The war in Ukraine has amplified the rift within Bulgaria between pro-Western liberals and illiberal pro-Russians.
With the fifth general election in two years approaching, the population of the EU’s poorest and most corrupt member state appears more divided than ever, with no apparent path towards unification. While these divisions existed before the war, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago helped solidify them.
Those defining themselves as liberal and pro-Western support Ukraine and are throwing themselves into helping refugees, not only from Ukraine but also the victims of other devastating events such as the quake in Turkey and Syria and, closer to home, recent floods in Bulgaria.
The other group, which believes the country should abandon its pro-Western path and return to the Russian orbit, is preoccupied with issues such as whether Bulgaria will lose its sovereignty if the country joins the eurozone, or if the minds of young people will be twisted by the teaching of so-called “gender ideology” in schools.
Similar dividing lines have appeared in other countries in the region, where those who espouse traditional values clash with those who take a more liberal approach, but the gulf is particularly deep in Bulgaria.
The same divisions are reflected in voting intentions ahead of the April 2 snap general election. The first group seems more inclined to vote for the reformist pro-Western coalition Change Continues-Democratic Bulgaria, while the second would back pro-Russian Vazrazhdane or the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).
The positioning of some other parties is less clear. The Gerb-SDS coalition, for example, claims to be pro-Western, but during his time in power Gerb’s leader Boyko Borissov made some valuable “gifts” to Russia, notably building the local section of the TurkStream gas pipeline that bypassed Ukraine.
The separation of the two sides of Bulgarian society began years before the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, but after the invasion the population and politicians openly split into those supporting Ukraine and its refugees, and those backing Russia.
In the first days after the invasion, thousands of Bulgarians started aiding refugees and gathering funds to help the Ukrainian army. Several went even further – fighting for Ukraine as part of the international legion there. The name of only one of them, Ivan Kalchev, is publicly known.
Kalchev, an IT expert, member of the Green Movement party and prominent civic activist, decided to go and fight for Ukraine days after the Russians invaded. He said he was fighting for Bulgaria’s and Europe’s freedom.
While in Ukraine, Kalchev occasionally posted on Facebook through trusted people in Bulgaria, inspiring his supporters. However, his posts also attracted a lot of comments from the other side of Bulgarian society wishing for his death at the front.
Bulgarian IT expert and civic activist Ivan Kalchev went to fight for Ukraine after the Russian invasion. Source: Ivan Kalchev via Facebook.
In July, Kalchev returned to Bulgaria for a ten-day leave and launched a campaign to gather funds and buy much-needed equipment for the international legion in Ukraine. The campaign was so successful that Kalchev gathered double the funds needed in just a few hours. He used the extra money to buy more equipment and launched another campaign to raise funds for the construction of a special drone for Ukraine. That one was also successful.
Although he was running in the upcoming election as a candidate for Democratic Bulgaria, Kalchev chose to stay in Ukraine in September and participate in the liberation of Kharkiv.
At the end of September, he returned to Bulgaria, saying he is continuing the same fight in another way. While campaigning, Kalchev is also still actively helping Ukraine and fighting for other causes in Bulgaria.
While few Bulgarians chose to fight in Ukraine, thousands have supported the country with funds and campaigns to buy equipment. One of them, publisher Manol Peykov, was particularly successful, inspiring thousands of people and gathering more funds than anyone had expected. As soon as the war in Ukraine began, Peykov established contacts with people there through Ukrainian writer Khrystia Vengryniuk, who is married to a Bulgarian and went to Ukraine to help after the start of the war. Vengryniuk is part of a group that is securing equipment for soldiers. Peykov was the one gathering funds and buying the equipment in Bulgaria, as well as arranging its transportation to Ukraine.
Publisher Manol Peykov (right) with one of the thousands of Bulgarians who supported his fundraising efforts for Ukraine. Source: Manol Peykov via Facebook.
After Russia attacked key energy infrastructure in Ukraine, leaving most of the country in the dark during the winter, it was Peykov who decided to gather funds for a few generators, after being asked for one by the theatre director Yordan Slaveykov for his friends from Ukrainian theatre. What followed was beyond any expectations – in just a few days, Peykov gathered more than half million levs for hundreds of generators, which he found a way to buy and transport to Ukraine.
Peykov claims that he was so successful because many Bulgarians have woken up and realised that it is in their power to change things. He believes that the huge donations are a signal of the birth of a strong civil society in Bulgaria.
After the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria, Peykov started another campaign to gather funds and quickly acquire and send essentials to victims of the quake. He was the first to find a way to send aid to Syria in the days when transferring anything to the country was almost impossible.
That campaign was again beyond any expectations. According to Peykov, people were coming by his office all the time to leave money, clothes, tents and other equipment. After just two days, the publisher had to find a warehouse to store all the donations.
A candidate for Democratic Bulgaria in the election, Peykov is so busy with his humanitarian work he says he has no time to campaign ahead of the vote.
The anonymous volunteers
The war in Ukraine increased the sensitivity of Bulgarians towards those in need and that has also extended to causes at home. In the autumn of 2022, floods destroyed or badly damaged houses and public buildings in several villages in their own country. Thousands of people donated funds, clothes and equipment within hours, while hundreds went to help local people by cleaning the areas and restoring buildings.
Another event, in November last year, also provoked a massive response – an autistic child disappeared in the town of Pernik. After his father alerted the police, hundreds of volunteers went to search for the boy for days, organising themselves without the help of the state authorities. The child was found alive and healthy thanks to their efforts.
But while the number of people responding to devastating events in Bulgaria and abroad has grown, so have their opponents. The voices of those criticising the Bulgarians who help the people of Ukraine, Turkey and Syria, especially on social media, have become louder.
A typical accusation is that Bulgarians who help foreigners do not care about poor retired people at home. The pro-Russian political parties participate in this rhetoric, and it has been claimed that such accusations are often started by trolls paid by Russia.
President’s u-turn towards the Kremlin
A political debate over whether and to what extent Bulgaria should support Ukraine with military and other forms of aid has been raging since the war started.
Pre-war, President Rumen Radev was recognised as a political figure fighting against corruption, which helped him to win his second mandate. However, he alienated many of his admirers when he started taking increasingly open pro-Russian positions since February 2022.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev was hailed for his efforts against corruption, but alienated supporters when he took increasingly pro-Russian positions.
Radev’s main position is that Bulgaria should only provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine, preferably to Bulgarians living in Ukraine, and under no circumstances give weapons to Kyiv. The president claims that providing weapons to Ukraine will only escalate the war and will not bring peace. He went even further, accusing Change Continues and Democratic Bulgaria, who have repeatedly pushed for military aid to Ukraine, of being “the parties of war”.
It was revealed in January that former prime minister Kiril Petkov’s government secretly supplied Ukraine with fuel and Soviet calibre ammunition after the start of Russian invasion via third countries.
Radev also pushed Prime Minister Gulub Donev caretaker government to try hard to launch talks with Gazprom on the resumption of deliveries of natural gas. Gazprom halted supplies to Bulgaria in April 2022, after Petkov’s government refused to start paying in rubles. Radev accused Petkov and few of his ministers of violating the contract with Gazprom, which, he said, could lead to heavy fines for Bulgaria.
Recently, Radev also said that as long as the country is ruled by the caretaker government, Sofia will not provide any weapons or ammunition to Kyiv even though the last parliament ordered the interim government to do that. The president said that Bulgaria would seek guarantees from its EU partners that they would not provide any weapons purchased from Bulgarian arms producers to Ukraine.
Another pro-Russian politician, Vazrazhdane leader Kostadin Kostadinov — dubbed Kostya Kopeyking because of his pro-Russian aspirations — has started a petition for a referendum on delaying euro adoption until 2043.
Kostadinov and his party argue that should Bulgaria adopt the euro, people will rapidly become poor and will starve. Vazrazhdane claims that Bulgaria would entirely lose its monetary sovereignty, and that the decisions of the European Central Bank would harm Bulgaria’s interests.
Undermining Kostadinov’s arguments, it has been revealed that he and most of Vazrazhdane’s leadership keep their savings in euro accounts. The party showed the same duplicity regarding anti-coronavirus vaccines – while calling for protests against vaccines, it turned out that all of its MPs were vaccinated.
The fight against “gender ideology”
Another issue that has preoccupied those on the illiberal side of the divide is “gender ideology” — a term created by Russia and quickly adopted in Bulgaria several years ago when far-right parties fiercely opposed the adoption of the Istanbul convention on the prevention of domestic violence and violence against women.
At the time, they claimed that the adoption of the convention would open doors to the introduction of a “third gender” and would turn young people into homosexuals. The constitutional court backed the nationalists, saying the convention contradicts the Bulgarian constitution that states there are two genders – female and male. A later constitutional court decision banned gender reassignment.
Now the leader of the BSP, Kornelia Ninova, has launched a fight against “gender ideology” in schools in a bid to take votes from Vazrazhdane.
Ninova claims “gender ideology” is increasingly widespread at schools. In one video, posted on her Facebook profile, she reads a lesson from a sixth grade textbook that mentions homosexuality. Ninova claims this is pushing youngsters towards the “third sex”.
“Support us to stop that together. May we be mother and father, not parent 1 and parent 2. May we have boys and girls and not something in between 60 different sexes. Our fight is for the children,” Ninova said.
Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Kornelia Ninova calls for a referendum on whether "gender ideology" should be taught in schools. Source: BSP.
No way to bridge the gap
With campaigns like those on gender and the euro intensifying ahead of the general election, the two opposing groups in Bulgaria seem more divided than ever, after no event or situation managed to bridge the gap between them over the past two years.
Druing this time, the lengthy political crisis in the country has made it even harder for the two groups to understand those who differ from them or even attempt to find common ground.
Unless Bulgarians decide to set aside their differences and work jointly for the country’s interests, unifying the population seems impossible in the coming years, while divisions might deepen even further.