Last week, Bulgaria and Poland became the first European casualties of Russian gas sanctions when Moscow cut supplies to the two countries.
Earlier, Bulgaria’s state-owned energy company, Bulgargaz, had said that the conditions proposed by Russian energy giant Gazprom were a breach of contract – and had refused to pay for the resource in roubles as stipulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Fortunately for Bulgaria, gas makes up only 6 percent of its total energy consumption, but the move was seen as a warning shot to the rest of the bloc, particularly to larger consumers such as Germany and Italy.
More than a loss of energy supply, the cutoff has fortified a growing separation between the long-standing allies, which share an alphabet, religion and former communist rule.
Their relationship started becoming closer in 1877, when Russia helped Bulgaria’s uprising against five centuries of Ottoman rule.
But with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that special relationship has been put into question.
Days after Russian tanks entered Ukraine on February 24, Alpha Research, a Bulgarian social research agency, published results of a nationwide poll on how ordinary Bulgarians felt about the war.
After just four days of hostilities, Putin, who for many years enjoyed a positive rating in the country, lost more than half of his popularity, with 25 percent of people approving of him compared to 55 percent in 2021.
In addition, 63 percent of respondents agreed that Bulgaria’s place was in alliance with the European Union and NATO, compared to 15 percent supporting a side with Russia.
“The data show that Bulgarian society is undergoing a period of transformation, which will have an impact not only on its geopolitical attitudes, but also on the support for the individual political forces in the country,” Alpha Research said.
Vasil Dimitrov, 60, a conservator-restorer, said Moscow’s attitude towards Sofia has for a long time been disrespectful, with Russia’s Ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova calling pro-Ukraine supporters “western substrates”.
Dimitrov distrusted Putin after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Now, he is prepared to pay more for gas.
“Are we going to allow him to kill children because of gas?” he asked. “We haven’t seen atrocities like this in Europe since the time of Hitler.”
On Wednesday, Bulgaria’s parliament will once again vote on whether to send weapons to Ukraine – a contested topic, given a shaky political coalition of the four parties.
The socialists have threatened to break with the government if Bulgaria sends weapons, while the democrats warned of similar consequences if the country did not.
On April 28, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov travelled to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and vowed that his party, We Continue the Change, would back military assistance, a day after Russia cut off Bulgaria’s gas.
“The rhetoric we have been hearing for several months is, ‘Don’t give military aid to Ukraine so that peace comes sooner,'” Petkov said to local media, referring to voices from within the coalition. “If this is the price of peace, if the Russian state continues to [attack] and no one has the opportunity to defend itself, then do we want this peace?”
Lyuben Rusinov, 78, a retiree from Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city, said that Sofia should have weaned itself off of Russian gas a long time ago, given decades of imbalanced gas agreements, where Russia maintained a monopoly on the country’s market.
While he is glad to see support for Ukraine rising, he is concerned that pro-Russian propaganda in the largest news outlets remains high.
“Non-independent media, of which there is plenty of in Bulgaria, is dividing people over the war and most notably casting the prime minister in a negative light,” Rusinov said.
“Bulgarians like me dislike Putin and the Russian leadership, but no one is against the Russian people.”
But Pepa Petrova, 60, who until recently worked at a weapons factory in central Bulgaria, said: “We are Russophiles, we understand that Russia is not at fault in this war but it is NATO who provoked it.”
She believes that Petkov’s political priorities are skewed since his government is providing Ukrainian refugees 40 Bulgarian leva ($22) a day, while most of his countrymen are “starving”.
Bulgaria has the lowest gross domestic product (GDP) in the EU.
“It is the fault of the government for provoking the Russian president to cut gas supplies,” Petrova said of the cutoff.
Overall, however, Daniel Smilov, programme director of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, said most Bulgarians support Ukraine, given they had opened their homes and volunteered time to welcome them.
“The dominating voices aren’t anti-Ukraine,” he said.
The real challenge, Smilov added, would be harmonising the Bulgarian government position.
Not only has the war fractured relations within the four-party coalition, it has broken the union between the country’s liberal prime minister and socialist president, Rumen Radev, who is seen to be pro-Russia.
“Unlike the Russophile parties within the coalition, the president has a wide support among the Bulgarian public,” Smilov said. “If he continues to diverge on the prime minister’s rhetoric, this will bring about more polarisation and that won’t be good for the country.”