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Bulgaria torn between Russia and West

Christopher Nehring
March 7, 2022

Bulgaria has deep traditional ties with Russia. But the war in Ukraine is sowing significant divisions between pro-NATO and pro-Russian groups. Meanwhile, support for Russian President Vladimir Putin is waning.

Pro-Ukrainian protests at a Soviet memorial
A Soviet memorial in Sofia has been the site of pro-Ukrainian protestsImage: Momtschil Karapouzanow

Each year on March 3, Bulgaria celebrates Liberation Day, marking the end of Ottoman rule after the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78. The commemoration is a sign of the historically close ties between Bulgaria and Russia, which have now been complicated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

On March 2, the Russian ambassador laid a wreath at the Monument to Freedom in honor of the victims of that 19th century conflict, but on that same day, a Bulgarian general was arrested for spying for Russia. It followed Prime Minister Kiril Petkov's decision to fire his defense minister for pro-Russian statements just a day earlier.

Deep internal divisions

When Defense Minister Stefan Yanev was dismissed, Petkov explained that "no minister has the right to have his own foreign policy via Facebook, no minister may be a burden on the coalition government, and no minister can call events in Ukraine anything other than 'war'."

Yanev, an officer in the army of a NATO member state, had described Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine as an "operation" on Facebook the previous weekend, thereby explicitly complying with the language rule set by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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As early as December last year, Yanev had on Facebook criticized the stationing of NATO troops in Bulgaria. In January, he warned about the "foreign media" doing damage to the Bulgarian "national interest" in its coverage of the conflict over Ukraine.

Yanev's firing shows the deep internal divisions in the government which only took office in December. Since the Russian attack on Ukraine, it has become increasingly difficult for Petkov to moderate tensions between members of his coalition — pro-Russian socialists and pro-Western reformers. The Socialists voted in both the Bulgarian and European parliaments to oppose sanctions against Russia and the banning of the Russian state media RT and Sputnik in the EU.

"In their rhetoric, the socialists condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but they oppose both sanctions and military aid to Kyiv. Their pro-Russian orientation distinguishes them from the other governing parties," said Rumena Filipova, director of the Institute for Global Analytics in Sofia.

"This conflict has the potential to have the government fall apart," Filipova told DW. Resistance to the Petkov government's trans-Atlantic course also comes from the ultranationalist Regeneration Party.

"Their extreme positions on the abolition of all COVID measures, the blocking of neighboring North Macedonia's accession to the EU and their pro-Russian stance meet with broad approval in society. In doing so, they are putting pressure on the government, which in turn is making concessions to them," said Filipova.

A Bulgarian general spies for Russia

The new defense minister had hardly been sworn in when the next scandal caused a stir the following morning. Bulgarian general Valentin Tsankov, who according to media reports is the reserve general and deputy chairman of the Bulgarian Army Association, was arrested for spying for Russia.

Bulgaria's Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador and expelled two Russian diplomats. Just as one year earlier, a spy ring was uncovered in the Defense Ministry and the military secret service. Agents disguised as diplomats in the Russian Embassy are said to have been the spy's contacts.

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General Tsankov has been in similar trouble before. In 2011, he was recalled from Washington as military attache when it was revealed that in the 1980s he had worked for the communist military intelligence service and had been trained in Moscow.

If the allegations against Tsankov, who has been accused of spying for Russia since 2016, are true, the case would be further evidence of Russia's ongoing infiltration of Bulgarian security agencies since the Cold War.

"Parts of the Bulgarian army and generals have often caused irritation with their pro-Russian statements, and their loyalty to NATO is questionable," said Filipova.

Public opinion at a tipping point?

It's not just socialists, nationalists and the security apparatus in Bulgaria who are traditionally pro-Russian. There is also sympathy for Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin among the general population. According to surveys by the polling institute Alpha Research, around 50% of the Bulgarian population had a positive opinion of Putin in early 2022.

At the beginning of February, only 40% had a positive view on Bulgaria's NATO membership — and only 28% were in favor of the country becoming more involved in NATO, in view of the looming war.

But Russia's attack on Ukraine seems to be changing public opinion; Four days after the attack, support for Putin fell to 32%.

Pro-Ukrainian slogans on a Soviet monument
Since the start of Russia's invasion, pro-Ukrainian slogans have appeared on a Soviet monumentImage: Anonym

At the same time, an old and highly symbolic dispute over a monument to the Soviet Army in the center of Sofia has flared up again. For Russia sympathizers, it's a symbol of liberation from fascism, while pro-Western Bulgarians see it as a symbol of Soviet oppression.

Plans to move it go back to 1993, but have been delayed again and again. When pro-Ukrainian demonstrations took place after the start of the war, protesters spray-painted the monument in the Ukrainian national colors of blue and yellow, and wrote slogans like "Honor to Ukraine!" and "Putler — get out of Ukraine!"

Three demonstrators who spray-painted the monument were arrested, Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov said last Wednesday. He described the actions by the police, who had held the three minors overnight without informing their parents or lawyers, as "disturbing" and "intolerable."

The past week's turmoil shows the full extent of Bulgaria's division. Its relationship with Russia is more ambivalent than ever, in both government and the general population.

This article was originally published in German

Correction, March 7, 2022: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Bulgaria's former defense minister and misidentified the Institute for Global Analytics. DW apologizes for the error.