“The world's biggest TV channel in Russian.” The ORT, or Public Russian Television, billboard is not a sight you'd expect to greet you by the boulevard of Sofia's Lyulin district. Yet it's there, despite the fact that in Bulgaria ORT occupies no airtime and the publicity effect of its presence is highly dubious.
The billboard is just one example of Russia's tangible influence on Bulgaria. You only have to note this country's energy dependence and the role of the Russian Federation in the construction of the Burgas- Alexandroupolis oil pipeline.
Bulgaria's whole transition to democracy emulated the Russian model from the outset. Even Bulgarian organised crime mirrors Russia's. Both are controlled by people linked to the former Communist Party, surrounded by thugs with the same type of expensive SUV's, gold chains, leather jackets and glitzy girls. Like the Russian economy, Bulgaria's was mired in mismanagement for years before long delayed market reforms were implemented. Ordinary folk in both countries became impoverished and grew nostalgic for the “happy” Communist past, where everyone was equally poor but had enough to eat. Finally, a Russian-type nationalism emerged, constantly parading the greatness of the Bulgarians and the supposedly devious role of the West, which was accused of trying to subjugate them.
Russian influence is also visible in government institutions. It began with the return of diplomats from the Communist school – all former students in Moscow – to the Foreign Ministry. Its peak came in 2005 when Sergey Stanishev, the young leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP, headed the tripartite government coalition between his party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS, and the National Movement for Stability and Progress, or NDSV. Born in Ukraine to a Bulgarian Communist functionary father and a Russian mother, he acquired a History degree and a PhD in Moscow. He stayed on to specialise in political sciences, before attending the London School of Economics and Political Science, graduating with a thesis on Russia's contemporary foreign policy. One small consolation is that Stanishev is no longer a Russian citizen. He surrendered it in 1996 to formally become Bulgarian. Russian law does not allow dual citizenship.
Some may argue that “one Stanishev does not a Russian summer make”. Yet other examples abound. Recently, Interior Minister Rumen Petkov met the widow of Kim Philby, a British citizen and prominent Soviet Cold War agent. At the widely publicised encounter, Petkov was presented with a Russian edition of the spy's biography.
Tourism has also taken a deep breath of Russian air. Aneliya Krushkova, chairwoman of the State Agency for Tourism, seems to have decided that the industry's future lies to the east. She undertook an official visit to the Republic of Sakha, or Yakutia, as well as Irkutsk and Novosibirsk. Ironically, the agreement she brokered did nothing to boost tourism for Bulgaria. Just the opposite – Yakutia will be advertised in this country as the ideal holiday destination! Yet Krushkova did manage to secure a visit from one illustrious Russian citizen. Aleksey Skurlatov, the Second World War veteran and model for the monument of the Soviet soldier Alyosha rising on one of Plovdiv's hills, was invited to Bulgaria.
The media reported the news without a trace of irony and Bulgarians accepted it without a whimper. Since childhood, they have been indoctrinated that the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 helped to liberate them from the Ottoman Empire. Even the compulsory study of Russian at school and the weekly Communist-era Russian TV programmes – which were not translated into Bulgarian – could not dispel the notion of the kind “liberators”. Seemingly, the only acceptable criticism of the Russians is that they do not drink “for pleasure” but to get drunk.
These perceptions did not undermine turnout at the concerts of the Lubeh rock band, who advertise themselves as “Vladimir Putin's favourite group”. Ironically, the arena was packed with Bulgarians old enough to remember the overwhelming musical dearth before 1989 as well as young people for whom Communism was just a period in their parents' lives. Pop singers like Bulgarian-born Philip Kirkorov and Yosif Kobzon have also enjoyed successful tours here.
Yet concert attendance is insignificant compared to fascination with movies. Local television channels have competed to screen series such as Tycoon: A New Russian which relates the early days of the Russian mafia. Bulgarian viewers consume them avidly – “They finally showed how the national wealth was plundered!” – they say to themselves without realising that their sympathies lie with the protagonist, always a gangster who, in Dostoevsky's best traditions, is torn between his job and his conscience.
With similarly baffling behaviour, rightwing Bulgarians celebrate 9 May – not as Europe Day but as the Soviet Victory Day. The event is inevitably feted with vodka and Russian songs, ranging from White Guard émigré ones to “Mgnoveniya”, or “Moments”, from Seventeen Moments of Spring, a spy movie about the Second World War. The song has long featured on the Bulgarian video exchange website vbox7.com too.
How do the Russians view Bulgarians? An article in the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily offers an unflattering insight: they regard them as “traitors” and “sunflowers” who have gladly swapped Russian patronage for “NATO's yoke”. Some Bulgarians join in. “You, the Russians, have educated our politicians in Moscow, but you haven't taught them the most important thing – national dignity,” said journalist Velizar Enchev to the newspaper. Yet he never questioned why Russians should teach Bulgarians national dignity in the first place.
Contemporary Russian-Bulgarian relations have amusing or macabre undertones, depending on the standpoint. Just switch on the TV, not to the ORT, but to Discovery Channel. Most of its programmes are broadcast in English – a faint background voice – aside much louder Russian dubbing. At the same time there are Bulgarian subtitles. You will also find idiosyncrasies on your Bulgarian colleague's computer keyboard. Few Bulgarians write in Russian nowadays, but nevertheless all Cyrillic keyboards feature two letters which exist in the Russian, but not in the Bulgarian alphabet: “ы” and “э”.
The French have an expression: “Plus ça change, c'est plus le même chose” – the more that changes, the more things stay the same. Perhaps Bulgaria's attachment to Russia indicates that more of the old ideas are still intact than we care to admit.