War in Ukraine Threatens to Upend Politics in Bulgaria

By invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin may have united Europe, but he certainly has not united Bulgarians. For a government that rode to power on a wave of hope for radical change after the Boyko Borissov era, the conflict risks stirring political divisions, within society and the cabinet.

A week into the invasion of Ukraine, pollsters registered a dramatic drop in support for Putin in the European Union’s poorest country, where he had been popular with more than 55 per cent of respondents in polls conducted by Alpha Research between 2020 and 2022.

Yet Putin, despite attacking Europe’s second largest country, home to 200,000 Bulgarians, still enjoys the approval of 32 per cent of Bulgarian voters.

As war rages a few hundred kilometres from Bulgaria’s Black Sea coastline, these constituents represent a powerful weapon with the potential to upend Bulgarian politics.

Cracks are already showing in the government. Bulgaria joined EU sanctions on Russia, but opposes sending arms and banning energy imports, and while Sofia backed the formation of a NATO battle group on its territory, Defence Minister Stefan Yanev was initially opposed to the idea and was later sacked on February 28 for his reluctance to describe the Russian invasion as a ‘war’.

Just three months in office, Prime Minister Kiril Petkov finds himself having to navigate treacherous waters: a pro-Western liberal, he must balance opposes perceptions of Russia’s past and present, while the fissures created by the war within his cabinet – where the Russian-friendly Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, holds the post of deputy prime minister – in parliament, and beyond will only deepen in the event of a protracted conflict.

Claims to the ‘silent majority’

Bulgaria, the populist ‘There Is Such a People’ and BSP – would not have it easy.

Even at the get-go, the partners diverged on the immediate foreign policy question for Bulgaria – whether to drop its opposition to EU accession talks with neighbouring North Macedonia – and risked open confrontation with President Rumen Radev.

But time passed and the dust seemed to have settled, at least until a few weeks before Putin invaded Ukraine.

One roadblock was set up by Yanev, who was outspoken in his opposition to NATO’s plans to deploy a multinational battle group to Bulgaria amid growing concern over Russia’s military buildup on the borders of Ukraine.

He first insisted no foreign troops be stationed in Bulgaria, arguing that only Bulgarian troops should take part. “Bulgaria is a sovereign country and decisions are taken in Sofia in accordance with the national interest,” Yanev said, before performing what appeared to be a U-turn when he said the battle group would be “majority Bulgarian.”

Then, days into the invasion, Yanev came under fire for his insistence on calling it a “special operation” and not a “war,” echoing, effectively, Putin’s own line on the attack. Yanev predicted his own sacking in a post on Facebook, saying he would be removed to make way for decisions “that are not in Bulgaria’s best interest” and would “sacrifice” the country.

Yanev, who as a former caretaker prime minister and defence adviser to Radev, had been a popular figure and mooted the possibility of launching his own political project to represent what he called the “silent majority”.

This, again, echoes the Russian narrative about a Bulgaria where the people are “pro-Russian” but being dragged west by the elite. While the political project is yet to materialise, it has the potential to attract pro-Russian voters who, as the Alpha Research poll shows, represent a sizeable chunk of the electorate.

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