BETWEEN THE FRYING PAN AND THE FIRE

by Anthony Georgieff

Will Bulgaria become more pro-Russian after general election?

Тhe overwhelming majority of Bulgarians who will go to the polls in June to elect their next National Assembly will do so with one all-pervasive sentiment. Disgust. They are disgusted at the incompetence and hypocrisy of the former rulers, the markedly pro-Western, liberal grouping of the CC-DB, or Changes Continued-Democratic Bulgaria. They are disgusted by the Monkey-See-Monkey-Do mentality of their pious followers, who like to introduce themselves as "smart and beautiful" intellectuals. First and foremost they are disgusted by the complete lack of principle manifested by the CC, led by Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev, who set up their party to discern themselves from the older and bigger DB, but conformably allied with it to garner more votes. Then they entered another unholy alliance with the people they had said were their chief opponents, Boyko Borisov's GERB. Even worse, they palled up with Delyan Peevski, the Magnitsky Act-sanctioned co-leader of the DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms, whom they demonise as the epitome of all corruption in Bulgaria. Of course Kiril Petkov, Asen Vasilev, Hristo Ivanov and General Atanas Atanasov have an explanation why they were doing what they were doing while they were in power. It revolves mainly around the CC-DB's declared determination to prevent President Rumen Radev, who they claim is pro-Russian, from being able to "rule the country" through the caretaker governments he has the Constitutional obligation to appoint when the "regular" governments of the CC, DB, GERB and so on failed. It may be a valid point for their retinue of religious followers, but the bad taste ordinary Bulgarians get in their mouths is that the CC-DB are no better than the GERB and the DPS they say they oppose.

Bulgarians are also disgusted by the whole political system as such. Perhaps the biggest crime committed by all politicians and political parties since the Bulgarian version of Communism collapsed 35 years ago is that politicians of all shades and hues have failed to deliver. Worse, they have failed to convince voters that Western-style liberal democracy has no alternative in the modern wold. At least partially this explains not only the current sentiment of disgust, which usually translates in the Bulgarian voting-with-your-feet phenomenon (lowest turnout in Europe), but also the relative popularity of extremist groupings such as Vazrazhdane, or Revival, led by Kostadin "Kostya Kopeykin" Kostadinov, who is openly pro-Russian (read pro-Putin) and anti-Western.

As the election campaign drags on, none of the players taking part in it make any meaningful noises about the economy, about inflation, about the deepening social divide – about any of the issues general elections are usually contested over in the developed democracies. Consequently, many voters who will bother to turn out to cast their ballots, will think of "geopolitical" issues such as whether Bulgaria should be more friendly to Putin or should it toe more firmly whatever lines the West draws. Or, to put it bluntly, Bulgarians quarrel who to make friends with rather than what to put on their tables.

One of the more egregious examples of this kind of thinking is the relative upswing of Vazrazhdane in the past two years. Prior to Putin's invasion of Ukraine, Vazrazhdane was unable to jump over the 4 percent election threshold and failed to even enter the Bulgarian parliament. Once Putin invaded, however, Vazrazhdane was quick to grasp the opportunity to polarise Bulgarian society along the old "friendly" Russia and "decadent" West divide. At the November 2021 election – and following a media campaign of scaremongering that thousands of Bulgarians will freeze to death if Russia pulled off the gas plug, Vazrazhdane got 13 MPs. In October 2022, or seven month's after Russia's war in Ukraine started – and following another media campaign that if Sofia helped Kyiv Putin would bomb Varna and Burgas – Vazrazhdane got 27. At the latest general election last year, Kostadin Kostadinov got 37. It is an obvious fact that the Vazrazhdane leader is an extreme, anti-establishment player whose "partners" in the West are the likes of the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and the French Front National. He wants Bulgaria out of NATO and out of the EU. He wants all "foreign agents," which he usually associates with the Open Society Institute funded by George Soros, banished in labour camps. But at least some of his success can be attributed to the at best awkward campaign his domestic opponents lead against him and what he stands for. Kostadinov may be "bad," but he is no Hitler. He is but a more psychologically balanced version of Volen Siderov and his Ataka in the 2000s, and as such will be unable to garner any support over an extremist party's – and extremist party's – level of saturation, probably around 15-20 percent of the vote.

The currently minuscule BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, the historical successor to the Communist Party, is also seen as being pro-Russian. But there are important differences between Kornelia Ninova's suite and Vazrazhdane. Ninova supports the Kremlin only indirectly as she calls for a cessation of the shipments of military aid to Ukraine and promulgates some more general calls for "peace." She does not want Bulgaria out of NATO and the EU, but instead focuses on "traditional values," which in her case means anti-woke. Owing chiefly to Ninova's leadership methods, the BSP dwindled from a stable leftwing party, the third or fourth largest in the National Assembly, to a negligible grouping consisting of people whose support for Ninova outdoes their dedication to political causes. Even some, who voted for the BSP because they detested Boyko Borisov and would not even think of supporting general Atanas Atanasov, have now withdrawn.

The GERB is pronouncedly pro-NATO and pro-EU. Boyko Borisov did help Russia in its war effort against Ukraine by speedily providing for the construction of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, which bypassed Ukraine. However – importantly – he probably did it for corruption rather than geopolitical reasons.

All in all, despite the pro- and anti-Western election campaign rants, it is unlikely that there will be any serious turnabout of Bulgaria as an NATO and EU member. Even if Vazrazhdane and the BSP were to agree on some issues, which they vehemently rule out for the time being, they will make up no more than a third (at most) of the Bulgarian parliament – not enough for any abrupt policy changes.

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