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Sofia, monument to the Red Army – © Anton P Daskalov / Shutterstock


Putin’s war in Ukraine has strong repercussions for Bulgaria: the government has strongly condemned the aggression, but the country, traditionally linked to Russia, is divided both politically and symbolically. Meanwhile, 30,000 refugees are already on their way

“At the moment we have no realistic alternatives, we are in a situation of strong dependence”. With this statement to Reuters, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov explained on Monday why, in all likelihood, Bulgaria will ask to freeze its participation in sanctions against Russia, at least in the energy sector.

Despite attempts in recent years to diversify supplies, Bulgaria is almost totally dependent on Russian gas, while more than half of the fuel used in the country comes from its only refinery – located in Burgas on the shores of the Black Sea – owned by a Russian company. Lukoil. “We fully support the people of Ukraine,” Petkov continued, “and we firmly adhered to the first wave of sanctions […]but those on gas and oil are difficult for us to accept, both as an economic system and as a country”.

The energy issue is one of the main reasons for concern and doubts that haunt Bulgaria in the face of the invasion of Ukraine wanted by Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it is certainly not the only one. Among politicians and public opinion, many sympathize with Moscow. And if the institutional positions were quickly aligned with those of the European Union and NATO, the divisions began as soon as Putin announced that he wanted to launch his “special operation” against Ukraine.

The use of the formula “special operation” instead of “war” caused a first shock last week within the government of Sofia. Stefan Yanev, former acting Prime Minister and Defense Minister, has indeed insisted on using the definition provided by Putin, triggering a wave of controversy. In a Facebook post, Yanev then argued that Bulgaria “does not necessarily have to adopt a pro-Russian, pro-American or pro-European position”, but should instead focus on “defending its national interests”.

After a few days of political unrest, Petkov demanded and obtained Yanev’s resignation. “No minister has the right to conduct his own personal foreign policy on Facebook,” the prime minister commented, reiterating that for the events in Ukraine, there can be no other definition than “war.” After leaving the government, Yanev, who in recent months had already spoken out against the prospect of the deployment of new NATO troops in Bulgaria, announced his intention to give life to a new political project, probably of a nationalist nature.

Tensions have also arisen within the ruling majority, notably within the Socialist Party, which has always maintained close ties with Moscow. If on the one hand the socialists officially condemned “the military escalation and the Russian offensive in Ukraine”, on the other hand they said they were against the imposition of sanctions on Russia as “ineffective” and costly for the citizens and the Bulgarian economy.

After Sofia’s official reaction to the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government also included Bulgaria in its long list of “enemy” states. Tension rose further after the arrest on March 2 in Sofia of Bulgarian General Valentin Tsankov, accused of spying on behalf of Russia against Bulgaria and NATO. Two Russian diplomats, who allegedly collaborated with Tsankov, were expelled: the Russian ambassador in Sofia, Eleonora Mitrofanova, again threw fuel on the fire by ignoring the invitation to come to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to receive the diplomatic note accompanying the expulsion.

Mitrofanova then sparked a new controversy after he compared – on the occasion of the Bulgarian national holiday of March 3 – the invasion of Ukraine to the Russian intervention against the Ottoman Empire in 1877-78, a war that laid the foundations for the independence of modern Bulgaria. State.

The very anniversary of March 3 – the day of the signing of the Treaty of St. Stephen, which ended the victorious Russian-Turkish conflict, and which fell this year just a few days after the start of Putin’s war against Ukraine – revived the debate on the meaning of the celebration and the historical ties between Bulgaria and Russia.

During the traditional commemoration at the Shipka Pass, where one of the decisive battles of the war took place in 1877, Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was hissed and snowballed by militants of the pro-Russian movement Vazrazhdane (Risorgimento), who waved Russian and Bulgarian flags. In the meantime, some voices from politics and civil society have called for another date to be chosen as a national holiday, given the strong link March 3 has with Russia, seen more as a “stepmother” than a “liberating mother”. .

The clash of symbols also reached one of the most divisive monuments of the capital Sofia, that of the Red Army which stands in the center of the city, in the park in front of the rectorate of the university “Sveti Kliment Ohridski” . On February 27, during a demonstration against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, graffiti in the colors of the Ukrainian flag and slogans such as “Assassins”, “Honor Ukraine” and “Down with Putin” appeared on the plinth of the monument.

Immediately after the start of the war, the Sofia Municipality of “Sredets”, the one where the monument is located, announced its intention to remove it and move it elsewhere, following a – never implemented – resolution of 1993 This decision, however, could prove difficult to implement, as a bilateral agreement requires consultations between Sofia and Moscow before the monument can be moved.

As politics shake up the numbers, Bulgaria faces what may already be the biggest wave of refugees in its modern history. According to still incomplete data, 30,000 Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, have already arrived in Bulgaria since the start of the Russian invasion, mainly staying in hotels on the Black Sea coast.

These figures are much lower than those for countries such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, but sufficient to put a strain on Bulgaria’s reception capacity. And they could increase if the conflict were to more closely involve the Odessa region, home to Ukraine’s large Bulgarian minority, estimated at around 140,000 people.

The atmosphere is one of strong solidarity, very different from that which accompanied the arrival of Syrian refugees in 2015. And in the government, there are already those who hope that many Ukrainians will decide to stay, or even create new opportunities for anemic Bulgarians. production sector: according to Prime Minister Petkov, many employers have started contacting refugees, and there is room for at least 200,000 workers.

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