“It’s complicated”: Understanding perceptions of Russia in Bulgaria
How pro-Russian attitudes shift in in times of crisis
Relations between Bulgaria and Russia have always been anything but simple. Through the years, a number of studies and surveys have provided insight into Bulgarians’ perception of Russia. Nevertheless, in order to understand the statistical information, there are a number of factors that need to be taken into consideration. This will help us to not just see the picture, but also to explain it.
“We go way back”
i.e. historical background
Without a doubt, Bulgaria and Russia share deep historical, cultural, religious and political ties. Both countries are Slavic and have a common Orthodox Christian culture. What’s more, they both use the Cyrillic script, which dates back to the 9th century in the First Bulgarian Empire. The similarities, however, haven’t necessarily translated into harmonious relations through the years. That being said, it is also worth mentioning some of the milestones that have framed and shaped relations. For one, the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 - 1878 led to Bulgaria regaining its sovereignty from the Ottoman Empire after spending five centuries under the Empire’s rule. To this day, March 3 – the day when the Russian Ambassador to the Sublime Porte signed a peace treaty – is Bulgaria’s national holiday. Nevertheless, tensions started building after Russia didn’t support Bulgaria in its unification process, and during the following Serbian-Bulgarian war. The fact that Russia would continuously favour Serbia contributed to Bulgaria’s stance during the two World Wars and further worsened its relations with Russia.
Despite this, the Soviet Red Army backed the Bulgarian coup d’état in 1944, which brought the Bulgarian Communist Party to power. Even though it never officially formed part of the USSR, Bulgaria would half-jokingly be called the Union’s “16th Republic”. Until 1989, the country was highly dependent on Soviet patronage, and it transitioned from an agrarian economy to heavy industry with the import of Soviet technology, funds, and raw materials. After 1989, relations between the two countries entered a new stage, influenced by the political position of the ruling party in Bulgaria. Understandably, the left were more inclined towards close ties with Russia than were the right. The disputes between Russophile and Russophobe fractions would turn into an ever-present characteristic of Bulgarian society and mentality. The arguments are just as frantic today as they’ve always been, even more so, given the dynamic conjuncture.
“A hungry bear doesn’t dance”
i.e. economy matters
Russia is a major partner in trade for Bulgaria, mainly owing to oil and gas. Due to energy dependence the trade deficit is structural, and two companies (Lukoil and Gazprom) dominate trading relations between the two countries. Furthermore, Russia is the tenth-largest investor in Bulgaria and there are a significant number of Bulgarian companies where Russian individuals and entities hold between 5 and 100% of shares. Tourism is also an important sector for economic relations, but after several years of growth, for a number of reasons, there has been a fall in the number of tourists.
The Kremlin’s influence over energy in Bulgaria doesn’t just stem from the country’s volume-related consumption of gas, but also from Moscow’s financial and political leverage over local energy projects and policies. Russia is the sole exporter of natural gas to Bulgaria, and the Kremlin’s TVEL Fuel Company provides all nuclear fuel cycle services in the country. The complex network of contacts secures Moscow’s interests in Sofia.
i.e stats, surveys, studies
So what do the surveys show? Given the changing state of play in the world, it is necessary to look at the most recent data. However, it’s also beneficial to take into account past results, if we want to understand what shapes Bulgarians’ perception of Russia and how.
For instance, a public opinion poll, conducted in 2015 by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that “Bulgarians continue to like Russia but they do not believe that the country can be a model for development and provide more credible guarantees for prosperity and security than the membership in the EU and NATO”. The national representative study was conducted the year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It demonstrated that “in a year Russia managed to provoke in the generally Russia-friendly Bulgarian population a change towards a negative attitude (in 30% of the interviewees) that is four times larger than the change towards a positive attitude (only in 7% of the interviewees)”. Moreover, given the long-standing economic relationship between Bulgaria and Russia, the majority of Bulgarians (61%) did not support the imposition of severe sanctions against Russia, as opposed to 39% who did.
In 2021, the global think tank GLOBSEC, based in Bratislava, published the results of a survey called “Image of Russia: Mighty Slavic Brother or Hungry Bear Nextdoor?”. According to the findings, there is no single image of Russia, and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe could be divided into three groups: bear huggers, bear feeders and bear sceptics. Bulgaria falls under the “bear huggers” category, with the survey demonstrating the impact of Kremlin rhetoric, resulting in a gradual decrease of support for NATO in Bulgaria (declined by 9% since 2019 and at the time of the survey standing at 47%). Some other key findings for Bulgaria are that Russia was perceived as an important strategic partner by four in ten Bulgarians, that the Russian victimhood narrative is prevalent (accepted by nearly half the population), and that the oldest and university-educated are the most sympathetic to pro-Russian narratives.
Figure 1: Perceptions of international superpowers and their policies in Bulgaria
Source: Gallup Balkans (author translation)
At the end of 2021, a global survey was conducted by the Gallup International Association on the topic of perceptions of international superpowers and their policies. The results (see Figure 1) show that it was the most difficult for Bulgarian society to form a clear position on Russia, as the largest percentage of answers (37%) are “I can not judge”. 30% believe that Moscow's policies stabilise the world, and 33% are in the opposite position. Over the past year, attitudes towards Russia's international policies have visibly deteriorated. The net value of the assessments of Russia's policies, across the range of responses in Bulgaria, puts it in the negative (destabilising) range, at -3. A year earlier the net score was +17.
Figure 2: Attitude towards Russian president Vladimir Putin - from 2020 to 2022
Source: Alpha Research (author translation)
Given the current world situation, a survey was conducted by Alpha Research at the end of February 2022 and it has expectedly reflected the changing Bulgarian perception. In the first days of hostilities, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has enjoyed a positive rating for years, has lost much of his popularity in Bulgaria. During the period 2020-2022, between 55% and 58% of Bulgarians expressed positive opinions (compared to 20% negative), but now the situation is changing radically (see Figure 2). Positive opinions decreased by almost half, to 32%, and negative ones increased to 48%. The unprecedented unification of European countries in imposing uniform sanctions against Russia and aid to Ukraine is considered the right policy by 63% of Bulgarian citizens (see Figure 3). Moreover, 47% of the respondents declare their readiness to pay higher prices as a result of the imposed sanctions. However, 36% (likely people with limited financial resources) are reluctant or could not pay higher prices.
Figure 3: Opinion on the sanctions against Russia and aid to Ukraine
Source: Alpha Research (author translation)
“Смотреть правде в глаза/ Face the truth”
Saying that relations between Bulgaria and Russia are complicated would be an understatement. On the one hand, it’s hard to ignore the role that the past plays and according to Dr. Dimitar Bechev, the image of Russia as a Slav brother and liberator is “embedded in both history textbooks and national literature”. In one analyst’s opinion, the long-standing ties to Russia are what keeps Bulgaria “vulnerable to the Kremlin’s pressures”. GLOBSEC’s “Vulnerability Index” report on Bulgaria, prepared by the Center for the Study of Democracy, shows that the country is among the region’s most vulnerable to external influence. An information environment strongly influenced by Russia plays an important role in shaping widespread pro-Russian public attitudes.
Nevertheless, the conflict in Ukraine has drastically changed the attitude towards Russia in Bulgaria, just as the annexation of Crimea had between 2014-2015. Bulgarians condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine and support European solidarity. In time, it will be possible to see if this trend is here to stay.