The Czech affair
In mid-April, the alleged revelation of unprecedented Russian menace to EU-member Czechia’s internal security hit the headlines across Europe. On an otherwise quiet weekend, Jan Hamacek and Andrey Babiš, Foreign Minister and Prime Minister respectively, hosted an emergency briefing. According to information to Czech intelligence agencies, Russian secret agents stood behind two explosions at an ammunition depot in 2014. More specifically, Prime Minister Babiš declared that
Based on unequivocal evidence obtained during the investigation into the causes of the explosion, I must state that there is a reasonable suspicion of involvement of officers from the Russian military intelligence of the GRU, unit 29155, in the explosion of ammunition in Vrbetitsa, in which a serious threat to many residents arose, but in the first place two of our citizens died — innocent fathers.
Hamacek went so far as to compare directly the two blasts with past episodes of – alleged – Russian malign activities. Namely, the Foreign Minister mentioned former spy Sergei Skripal’s poisoning with the infamous ‘Novichok’ nerve agent in Salisbury in 2018. However, despite having claimed to have evidence of Russian involvement, British authorities have refused to make them public.
Mimicking the Brits’ approach, Hamacek and Babiš knitted a narrative based on the reasonable suspicion of Russian secret services’ role. According to Hamacek, “the first blast in October [2014 …] was not planned”, possibly caused by lack of cautiousness. Yet, he affirmed that the second blast in December 2014 was carefully planned. In this reconstruction, the Russians hit the depot to stop a delivery of weapons to Kiev through Sofia. Actually, the Czechs suppose that the Russians had planned the explosion to happen during the transit, but something went wrong. In fact, the weaponry should have already entered Bulgaria’s borderat the time of the second explosion.
Interestingly, Czech authorities declined to disclose whether the arms deal eventually took place — as did their Bulgarian and Ukrainian counterparts.
Following a script it has already deployed elsewhere, Moscow labelled Prague’s claims as ‘absurd’. Russia’s foreign ministry called the Czech’s expulsion of Russian diplomats an unprecedented “hostile act” to meant “to please the US”. Meanwhile, A member of the Russian parliament branded the accusations of Russian citizens’ involvement in the explosions “absurd”. And the Russian foreign ministry also used the same term in explaining the Czechs’ lack of credibility and consistency. In fact, local authorities “previously blamed the companies that own these warehouses for explosions”, making their allegations “even more absurd”.
Eventually, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Czech Ambassador and communicated the intention to expel 20 of Prague’s diplomats. Consequently, there are only five people still working in this crucial delegation.
Defreezing a cleavage
The sparring between Czechia and Russia reignited the debate on Russia’s influence in other Central- and South-Eastern European countries. Especially so in the case of Bulgaria, which was involved in the Czech affair; albeit tangentially. In fact, the Czechs intended to sell the weapons stored at the exploded depot to the Ukrainian army through a Bulgarian mediator. The person in question seems to be Emilian Gebrev, a Bulgarian industrialist who apparently survived an attempted intoxication in 2015.
Commentators and politicians began taking positions on Russia’s malign or benign presence.Οr, to be more precise, have started again arguing about the exact nature of Sofia’s relations with Moscow. After all, this is probably the oldest debate in Bulgarian politics and, indeed, culture still dividing society in opposite camps. Thus, it can be useful to know the baselines of its development to better understand the present cleavage.
In a sense, the dispute actually predates the very establishment of the modern Bulgarian State in the late 19th century. As the common sense goes, at the time of the liberation in 1878: “there were no Russophobes in Bulgaria.”True, the Russian army had marched a long way to grant Bulgarian independentists some crucial victories, and gratefulness was commonplace. Yet, there was little interest in breaking free from the Ottomans just to join the even less modern Russian Tsardom.
Nevertheless, fast forward to the interwar period and the -philies/-phobes divide starts to kick out. A famous pamphlet, Quo vadis, Bulgaria? stated the restate the terms of the binomen as anti-nationals versus patriots. It claimed that a “belated and degenerate echo” of palingenetic Russo-philia was driving Bulgaria towards renewed vassalage under Serbia.
After the Second World War, as the Soviet Army imposed Communist rule over the country, any space for debate virtually disappeared. Public discourse in the People’s Republic emphasised the deep roots of Bulgarian-Russian friendship to justify the Party’s displayed loyalty to Moscow. Therefore, the binomen changed shape again: communists versus anti-communists. Communists had to prove themselves as faithful Russophiles, whereas the underground opposition showed contempt for Russia and idealised the West.
The fall of real socialism
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the regime fell, this divide became public again. The dissidents who came to power in the 1990s demonised Russia, while the ex-communist rallied around the waning big brother. Obviously, there is space in society and culture for more nuanced views, often expressed in popular literary works. But the political debate has grown more and more polarised.
Russia had changed name and form of government, but Bulgaria had yet to reconcile itself with it. The mounting consensus on Bulgaria’s return to Europe and membership into NATO and the EU emboldened the Russophobe camp. Intellectuals of indisputable calibre write that
There is no doubt that in all its forms of existence, Russia is an unavoidable factor and source of anxieties just like a dinosaur that, even in dying convulsions, causes problems with its behemoth body.
Others go as far as rejecting the traditional narrative on Bulgaria’s history for its generally positive depiction of Russia. Public campaigns have been taking place for the removal of the Monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia, which protests call “Monument to the Occupying Red Army”.
The President’s faux pas
Meanwhile, the ex-communist left still tries to hang onto Russia — and rightfully so. According to data extracted for this piece from various public opinion polls, Bulgarians are mostly sympathetic to Russia (Figure 3). About three quarters of the interviewees declares “favourable attitude” towards Russia to Pew Research. Furthermore, a solid 62% majority “trusts” the man in Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, according to the same dataset. Yet, there is no sign of a wide public support for a return into Russia’s orbit, so to speak. Answering to Alpha Research, a similarly-sized portion of the public prefers NATO and EU membership over tighter integration with Russia.
In sum, there is a stable consensus that Bulgaria’s foreign politics should be as “moderate and balanced” as possible. Nevertheless, Rumen Radev, the Head of State, has recently decided to undersign a NATO communique condemning Russia almost secretly. Radev gave little to no publicity to his act, which he completely ignored during several press conferences following the signature. The fact sparked an instrumental burst of outrage from GERB’s ranks. The President’s opponents link the unwillingness to reveal this decision to the fear of negative reverberance on his re-election chances.
Conclusion: Bulgarian-Russian relations’ development
The high-echelon Bulgarian officials’ dominant stance in Russia’s most recent confrontation vis-à-vis the NATO and the EU is extremely ambivalent. Under the leadership of Boyko Borisov’s GERB party, Bulgaria has adopted a sort of agnostic neutrality. On the one hand, everyone pays lip services to the religious connections to Russia and Moscow’s role in Bulgaria’s history. On the other, NATO and the EU have become dogmas of a new ‘civic faith’ for some on the left. For the centre and the right, it is virtually an anathema to question either Atlanticism or Europeanism. After all, the only party to do so, Ataka, has virtually vanished into thin air after its 2005 grand debut.
Given the delicate conjuncture Bulgaria is living through, the re-emergence of the divide between Russophiles and Russophobes is unsurprising. Yet again, the veil of a more superficial cleavage is disguising this debate: President versus Prime Minister. The two factions will be fighting the upcoming early elections also on this key foreign-policy issue: Russia or not? GERB will try to cast itself as the ultimate guarantor of Bulgaria’s policy of equilibrium. It will describe its opponents, gathered around the President, as attempting to disrupt this balance. Whether truthful or not, this description may polarise the country further with the effect of tying the next government’s hands. Whoever wins the contest, in the upcoming months Bulgarian-Russian relations will be a focal point for all the parties involved.