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Bulgarian Parliamentary Candidate Too Busy To Campaign As He Fights In Ukraine

Ivan Kalchev has been awed by the reaction of overjoyed Ukrainians in freed towns and villages.
Ivan Kalchev has been awed by the reaction of overjoyed Ukrainians in freed towns and villages.

Politicians in Bulgaria are crisscrossing the Balkan country of nearly 7 million to convince voters to cast ballots for them in snap parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2.

But one candidate, Ivan Kalchev, is not on the campaign trail, but the battlefield in Ukraine.

Kalchev traveled to Ukraine in early March to join up with the foreign legion organized by Kyiv, shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine on February 24.

In fact, Kalchev told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service that he is now taking part in the Ukrainian counteroffensive. "Everything was very well prepared and organized and there is nothing accidental about the successes," Kalchev stated, adding that life on the battlefield is nothing like in the movies.

Ukraine's much-anticipated counterattack launched early this month has dealt not only a blow to Russia's military but provided Ukrainians with hope amid what has been a dramatic change in momentum.

Kalchev has been awed by the reaction of overjoyed Ukrainians in freed towns and villages. "With joy, with pride, with tears in my eyes, I just see how these people are happy to be freed," Kalchev told RFE/RL from an undisclosed location.

Shortly after Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to foreigners willing to help defend Ukraine and join the fight.

WATCH: Soldiers from around the world continue to join Ukraine's foreign legion, motivated by the need to help with "the most important conflict in the last 50 years," as one American volunteer put it.

Ukraine's Foreign Legion: Soldiers Speak Of Historic Fight For Democracy
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The government even set up a website for them to join the international brigade, which is now thought to number in the thousands, with one recent estimate putting the figure at some 20,000.

Fighting For Reform

As Kalchev helps Ukraine reclaim its land from invading Russian forces, back at home politicians are battling for ballots.

Bulgaria -- a member of the European Union and NATO -- is holding early parliamentary elections on October 2, the fourth such poll in less than two years amid much political instability.

The reformist government led by Kiril Petkov collapsed in June, six months after one of its coalition partners quit. Petkov, who heads the We Continue the Change (PP) party, which came to power in November 2021, has struggled to deliver on his pledge to stamp out corruption.

He has also backed Ukraine in its fight against Russia in a country traditionally friendly toward Moscow.

Petkov fired Defense Minister Stefan Yanev for his reluctance to describe the Russian invasion as a war. In June, Petkov expelled 70 Russian diplomatic staff, accusing them of working against Sofia's interests.

From Star Student To Soldier

Kalchev was a star student in Sofia, graduating from the National High School of Natural Sciences with honors, before studying physics and information technology at university.

As a kid, his schoolmates called him "Gligi" for the necklace he wore adorned with the teeth of wild boars -- gligi in Bulgarian.

In eighth grade, he befriended Vladimir Yonchev, the founder and editor in chief of the OffNews website, who told RFE/RL that Kalchev was "one of the smartest people he knows." Yonchev said he also studied physics, computer science, and politics, while spending his remaining free time riding his motorcycle or melding metal in the special furnace he built himself.

Yonchev also recalls how Kalchev's political passion led to his joining the Green Movement party in 2013, rising through its leadership ranks over the years. Members of the environmentally friendly Green Movement were at the vanguard of anti-government protests that swept Bulgaria in 2020-21.

But despite his rich and impressive background, there was one thing Kalchev lacked, especially given his current location and vocation: military training. In fact, just a week before he set off for Ukraine, Kalchev said he got his first training.

In the early months of the war, Kalchev didn't see any military action. Instead, he carried out multiple tasks, from translating -- he speaks English -- to troubleshooting -- making sure the Starlink Internet satellite connection was working -- to even evacuating the wounded, he recounted in an interview with OffNews in late June.

That all changed, Kalchev told RFE/RL, shortly after Ukraine's military launched its counteroffensive, largely in the northeastern corner of the country.

Russian forces suffered a stunning reversal this month after Ukrainian troops made a rapid armored thrust with special forces in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, forcing a sometimes rushed and chaotic Russian withdrawal.

Zelenskiy said on September 14 that his army had liberated around 8,000 square kilometers.

It's been the swiftest advance by Ukrainian forces since driving Russian forces away from the capital of Kyiv in March, and some analysts say it has turned the tide of the seven-month invasion.

For Kalchev, modern warfare has little in common with its portrayal in Hollywood films, with lots of time spent doing nothing, just waiting.

That all changed abruptly when the counteroffensive started and sleep became much shorter, sometimes just two hours a night, Kalchev said.

He was awed at the array of military might the Ukrainians had at their disposal. "Even in a computer game, I have never seen so many tanks and APCs (armored personnel carriers) as I saw there," Kalchev said.

Despite the horrors of war, the reaction of those in freed towns and villages has buoyed his spirits. "In all the villages we have liberated, people have taken to the streets, usually one main street that runs through the village. They come outside, with flags, with balloons, waving the flags, smiling at us and waving at every military vehicle that passes by," Kalchev said.

Certain hazards remain in liberated territories, Kalchev points out, such as mines or unexploded artillery shells.

It's unclear how many Bulgarians are in Ukraine fighting on the side of Kyiv's forces. In the early days of the invasion, news emerged of a Bulgarian battalion in Ukraine. However, that later appeared to be nothing more than a social-media hoax, even though it was taken seriously enough to be debated in parliament.

With campaigning for the upcoming poll under way back home, Kalchev says he is reaching out to potential voters through a Facebook page that is maintained by his election team.

Kalchev is unsure whether he will return to Bulgaria by voting day on October 2, explaining that circumstances on the battlefield will probably conspire to make that impossible.

Kalchev is a candidate for the Green Movement, a member of the Democratic Bulgarian coalition, a grouping formed in 2018 that unites reform forces. "The votes for us will be a test of how important geopolitics is to our voters," Kalchev explained.

The coalition has a pro-Western orientation and is demanding Bulgaria take a stronger stance in supporting Ukraine.

Taking his cue from Ukraine, Kalchev said in a recent Facebook post that "the counteroffensive in Bulgaria begins on October 2. Vote!"

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by Dilyana Teoharova of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service