SOFIA — Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Kiril Petkov on Monday demanded the dismissal of his defense minister for taking a soft line on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine in a political showdown that exposes Sofia as a key front line in Moscow’s push for influence inside the EU.
Defense Minister Stefan Yanev, a former brigadier general, triggered the political storm by insisting it was wrong to describe Russia’s assault on Ukraine, which has hit civilian targets, as a “war.” Yanev preferred Putin’s formulation that the invasion was an “operation.”
Most contentiously, Yanev published a Facebook post on Sunday, in which he argued there was no need for Bulgaria — a member of both the EU and NATO — to adopt a “pro-Russian, pro-American or pro-European position.”
“Our suffering motherland does not deserve to be sacrificed in the game of the great powers,” he wrote.
Petkov said that “no minister has the right to his own foreign policy, particularly on Facebook.” A parliamentary vote to dismiss Yanev will be held on Tuesday.
“When we see something with which we disagree, we cannot say that the Bulgarian interest is to keep quiet,” Petkov added.
Yanev’s remarks will reignite long-standing concerns that Bulgaria is the EU’s soft underbelly, where the Kremlin can seek to push its cause. The ties to Russia run deep, particularly through the country’s turbid underworld of oligarchs and former state security agents who control significant commercial interests.
In political terms, pro-Kremlin links exist across the political spectrum. The Bulgarian Socialist Party, born out of the old Communist party, refused to vote for sanctions against Russia. Former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who dominated the country’s politics for more than a decade until last year, styled himself a pro-European on the center right but was also very cozy with Putin, whom he gave a pet Karakachansko shepherd dog.
Unchecked Russian propaganda is also a problem in Bulgaria and it is commonplace for Bulgarians to parrot the Russian view that U.S. President Joe Biden provoked the war in Ukraine by not giving in to Putin’s demands. Social media comments are full of conspiracy theories and pro-Russian trolls.
Elected on a platform to break with these kind of entrenched problems in Bulgarian politics, Petkov said: “My defense minister cannot use the word operation instead of the word war. You cannot call it an operation when thousands of soldiers on both sides have already been killed, soldiers who are younger than my eldest daughter, when last night the Bulgarian minority was under fire, and Bulgarians in Kyiv were hiding in cellars.”
Bulgaria has a large ethnic minority in southern Ukraine — the Bessarabian Bulgarians, who trace their origins back to the 18th and 19th centuries.