War in Ukraine and polarisation in Bulgaria

Stories of civilizational choice between West and East hide the collapse of contemporary Bulgarian society

Ognian Kasabov

This article was published on the website of the Bulgarian organisation KOI (Collective for Public Interventions) and is an attempt to think critically and balanced about what the Italian intellectual Roberto Savio called “the suicide of reason”

The war, the media argue, is not a time for nuance, but for taking a stand. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine continues to exacerbate attitudes around the world. The lines are hardening. Things that until recently seemed only an option, and an extreme one at that, are beginning to look like the only option. Bridges are burning, resolve is growing.

Yet the specific contours of polarisation in Bulgaria speak only of political gridlock. The passions around the monument to the Third Ukrainian Front in Sofia are just a passage in a relentless crescendo of buffoonery [there’s talk of a kind of war between two camps – an anti-Russian which wants to paint or “attack” the monument to the Soviet army, and a pro-Russian which defends the monument of attackers – translator’s note]. For months we have been deafened about our “civilizational choice” to be part of Europe or, on the contrary, about the unbreakable bond between Bulgaria and Russia.

Our society is involved in a clash of identities, problematic not only for its intellectual and historical incoherence, but at least as much for the danger of deepening the diseases that are destroying our country.

The irrational seems to have taken over the political debate in the institutions, in the media and in the streets. The effects are felt immediately on issues like military aid and natural gas, but they go further. The moral stakes are reduced to declarations of belonging, and specific security and economic issues sink into oblivion. The lack of substance is offset by the power of incantation.

It is either said that there is an undeniable need to give Ukraine weapons – or not, but the details are useless. From media leaks we have learned what our military industry exports; we are ignorant of our real defence capability. Supposedly Bulgaria has not sent a single ammunition, but officially they offer help. Unofficially they send anything but that as the narrative goes that does not mean support for anyone.

Same with gas. So far, we have no adequate explanation from either side: neither for the realistic cost of replacing Gazprom, nor for our supposed inevitable dependence on Russian gas. Of course, abstract slogans can also lead to very concrete actions: our country is surprisingly proving to be more ‘pro-European’ than many others and the Commission itself.

Beyond our borders, the sense of moral urgency is perhaps understandable, especially in the case of Bulgaria, a country that constantly has to prove its ‘Europeanness’ because it is told that something is always missing. It is also natural that a brutal war in a country that is not only geopolitically similar but also close to our historical memory would elicit an emotional response. Unfortunately, we seem to be unaware of the difficult and problematic choices that the external pressures of ‘civilizational choice’ have presented to Ukraine in recent years.

On the eve of the Victory Day 2022 two camps – pro-Russian and anti-Russian clashed before the Monument of Soviet Army in Sofia

Instead, the lines of demarcation from the dawn of transition reappear, mixed with even older reminiscences of the time of the Third Kingdom. The contradiction threatens to swallow up everything else in a series of false equivalences. If you criticise NATO, you are an agent of Putin; if you support the Ukrainian people, you support Bandera (the leader of Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists during WW2 – note of the translator). Along with such equivocation comes paranoid demonisation of the other side, the enemy at home.

Of course, some divisions can be productive. Today, the clash between the two ‘civilisational’ models is becoming more acute in a society already marked by extremely sharp socio-economic divisions. We are only now beginning to see how one fault line projects onto the other. But socio-economic inequality has never been at the heart of the political debate in this country anyway.

There is an unspoken social trauma. Fifteen years after our country joined the European Union, we convincingly rank first in inequality, a drastic departure from the average. A third of our fellow citizens are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. Attributing this to the effects of a flawed ‘civilisational choice’ is an explanation that is as popular as it is dubious – when there are so many more direct and classic lines of causality, such as a lack of adequate social policy.

There has been talk of how the current compromise coalition could be replaced by a truly “Euro-Atlantic” coalition – a great whitewash for Borissov’s image, though not as effective as in the case of politicians like Boris Johnson. As if Bulgaria’s (or the UK’s) geopolitical positioning would solve the problem of inflation and falling incomes.

At the two extremes of the spectrum, the pro-Kremlin and pro-Western antipodes – the Renaissance party (considered to be pro-Remain and populist) and the DSB (a party that is part of Democratic Bulgaria, which in turn is some equivalent of USR-Plus) are just two sides of the same coin: cronies versus enlightened fascism. As by the book are the efforts of the former to give the losers a way out, but not the power to change their destinies. No less disconcerting than their rise is the unprecedented extent to which “genuine right-wing” liberals’ contempt for the underclass has taken hold.

It is clear who (apart from “Putin” and the “West”) benefits from such a situation: big business and a political class unable or unwilling to work for economic development that benefits ordinary citizens rather than a handful of “employers”. Now, managerial impotence is being offset by a shift of attention to the foreign policy field. However, as well as being ethically questionable, the misuse of conflict can be a bad joke.

Bulgaria is in a political stalemate: let us not forget the three parliamentary votes last year and the collapse in voter turnout. What a logical consequence of a situation where political forces have refused for years to articulate priorities relevant to the lives of the majority of our fellow citizens – where even now emerging actors are recycling slogans about Europe, traditional values and mandatory support for business.

So far, the clash of civilisations in this country is being waged by a small but vocal group. However, in the absence of an alternative political narrative, part of the silent and sober majority will be drawn into the conflict, while the other, larger majority will fall into deeper political apathy. 

In the game of market democracy there are always winners and losers. But there is something deeply wrong when the only thing the losers can turn to is the Orthodox church and Putin, and all the winners can offer is more of the same things we already have, but in a more extreme form.

In the polarization of this increasingly hopeless culture war, issues of low income, inflation, business theft, a crumbling health care system and educational inequality will continue to remain in the background. Problems that will exacerbate the real fault lines and at the same time exacerbate the false language in which they are uttered and which closes off the possibility of resolving them.

No one has any excuse for not recognizing the stakes of such disputes as fake, as they are damaging. Only by setting them aside can we begin a meaningful political conversation. But it is also the only way we will be able to take a meaningful stand on the war. Then some essential nuances will emerge, which will reveal our picture of “Europe” and “Russia”.

For example: that Putin’s Russia, with its reduced social systems and its fusion of capital and state, embodies the extremes of neoliberal capitalism. That the lower ranks of the Russian army, languishing in the fields of Ukraine, are neither orcs (a pejorative name for the Russian side in the war – note of the translator) nor defenders of the ‘Russian world’, but needy inhabitants of remote regions whose salvation is a soldier’s wage. That the tax and security system defended by Bulgarian liberals, who are devouring the welfare state in our country, is too much like the Russian one. That the Ukrainian government is not the Ukrainian people. That Bulgarian businesses have for years profited from the poverty of Ukrainians, treating them as cheap labour, just as European businesses profit from our fellow citizens. That pouring our money into overbloated military budgets will bring, if not more security, at least profits where they should.

That war and “civilizational choice” demand and will continue to demand sacrifice, especially from those who don’t have much anyway. Such sacrifices make no sense.

Photo: A fragment from the Monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia (source: KOI)

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