Bulgaria has been facing an uptick in pro-Russian disinformation, just as the country’s pro-Western government is questioning Moscow’s influence – and moves – in the country.
Bulgaria passed through a summer of security concerns
“We’re seeing attempts for Bulgaria’s economic prospects in the Black Sea region to be hampered [...] We’ve filed information to NATO’s headquarters at the highest level that Russia is trying to make Black Sea just a Russian lake. The only way to respond to force is to counter with more force and improve the capabilities of our navy”, Prime Minister Nickolay Denkov said on September 7, during an 80-minute video session where he responded to various questions ahead of the new Parliament season.
His alarmist statements on the danger of Black Sea turning into “Russian lake” served as a reminder that despite the ending of Bulgaria’s two-year political stalemate, pulling away from Moscow’s sphere of influence has not gotten easier.
On September 13, Defence Minister Todor Tagarev also voiced his security concerns for Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast: “Until the end of the September Russia will continue to conduct exercises which are in our exclusive economic zone of the Black Sea. We see this as provocative actions towards Bulgaria, towards our security and economic interests.”
The latest statements triggered a reaction in pro-Russia Facebook groups, where the latest trend, as of September 12-13, is that Denkov and Tagarev, adamantly pro-Ukraine, are leading Bulgaria into an imminent war with Russia, the other circulating narrative being that pro-Russia users on social media will persecuted and imprisoned.
The statements of the two officials were by no means unprecedented. In July, the government criticised Russia for provoking escalation through naval drills in Bulgaria’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The end of the summer brought more tensions: following legislative changes and a forcibly terminated contract, since September 4 the state is officially in charge of the “Rosenets” terminal near the South coast of Burgas, sideling “Lukoil Neftohim Burgas”, part of Russia’s Lukoil oil refinery branch, which operated there since 2011. The decision was criticised by Bulgaria’s pro-Russia politicians. Also on September 13, the parliament decided that the state can put up a representative in Lukoil’s headquarters. Previously, in 2022, “Lukoil Neftohim” paid tax in Bulgaria for the first time, filing 38,3 million euro in profit, confirming allegations for continuous tax evasion.
Meanwhile, the future remains uncertain for the Kamchia Sanitary and Health Complex (SOK), a privately secured multifunctional center which hosts hotels and a highschool (which recently closed activity in July without much fanfare) on a territory near Varna in the North seaside. The land was bought by the Moscow government in 2008, when Bulgaria was ruled by the Socialist Party and its prime-minister Sergei Stanishev, for less than 5 euro per square meter. Kamchia’s activity has often been described as a case of soft power where propaganda and suspicious activities remain out of Sofia’s eye. The government has so far been passive to the operations of the complex.
Russia’s propaganda is turning the volume up
According to research, published on August 10, by the Foundation for Humanitarian and Social Research - Sofia, Russian propaganda in the Bulgarian media online has more than tripled in the second quarter of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022. This is mainly a byproduct of an increasing number of mushroom websites, sometimes circulating up to 3,500 pro-Russia articles in peak days.
Propaganda, disinformation, fake and manipulative content has greatly increased since the new coalition, pro-Western coalition of former foes GERB party and We Continue the Change stepped in power on June 6, prioritizing Bulgaria’s Schengen and Eurozone entrance.
In essence, everything that grips the attention of the masses is quickly given a pro-Western and a pro-Moscow reading. For example, in Facebook groups with titles like “Support for Russia”, factual details around a recent highly publicised case of gender based violence have been disputed, as were the legitimacy of the victim’s reports and the intentions behind the citizen movement calling for stricter penalties. The afore-mentioned Black Sea drills were also given a spin, with some outlets falsely claiming that Bulgaria was under a Russian naval blockade, a claim debunked by Factcheck.bg.
Reignited debates about the “historical friendship” with Czarist Russia and the USSR
The increasing traffic around pro-Russia content also coincides with several brewing hot topics. One is the status of Soviet-era monuments in Bulgaria which, despite not being part of the union, positioned itself as a trustworthy satellite during the Communist regime (1944-1989). The debate is mainly centered on dismantling – or moving – Sofia’s imposing Monument of the Soviet Army, built in 1954, during the governance of Stalinist leader Valko Chervenkov. The monument – mostly used nowadays as a hangout for skaters and beer-swinging youngsters – still is a powerful political symbol. It has occasionally been used as a staging ground for protests or to convey various messages, with the statues of the Soviet troops being painted as American superheroes, in pink, to protest the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, in red, to denounce Russia’s brutal actions in Ukraine, or in the Ukrainian national colors, to show solidarity with the latter.
Discussions whether Sofia’s Monument of the Soviet Army should be removed are nothing new; they date back to the mid-1990’s, but they never lead anywhere as there were no clear strategies for how the space should be redeveloped or where the monument should be placed. However, there’s an increased focus on the monument now. As several high profile politicians, mainly in the pro-EU spectrum, voiced their support for its removal, this immediately triggered a response from Bulgaria’s pro-Russia parties such as Bulgarian Socialist Party, newly formed but featuring former socialist members “The Leftists!” and radical far-right leaders Revival which in media appearances in September 12 and 13 have made their ambitions clear to become first power in the near future.
Pro-Russian politicians, including President Rumen Radev – increasingly conservative and pro-Moscow ever since the start of the invasion in Ukraine – have also opposed plans by the government to change Bulgaria’s national day. March 3, the Liberation Day, essentially commemorates Russia’s victory in the Russo-Turkish War in 1878, which led to the establishment of an autonomous Bulgarian state and an end to Ottoman Turkish rule; however, some Bulgarians feel that celebrating a Russian victory is not right following Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The current government has promoted the idea for September 6 to be Bulgaria’s main annual event – the so-called Unification Day when the Eastern Rumelia province became part of Bulgaria’s territory in 1885.
Bulgaria is facing a complicated autumn and the (pro-)Russians may complicate it even further
Bulgaria is facing a challenging autumn. Schengen admission – or rather, convincing Austria and the Netherlands to give up their opposition to the admission – is on the top of the government’s agenda. Add to that the continuous fallout from the war in Ukraine. Domestically, the pro-EU government will likely be weakened by internal conflicts – the temporary peace between the parties is possible to be shaken to the core by the forthcoming mayoral elections (October 29) which would see the two blocks in governance in opposing mode. These, and other challenges, will all be seen as opportunities for the Russians and the pro-Russians and their online armada.
Despite some newfound willingness and hard tone, mainly from PM Denkov and Defence Minister Tagarev, Bulgaria’s resistance to Moscow remains more of a wishful thinking rather than a clearly drawn political line.