The downing of a Russian Su-24 warplane by the Turkish Air Force has caused a serious escalation of tensions between NATO and Russia, but it has also had some curious reverberations in Bulgaria. Here is the context.
In spite of the 45 years of Soviet-imposed Communism and notwithstanding the evidence of Russia's imperial role in the Balkans for at least a century before, many Bulgarians still view Russia as a friend. Their conviction, the result of Communist-era propaganda now boosted by the ongoing hybrid war in the media, is hard if not impossible to change. These people call themselves "Russophiles." They view everything that comes from Moscow as a blessing and they are suspicious of everything that makes its way into Bulgaria from the West, which they claim wants to corrupt "traditional" Bulgarian values such as Orthodox Christianity and tripe soup eating. The Russophiles have a political representation in the Bulgarian parliament spearheaded by the Volen Siderov-led Ataka, an extreme nationalist grouping that regularly produces Russian flags at its rallies.
However, Ataka is by far not alone in its pro-Kremlin sentiments. Many ordinary Bulgarians with little or no political affiliation continue to daydream of the "good old days," when Moscow was a friend, Washington was a foe, and Brussels was an obscure town somewhere in the west of Europe. Their convictions are based on the many years of Communist propaganda that represented the world in black-and-white terms as well as on their disenchantment and sometimes outright disgust with Bulgaria's uneasy transition to democracy post-1989.
Their arguments are both new and old. One example is history. In spite of the fact that the Ottoman occupation of what is now Bulgaria ended in 1878 and the Ottoman Empire itself collapsed after the Great War, the Russophiles still view the Republic of Turkey as a major threat to Bulgaria's sovereignty, culture, religion, heritage and so on and so forth. We may be friends with Turkey within NATO now, they reason, but if Turkey comes on to enslave us again, it will be Russia that will jump to the rescue.
Apparently, this kind of thinking has nothing to do with reality as obviously neither Turkey is poised to invade Bulgaria, nor Russia seems particularly interested in sending in any troops to help fellow Orthodox Christians. However, like any kind of twisted nationalism masquerading as "love for your own country," Bulgaria's love affair with Russia is impossible to change with common sense down-to-earth arguments. A love affair is just that: it is a peculiar state of mind that desists common sense and that, translated into political language, can make a large group of people highly malleable in the hands of unscrupulous politicians.
Bulgaria's Russophiles are opposed by this country's Russophobes, yet another odd local phenomenon. The Russophobes reject everything that Russophiles stand for. Russia, as the heir of the Soviet Union, has always been an evil force that has had a disastrous impact on "little" Bulgaria. That impact is not limited to the Communist era or to the Tsar's imperial policies in the late 19th century. It goes back much further, to the time when the Russians usurped Bulgaria's alphabet and adopted it as its own.
Because we are in the Balkans, a dialogue between the two groups is all but impossible. They are engaged in a war of words compared to which the rhetoric of Putin against Erdogan pales.
The problem is further exacerbated by the sorry state of the Bulgarian media of the moment. Owing to problems dating back to the 2000s and earlier, media ownership remains at best nebulous, and media legislation is outdated or non-existent. The Internet proliferates with Bulgarian-language sites purporting to be media outlets that disseminate nothing but the usual mixture of a few truths, many half-truths and some outright lies. As these are constantly being shared on social media, the general public finds it increasingly difficult to draw its own conclusions and to critically assess what is being thrust down its digital throat.
The examples are many and extremely varied, but here are some samples directly related to the downing of the Russian warplane over Turkey. According to one report, the leader of a volunteer battalion calling itself Azov, which Kiev "uses" for "punitive action" in Ukraine's breakaway regions, has declared his readiness to go to Syria to fight against the Russians there. The same outlet carries a headline: "Five Russian Weapons Turkey Should Be Trembling With Fear Over." "Yemeni Rebels Continue To Destroy Saudi Arabia's Fleet," another headline cries. "Italy, Greece To Ease Visa Regulations for Russians," a site claims. Whether Italy or Greece, both Schengen members, do ease visa regulations for Russians is of little import to Bulgaria. What the real purpose of this piece of (mis)information is to show Bulgarians that they should be doing the same.
Against the background of all this, another site adds: "After 8-Hour Inferno Russians Liquidate Terrorists Who Killed Russian Pilot." Of course, the Russian plane was shot down by Erdogan's son who has "known links" to the IS.
No one is spared domestically. "Turko-US Reformist Bloc Declared War Against Russia," according to a site. According to another, China has affirmed that Turkey must understand "unequivocally" what it means to down Russian planes. "Historical Moment: Russia, France Unite in Fight Against Terrorism," reads the caption of a photograph of Vladimir Putin and Francois Hollande. A self-style "expert" then claims: "NATO did not back Turkey. Turkey failed even as a regional power." "Infernal War Coming On: All Bulgarians Must Return by 2015," concludes another "media outlet," citing of course... Vanga, the 20th century clairvoyant with known links to the Communist elite of the time.
To anyone with critical thinking this type of a "news" outpour is at least submental if not downright criminal – as it is highly incendiary. But critical thinking has never been a traditional Bulgarian "virtue." Inundated by the years of Communist-era propaganda in the past and constantly being fed news designed solely to divert the attention of the general public from what is really important has created an unthinking class of Bulgarians that believe in conspiracy theories more than ever and that are suspicious of anything that has to do with a level-headed debate and that even remotely smacks of Western-style liberal democracy. These people secretly admire both Putin and Erdogan, while voting for Boyko Borisov at home. These people want a strong-handed "statesmen" to clean up the mess for them.
And they are getting one. In his inimitable style, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov commented that Bulgaria should not "take sides" in the Russian-Turkish conflict. The prime minister, who likes to assert his pro-Western stance and capitalises on his good relations with Angela Merkel and David Cameron, preferred to back down on this occasion.
Many Bulgarians liked it. And the prime minister liked it as well as it gave him a breath of fresh air regarding the ongoing domestic scandal in which two senior members of the judiciary were taped discussing highly dubious and apparently illegal pressure allegedly exercised by him on Bulgarian justice. About that, he put it plainly: "I do not want to hear about it any more."
Instead of facing up to the problems of the present and to their commitments to NATO and the EU, many Bulgarians prefer to live in a comfortable but imaginary past where the Turks are "enslavers" and the Russians "liberators," and where tomatoes were cheap, health care was free and everyone got a four-week vacation. The downing of the Russian aircraft in Turkey is seen solely against this background.