Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

Opinion

Why we need to worry about Russian disinfo in Bulgaria

  • Bulgaria's PM Nikolai Denkov with Ursula von der Leyen. Bulgaria's historic, cultural, and religious ties with Russia makes it particularly vulnerable to such pro-Russian lines (Photo: EU Commission)
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Bulgaria has shown intent on moving towards the European mainstream in recent years. The fraud and high-level corruption that defined Boyko Borisov's time as Bulgaria's prime minister came to an end in 2021 when Kiril Petkov's reformist party, We Continue the Change, won parliamentary elections.

But widespread Russian disinformation is undermining the country's effort to implement genuine reform.

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According to three of Bulgaria's most influential fact-checking organisations, Russian disinformation has reached a stage where it can now influence Bulgarian national politics.

Factcheck.bg, Bulgarian National Radio, and AFP Factcheck all concluded that disinformation has "created a huge division" in Bulgarian society and "prevents (Bulgaria) from quickly making strategic foreign policy decisions". This finding points to nothing less than a sophisticated information assault perpetrated by Russia on the democratic process of an EU member state.

Russian influence has long been a thorn in the side of Bulgaria's post-communist democratic transformation. In 1989, when the Eastern bloc was falling apart, the Bulgarian security services failed to sever their ties with Russia and pursue internal reforms. This created an environment friendly for the Russian military intelligence service (GRU), who have carried out acts of sabotage on vital Bulgarian arms supplies for Ukraine's war effort.

But not a single Russian operative has faced criminal prosecution or investigation because of the deeply-entrenched corruption in Bulgaria's state institutions.

EU elections and Ukraine

Russia has managed to maintain its grip over Bulgaria's system of government through fraud and organised crime. EU funding for Bulgaria resumed after Borisov ousted the socialists in the 2009 elections on a pro-European platform and became a key ally of Germany's then-chancellor, Angela Merkel. But it was during Borisov's time in office that investigations into Bulgarian misuse of EU funds never took place. Instead of fulfilling its core function of upholding the rule of law, the judiciary served the interests of Bulgaria's mafia, who trace their origins back to the former communist elite.

But there are signs that the tide is starting to turn against Russia's privileged position in the Bulgarian state apparatus. The We Continue the Change party's agreement last spring to form a power-sharing government with their rivals, GERB, ended a two-year political crisis that saw Bulgaria's pro-Russian president, Rumen Radev, overstep his constitutional powers into making foreign policy decisions. Under the presidential-appointed caretaker government, Bulgaria resisted EU sanctions against Russia and refused to send military equipment to Ukraine.

We Continue the Change has acted swiftly to reassert Bulgaria's constitutional order as a parliamentary republic and counter Russian influence since its return to government.

On assuming the position of prime minister, Nikolai Denkov did not hesitate condemning Kostadin Kostadinov, the leader of the pro-Russian party, Revival, for advocating the use of violence. In its first six months, Denkov's premiership passed new anti-corruption legislation, including a body to detect and investigate holders of public office suspected of involvement in corruption, and stepped up Bulgaria's commitments to Ukraine.

However, Russia's weaponisation of the information sphere threatens to disrupt Bulgaria's progress towards reform and thereby maintain its influence. This is illustrated in Revival's strong performance in last year's elections, finishing third behind GERB and We Continue the Change. The Covid pandemic and Russia's war against Ukraine have exacerbated Bulgaria's challenges with inflation and low foreign investment.

This allowed the pro-Russian party to exploit the false narrative that the adoption of Western-oriented policies works against Bulgaria's national interests. Supporters of Revival have called for the closure of Nato military bases and demanded an early election in protests against the new government's support for Ukraine.

Revival's emergence as Bulgaria's third-largest political party coincided with a 20-fold increase in Russian propaganda in the Bulgarian online space between 2021 and 2022. False narratives, such as Nato's provocation of Russia and the danger facing Bulgaria of being dragged into the war by sending military aid to Ukraine, were found in 400 Bulgarian websites, according to the Human and Social Sciences Foundation in Sofia.

Bulgaria's historic, cultural, and religious ties with Russia makes it particularly vulnerable to such pro-Russian lines. Only 11 percent of Bulgarians support providing military aid to Ukraine.

For almost a year, the Bulgarian people took to the streets to protest against what they saw as a state captured by an oligarchic mafia.

We Continue the Change's rise to power reflects this strong desire to see Bulgaria become a consolidated democracy inside the EU. But Bulgaria's European awakening cannot be taken for granted. To counter the threat of Russian disinformation, effective ways to communicate how European integration delivers for Bulgarian citizens will need to be found.

Bulgaria may slip back into Russia's orbit otherwise.

Author bio

Hugo Blewett-Mundy is a non-resident associate research fellow from the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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