulgaria as the most corrupt member of the European Union. Scholars have raised awareness of the pressures to which Bulgarian judges are traditionally subjected by the executive, as well as of Bulgaria’s slip into autocracy.

Unlike the “Russian” Christmas tree, MEDEL’s announcement did not receive much visibility or social media attention in Bulgaria. This seems unfortunate, for if one demands the revocation of an ambassador because they posted someone’s not-so-refined opinion on Facebook, it is only logical that one should ask for changes in the government, or even its resignation, following such a critical evaluation by a reputable organisation. Alternatively, could it be that a Christmas tree, albeit a gift from Russia, is more important than curtailing corruption in the country? Perhaps if Bulgarians were as vocal about the bigger challenges, many pressing issues could have been resolved by now.

Dr. Radosveta Vassileva teaches law at University College London. Her research interests encompass comparative public and private law and EU law. She maintains a personal blog dedicated to the rule of law in Bulgaria.

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