At rallies for Bulgaria's Revival party, there is no shortage of Russian flags. The leader of the ultranationalist party, Kostadin Kostadinov, who is in favor of leaving the EU and NATO, calls the other parties contesting Bulgaria's elections "projects of the American embassy" that will "throw us into a war against Russia." Kostadinov doesn't blame Putin for the war in Ukraine, but the West.
According to recent polls, Revival should pass the 4 percent threshold to enter parliament in Bulgaria's October 2 elections. While a relatively small party with little chance of governing, Revival's views -- a toxic mixture of Russophilia and anti-Western conspiracies -- are becoming more and more popular in Bulgaria. Revival is on the fringes of Bulgarian political life, but many of its pro-Russian views are not. And there are many more parties just like Revival: nationalist, anti-liberal, and firmly pro-Russian.
Bulgaria has been in political crisis for many months. In the last elections in November 2021, the pro-European We Continue the Change (PP) party came to power as part of a four-party coalition. In June, however, one of its coalition partners, the populist There Is Such a People party, suddenly quit. Since then, the country has been run by a caretaker government led by the president, Rumen Radev.
According to recent polls, the most popular party ahead of these elections is the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), the ruling party between 2009 and 2021, and now supported by 22-25 percent of Bulgarians. While GERB is openly pro-EU, pro-NATO, and supportive of Ukraine in its war against Russia, the party kept Bulgaria entirely dependent on Russian gas for all its years in power.
The other parties that are expected to get into parliament are: We Continue the Change; the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the successor of the Bulgarian Communist Party, which ruled alone until 1989; the Revival party; the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which is supported by many of Bulgaria's ethnic Turks; and the pro-European Democratic Bulgaria alliance.
As many as 28 political parties and coalitions are listed on the ballot for Bulgaria's early elections, the fourth such poll in less than two years. While the leading mainstream parties tend to have more nuanced views on Russia, the smaller Bulgarian parties are more outspoken and enthusiastic in their support for the Kremlin. After reviewing the public statements of representatives of all parties registered in the ballot, RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service estimates that 15 out of the 28 parties appear to be broadly pro-Russian.
Some of these parties propose rapprochement with Russia and call for Bulgaria to leave the European Union and NATO. Others want the lifting of sanctions on Russia, especially pertaining to the supply of gas. Some -- without even mentioning the country ruled by President Vladimir Putin -- regurgitate Kremlin talking points about the threat of "global liberalism" and the moral decline of the West.
Take Russophiles for the Revival of the Fatherland. Nikolay Malinov's party states in its program that "any attempts to involve Bulgaria in any forms of hostility toward Russia are detrimental to our national interests." In a statement to mark a national holiday on March 3, a few days after the invasion of Ukraine, Malinov called for the Bulgarian people to "open [their] hearts wide for our liberating Russia."
In 2019, Malinov, who has been accused of spying for Russia, was personally awarded by Putin the Order of Friendship, and in 2021, he signed a road map for cooperation with the ruling United Russia party.
Likewise, the Just Bulgaria coalition that unites the United Social Democracy party and the Political Movement Social Democrats party insists on an "urgent restoration" of relations between Bulgaria and Russia. One of the candidates running on the party list, General Dimitar Shivikov, defended Moscow's actions at the beginning of the war. "Russia has its reasons. Under the pressure of external forces, a coup d'état was carried out in Ukraine," he said.
Another familiar face in the Just Bulgaria coalition is Plamen Paskov, a "politician and political scientist" who often appears on state television in Belarus. In his media appearances, he regularly talks about how the coronavirus is a fabrication, elections in the United States are all falsified, and how businessman and philanthropist George Soros organizes similar protests in Bulgaria and Belarus.
There are many more examples. The Movement of Non-Party Candidates wants the restoration and deepening of relations with Russia. The Bulgaria of Labor and Reason party insists on holding referendums on leaving NATO and the EU so that "Bulgaria will conduct an independent economic and foreign policy," a distinct echo of Kremlin propaganda, which claims that former Soviet countries lost their independence when they decided to join the EU and NATO.
Speaking on the private Eurocom channel in July, Maria Koleva, the chairwoman of the right-wing party of lawyers Pravoto, criticized then-Prime Minister Kiril Petkov after the government expelled 70 employees from the Russian Embassy in Sofia on suspicions of espionage.
"Let an investigation begin as to whether this person betrayed Bulgaria and did not bring us into a war under foreign influence. Because this is a crime against Bulgaria," Koleva said, speaking about Petkov. In Bulgarian political discourse, sending aid to Ukraine is often compared to "getting into a war," a view closely aligned with the Kremlin.
'The Ills Of Democracy'
Ivaylo Dichev, a professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University, says that one of the reasons why Bulgaria has so many pro-Russian parties is that "many of these [politicians] are paid or were traditional clients of the Soviet Union and now of Russia." He says that some of these politicians may have a direct financial interest related to their politicking, while others are just trying to exploit people's discontent.
"The other [reason] is that many people in Bulgaria believe in a firm hand, have lost faith in democracy, if they ever had any, and admire the fact that somewhere, some dictator, some strong man, can say 'come on' and solve all the problems," Dichev told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service. "Even in Italy and France, Russophilia is a form of resistance against the ills of democracy."
However, the dominance of pro-Russian parties on Bulgaria's political scene might not be all it seems. Rather than being a sign of a resurgent, influential Russia, it could actually be quite the opposite. The proliferation of parties espousing a Kremlin-friendly ideology might actually reflect an increasing distrust of Russia among Bulgarians.
In an interview with RFE/RL, sociologist Genoveva Petrova from the Sofia-based Alpha Research said that the traditional 60-70 percent approval rating for Russia has plummeted since February 24, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. According to a study by Alpha Research, positive opinions of Putin dropped from up to 58 percent between 2020-22 to just 32 percent in March.
The Kremlin became even more unpopular when Russia's state-controlled Gazprom stopped natural-gas supplies to Bulgaria in April. The massive participation of Russophile parties is an attempt to address that waning popularity, Petrova says, and turn around society's increasingly negative views of Russia.
Even some parties that are in favor of staying in the EU and NATO are supportive of Russia. Stefan Yanev, whose party Bulgarian Rise is polling around the 4 percent mark needed to enter parliament, was forced out of Petkov's government as defense minister after he claimed that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was not a war.
Yanev, like Putin, has declared "global liberalism" to be his main enemy. In an August 31 Facebook post, Yanev said that pro-Western politicians had "their hearts in Washington and are in a state of war with Russia" and then blamed them for the Russian gas shutdown. With so many parties singing from the same songbook, Petrova of Alpha Research said that this "creates the impression and suggestion that such [pro-Russian] theses are widespread."
Rather than just seeking parliamentary seats, Bulgaria's broadly pro-Russian parties appear to be achieving something else: the popularizing of Kremlin-friendly ideas that once were on the fringes and are now firmly in the mainstream.