This essay is about the Bulgaria-Russia relationship not only in the context of the upcoming Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU, but over more than 100 years. In a nutshell, this relationship is characterised by immaturity on both sides and a subsequent accumulation of mistakes, without any end in sight.
External observers see the Bulgarian society divided between Russophiles and Russophobes. The observation is correct. But this is nothing new: the entire Bulgarian history after the Russian empire liberated Bulgaria from the Ottoman rule in 1878 is made of this. Ivan Vazov, known as “the Patriarch of Bulgarian literature” (1850-1921), was initially an iconic Russophile, then turning into a Russophobe, judging by his poems during the Balkan wars and the subsequent Word War I.
Many other famous names could be mentioned. The bottom line is that after liberating Bulgaria, Russia consistently played its cards against the Bulgarian interests in any possible situation and at any given historic period.
In particular, Russia prioritized its relations with Serbia and with the former Yugoslavia, and under Stalin forced Communist Bulgaria to teach Bulgarian population in the area of Pirin Macedonia “Macedonian language”. My mother, Ekaterina Goteva (Milkova) born in Blagoevgrad, told me of her plight and disgust, being forced as a teenager in the 1950s to speak in an utterance which sounded to her as a gross fabrication. My father, Goran Gotev, a journalist and a spy in Yugoslavia for the Bulgarian intelligence in the 1970-1980s, told me that only in this latter capacity it was possible to fight for Bulgarian interests against the Soviet will. My parents are both deceased, but my father published a book in which he describes his experience. It is titled “I lived under the dictators of the 20th century”.
My own experience is that the Soviets were extremely heavy-handed in Bulgaria and behaved like colonialists. The Bulgarian communist leader Todor Zhivkov played an interesting game. He was telling Brezhnev everything the sclerotic soviet leader wanted to hear, and obtained in exchange a lot of Russian oil Bulgaria was selling against foreign currency to the world market.
The “happy hour” ended when Brezhnev died in 1982. None of the subsequent Soviet leaders liked Zhivkov, to the contrary, they suspected him of double-dealing. Robert Barry, a US Ambassador in Sofia in 1981-1984, told me in a 2003 interview that after Brezhnev’s death, Zhivkov told him “We can be as loyal allies to the US as to the USSR, if you give us the same as the Russians did”. I asked him if he reported this to Washington. He said he didn’t, as he considered this to be typical Zhivkov humour.
To be continued. If you don’t want to miss the follow-up, make sure you subscribe to the website. It’s free.