Russian loyalty still holds strong sway over Bulgaria's culture and politics
BURGAS, Bulgaria — The leaders of Burgas are eager to paint their seaside town in eastern Bulgaria as an international tourist destination. Newly built hotels and vacation homes line the shore and the main street’s cafes and restaurants cater to the Western Europeans who years earlier might have visited more established spots along the Mediterranean.
Burgas can be as idyllic as any European resort town as long as the breeze is blowing in from the Black Sea. But when the wind switches direction, a distinct chemical smell from the Lukoil Neftochim Oil refinery fills the air.
Lukoil, a Russian-owned oil and gas company, is one of the many Russian investments in the southern Balkan nation. While Bulgaria has increasingly allied itself with Western powers, many in the country regard Russia as a historically important collaborator.
In a country where corruption permeates all levels of government and politicians believe anti-European Union sentiment can help at the ballot box, people debate just how influential the Russian government really is.
A short drive from the refinery, Russian presence along Bulgaria’s Black Sea takes the form of luxury apartment blocks. Pomorie is only a short 20 minute drive north from Burgas, but the town is known to many as “Little Moscow.”
Once a small village, now half of the roughly 14,000 residents are estimated to be Russian nationals. Apartments are for sale, but the companies advertising only list in Russian.
According to locals, even if Bulgarians have the money to buy an apartment in Bulgaria’s “Little Moscow,” they are likely to to be told there is no vacancy.
As one leaves the seaside and goes five miles from downtown Burgas to the district of Dolno Ezeronvo, noxious odors emitted from the refinery choke the air.
Many of the 2,500 Bulgarians who work at the refinery live in this section of town; when asked about their opinions of the pollution, a number of people approached on the street said they did not want to speak because either they themselves or a family member were dependent upon their income from the refinery.
Russians began moving to Pomorie in the late 1990s, around the same time that the government of Prime Minister Ivan Kostov began a mass privatization effort.
Beginning in 1998 his government sold off all or a portion of nearly 1,000 government-owned businesses, the largest being the sale of the Neftochim Burgas refinery.
Lukoil, a publicly traded oil and gas company that accounts for two percent of the world’s production, purchased 59 percent of the refinery and a nearby port in 1999 for about $100 million. The agreement also required that Lukoil modernize the facility, which had originally been built in 1964 by the Bulgarian government with parts from the USSR.
Critics say that the Bulgarian government let an important asset go for a fraction of its value, but the private intelligence firm Stratfor said the price assessed the price as low due to the state of disrepair.
Today, the port property is defended by concrete walls topped with barbed wire, with cameras every 100 feet and security guards patrolling at all hours.
Asen Yordanov, an investigative journalist who has examined the facility for years, said he has never seen any Bulgarian customs official on duty. The Lukoil port overlooks a military base across the bay that has been used by NATO, which Bulgaria joined in 2004.
“We are coming up on an enclave of Russia in Bulgaria, the EU and NATO,” Yordanov said as he drove up to the main entrance of the port.
Critics have questioned Russian influence in Bulgarian politics. Lukoil has connections in high places, including Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. Shortly after the end of communism, Borisov founded a security company, IPON-1 Ltd, working for politicians and private companies, including the Lukoil refinery.
Early in his political career, the United States identified Borisov’s connections as cause for concern. In a U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks written on May 9, 2006, when Borisov was serving as the mayor of Sofia, then-U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle wrote: “Accusations in years past have linked Borisov to oil-siphoning scandals, illegal deals involving Lukoil and major traffic in methamphetamines.”
“Borisov has cooperated closely with the Embassy on law enforcement in the past and, publicly at least, remains strongly pro-American,” said the ambassador’s report. “However, Borisov has been implicated in serious criminal activity and maintains close ties to Lukoil and the Russian embassy.”
The Bulgarian Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment, but after Yordanov’s site Bivol.bg posted documents to further substantiate the ties addressed in the U.S. diplomatic cable in 2013, Borisov took to threatening the journalists.
“What they have done, I can cook it for all of you standing here today,” Borisov said during a news conference. “I can order the secret services to launch similar cases for all of you journalists, all of you without exception.”
Others surrounding Borisov have cozied up to the Russians. A close associate of Borisov, Dimitar Nikolov, is currently serving his third term as mayor of Burgas. Nikolov currently serves as the deputy chair of Borisov’s center-right GERB Party and has been supportive of the refinery, appearing at public events with Lukoil executives and the chair of its Bulgarian subsidiary.
Bulgarians debate the exact date of when Russia became entwined in Bulgarian politics. Some will point to the cultural exchange that began in the 9th century (the Bulgarians were the first to refer to their ruler as ‘Tsar’).
The Russians also helped fight off the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century. But after the Soviet Army invaded and overthrew the Nazi-allied government in 1944, many say the Russians never truly left.
In Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital and largest city, the horizon changes to the towering Vitosha mountain massif, still capped with snow in late spring.
When Maria Becheva brought her granddaughter to the Monument to the Soviet Union bouquets of flowers still lined the pedestal from St. George’s Day, a public holiday honoring the Bulgarian Army.
Becheva, a pensioner who still finds time to work at her family’s store, says that the monument shows that Russia and Bulgaria have a shared history that should be honored.
“There is a lot that we can gain from a connection to Russia,” said Becheva. “And there is much that we share, such as our alphabet and our culture.”
The monument, which glorifies the Soviet liberation of Bulgaria during World War II, has been a point of controversy in recent years. Some want to tear it down completely.
Along the base of the pedestal there are friezes of Soviet and Bulgarian soldiers preparing to enter battle. Protesters occasionally paint the statue, mocking the monument by making the figures look like Superman, Batman and other Western super heroes.
But communist monuments are not the only target in Sofia. Across town a recently erected bust of President Ronald Reagan was defaced by protesters who covered it in a red shroud. A monument to those killed by the communist regime has been repeatedly spray painted.
In all cases the city sends out workers to repair the damage, but the monuments are never completely cleaned. Looking closely, you can still see the remnants of this public battle over how Bulgaria address foreign interventions of the past century.
Unlike many of the Warsaw Pact nations closer to the edge of the Iron Curtain, Bulgaria was slower to look westward. Early in the transition to democracy, Russian officials held a press conference with their Bulgarian and Romanian counterparts and claimed that the two Black Sea nations would see a way forward without looking towards Western Europe. Nonetheless, Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, three years after joining NATO.
Bulgarian politicians, many of whom bristle at the idea of taking a strong anti-Russian stance, have resisted the sanctions leveled by the EU on Russian officials’ bank accounts and NATO-led military expansions in recent years.
But many do take stances on issues that fall in line with Russian preferences. Borisov’s government wanted to limit the expansion of the NATO Black Sea fleet, and held a press conference saying Bulgaria would not join Romania and Turkey, the two other NATO members who border the sea.
This came less than a day after Russian envoy Andrei Kelin said NATO expansion in the region would be destabilizing. Sentiment against NATO expansion is sometimes articulated in the form of environmental concern, but also falls in line with Russia’s goal of countering Bulgaria’s further integration into the military alliance.
“I always say that I want the Black Sea to see sailboats, yachts, large boats with tourists and not become an arena of military action,” Borisov said in a press conference in June of 2016. “I do not need a war in the Black Sea.”
In the most recent parliamentary election this past March, a prominent minority within the GERB Party and left-wing Bulgarian Socialist Party (the successor to the Bulgarian Communist Party) both suggested dropping sanctions put in place against Russia. Kornelia Ninova, head of the BSP, claimed that the Bulgarian economy had been damaged by limitations on Russian investment.
GERB won over 33.5 percent of the vote, although the BSP performed better than expected and came in second with over 27 percent. Ultimately GERB was forced to form a government with the electoral alliance United Patriots, a group of far-right parties.
One notable inclusion in his coalition government is Ataka, a nationalist party that, before joining up with GERB, often spoke admirably of Russia and advocated for stronger a strong relationship with President Vladimir Putin.
But after the elections, and despite the inclusion of pro-Russian parties, discussion of dropping the sanctions against Russia died down.
“The good news is that you don’t win elections in this country by pro-Russian anti-European Union sentiments,” said political scientist Hristo Anastasov. “But that is the only good thing.”
Anastasov says Bulgarians on the whole realize there are stronger possibilities within the EU than outside. Many, especially those born after the fall of communism, have spent time in member states and benefited from EU programs that allow for studying and working abroad.
Others directly state that Russia has more to offer for Bulgaria. Socialist MP Alexander Simov said he worries more about American and EU influence in his country, and that Western powers have offered little economic benefit while dictating social policy.
“I think that Bulgaria should work hard to reconnect itself with Russia economically and culturally, nothing more,” said Simov. “Right now, I don’t think it is possible, but the political climate in Europe is changing now.”
The climate is changing in Bulgaria, but not in the way Simov may anticipate. Euroscepticism – the belief that a united Europe is bad for individual members – has indeed risen in recent years.
But a 2016 poll by Eurobarometer showed 49 percent of Bulgarians approve of the EU while only 33 percent disapprove. Bulgarians remain much more enthusiastic about membership than their Western European counterparts. Trust in the EU is higher than trust in Bulgarian institutions.
But in a country that still struggles with corruption at all levels of government, Russian business influence sometimes determines how politicians act. In Sofia, people worry about corruption at all levels, from local officials who provides building permits to members of parliament.
Watchdog group Transparency International ranks Bulgaria lowest in the EU on their corruption index and said there is no legal frameworks to address corruption.
The Center for the Study of Democracy calculated that the Russian economic footprint is 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, and in the oil and natural gas industry it is even higher. Lukoil Neftochim Burgas is, in most years, the largest industrial enterprise in the nation.
“The financial and economic arm [of Russia] is here,” said Daniel Smilov, program director of the Sofia-based Center for Liberal Strategies. “They can do it through private companies and contracts. And we can only understand it only when a bank collapses and these links become apparent.”
Projects like Lukoil illustrate the balancing act of Bulgaria in the post-communist era. While Lukoil has poured money into the refinery and modernized its once aging infrastructure, skeptics question if the nation’s citizens have benefited or if Russia and the Bulgarian elite are acting only in their self-interests.
And if Bulgaria rebukes Russia’s covert attempts at exerting influence they may face a more direct form of intervention. Russian MP Pyotr Tolstoy, a member of Putin’s United Russia party, angered many Bulgarians last year and was forced to apologize when he joked about his country’s next move: “We will just buy out the entirety of Bulgaria,” Tolstoy said. “Half its coastline we have purchased already.”
Social media spreads right-wing fake news
SOFIA, Bulgaria – News bulletins on the Bulgaria’s top websites will tell you that the capital city of Sofia is under siege by an LGBT Pride Parade, that migrants are responsible for the recent terrorist attack in London, and that Emmanuel Macron is gay and in a relationship with the head of Radio France. The only problem is: they are all lies.
Fake news is on the rise in Bulgaria, and social media is making the problem worse. Coming at the same time as the consolidation of media outlets and the rise of far-right talking heads, it has observers worried that the fledgeling democracy may be starved of factual information.
Journalist Ivan Bedrov has tracked the rise of fake news in Bulgaria. Although the nation dealt with Soviet and then Russian propaganda, he says in recent years a number of Bulgarian outlets have adopted a similar tone.
“Fake news has existed for decades, even centuries,” said Bedrov. “In the last few years, a number of Bulgarian outlets started publishing these; sensational news that’s anti-Western and pro-Russian.”
The ownership behind the websites is extremely opaque, but one study points to Russian intervention. A study prepared by the Human and Social Sciences Foundation in Sofia found that between 2013 and 2016 the number of anti-European Union articles increased 16 times. Articles attacking Bulgarian political systems increased 23 times, and articles critical of the U.S. and NATO increased 34 times.
The study also found that the stories often run at times that would counter notorious events on the Russian political calendar, such as the invasion of Crimea and the Maidan protests in the Ukraine.
Even if the fake news runs to counteract different geopolitical events, they all strike the same tone. “They say Europe is rotten, the West is rotten, they have only gay people, they have only black people,” Bedrov said half-jokingly of the articles. “It is not a place you should want to go.”
Similar to the United States, observers say Facebook plays a key role in the spread of fake news. The social media giant implemented program to flag fake news that grew to include France and Germany, but at this time there is no announced plan expanded into Bulgaria.
This pseudo-journalism is now the mainstream way they make news.
As the online media has taken a hard-right, the televised news has worked to keep up with the demand. LGBT activist Radoslav Stoyanov said the introduction of right-wing bias has become the norm.
“This pseudo-journalism is now the mainstream way they make news,” said Stoyanov.
Stoyanov regularly appears on television to discuss issues important to his community, but his appearances often devolve into shouting matches.
“Every time we are invited to speak we are on the topic we are invited to speak with someone who is constantly attacking us with lies, with manipulations.”
The rise of fake news comes at the same time that Bulgarians increasingly face a less diverse media market. Mogul Delyan Peevski and his mother and his mother, Irena Krasteva, own the New Bulgarian Media Group. Peevski, who is also a member of parliament in the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms, owns multiple newspapers along with radio and television stations, and through his stake in printing presses is estimated to control roughly 80 percent of the nation’s print media.
Reporters without Borders said the situation for the press in Bulgaria is cause for concern. The group ranked the nation below all other European member states, and cited the fact that many investigative journalist face threats of reprisal for reporting on corruption.
On the streets of the Sofia people will tell you that they read these websites but avoid the fake news. Others will look outside of Bulgaria for information on current events. Graduate student Tsvetelina Ivanova recognizes that a lot of friends share fake news and says that domestic media is not a reliable source.
“If something happens, in Bulgaria you’ll get one story but if you read on CNN, it will be something different,” said Ivanova.
But instead on relying on international news Ivanova and her husband choose to avoid political coverage altogether, and instead said most nights the opt to watch documentaries on the National Geographic channel.
Daniel Smilov, program director for the Sofia-based think tank the Center for Liberal Strategies, says politicians are benefiting from this strategy of disinformation. One of the more prominent right-wing parties, Ataka, emerged from a talk show where then host (and now party chairman) Volen Siderov would rail against Western European politicians and their policies. After elections this spring Ataka joined the ruling coalition.
With politicians unwilling to address the problem, Smilov says the Bulgarian democratic system, only 27 years out from the end of totalitarian communist rule, is in jeopardy.
“This kind of symbiosis is toxic, it’s dangerous,” said Smilov. “It is much less compatible with democratic standards.”
David Jordan is a Washington-based journalist covering politics, immigration and education. His work has been published in the Texas Tribune, Public Radio International, US News & World Report and The Center for Public Integrity. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and the College of William & Mary. He tweets at @davpjor.
This report is one of a series prepared by graduate students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Media Communications. The project was conducted as part of Medill’s National Security Journalism Initiative.