Bulgaria Needs to Build a Healthier Relationship with Russia
Bulgarian media, politicians and social media users were quite busy in the first three days of the week, as dozens of news reports on TV stations and reports on websites were dedicated to a comment made by a Russian lawmaker.
Pyotr Tolstoy, the great-great-grandson of the iconic author Lev Tolstoy, on Monday won a seat in the Russian State Duma, the lower chamber of the country's Parliament. A day earlier, while voting was underway, he uttered a peculiar statement while speaking to the Bulgarian public broadcaster, BNT.
"Of course," he replied to the reporter, who was calling on him to pursue a "benevolent" policy toward Bulgaria if elected. Then he went on:
"We will just buy out the entire [Bulgaria]. We have already purchased half of its coastline.”
First came the social media posts - minutes after the report was aired, anti-Russian users were using it as an evidence of the arrogance shown by the political elite of the country. Russophobes began lashing out at Russians, calling on Bulgarian institutions for an official reaction.
It took Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov nearly twenty-four hours to write a Facebook post of his own, encouraging Russia to distance itself from the comment but adding that if it doesn't, that would only mean little importance is attached to the statement. (He would later say bilateral relations should not be simplified and reduced to comments by an ill-mannered lawmaker). On Tuesday, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov also vented his anger at the Russian MP candidate (who had already been officially elected at the time), saying "no-one" managed to buy out Bulgaria over the course of its 1300-year-old history.
Some political parties began talking about possible Russian invasion or threat to Bulgaria's national security. Even ATAKA, a nationalist party known for its close ties to Moscow and advocating an exit of Bulgaria from NATO, noted (albeit reluctantly) Tolstoy should apologize.
There was almost no political party to shy away from a reaction - only the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), some of whose core members have vested interests in Russia, had toned down their rhetoric.
Others sought to raise awareness about the "property invasion" on behalf of Russian nationals who have bought summer properties along the Black Sea coast.
Even to mention this is ludicrous: 63 574 residential properties were purchased by Russians between 2006 and 2014, according to registry data. While the total amount of the properties for the past twenty-six years may amount to several hundred thousand, this is far from being "half the coastline", with more than a million Bulgarians still living there, and with the properties in question only concentrated in some areas.
Needless to say, Russian media also reacted to the story - some by mocking Bulgarian fears, others (a local newspaper's website) by arguing [RU]: "Pyotr Tolstoy insulted Sofia by saying the obvious... Russia can buy Bulgaria? It can and it did it long ago!"
Meanwhile, it took the otherwise talkative Tolstoy three days to saiy his remark had been a joke.
Tolstoy, who hosts a show on Russian state TV, named after a novel by his great-great-grandfather, said he had not intended in any way "to offend Bulgaria or Bulgarians." His remark might have indeed been a joke, the last joke he could have afforded as a journalist who might feel free to discuss any issue and use humor and sarcasm more often when approaching issues such as relations with other countries.
He might have been serious. Actually, it doesn't matter at all.
The Bulgarian-Russian relationship, with all due respect for Moscow’s role in the liberation of the Southeastern European country, has not been based on equality in the past few centuries. That the two cultures have been complementary over the course of history (with Russia’s literary tradition, alphabet, theology and, to a certain extent, language owing a lot to scholars of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, perhaps also to Serbian or Wallachian ones as well) has long been neglected, in favour of the eternal overemphasis on the milestone created by the (last) Russo-Turkish war, one apparently requiring eternal gratitude and a ban on any other feelings, any development in what Sofia and Moscow try to describe as partnership. The fact that Bulgaria was loyal to the Soviet Union to levels of absurdity during the Cold War, but that it also supplied the Soviet-dominated eastern bloc with many of its talented engineers and IT specialists at the time.
Bulgarian politicians, however, seem to be showing outright frustration with the fact that, whatever they do, this inequality cannot be overcome – a fact which, to a big extent, is their fault. Even some left-wing politicians (for some bizarre reason, socialists and parties further to the left keep being attracted by the Russian state whose ruling party and President cannot be more ideologically different) have not dared to remain quiet in the face of a statement they have perceived as insulting and a blatant injustice – despite the fact they would normally lobby for Russian energy and other interests in the country. However, their reaction cannot make up for Bulgaria’s dependence on Russia when it comes to energy, tourism revenues, and part of its exports that has been left crippled by the impact of Western sanctions. It is a peculiar coincidence that, as the "drama" is unfolding, Bulgaria is working to secure an immediate payment of EUR 630 M to a Russian company to avoid a potential collapse of its energy system.
Bulgaria feels vulnerable – its politicians do, but so do its citizens as well - and the sources of insecurity can hardly be reduced to Russia alone. However, the overwhelming feeling of frustration and helplessness in the face of a statement from an unelected official (more than once, Europe has acted in a more humiliating way but Bulgarians have kept a stiff upper lip) shows Sofia will still have to work a lot to find an approach that defines the best its relations with Moscow – or one that hurts it the least.
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