Вы используете устаревшую версию браузера. Для оптимальной работы с MSN используйте поддерживаемую версию.

Ukraine war tests Bulgarians' pro-Russia sentiment

Логотип AFP AFP 22.05.2022 AFP

"Russians are our Slavic brothers" is a common slogan in Bulgaria, but the Ukraine war is putting widespread Russophile sentiment to the test.

Bulgaria -- an EU and NATO member with historically close ties to Russia -- is grappling with its identity © Nikolay DOYCHINOV Bulgaria -- an EU and NATO member with historically close ties to Russia -- is grappling with its identity

"We are here to prove that there are not only Putinophiles in Bulgaria," IT expert Stanimir Ganev, 43, told AFP at a recent pro-Ukraine march in the capital Sofia, referring to supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Fellow protester Maria Kostadinova, a 23-year-old PhD student, said "defending Ukraine is a choice of civilisation" that aligns Bulgaria with other Western nations.

Unlike in most other European countries, regular pro-Russian rallies have been held © Nikolay DOYCHINOV Unlike in most other European countries, regular pro-Russian rallies have been held

The Sofia march drew thousands as Bulgaria -- an EU and NATO member with historically close ties to Russia -- grapples with its identity.

'Mythology of brotherhood' 

Unlike in most other European countries, regular pro-Russian rallies have been held alongside pro-Ukrainian gatherings, resulting in stand-offs near a communist-era Soviet army monument in Sofia as both camps call each other "fascists".

There have been stand-offs near a communist-era Soviet army monument in Sofia © Nikolay DOYCHINOV There have been stand-offs near a communist-era Soviet army monument in Sofia

At one such pro-Russian rally, teacher Galina Stoyanova said the images of atrocities in Ukraine were "a Hollywood production". 

The 54-year-old described the Russians as "two-times liberators" who "sacrificed themselves in 1878" to end Bulgaria's Ottoman domination and then "freed Bulgaria from fascism in 1944".

On social media too, tens of thousands of internet users avidly follow pro-Russian groups and accounts.

Activity in these groups has boomed since Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, according to AFP's Fact Check service, which since then has devoted 85 percent of its articles to debunking fake information justifying the war or denigrating Ukrainian refugees.

The war in Ukraine has caused a change in attitudes for some © Nikolay DOYCHINOV The war in Ukraine has caused a change in attitudes for some

A YouGov study carried out in 16 EU countries and the UK in April showed that 44 percent of Bulgarians hold NATO responsible for the war in Ukraine -- the highest ratio among all nations polled.

"Bulgaria differs from other countries of the former communist bloc" in which the Soviet era left bitter memories, said University of Oxford scholar and political scientist Dimitar Bechev.

"Bulgarian history books focus on the war of liberation of 1877-78 and feed the mythology of brotherhood" with Russia, he added.

Even after the communist regime's demise in 1989, "cultural, political and societal links" between the two countries continued, he said.

Most middle-aged Bulgarians studied Russian in school, understand the language and some regularly follow the news in the Russian media.

Pro-Russian sentiment is also strong in part of the Balkan nation's political class. 

The Socialist party, which maintains close ties with Moscow, threatened to leave the ruling coalition if it approved sending any military aid to Ukraine.

President Rumen Radev has also spoken out against such a move, advocated by strongly pro-European Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, elected last year on an anti-corruption platform.

'De-Putinise Bulgaria' 

The war in Ukraine has caused a change in attitudes for some.

The war "upsets some balances lodged in public opinion", the Bulgarian Alpha Research institute found in a recent poll.

"Many of those who still love Russia now express a negative attitude towards President Vladimir Putin," it said.

Putin's popularity dropped to 32 percent in the first days of the war in February and was at just 25 percent in April -- down from 58 percent in March 2020.

The right-wing Democratic Bulgaria party insisted in a declaration to parliament last week that Bulgaria must "de-Putinise".

Petkov this week vowed to limit "foreign influence on Bulgaria, and more precisely -- influence from Russia".

The European Union's poorest nation has long banked on Russian imports and investment, especially gas, which Moscow cut off last month.

A 2021 documentary on the Soviet army's occupation of Bulgaria after World War II has also surged in popularity.

Public television and cinemas have screened it, while tens of thousands have watched it online in recent weeks.

"The war in Ukraine has provided grim publicity for our film," director Svetoslav Ovcharov said at a screening. 

The documentary is based on archives that were opened to the public and showed atrocities committed by the Red Army in Bulgaria.

Academic Todor Gabarov told AFP at the screening that the documentary was "eye opening".

The cost of the army's maintenance "ruined" Bulgaria in the years after 1944, added documentary screenwriter and historian Evelina Kelbecheva.

Kelbecheva for years has sought to deconstruct some "persistent myths" about Russia's role in Bulgaria's past and wants a reform of school history curriculums.

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon