PRO-RUSSIAN BULGARIA

by Anthony Georgieff

Hybrid warfare seriously threatens poorest EU member state

Many people in Bulgaria sincerely think that the West in general and the United States in particular are responsible for Ukraine's wish for more democracy which led to Russia's annexation of Crimea, for the emergence of the IS, for the increasing instability in the Middle East and, most recently, for the fecal spillout in one of Bulgaria's top resorts at the southern Black Sea coast. They tend to think that it is the West and the United States that "stirred up" trouble in Ukraine, "created" the IS and so on and so forth. Of course, the West in general and the United States in particular are also responsible for the current refugee crisis which many Bulgarians call "an influx of Islamists."

This is obviously in sharp contrast to Bulgaria's official political and military alliances at the moment as what used to be the Soviet Union's most obsequious stooge in Eastern Europe is now a member of both NATO and the EU. Yet, the scope of pro-Russian propaganda and the ardour with which it is being disseminated is at least baffling.

The people who espouse the above mentioned views are ordinary citizens, not intellectuals or hacks. They do speak some English, have travelled abroad, are more or less literate in international affairs, make a more or less decent living in what remains the EU's poorest and most corrupt state.

It is impossible to describe all the facets of the current pro-Russian propaganda effort, but here are some of the categories.

First come the Orthodox Christian fundamentalists. They will not be very agile when asked to list some of the major theological differences between a Greek and Roman Catholic, but for one reason or another these people are convinced that the West (the Pope and especially the Protestant West) is out to destroy what they view as a major identity building block in modern Bulgaria. These people urge chastity of thought and regular candle-lighting in church. They encourage observance of fasts and celebrations of Orthodox and very often pagan holidays. They tend to keep quiet on Jews, but they are very outspoken about Muslims. According to them, the current humanitarian crisis has been masterminded by the United States to Islamise Europe.

A meeker yet even nastier group comprises the "secular Orthodox." They won't urge observance of the liturgy probably because they understand that it has been out of step with real life for several centuries, but they would ardently describe all the evils the West supposedly brings on. I don't want my daughters to have to wear burqas in the street and I don't want my boys to be forcibly circumcised, they cry. No one wants to wear burqas in the streets and very often the refugees risk their lives precisely because they don't want to wear burqas in the streets. But that, according to the secular Orthodox, is beside the point. The point is that the overwhelming majority of refugees are Muslim, therefore they will bring radical Islam with them. Tsvetan Todorov, the famous French philosopher of Bulgaria origin, once described the phenomenon as the "fear of barbarians that makes ourselves barbarian."

Then there are the "historians." Often they are ordinary people with an interest in history. They love to read tales of Bulgaria's past grandeur (in the 12th Century) and they do find solace in them as there are few things they can pride themselves on in the Bulgaria of the 21st Century. But there are also the professional academics whose modus vivendi is to "prove" that at all times in history Turkey (a founding NATO member) has always been bad and the Soviet Union (now Russia) has always been good to "little" Bulgaria. They will go to great lengths to assert their stand. They will incessantly quote Winston Churchill and then castigate him for what they perceive as his "Bulgarophobia," and if they run out of arguments they will inevitably perform their ultimate hat-trick: it was the Russians, not the Americans who liberated us from the Turks (in the 19th Century). Well, that is true. Be careful with the historians. If you disagree with them you will eventually be accused of jeopardising Bulgaria's national security.

So come the "pragmatists." The pragmatists won's use religious or historical spiel, but will focus on what they think is economic common sense. Why not have new pipelines connected to Russia and new nuclear power stations using Russian fuel, they argue. Why should we refuse to serve Russian tourists? Then they add: the West is applying double standards as it endorse its own pipelines with Russia, bypassing Bulgaria. Of course the Americans are the worst, their argument goes. They wanted to destroy Dobrudzha (in northeastern Bulgaria) by fracking for shale gas.

Then it is time for the "culturalists." The culturalists, as the name suggests, are cultured people. They may have never read Dostoyevski or Sholokhov, and they have probably never listened to Tchaikovsky, but when they drink vodka they turn on Yosif Kobzon and become as dreamy as... the wide Russian steppe which they consider to epitomise the wide Russian soul. According to them, there is every reason to believe that Russian (and Soviet) culture is a lot closer to Bulgarian culture than the alien ideas of the Western Enlightenment. There is no place in Russian (and therefore Bulgarian) culture for things other than Orthodoxy, and especially for Muslims. No Muslim has ever produced anything of cultural value. The Muslims, for Christ's sake, never had an enlightenment! Well, neither did Russia (which does not have the standard "Turkish Yoke" excuse used by Bulgarians to explain everything that has gone wrong in this country since 1396).

Next are the extreme nationalists. Some of them are currently in the Bulgarian governing coalition, some are just in parliament. They are a fascinating lot. Like elsewhere in Europe, they use people's legitimate love for their country to make their own gains in terms of power and money. Unlike anywhere else in Europe, however, Bulgarian extreme nationalists do not put Bulgaria first. No Bulgarien über alles here. To be a genuine Bulgarian nationalist, you need two things: love for Russia and hatred of Turkey. These work like communicating vessels. You may love Russia a lot and hate Turkey just a bit, and you will probably qualify. Or vice versa: loads of hatred of Turkey coupled with just a little love for Russia will also put you in the extreme nationalist camp. Volen Siderov, the leader of Ataka, even started his election campaign in... Moscow where he wanted to be televised amongst his fellow Russian nationalists. Works well on Bulgarian TV screens.

Of course, the nostalgists by far outnumber all the categories described above. These are people who long for the past to an extent that they relive it every day. Sometimes they miss the ostensible stability that life under Communism entailed. They miss their steady jobs, they will start proving how many pieces of bread and how many buckets of yoghurt they could buy with their 1970s salaries, they miss the student working holidays in the Soviet Union, they miss the pretty Russian girls at what used to be the Georgi Dimitrov International Youth Centre at Primorsko. The food and toilet paper shortages are rarely mentioned. Neither are the inability to travel abroad, to settle in Sofia if you were not born here, the compulsory army service and the omnipenetrating secret police. Syria as well as Libya, Algeria and so on, were friends in those days. The Soviet Union supported the Asads (Russia continues in this line now), and one of the few places in the world where Bulgarians could legally work and get paid in hard currency was in fact Syria. The former Bulgarian doctors and engineers in Syria probably do have good memories of their young days there.

Bulgaria (and the rest of the Balkans) is well-known for their penchant for conspiracy theories. But the sheer scope of the pro-Russian and anti-Western sentiments in the summer of 2015 suggests that this is not yet another set of conspiracy theories. It is pure stupidity manifested by people who so uncritically fall in for Putin's propaganda. Obviously, the ongoing hybrid war should be taken very seriously in a place like Bulgaria.

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