IS PUTIN 'WORLD LEADER' OR SADISTIC VILLAIN?

text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria continues to be divided over Ukraine

pro-russia rally bulgaria

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has polarised public opinion in Bulgaria. In fact, Bulgaria has emerged, since the start of the war in Ukraine, as the only EU state where public support for Putin remains high.

According to a recent poll, Vazrazhdane, or Revival – the extremist party led by Kostadin "Kostya Kopeykin" Kostadinov that has adopted a virulent pro-Putin stance – has emerged as the fourth most popular political grouping in Bulgaria. It is now ahead of the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, which is also pro-Putin. Though ostracised by all other political parties Boyko Borisov's GERB remains the largest party in today's Bulgaria. Changes Continued of Prime Minister Kiril Petkov has lost some of its support. And Democratic Bulgaria, the coalition of "urban right wing" intellectuals, is unlikely to be able to jump over the 4 percent election threshold and enter the next parliament if a general election were to be held now.

Analysts agree that the main reason for the continuing popularity of the pro-Russian and anti-Western voices in Bulgaria is in fact outside of the country. It is in Ukraine.

anti-Russia protest in Bulgaria

... Or a villain?

Another poll indicates that as many as 57 percent of the Bulgarians think NATO is at least as much responsible for the war in Ukraine as Russia (compare to just 8 percent in the UK, 9 in Finland and 10 in Denmark). Only 49 percent would welcome Ukrainian war refugees (compare to 82 percent in Croatia and 78 percent in The Netherlands). And just 18 percent of the Bulgarians approve of the ban on Russian media EU-wide (compare to 67 percent in Estonia and 64 percent in Poland).

How come? How could this Balkan state, once an enthusiastic applicant for both NATO and EU membership, slip so badly down the road of uninformed populism? Why would Bulgaria buck the trend observed in all other EU countries of categorically and unambiguously condemning Putin's unprovoked invasion and subsequent atrocities in Ukraine?

Trouble is – like so many other occurrences in these climes – that there is no given "right" answer to these questions. It's all up to personal preferences, likes and dislikes, propaganda and counter-propaganda on all sides – and first and foremost the unreproducible Balkan emotion that, more often than not, comes over common sense and rational thinking.

On one side is the pro-Western government of Kiril Petkov. Petkov, Finance Minister Asen Vasilev and their associates favour a more decisive approach to the Ukraine crisis, including supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend itself.

Opposed to that is Rumen Radev, the president. Radev, a former Air Force general, played a significant role in toppling the last Boyko Borisov government. Many credit him for that. However, his stance towards the war in Ukraine has been a lot less laudable. Radev thinks supplying weapons to the Ukrainian government will only "prolong" the conflict. This is both defeatist and hypocritical. You have to presume Putin is somehow bound to win to be able to claim arming the victim will just prolong the agony. To grasp the hypocrisy, one just needs to swap the roles. Imagine Romania invaded Bulgaria. Would helping Bulgaria fight against its northern (bigger and wealthier) neighbour be worth it? Or would it just prolong the ordeal?

Then comes Kostadin Kostadinov's Revival party. Its recent successes can be explained in a Freudian fashion. Revival and its leader just speak out where no one else will. They articulate things – the usual mixture of truths, half-truths and plain lies – that no one else dares to say in public. In this way they reach the hearts if not the minds of their followers. Their rant is music to the ears of the conspiracy theorists.

Conspiracy theories have a long tradition in Bulgaria and the other Balkan countries. They proliferated under Communism, where the government decided what news to "release" to the public and what to withhold. They continue to proliferate in the era of social media where there is an ostensible ocean of news and opinion but where no brave fisherman undertakes to verify what fish is edible and what is full of venom.

Putin's supporters in Bulgaria tend to believe all the propaganda voiced by the Kremlin and its cronies. They genuinely think that the CIA clandestinely developed chemical weapons in secret factories in Ukraine. They do consider the legitimate Ukrainian government to be "fascist." And they do blame the West for toying with the idea of getting Ukraine, on the doorstep of Russia, in NATO – as if it is for Putin and his generals rather than the Ukrainian people to decide which way their country wants to go.

Unfortunately, some people who authentically abhor the present-day Russian leadership resort to the same type of propaganda turned the other way round. Hristo Ivanov, the leader of the Yes Bulgaria political party, has produced a request for the de-Putinisation of Bulgaria. Obviously, few outside of Ivanov's dwindling but devout retinue would take whatever "de-Putinisation" means seriously – but apparently the Yes Bulgaria leadership are content with feeding their followers with the sort of broth they want to be fed with.

Another interesting hypothesis was proposed by Iliyan Vasilev, Bulgaria's former ambassador to Moscow who was declared a persona non grata in the Russian Federation. Vasilev now casts himself as a hawkish influencer. According to him, GERB convinced the Russian giant Gazprom to turn off the gas tap on Bulgaria... in order to topple the Kiril Petkov government.

Few Bulgarians would admit it, but there is yet another reason why Putin is so popular in this country. His rhetoric regarding the Ukrainian nation, language and history is sinisterly reminiscent of the language used by the Sofia establishment regarding North Macedonia. According to the Bulgarians, historically what is now North Macedonia was in fact Bulgaria. Sofia acknowledges the sovereignty of the former Yugoslav republic but is adamant about its national identity, history and language which it says are in fact Bulgarian. It wants those Macedonians who feel they are ethnic Bulgarians to be recognised as a minority, but refuses to legitimise a small political grouping in Bulgaria that wants Bulgaria to recognise the existence of a "Macedonian minority."

Though the Kiril Petkov government is at this time unlikely to collapse over Ukraine, this may be a credible possibility if the stance towards North Macedonia and its bid to join the EU, which Bulgaria continues to block, remains unchanged. 

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