Bulgaria’s uneasy liberation from Russia's grip

Bulgaria’s uneasy liberation from Russia's grip
The fate of the Soviet army monument in Sofia is an issue that has divided pro-Russians and those who want Bulgaria to escape from Moscow's influence. / bne IntelliNews
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia August 23, 2023

Bulgaria, once among Russia’s most loyal allies, has been struggling to put an end to the Kremlin’s strong influence in the country as Moscow stepped up its pressure on domestic politicians since the invasion of Ukraine.

These efforts are not new, but have rapidly increased over the past few years. They have created a deep division among Bulgarians – both politicians and citizens – with one camp demanding stronger integration with the West, while the other pushing to strengthen Russian influence and bring back the country to the Eurasian orbit.

Although Bulgaria is member of the EU and Nato, before the election of the pro-Western former government of Kiril Petkov the country had been acting as Russian satellite within these two Western alliances. In the past decade, it built the so-called Balkan Stream that helps Russia avoid Ukraine in transportation of natural gas. It also agreed to build second nuclear power plant with Russian equipment, sold its sole oil refinery to Russian Lukoil and gave a decades-long concession to the Russian company for the Rosenets oil terminal.

Bulgaria now has another pro-Western government. In recent weeks, two decisions by the pro-Western political formations in parliament have heated the debate on Bulgaria’s relationship with Russia. One is a proposal for constitutional changes that includes a change to the country’s national Liberation Day holiday. The other is a parliament decision to demolish a large monument to the Soviet army placed in the centre of the capital Sofia.

Soviet troops remembered 

The Soviet army monument, erected in 1954 during the communist era, commemorates the arrival of Soviet forces in the country at the end of World War II.

In September 1944, Soviet Union-backed communists took over the power in Bulgaria. Soviet troops entered the country and were involved in the murders and expulsions of thousands of people, including writers, journalists, middle-class Bulgarians and educated pro-Western people. Their property was seized and their relatives were either killed, sent to jail or displaced to villages and forced to live in poor and difficult conditions, often dying of hunger or lack of medical treatment.

The monument – one of the largest in Bulgaria’s capital – has thus been at the centre of a heated debates for years. 

A decision on the removal of the monument, unofficially named Monument of the Occupational Red Army, was taken 30 years ago, in 1993. However, three decades later, no government or local authority has taken actual steps to demolish it despite several efforts by members of reformist pro-Western Democratic Bulgaria to put the issue on the agenda.

Its defenders say it is a recognition of Russian troops’ contribution to the end of the World War II and Bulgaria’s liberation from the Nazi-friendly regime, while their opponents say that soldiers from Ukraine, Poland and other countries in the region actually helped Bulgaria more.

An initial attempt by Democratic Bulgaria to request the removal of the monument from the centre of Sofia in 2020 failed. 

However, things changed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine radically altered the mood in the country. 

The day after the invasion, Traicho Traikov, mayor of the Sofia districts where the monument is placed, said he was initiating a procedure to remove the monument. That again failed due to the unclear ownership of the monument, but the efforts didn’t stop there.

The current pro-Western government led by Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov, which has put among its top priorities to clean Bulgaria from Russian influence, quickly started taking both symbolic and actual steps in that direction. In early August, it found legal grounds to decide to demolish the monument.

In a separate step, the parties supporting the government – Gerb and Change Continues-Democratic Bulgaria (CC-DB) – as well as the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), took control of the Rosenets oil terminal from Lukoil, which directly hits Russian oil imports for the Lukoil Neftochim refinery.

At the same time, a proposal for constitutional changes, backed by the same three formations, includes changing the country’s national holiday from March 3 to May 24. May 24 is currently the Literacy Day that celebrates the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet. March 3, celebrated as Liberation Day, is marred by controversy due to the participation of the Russian army and politicians in the events.

Pro-Russians fight back 

However, these steps are not easily implemented as pro-Russian forces in the country have started to fight back.

President Rumen Radev, once the politician with the highest rating in the country due to his efforts to stand against corruption, positioned himself in the pro-Russian camp after the start of the war in Ukraine. A few days ago, he said that changing the national holiday from March 3 to May 24 is a red line that should not be crossed.

Radev announced a national movement to prevent the change of the national holiday, accusing those in power of suffering from “power bulimia” and threatening democracy.

“With its behaviour, the authorities are pushing our society into chaos and violence, destroying the democratic consensus that is the basis of our peaceful transition and without which there is no European perspective for Bulgaria,” Radev told reporters.

As well as changing the date of the holiday, the constitutional changes, if adopted, would significantly reduce the powers of the president when appointing caretaker governments.

Meanwhile, the pro-Russian Vazrazhdane party, the third largest in parliament, as well as the pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the fifth largest in parliament, are trying to trigger protests against the demolition of the monument and the change of the national holiday.

A small tent camp, backed by the two formations, was set up in front of the monument to defend it from demolition. It was attacked by four members of a football team fan group last week. That triggered an unexpected investigation by Russian prosecutors. Russia has no legal authority in this case as the monument is owned by the Bulgarian state.

A long struggle 

It is hard to predict how far Bulgaria can go in its efforts to put an end to Russian influence. 

The country has already managed to end its energy dependence from Russia, which was a strong tool for influence. If the current reformist pro-Western government stays in office longer, the country could be accepted in the Schengen border-free area and the eurozone. That would give strong tools against Russian influence.

However, if the government falls before those goals are achieved, pro-Russian parties could gain more support in another snap election and put the country back in the Kremlin’s orbit.


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