On September 3, an event of historic significance occurred. Few have grasped the historic footprint of what should have been a standard diplomatic disagreement between the Russian Embassy in Sofia and the Bulgarian MFA. This date will remain in the annals of history, if not as a marker of the end of the transition from Soviet to European type of self-consciousness in Bulgaria, as the first formal challenge of the Bulgarian authorities to the monopoly of the Soviet narrative on the Soviet-Bulgarian history around and after September 9th, 1944.
The case that triggered the whole story was the exhibition “75 Years since the Liberation of Eastern Europe from Nazism”, organized by the Russian Embassy in Bulgaria, which is part of a major global undertaking by the Russian MFA that will span over 20 countries in the US and Europe in the next 7 months. The objective is clear – to spread the ‘holy word’ and Moscow’s version on the reasons that led to the outbreak of World War II and make again the case for the “liberation” mission of The Red Army in Eastern Europe and in Europe in general.
To the surprise of many, including in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry showed atypical courage and strongly condemned the initiative of the Russian Historical Society, headed by Sergei Narishkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. The sequence of MFA exhibitions propagates that Stalin is the savior of Europe, while the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and the invasion of Poland are justifiable acts. The official “madman” in Russian politics, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who often speaks Kremlin’s mind, used the the GosDuma tribune to shock the world that Poland is to blame itself for being invaded by Hitler.
Part of this large-scale propaganda offensive, which began with the opening of the Russian exhibition on August 20 in Moscow this year, are the next two identical exhibitions – in Talinn and Sofia, the latter to open exactly on September 9th, the date of the Red Army sponsored communist coup in 1944 that ripped Bulgaria apart and kept it away from its European roots. The choice of date alone should come as no surprise, as the Kremlin has always relied on its local loyalists – the followers of the erstwhile guerrillas and communists who, with the help of the Red Army, overthrew the legitimate government. The events of 75 years ago continue to divide Bulgarian society to this day. So far, “battles” have been waged at a public debate level, without the interference of official institutions. The attempt to destroy the Soviet Army Monument (SAM) some 28 years ago, following a decision of the Sofia Municipality, was blocked by central Bulgarian authorities with the false arguments that the SAM was part of inter-governmental treaty as a war time monument. Until a week ago, the central government seemed to distance itself from this debate.
The Foreign Ministry’s critical press release on the exhibition states in no uncertain terms, “Without denying the Soviet Union’s contribution to the defeat of Nazism in Europe, we must not turn a blind eye to the bayonets of the Soviet army, that have brought to the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe half a century of repressions, the suppression of the civil conscience, a deformed economic development and a detachment from the dynamics of the processes in developed European countries.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has nothing to do with this event, and we advise the Russian Embassy to withhold its support of a dubious historical thesis (“liberation”), which privileges only some political circles in Bulgaria, and as such constitutes an interference in the domestic political debate in our country. ”
For the first time, an official document of the Bulgarian MFA directly challenges Russia’s sacrosanct interpretation the role of the Stalin and the Red Army as a “liberators”. The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry goes further, providing its own, completely opposite reading of history, defining the Soviet Union as “oppressors”, de facto acknowledging that Bulgaria has been unlawfully occupied, and by default has suffered losses and forced isolation from its European roots.
Why is this important?
The fact of the matter is that the Soviet Army declared war and invaded a country that had already declared war on Nazi Germany and had a change in Government. Both US and British Ambassador protested against the invasion, which kills the argument that the invasion was a coordinated act. The Bulgarian elite felt betrayed as King Boris the Third made everything possible to keep the country out of the Eastern Front and maintained diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. This came at a cost, which both the king and the Bulgarian government were ready to pay. The occupation led to an unparalled elitocide, which affected the country’s development for decades to come with the impact still widely felt.
After 1989, the countries of Eastern Europe began to break free from the Soviet and post-Soviet spell of the Red Army’s liberation mission, behind which hid the moral and political justification for Moscow’s dominance over Eastern Europe in the post-war period. Building on several key premises, the Kremlin now tries to upgrade its own narrative and preempt further damage, following Russian President Putin’s absence from the 80th anniversary commemorative meeting in Poland. Warsaw received apologies from Germany for invading Poland, but received propaganda exercise from Moscow. Putin’s take on the re-Stalinisation of modern Russia, extending its claims for Soviet spheres of influence over the whole of Eastern Europe provides ample breeding ground for the narratives, this ‘exhibition’ is aimed to serve.
What are the key messages in this exhibition, based on what top Russian politicians, said in public during its first opening in Moscow, August 20?
Sergei Narishkin believes the Second World War has proven beyond doubt that the security in Europe is impossible without Russia. This is a longtime adage in Putin’s attempt to enforce a return to G-7 and ‘normalisaion’ of relations with the West on his own terms. This and other key messages will be echoed by respective Russian ambassadors in all countries where the exhibition will be displayed.
The main theme, according to Foreign Minister Lavrov, is to provide additional evidence that Stalin was trying to avoid war – a key line when seeking justification for invading Poland. The exhibition displays documents of Russia’s attempts to convince Poland to allow Soviet troops to defend Poland – and this should be taken as the ultimate proof of Stalin’s peaceful mindset.
It is no coincidence that the exhibition has been initiated by the Russian History Society, which uses the resource base and networks of the Russian civilian intelligence and the Russia’s Diplomatic service. For Moscow, the battle for the history is not confined solely to which narrative on what happened 75 or 80 years ago dominates. This is a fight for what happens next for the Kremlin and for all those who have benefited from the oppression of the Red Army in the postwar years, the left and communist parties and their heirs, who would have never had the chance to win elections in a competitive and free election process.
The claim of the “liberation” mission of Stalin is used to justify the right to expect and even demand “gratitude” and by default subordination from all the East European countries. This grows in urgency now that Russia is trying unsuccessfully to step into the shoes of the Soviet Union and convert gratitude into tangible benefits – both political and material – privileged market access for Russian energy resources and treatment for its interests in the region.
And since countries like Bulgaria, that the independent talk from the Bulgarian MFA marking milestones in the process of healthy distancing from Russia’s orbit made headlines.
The courage to name things with their proper names and provide a wider context for what seems as a trivial and routine diplomatic exhibition, serves to affirm the new range of freedom acquired as part of Bulgaria’s deepening integration within the EU and NATO. The government would not have risked a backlash unless it is certain that Russia is unable to “punish” it either politically or economically.
Suffice it to review the list of Bulgaria’s vulnerabilities.
If Moscow opts for hard play and cuts off natural gas supplies, Gazprom will instantly loose its market share in Bulgaria and sales proceeds at price levels nowhere else to be seen. The country will find complete replacement of Russian gas in less than two months – most of this is procedural time under the public procurement act – cheaper gas from alternative sources and routes beyond Russia’s reach and control.
Russia has virtually no means to “penalize” Bulgaria using crude oil supplies. Any adverse play will hurt Lukoil’s interests, compromising its hefty profits. Sacrificing them to appease the Kremlin, comes at a cost, with the final option – a forced leave of the country in the cards.
In the area of nuclear fuel supply, there is also an alternative that can fully offset Rosatom’s option. The Belene NPP project is where the Bulgarian state foots the bills with Rosatom, unable to act as a strategic investor.
A similar picture describes the extension of the Turkish stream through Bulgaria, where the dependence is totally asymmetric and not in Gasprom’s favour. The Bulgarian Bulgartransgaz pays, which gives it the right to call the shots, moreover that it has alternative to Russian gas for transit revenues.
Even appeals, shared by the Russian media to stop charter flights to and from Bulgaria, ring hollow as much of the Russian tourist flow is beyond the control of Russian authorities. On one hand, most of the incoming Russian citizens own property in Bulgaria, which justifies their travel or that of their friend or clients. Whatever Kremlin takes as punitive actions will first hurt its own citizens.
On the other hand, over the last 10-15 years, ever larger chunks of the Russian tourists’ value chain has fallen under the control of Russian companies and owners. Henceforth, the call – let’s punish Bulgaria by denying her Russian tourists, will first jeopardize the interests of Russian owners or travel agencies, apartment hotels and other real estate proprietors. It is not by accident, that despite Crimea related sanctions, the size of the Russian speaking minority has continued to grow, albeit recently at a lesser pace, again due to entirely different Russia-based factors – sinking incomes, currency volatility and the deepening economic crisis in Russia.
Trade with Russia, and especially Bulgaria’s exports, has long remained at a sanitary minimum, making it virtually invulnerable to Russian political punitive actions. Russia’s exports to Bulgaria will suffer first and foremost.
The press release issued by the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry to express its dissatisfaction with the plans of the Russian embassy to host an exhibition at the Russian Cultural and Information Center, will not be the last one. The consequences of designating the post-war period as ‘occupation’ implies responsibility of the occupant, encouraging further and more radical action including removal of Stalinist monuments, Soviet time names and symbols associated with the occupation regime. Monuments of the Soviet army cannot be considered as war time memorials, insofar as there has not been any military action and casualties on the part of the Red Army. This could be followed by changing names of streets, cities, locations, and a surge in renewed interest in rethinking history in the context of Bulgaria’s return to pre-SWW traditions and values.
A healthy process has been set in motion, that while delayed, can help Eastern European countries find the optimal distance and balance in relations with Russia.