War of Words: Why has the Russian Foreign Ministry recently scolded Bulgaria?

Moscow and Sofia have overnight exchanged rather acrimonious diplomatic statements over last week’s decision by the Bulgarian Parliament to set up a commission with the task to investigate alleged Russian and Turkish meddling in the country’s domestic affairs.

It all began yesterday when Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, described Bulgaria’s decision as “absurd” and implied that it was reminiscent of “neo-McCarthyism”.

Today, Bulgaria released a brief but firm official response stating that the republic’s Parliament is the supreme sovereign authority in the country and Russia’s statement could be seen as a “confirmation of the suggestions”, which the new commission is mandated to investigate.

This short diplomatic exchange is worth looking at because the recent statement by the Russian foreign ministry provides a vivid snapshot of the official propaganda line maintained by Moscow towards Bulgaria. The actual critical remarks are delivered by about two sentences in the statement. The rest of the text constructs the main argument around Russia’s benign role in Bulgaria’s history and the indebtedness of the latter. The word “interference” is used ironically to remind the reader how Russian soldiers have liberated (“interfered” to liberate) “their brothers” from fascist evil and five-century long occupation from “that same Turkey” decades earlier. A rhetorical question asks about the sense in looking for “Moscow’s hand” in a country in which generations are “in debt to their brothers for having their restored sovereignty”. The statement describes the Parliament’s decision to set up the investigative committee as “cynical” because it comes just days before 3 March, Bulgaria’s national holiday which commemorates the establishment of modern statehood in 1878 after the Russian Empire defeated its Ottoman rival in what remains to be known as the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

To the uninformed observer, the nature of these claims by the Russian foreign ministry could bring little insight. However, as I have written before in this blog, the Bulgarian historical context is rather specific in being marked by paradigms like an “Ottoman yoke” and a “Russian liberation”. In the national epic constructed during the 19th century, all things “Turkish” had come to be seen negatively, while Russia had been portrayed as the bringer of hope, thus positively. This view has largely survived till nowadays despite the fact that neither the Russian nor Ottoman empires survived though the 20th century, while the world today is based on different rules and geopolitical dependencies than those of the 19th century.

Simply put, the narrative based on “brotherhood” and “liberation” is one of the most powerful tools that Moscow still has at its disposal to use in Bulgaria today. These concepts were nurtured during the communist period in Bulgaria even more effectively than in the decades before 1944 when ironically they should have been more relevant. During this period, official propaganda was deliberately drawing direct parallels between the 19th century liberation war waged by the Russian Empire and the Soviet “liberation” of Bulgaria from its pro-fascist dependency at the end of World War II.

When such statements are released through official channels from Moscow, they should serve as a rallying call for the pro-Russian sentiments in Bulgaria. Russia probably knows well that now over 25 years after the collapse of its satellite system in Eastern Europe, its soft influence in the region is waning. It is essential therefore to keep the flame burning in Bulgaria as it is one of few countries in the region which do not traditionally hold purely negative sentiments towards Russia. This way the old narrative is wielded on any convenient occasion when Moscow officials fear that Russian interests have been slightly threatened. In a typical soft power approach, by mobilizing pro-Russian sentiment among certain groups of the local population, Moscow can exert indirect influence on decisions being considered in Sofia. A parallel is always carefully drawn between the elites, who have sold themselves to the West, and the “good” people who remain deeply grateful and committed to their Russian “brothers”.

In this context, the message from yesterday should be seen as a reminder of this old adage – “your politicians may be looking to demonize us, but remember who we are and what we have done for you in the past”. Currently, Moscow possibly does not really have any need to mobilize its influence in Bulgaria, but such “training” exercises are performed to maintain the fighting spirit for whenever a need may arise. Consider also the fact that this official position fits perfectly with the domestic public opinion widespread in Russia itself – it is exactly what many expect to hear when it comes to affairs involving Bulgaria.

To me, however, it seems that Russia has grown to be very sensitive to the news it receives from Bulgaria. Fearing to lose established positions in its stand-off with the West, Moscow’s regional sensitivity is put to test and that is why I believe we will be seeing more of these reactions in the future.