SOFIA -- A far-right party is shaking up Bulgarian politics ahead of snap parliamentary elections, promising to get the country out of the EU and NATO, and advancing policies friendly to the Kremlin.
The Revival party, which already has seats in the National Assembly, Bulgaria's unicameral parliament, has vowed to renegotiate Bulgaria's membership in the European Union. If Brussels doesn't cave to its demands, Revival has said it will push for a referendum on whether Bulgaria should exit the EU. The party also wants a vote on the country's membership in NATO.
Revival is one of several parties -- albeit the most prominent -- vying for seats in Bulgaria's October 2 parliamentary elections with a clear pro-Kremlin agenda.
Polls from Gallup and Alpha Research predict that Revival will come in fourth place with 11-13 percent of the vote, well past the 4 percent threshold for entering parliament.
While many experts dismiss the anti-Western rhetoric of the Revival party as little more than campaign bluster, they do caution that the party is doing the bidding of the Kremlin.
"In my opinion, hidden behind these positions of Revival, is an agenda to set as large a part of Bulgarian society as possible against the EU, to separate Bulgaria from a united Europe and the free world; to turn us into a peripheral authoritarian state of the repressive Russian regime," Hristo Hristev, a professor of EU law at Sofia University, told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.
Bulgarians are going to the polls for the fourth parliamentary elections in less than two years.
The elections come after recent gains by far-right parties in Italy and Sweden amid economic fears and uncertainty first stoked by the COVID-19 pandemic and now Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Bulgaria has been plagued by political gridlock since 2020 when the Southeast European country of nearly 7 million people was rocked by nationwide protests, as public anger over years of corruption boiled over. Much of the ire was directed at longtime leader Boyko Borisov and his center-right Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party.
The latest government, led by Kiril Petkov, collapsed in June after just six months when one of its coalition partners quit. Petkov, who heads the pro-reform We Continue the Change (PP) party, 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.
In the latest elections in November 2021, the Revival party won 13 seats in the 240-member National Assembly after campaigning against COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines even though Bulgaria was plagued by the highest infection rates in Europe. (It later emerged that many top Revival members had actually been vaccinated.)
The party's leader, Kostadin Kostadinov, has long operated on Bulgaria's political fringes, once calling for "Russophobic garbage" to be "exterminated like pests." He was arrested years ago for involvement in an attack on a Romany community.
The United States is another of Revival's perennial targets, accused of pulling the strings in Sofia. Kostadinov has often said "everything is determined by Kozyak," the street in the Bulgarian capital where the U.S. Embassy is located.
Ahead of the November 2021 elections, Kostadinov was accused of pilfering state money meant for his party to buy himself real estate and a luxury car. Kostadinov, who also made a failed run in Bulgaria's November 14 presidential election -- held concurrently with the parliamentary poll -- denied the charges or that he's a shill for the Kremlin.
However, his and his party's rhetoric have long been in tune with the Kremlin. Ahead of the October 2 polls, Kostadinov said Revival was mulling whether to recognize Russia's recent referendums in Ukraine, which have been rejected as a sham by Ukraine, the United States, and the United Nations.
Elsewhere, Kostadinov has promised a "normalization of relations with Russia," which has been hit by sanctions and international isolation after launching its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
In attempting to justify a referendum on Bulgaria's NATO membership, Kostadinov has claimed, without providing any proof, that being a part of the Western military alliance has weakened Bulgaria.
According to Kostadinov, warmer ties with Russia are crucial to Bulgaria's economic future, not the EU, which has provided Sofia with billions of euros in funding over the years.
"That's why we are talking about renegotiating the conditions for Bulgaria's membership in the EU," Kostadinov told Bulgarian National Television on September 10.
As elsewhere, energy has been the cudgel wielded by Russia in Bulgaria.
Not only did Bulgaria rely on Russia for most of its natural gas, but its only oil refinery -- the largest in the Balkans -- is owned by Russia's LUKoil. However, in recent months, Sofia has made key infrastructure moves to wean itself off Russian gas and oil, including new pipelines and opportunities offered by liquified natural gas.
Talk of renegotiating the terms of Bulgaria's EU membership was also raised by Tsoncho Ganchev, another leading figure of the Revival party. "That's what we plan to do. And when Revival governs, this is exactly what we will do first -- renegotiate the conditions with the EU," Ganev told bTV on September 10.
Experts, however, have quickly dismissed the proposal as lacking credibility.
"This abracadabra 'renegotiation' of the terms of Bulgaria's membership in the EU is not credible and does not correspond to law or reality. Rather, it's an attempt at propaganda and communication hocus pocus," explained professor Hristev, adding this was the modus operandi of extremist parties across Europe.
"The extreme right or the extreme left in Europe prey on naive voters or try to package their anti-European politics in a more acceptable way," Hristev said.
RFE/RL reached out to the Revival party's press department to request an interview to discuss its policies and positions on the EU, NATO, and Russia. No response was forthcoming.
In the recent past, Revival has proved itself cyber-savvy in whipping up opposition to COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines, ultimately propelling the party into parliament last November.
With the pandemic behind it, the party "is now using the same channels to propagate pro-Russian propaganda," the Bulgarian news site Kapital Insights wrote in May.
The party is arguably the most active political group on the Internet in Bulgaria right now. It uses Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok to disseminate propaganda to its growing group of supporters.
"We monitor the pages, set up by their regional branches and the profiles of their leaders. The number of people who engage with their content is astounding," Nikola Tulechki, co-founder of the nonprofit Data for Good and part of a team running a Bulgarian fact-checking platform, was quoted as saying. "They hold close to 60 percent of the online engagement with content from political figures online."
But even in Bulgaria, once a staunch ally of the Soviet Union under communism and still with close cultural, historical, and economic ties with Russia, Putin's popularity has dropped since he sent troops into Ukraine at the end of February.
An opinion poll released in April by Alpha Research found 61 percent of respondents did not trust Putin and that 63 percent supported Bulgaria's membership in the EU and NATO, with 15 percent in favor of stronger ties with Russia.
Those figures mirror trends elsewhere in Europe, especially among supporters of right-wing populist parties, who traditionally hold more positive views of Putin and Russia.
"While that is generally still the case today, favorable opinions of Russia and Putin have declined sharply among Europe's populists following Russia's military invasion of Ukraine," a fresh survey by the Pew Research Center has found.
The survey found that trend was "especially pronounced" among populists in Italy, where the far-fight Brothers of Italy party came out on top of parliamentary elections on September 25. Brothers of Italy party leader Giorgia Meloni, who had spoken in the past favorably of Putin, has recently changed her tune. Meloni has slammed Russia's invasion of Ukraine, backed sanctions against Russia, and even been in favor of sending arms to Kyiv -- something that Italians in general have been split on.
In Sweden's September 11 elections, the Sweden Democrats, a party founded in the 1980s by far-right extremists, won enough seats to become the country's second-largest in parliament. The ruling Social Democrats in Sweden have called the party a "security risk" due to its leader's ambivalent statements on Putin.
In Bulgaria, the goals of Revival are in tune with Kremlin goals of undermining European institutions in the country, Hristev argues. "There is a clear connection with the agenda, goals, and actions of the Putin regime and [Revival] are an instrument of the impact of the new Russian dictatorship in Bulgaria," he said.
Juliana Nikolova, a Bulgarian analyst and head of the Europe.bg website, says Revival preys on ill-informed voters. "I just want to ask the question: What if we leave the EU? When we leave NATO, what? Who guards our skies when we leave NATO?" Nikolova asked.
"To deny the positive effect of EU membership is a refusal to reflect reality as it is," Hristev noted.