Following the Russian aggression against Ukraine, it was generally questioned whether Bulgaria really supports Ukraine, but recent developments have solidified the country’s pro-Ukrainian stance, which will please younger Bulgarians.
Since Bulgaria has a deep connection and close relations with Russia dating back to the Tsardom Era, Bulgaria was caught between two fires during the Ukraine Conflict. On one side, a former ally and a former overlord during Cold War, and on the other side, a country that was being invaded and being supported by the Western hemisphere. This bipolar situation created a major divide in Bulgarian politics and the Bulgarian society. The ruling government wants to support Ukraine in the conflict but on the other hand, the pro-Russian politicians alongside the Bulgarian Socialist Party want Bulgaria to support Russia. However, the divide in Bulgarian society is far deeper than the political divide in this specific example. The younger generation versus older generation, rural versus urban population divide also affects the Bulgarian stance in the conflict. As expected, the older generations and rural population are closer to Russia while the younger and urban population is in favor of Europe and Ukraine. To understand the main reasons for this divide in Bulgarian society, the near history of the country should be analyzed.
Before the transition to democracy, the Bulgarian economy was primarily supported by the Soviet Union and boosted by the trade between the countries of the Warsaw Pact. The collapse of the Soviet Union changed the course of the Bulgarian economy completely and the Bulgarians had to stand on their own feet. This process created an economic crisis and it took them years to fix it. Since the older generations of Bulgarians saw the communist era and its stable political life and economy -even though the life quality was lower-, they often wanted Russian support back to return to those times. Even though the economy was fixed and the life quality had risen significantly in the 2000s, the older generations still have the same opinion mostly. However, the new Bulgarian generation was raised by the pro-European ideals and western system which created a completely different generation compared to their elders. Like the older generations, the remnants of the communist era also favor Russia. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) which was formed by the former elites of the communist party, supports the Russian side in the conflict. Since their initial coalition with the centrist movement of “We Continue the Change” succeeded with victory in the 2021 Bulgarian Parliamentary Elections, they had a significant hearing in the Bulgarian foreign policy. After the Bulgarian government -which was mostly formed by the centrists- started to support Ukraine, they threatened to leave the coalition which will probably result in a fall of the government unless the government stops supporting Ukraine and acting against Russia (Todorov, 2022). However, the Bulgarian PM and the Bulgarian government further increased their support for Ukraine, even promising to repair their damaged military equipment despite the BSP outrage (Todorov, 2022). The pro-European members of the coalition highly favored this act but it also angered the BSP so it is safe to say that Bulgarian parties are mostly divided into two groups after the conflict.
The tension was rising until the news hit the European countries and eventually took them by surprise. The biggest Russian natural gas providing company Gazprom cut off the gas supply to the European countries, including Bulgaria. Since most of their energy needs were satisfied by the Russian gas, they had to face an energy crisis now in addition to political instability. They accelerated their efforts to diversify their gas suppliers and since the winter had passed, the need for gas was dropped to a manageable amount. So even though the gas cut is a manageable issue and did not affect the Bulgarian economy significantly, it had a huge impact on the Bulgarian society. It meant that the Russians see Bulgaria as no different than the other pro-Ukrainian countries to Bulgarians. Considering their former relations and agreements with Russians, Bulgarians thought that this was an act of betrayal. The opposing Bulgarian Socialist Party and other pro-Russian politicians were divided amongst each other and the Bulgarian government found an opportunity to increase its support for Ukraine. Even though the majority of Bulgarians supported Ukraine at the beginning of the conflict, the percentage increased even more after the gas cut and after Russia failed to succeed in its objectives against Ukraine.
The doubts about the stance of Bulgaria in the Ukraine Conflict became clear day after day and even though there was opposition to supporting Ukraine. It is clear that Bulgaria had clearly aligned itself with the European Union, leaving the long history of Bulgarian-Russian relations behind. This dramatic change in the history of Bulgarian-Russian relations will also solidify the position of the Bulgarian government in the eyes of the new generation since they were mostly pro-European and pro-Ukrainian. Ukraine Conflict will also change the course of Bulgarian democracy. Since the overall perception in the Bulgarian society is in favor of Ukraine, the pro-Ukraine parties including the current government will gain more popularity, and old pro-Russian politicians will be less popular. To conclude, it is safe to say that Bulgaria completely supports Ukraine and it changed its foreign policy completely considering the Cold War Era.
- Todorov, Svetoslav (2022), POLAND, BULGARIA, DEFIANT AFTER RUSSIA CUTS OFF GAS SUPPLY, BalkanInsight, https://balkaninsight.com/2022/04/27/poland-bulgaria-defiant-after-russia-cuts-off-gas-supply/
- Todorov, Svetoslav (2022), Bulgarian Socialists Threaten PM Petkov Over Support for Ukraine, BalkanInsight, https://balkaninsight.com/2022/04/29/bulgarian-socialists-threaten-pm-petkov-over-support-for-ukraine/
- Todorov, Svetoslav (2022), Bulgaria to Repair Ukraine’s Military Equipment, Despite Internal Tensions, BalkanInsight, https://balkaninsight.com/2022/05/04/bulgaria-to-repair-ukraines-military-equipment-despite-internal-tensions/
- Photo by Sergey Dolzhenko, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (R) and Prime Minister of Bulgaria Kiril Petkov (L) shake hands as they attend a meeting in Kyiv, April 28, 2022.