The war that brought back the eternal Bulgarian dispute
The war in Ukraine for Bulgarian society is what Donald Trump was for the United States and Brexit for the United Kingdom – a quake that divided society. Bulgaria became a member of the European Union in 2007, but never managed to part with two definitions of itself. One is that it is the poorest and most corrupt country in the EU, and the other is that it was the most loyal satellite of the Soviet Union. These labels continue to influence Sofia’s policy and largely explain the political changes in the country since the beginning of the Russian invasion.
Last year was a time of unprecedented political instability after 12 years of governments controlled by Boyko Borissov and his GERB party. Severe accusations of corruption, a lack of reforms and a lagging standard of living have managed to unite parties that have never even entertained the idea of working together. The anti-Borissov coalition includes liberals, former communists, the most aggressive anti-communists and a populist party founded by former TV star Slavi Trifonov (the Bulgarian version of Beppe Grillo).
In December, the parliament elected a government made up of this strange quadruple coalition. Its goals included judicial reform, the fight against corruption and the removal of Borissov’s legacy from various institutions. On February 24th, Putin put an end to all this. The war in Ukraine brought Bulgarian politics back to its late 19th century roots – the conflict between Russophiles and Russophobes. This was the dominant reality of the Bulgarian transition from totalitarianism to democracy in the early 1990s, when the country actually had a two-party model – the anti-communist right and the pro-Russian left.
“Bulgarians have the wisdom of troubled wisdom. We live peacefully with this rift between philes and phobias. Bulgarian society is Russophile in its heart, but Europhile in its mind,” said political scientist Parvan Simeonov. In fact, most sociological research shows that Bulgarian society is divided into three almost equal parts. One part is made up of the extreme Russophiles who support the Kremlin, no matter what. The other part is the Russophobes, who are the core of the Euro-Atlantic parties. The third part consists of the people who support Bulgaria’s membership in the EU, have some doubts about NATO and generally have nothing against Russia.
The war in Ukraine changed this middle neutral part of Bulgarian society the most. These people have never been particularly impressed by the “abstract” goals of the rule of law, accept the convenience of everyday small-scale corruption and are most concerned about living standards and inflation. Many of these people before the war liked Putin because in Eastern Europe he had created the image of a strong politician who cared about the little man. After the start of the war, some neutral Bulgarians condemned the brutality of the Putin regime. However, others succumbed to the extremely active Kremlin propaganda on social media and supported the aggressors.
Sociologists have clearly sensed the radicalisation of society and the impact of online propaganda. The biggest winner is the extreme pro-Russian nationalist Kostadin Kostadinov and his Revival party. He managed to enter parliament by campaigning against the COVID-19 “green pass”. Kostadinov called COVID-19 a “little flu”. As a result, he easily cleared the electoral threshold and gained about five per cent of the vote. Once in parliament, he became a key representative of Eurosceptic circles in Bulgarian society, speaking out against the country’s membership in NATO and the EU. After the start of the war in Ukraine, which led to huge inflation, support for Kostadinov rose to 12 per cent. This is largely because he is the only political voice that strongly supports Russia’s position. In a new election, he would become an unavoidable political factor in Bulgaria.
The conflict gave birth to another new Eurosceptic party – former caretaker Prime Minister Stefan Yanev’s Bulgarian Rise. This party is working to attract more moderate Russophiles who find Kostadinov too radical.
However, the news about Bulgaria is not all bad. At the end of April, Gazprom stopped supplying gas to Bulgaria and Poland due to both countries’ refusal to open accounts in roubles. Two months later, the pro-European Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov showed that Bulgaria can pursue an energy policy independent from Moscow. The country has gas, although in April it imported 90 per cent of it from Russia. Its price even decreased compared to April due to the supply of American liquefied gas through a terminal in Greece.
Starting in July, Bulgaria will receive Azeri gas through a newly built interconnector with the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). The government is beginning to show that the Soviet Union’s most loyal satellite can now pursue an independent policy and that the Kremlin’s instruments of influence are not as strong as pro-Russian circles in the country claim.
Most importantly, the new government has not yet been involved in any major corruption scandals. There is also a chance that Bulgarians are currently too tired of elections, since they just had three votes over the past year. This gives the coalition time to work. The multi-party model and the unstable ruling coalition brought life back to the Bulgarian parliament. The country can rightly be called a parliamentary democracy once again. However, the most serious problem is that this freedom seems unsustainable, and a weak government will be seriously challenged amidst unprecedented international crises.
Author’s note: While this text was being prepared, Kiril Petkov’s government lost a majority in parliament and is on the verge of falling from power. One of the ruling coalition’s partners, the populist There Are Such a People party, announced he was leaving the country, justifying Petkov’s betrayal of Bulgaria’s national interests by promising to lift the veto of North Macedonia. If Bulgaria continues to block the European integration of Skopje and Tirana, it will fully serve the Kremlin’s interests in the region. Whatever happens to Petkov’s government, it is now clear that the next coalition in the country will be determined by the geopolitical orientation of the parties on the West-East axis.
Krassen Nikolov is a Bulgarian journalist based in Sofia.