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The Vanishing of the Russophiles

Bulgaria’s vocal pro-Russia majority turned out to be a minority when it came time to cast ballots.

by Boyko Vassilev 5 June 2014

It is not enough just to hear the people’s voice; you also need to listen to it.


Bulgarian politicians had to learn that simple lesson the hard way in the European elections, where they put too much weight on what pollsters were saying without really trying to decipher what lay behind the numbers. Polls are tricky things. If you look at them with biased eyes, you are easily fooled.


Actually, the lessons were two. The first, simpler one is as old as time: don’t believe your own propaganda.


Most Bulgarian pollsters had predicted a hard-fought battle between the opposition center-right GERB and the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party, with a small lead for the Socialists. Only two agencies, Alpha Research and Exacta, showed GERB with a comfortable lead.


Yet election night held some explosive surprises. GERB won with an 11.5 percent margin while the Socialists barely held on to second place.


After the results came in, GERB’s leader, Boyko Borisov, railed against the “lies of the pollsters.” There were accusations of propaganda, deliberate manipulation, and bribery. The main culprits admitted their mistakes, but no one could absolve the politicians of their sins. Writing in the 24 Hours newspaper, journalist Valery Naydenov noted that this government had dissolved the National Institute for the Study of Public Opinion – the former employees of which then founded Exacta, one of the few agencies that got things right.


“Is it worth fighting the truth?” Naydenov asked. “If you hit it, it will bite back.”


The second lesson is more complicated and much more interesting: hubris is often followed by nemesis. Russophiles, so confident in the campaign, vanished at the ballot box.


When the Ukrainian crisis erupted, pollsters measured unexpectedly high Russophile sympathies in Bulgarian society – 60 percent, 70 percent, even more. The explanations varied, from historical and religious ties with Russia to anti-Americanism and dissatisfaction with Bulgaria’s experience inside the European Union. One poll was particularly troubling, because it came from the respected Alpha Research. Asked about their alliance preferences, 40 percent chose the EU. An astonishing 22 percent said Bulgaria should join the Eurasian Economic Union of Vladimir Putin.


Politicians took note. The nationalist Ataka (Attack) party, shaken by scandals surrounding its short-tempered leader, Volen Siderov, rebranded itself a pure Russophile force. It supported Putin’s every move, accused Ukrainian authorities of fascism, and even opened its European election campaign in Moscow. The campaign’s finale featured a performance in Sofia by Lyube, Putin’s favorite band. Ominously, the party video announcing the concert had a word pronounced in Russian: “Davai za Ataka”! (“Go for Ataka”!).


Siderov’s move was shocking. The National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, Ataka’s former ally and now its main nationalist rival, was left with no option but to take a Russophobe stance to differentiate itself. But all other nationalist parties, the Communists, and one green party tried to out-Volen Volen, blowing the pro-Russia pipe to crescendo. In TV debates barely anyone dared say anything against Putin, lest the other participants jump all over him.


Yet the hardest lot fell to the Socialists, traditionally the main Russophile force in Bulgaria. As a ruling party whose chairman, Sergei Stanishev, also leads the European Socialists in Brussels, it could not afford to be vocally pro-Putin. Socialist Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin was even one of the first foreign officials to meet with the leader of Ukraine’s interim government.


However, the Socialists compensated during the campaign, which was dominated by a pro-Russia message. On 9 May, the day Russia commemorates victory in World War II, many of the party’s VIPs wore St. George ribbons ,following the Moscow fashion. (Oddly, this symbol had nothing to do with the Great Patriotic War.) And the Socialists had their own Russian guest star, veteran singer and legislator Joseph Kobzon (who, in an apparent attempt not to offend the other Russophiles, appeared at the Ataka event as well).


There were many more Russophiles than Kobzon could handle, though. Bulgarian Socialists were challenged with one more competitor – a splinter group, led by former President Georgi Parvanov and called Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (or ABV, the first three letters of the Bulgarian alphabet). Parvanov, who did a lot to promote Bulgarian-Russian energy projects during his term, accused his former protégé Stanishev of disrespecting Russia.


Judging by all this, you might think Russia was a winning card in Bulgarian politics. Even GERB’s Borisov, a notorious maverick, tried not to criticize Putin directly. The only pro-Western talk emanated from the Reform Bloc, a small but vocal representative of the urban center-right.


But on election night that supposed winning card turned into a two of spades. GERB took six seats in the European Parliament, one more than in 2009; the distant-second Socialists held steady at four. ABV got no seats, while the new Reform Bloc, which was not expected to win any, took one. The most ardent Russophiles, Ataka, scored the worst – 2.96 percent, or just 60,000 voters; even the anti-Putinist National Front fared better, with 3.05 percent. The smaller nationalist and Communist parties barely registered, while the pro-EU parties rejoiced.


Evidently, some politicians had read the polls by paying attention only to numbers. If they had comprehended Alpha’s analysis, they would have noticed that pro-European Bulgarians are a passive majority that rises up if threatened. That is what happened 25 May. Some Bulgarians may like Putin’s Eurasian Union, but that doesn’t mean they want to live in it.


It could be also a lesson for the rest of Europe. The menace of the national and social populists may not be so potent. “They are very divided,” political scientist Ivan Krastev said. “There is an anti-European feeling, but there is no anti-European project.” And if the European majority feels sufficiently threatened, there will never be one. 

Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.

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