WHY DO SO MANY BULGARIANS SUPPORT PUTIN?

by Anthony Georgieff

Truth, lies, conspiracy theories propagated by 'social media' confound ordinary citizens

anti ukraine protest bulgaria.jpg

Perhaps surprisingly for a country that was once an enthusiastic applicant to join NATO and the EU Bulgaria is now home to a significant number of people who support... Russia's tyrant Vladimir Putin and his war in Ukraine. The pro-Putin Bulgarians even have a political party that represents them in parliament. It is called Vazrazhdane, or Revival, and was quick to abandon, as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine, its anti-vaxxer stance to espouse Putin's propaganda. If opinion polls are to be trusted, at the time of writing the Vazrazhdane party has a bigger backing than some of the older and established parties, including the Democratic Bulgaria alliance which has been perhaps the most vocal in rejecting Putin and his outrages in Ukraine.

How can this be explained? Is the Communist-era brainwashing that the Russians are "brothers" getting a second wind? Is distrust and hatred of the West in general and the United States in particular that some Bulgarians espouse to be held responsible? Perhaps the notorious Bulgarian lack of common sense? Or just sheer stupidity, an obstinate refusal to face reality while clinging to preconceived notions?

As it so often happens in the Balkans there is no single "right" answer to the above questions. To understand why, one needs to consider the type of rhetoric Vazrazhdane and its followers use to justify their support for Putin.

Kostadin Kostadinov, Vazrazhdane's leader, has put it plainly: "When two brothers fight we should not supply one with weapons but try to reconcile them. This is why Bulgaria should not get involved in the conflict." This is a characteristically hypocritical verbal sleigh-of-hand, but it does work wonders on Facebook because it sounds good. Yet, the reality is different. The war Russia started in Ukraine is not between brothers. It is an aggression against a sovereign state whose integrity Russia had vowed, through international treaties, to respect. Sending assistance to Ukraine, both humanitarian and military, is an obligation, not an option. Russia has already declared Bulgaria, alongside all other EU and NATO member states, an "enemy." Perhaps this explains Putin's way of thinking: make some enemies and then attack them to "protect" yourself.

Regarding the massacre of Bucha, Kostadinov maintains that "research" is needed to verify which party is telling the truth. Some hacks in Bulgaria intone as they cite the need to present a "second standpoint." But there can be no second standpoint to a massacre. There can be no second standpoint to either fascism or communism. There is satellite imagery and testimonials that prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the Russian Army butchered hundreds of civilians in Bucha and elsewhere. Bringing on a second "standpoint" to atrocities of that scale is but an attempt to justify it.

"Bulgaria is not a poker to be used by NATO and the EU," continues Kostadinov – and some Bulgarians applaud him. This is actually true. Bulgaria cannot be a poker of NATO and the EU because it is a member of both – with both its rights and obligations. For the first time in recent history Bulgaria has ended up on the right side of the East – West divide, and now individuals like Kostadinov and his followers are angry because they only want to have rights, not obligations.

On a more general note, the current discourse led by people who are not necessarily big fans of Kostadinov and his Vazrazhdane but who are still pro-Russia and pro-Putin epitomises the years of propaganda this nation has been exposed to. Russia cannot be committing heinous crimes, they argue, because it produced Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. You've read that right: intelligent Bulgarians who presumably have read Chekhov and Dostoyevsky use 19th century writers to justify the policies of a former KGB operative and early 21st century warmonger. Using the same logic we should of course absolve Hitler because the Germans could not have committed the Holocaust because Beethoven and Bach were German.

There is more to the issue than the above. In actual fact Putin's rhetoric about Ukraine – it is an "artificial" nation, Ukrainian is not a "real" language and so on – uncannily resembles Bulgaria's own position on the Republic of North Macedonia. The overwhelming majority of Bulgarians support the Bulgarian hardline policy of refusing to acknowledge the existence of a Macedonian nation, Macedonian language and Macedonian history because from the Middle Ages to about 100 years ago they were in fact Bulgarian. Putin is right, they surmise, because if he weren't, we wouldn't be either.

The above views, coupled with the usual assortment of conspiracy theories ranging from how the Americans have a surplus of weapons they have to sell to the "fate" of ethnic Bulgarians in Ukraine who are banned by the Zelensky government from speaking Bulgarian, are being freely disseminated on social media, mainly Facebook. There, users can see, "like" and comment on them. It will not require a particularly intense imagination to see the political and moral morass they have created in a country which lacks basic media literacy and critical thinking.

In the meantime, the government continues to refuse military aid to Ukraine. Economy Minister Kornelia Ninova, the leader of the BSP or Bulgarian Socialist Party, has said she would rather resign or break the fragile coalition currently in power than sign a piece of paper authorising the dispatch of a "single bullet" to Ukraine.

The humanitarian crisis continues. At present, there are about 200,000 Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria. Many of them have been billeted into seaside hotels. The government pays the hotel owners and disburses a small per diem for the refugees. This is about to end on 31 May, when the tourist season kicks in. Hotel owners are worried about their pre-paid overnights and the government lacks a clear idea of what to do then. And not all Bulgarians have been welcoming to Ukrainian refugees. There have been reports of tyres of cars with Ukrainian number plates being slashed and of protests against plans to put Ukrainian kids in Bulgarian kindergartens that experience chronic shortage of vacancies. 

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