Pro-Ukraine protest, Sofia, 24 February 2023.
© Svetoslav Todorov   |   Pro-Ukraine protest, Sofia, 24 February 2023.

Bulgarian towns rally in support of Ukraine as society remains deeply divided

The first anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Russia provoked a wave of pro-Ukraine marches in Bulgaria, a country traditionally associated with heavy political dependencies from Russia. The pro-Russians stayed mostly out of sight for the one year anniversary of the war, but that does not mean that they went everywhere: Moscow still has its supporters in Bulgaria, both among the politicians and the public.

“Here ain’t Moscow!”

Bulgarians commemorated Ukraine’s resilience with demonstrations en masse in all bigger towns: Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Veliko Tarnovo, Ruse, Burgas and Stara Zagora.

In Sofia, the event drew thousands. The demonstration started in the area of the Presidency and the Ministerial Council, a traditional protest spot but with an increased symbolism now because of President Rumen Radev’s leanings to Kremlin, pronounced even more clearly in the last year.  The chants “Here ain’t Moscow!” were the among the first to be heard.

@Svetoslav Todorov

“Those who were ostracised through the years seem like they have always been on the right side of history”, said veteran Ivo Indzhev, author of books on the Russian meddling in the country. He also had some hard words for President Radev: “Promoting neutrality is equal to imposing a Soviet dependency.”

Publisher Manol Peykov, who raised funds for Ukraine and later for Turkey and Syria, said that “we’re not a provincial nation at the tail end of Europe. Things can improve at light speed” and described the last year as a “war between the civilisation and the autocracy”.

Despite the speeches and the crowd, one could sense a feeling of fatigue: conversations between people often pointed to previous protests and how many times after 1989 the society had to flock the streets.

Ukrainians had a visible presence at the protest, while also the Russian white and blue “peace” flag could be noticed.

The anniversary marches followed a series war-related protests organised in Bulgaria since Russia’s large scale attack on Ukraine. Early in the invasion, people took to the streets in support of Ukraine, then they did it again in support of the pro-EU and pro-Ukraine government of Kiril Petkov when it was ousted last June, and then they protested in August, this time after the interim cabinet appointed by Rumen Radev touted a return of Gazprom as the country’s main gas provider, while under Petkov’s We Continue the Change party Bulgaria cut ties with the Russian gas giant.

@Svetoslav Todorov

Pro-Russian rhetoric in Bulgaria intensifies

A day before the war’s anniversary, the Monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia, a popular place for protest actions through the years, was vandalised. A 61-year old man who used a hammer to do the damage has been charged, while the act was condemned by Russian ambassador Eleonora Mitrofanova. The action renewed conversation on whether the monument, which has become in the last decades a popular skating location, should be kept, modified or completely destroyed. During the first days of the war in 2022, the same monument was anonymously painted with bloody red.

@ Ivan Shishiev / "Etudes of Sofia" 

However, that was not the only act of vandalism in the lead up to the protests. In Varna, the local community centre “Ukrainian Home” was anonymously decorated with a Russian flag, an act seen as a provocation ahead of the marches – and a sign that the pro-Russians are still there, in spite of the fact that they haven’t been particularly visible during the anniversary.

Polls show that the society remains highly divided and this has also been reflected in the government’s slow and sometimes insufficient answer to the war.

On February 24, Alpha Research published a survey according to which 48% of the Bulgarians think that the EU should have a clear strategy on how to prevent military escalations but only 30.6% think that Europe should continue to support Ukraine in the war and 33.8% feel that there should be more humanitarian aid sent to the country.

The Bulgarian Socialist Party, which is the direct successor of the one-time Communist Party, and far-right leaders Revival have expressed even more clearly their isolationist positions than before: BSP has started the election campaign by denouncing the “gender ideology” of the West corrupting Bulgarian children and “traditional values” (a well-known Russian fake narrative), while Revival is focused on criticising the euro currency adoption as a potentially destructive move for Bulgaria.

There is also a rising number of newly formed political entities which have expressed views that the West should limit its support to the Ukrainian forces and are eager to join Bulgaria’s unending election cycle. The most recent parties to join to choir are the recently established party “Together”, founded by two of the core members of There’s Such a People (the party formed by entertainer Slavi Trifonov and won the elections in July 2021, only to fade in popularity after a number of erratic decisions, including abruptly leaving ex-PM Kiril Petkov’s coalition) and “The Left-Wing”, an alliance led by former ombudswoman, speaker of the National Assembly and Bulgarian Socialist Party member Maya Manolova and consisting of other left-identifying factions, mostly created by former BSP members.

Despite mounting international pressure, no end in sight for the political stalemate

Meanwhile international pressure on Bulgaria is increasing, as the country – which is locked in a political stalemate – is failing to reign in on the high level corruption or to truly reform its judiciary. On February 10, Bulgarian politicians connected to GERB, BSP and Movement for Rights and Freedoms were designated as corrupt by the US Treasury and the British government, in coordinated statements. Previously, in 2021, the US Treasury again sanctioned Bulgarian politicians. In 2021 and 2023 these designations were not met by definitive actions by the Prosecution. There has also been speculation about decoupling Bulgaria from Romania in the two countries’ bid to be accepted in the Schengen space, as the former is seen lagging behind the latter.

However, these developments will hardly reflect on voting tendencies on the next general elections, scheduled for April 2. Ex-PM Boyko Borissov is set to come first in the forthcoming elections; however, his chances to form a coalition remain modest.

According to Gallup International agency’s survey from February 17, GERB/United Democratic Forces will come first with 27.1 per cent of the popular vote, followed by their major opponents We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria (former coalition partners in Petkov’s ousted 2021-2022 cabinet, now running together for the first time).

Borissov’s possible allies Movement for Rights and Freedoms, relying mainly on votes from the Turkish minority in the country, would be third with 13.4. The 240-member parliament is expected to feature Revival (12.3), Bulgarian Socialist Party (8.6) and Bulgarian Rise, another pro-Russia entity which has expressed desire to run alongside far-righters IMRO (4.2).

There seems to be no end in sight for the political stalemate.

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