Bulgarian establishment kowtows to
senior Russian clergyman. Why?
Issue 68, May 2012
by Anthony Georgieff; photography by BTA
Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time in Bulgaria will have identified two major aspects of life here. To begin with, few things, if any, are really what they seem. And next, despite all protestations, declarations and proclamations to the contrary, despite small gestures and acts performed by politicians of various hues designed to create the impression otherwise, Bulgaria remains staunchly in Russia's sphere of influence ‒ at least in spirit, if not in real politics.
The kind of red-carpet treatment given to visiting Russian patriarch Kiril, who was mobbed by all the top officials in Bulgaria including the president, the prime minister and the speaker of parliament, exceeded all expectations. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who looks his best when he is playing football on the outskirts of Sofia, rather than when he tries to fit into an evening suit to give a speech in front of some delegation, vied to be seeing kissing various parts of Kiril's attire, such as the cross hanging around his neck. So did gentle Rosen Plevneliev, the GERB president, and the seemingly no-nonsense Tsetska Tsacheva, the "iron lady" of the Bulgarian National Assembly, who usually has no trouble ordering various "strongmen" such as Ataka's Volen Siderov to shut up. At various masses, events, wreath-laying and so on, they were joined by a bunch of current and former top brass as varied as former Socialist President Georgi Parvanov and former Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Bulgaria is officially a secular state, but since the fall of Communism Eastern Orthodoxy, the traditional faith of most ethnic Bulgarians, has been increasingly used by all who happen to be in power to assert some kind of national consciousness. There is a sense of belonging to some fictitious "Slavonic" brotherhood, where the Orthodox Russians, and not for example the Catholic Poles (also ethnic Slavs) or the Orthodox but not ethnic Slav Greeks, hold the winning hand. Orthodox priests are official guests at every public event, large and small, in Bulgaria, including military parades and the opening of shopping malls. The dignitaries who conduct these events have little or no trouble associating themselves with the Orthodox Church, regardless of the fact that Bulgaria is a multiethnic and multicultural society, with a significant number of Muslims and other non-Orthodox minorities, as well as non-believers. Hardly any of these can like to see the leaders they have elected favouring one religion over another.
The Orthodox religion is freely used to promote "archaeological finds" such as the recent discovery of some bones and teeth said to belong to St John the Baptist, and the government has no trouble allocating funds to sponsor anything clerical, from church building to the maintenance of ecclesiastical sites.
Not even the recent revelation that the overwhelming majority of Bulgaria's senior clergy used to be agents of the Communist-era secret police ‒ and thus served an authority other than God ‒ did anything to disturb the church-attending and relic-kissing political elite.
So far, so good. But why would the Bulgarian prime minister, a supposedly down-to-earth man who knows that opening more motorways will secure him another term in office, want to be seen kissing the hands of a foreign clergyman? Isn't the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, whose hierarchy has, since the 19th Century, reported to no higher authority, supposed to be independent? Was this just a show to appease the traditionally Russia-loving Bulgarian leftists over recent political decisions, such as the one to discontinue the Belene Nuclear Power Plant project, seen by the public as an economic blow to Russian interests in Bulgaria?
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers