Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Bulgarian nostalgia for Communism feeds anti-EU propaganda

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In the run-up to Bulgaria’s parliamentary election and the European elections both on 9 June, Eurosceptic and pro-Kremlin parties have ramped up efforts to win over young Bulgarians, who have limited knowledge about the past.

Bulgarian history teacher Tsvetomira Antonova tries to educate students about the dark side of the Communist era, as misinformation campaigns ahead of key national and European elections portray it as a glorious period.

Bulgarian school textbooks even today portray an idealised Russia, “glossing over negative aspects” of its role since the late 19th century, according to a study by the Institute for Global Analytics in Sofia.

Bulgaria’s school curriculum was revised only in recent years to allocate more hours for the study of the Communist era but few teachers implement it.

Antonova is one of the exceptions, teaching her students at a secondary school in Sofia about the forced labour camp on Belene Island on the Danube, where thousands were imprisoned.

Hundreds of people are said to have died there.

Akin to the Soviet Gulags, Bulgaria’s labour camps were built to “re-educate” the “enemies of the people”, with many ordinary persons arrested or denounced for their “bourgeois” upbringings or talking out of turn.

The labour camps remain largely unknown and rarely figure in school curriculums, laments the teacher in her fifties.

This is one of the reasons why the myth of the “Russian brothers” who come to Bulgaria’s rescue “remains persistent,” Antonova added.

‘Exceptional case’

Historically close to Russia, EU and NATO member Bulgaria still has many monuments glorifying the Soviet era.

The pedestal of a monument featuring a Soviet soldier still stands in the capital Sofia after protests against its dismantling.

Bulgaria celebrates 3 March as a national holiday, commemorating its liberation from Ottoman rule by the Russians in 1878.

A proposal by the former pro-European government a few months ago to have it changed was shelved after public outcry.

According to a recent Ipsos poll conducted in 18 European countries for the Euronews channel, Bulgaria represents an “exceptional case” in terms of support for Vladimir Putin, with 37% of respondents saying they have a “positive” opinion of the Russian leader.

Ahead of the national and European elections, misinformation campaigns on social media have frequently targeted the European Union, claiming the bloc was endangering Bulgaria’s identity.

“I’m all for being in Europe, of course, but other people would rather we were our own thing, something great,” 15-year-old student Yoana Fenerdzhieva told AFP.

“We must develop independently because we’re going to be invaded by gays and they’ll make us eat insects — the internet is full of this kind of propaganda,” said Svetlin Petkov, another student.

‘Nostalgia fed by fiction’

Many Bulgarians continue to glorify what they call the “good” life before 1989, when they claim the country was one of the world’s largest producers of agricultural products and brimming with innovation, while criminals were in prison.

Tens of thousands share their thoughts and praise on social media, with speeches by ex-dictator Todor Zhivkov even trending on TikTok.

A 20-year-old pop folk song lauding Zhivkov has recently become trendy again and has amassed almost 18,000 likes.

“What feeds this nostalgia is a fiction that I call phantom pain, the pain of an amputated limb,” explained sociologist Milena Yakimova, a member of the NGO Human and Social Studies Foundation, which studies Kremlin propaganda.

For young people, who did not experience Bulgaria’s democratic transition and only learned little about it, the nostalgia for Communism is a “fun way” of imagining the past, she said.

But for older people it can be “really painful” when faced with the lack of doctors in the EU’s poorest country, she said, given that access to the healthcare system was better during the Communist era.

“Many Bulgarians feel that they are inferior Europeans,” said Yakimova, with Russian propaganda seeking to exploit these “emotions” by feeding them a distorted image of a once prospering Bulgaria.

Read more with Euractiv

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