There is war once again, and the re-radicalised right in Bulgaria is using the war in Ukraine to establish its final hegemony. While the Russian invasion of Ukraine is in full swing, in Bulgaria opinions, commentaries, analyses, performances, memes and all kinds of public expressions are pouring in from the right, through which, like a golden thread, runs another opportunity for a final showdown with the left.
A new public consensus is being forged before our eyes, based on the militarist, nationalist, and orientalist tropes cultivated by the right and now revived that present both Russia and the left as expressions of some Eastern barbarism threatening European civilisation. Their aim is to cement the hegemony of the right and to do away with the last remaining elements of alternatives for the future, with all the consequences this entails. The absence of an adequate and collective response from the left, which is based on peace and does not excuse the Russian aggression, dooms Bulgaria, Europe, and the world to a post-war reality in which the right will compete with the far right, and the divisions between the parties on war and peace will be determined by whether they support Putin’s imperialism or NATO’s imperialism.
The reason war is possible – notwithstanding the direct blame for it lying with Putin’s regime – is the consistent stultification of international security mechanisms by the US since the end of the Cold War. From the first day of the war, the Alliance’s defenders declared Russia’s actions to be an unprecedented blow to the international security architecture. Russia itself justified its aggression straight out of the NATO playbook – portraying the operation as a pre-emptive war to preserve the country’s security and legitimate interests, as a strike on a regime that had come “in a coup” and was illegitimate. Moreover, Putin’s insistence on the simultaneous “de-Nazification” and “decommunization” of Ukraine is reminiscent of the long-term hegemonic tactics pushed by some liberal analysts who equate Nazism with communism. Various voices have rightly come from the left drawing parallels with the wars that the US and other NATO countries have waged in Iraq and elsewhere.
However, the space for such opinions has been severely restricted by the application of various silencing techniques and forced manufacturing of consent for what is happening. One important mode of presenting Russia as an aggressor in opposition to NATO is the phrase “war in Europe”. Most Bulgarian and international headlines focus on how Putin has started a war on the Old Continent, where we have not seen a war in a good 70 years (conveniently omitting the wars in the former Yugoslavia). This narrative is complemented by the thesis of “fratricidal” war, the attack on “our” neighbours, the Russian assault on European civilization, etc. The hidden message behind such framings is that, unlike NATO, Russia is dropping bombs on white people. Like terrorist attacks in Western countries, Russian aggression is an attack on the Western order. What is left unsaid is simply that the wars that the Western world has externalized are suddenly returning to countries that have for many years carried out military violence around the world, fed the military-industrial complex, and carefully kept it out of sight of their peoples.
This conveniently presupposes the representation of the war as some kind of a clash of civilizations. This thesis has been present among Bulgarian Euro-Atlanticists for many years. Bulgaria has made its “civilizational” choice between the despotism of the East and the democracy of the West. Russian history is portrayed in the Orientalist role of an Eastern society in which different and often opposing political regimes are simply a continuum of despotism. The USSR is presented as a continuation of the Russian Empire, and Putin’s Russia as a continuation of the USSR. Echoes of this narrative reach grotesque proportions – for example, the rise of the far-right in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe is often justified by the “authoritarian” legacy that has defined the parameters of the mentality of nations that deep down want to democratize along Western lines but lack the strength and skill to reject the weight of the national psychology of Orientalism and backwardness.
These discourses also reinforce attitudes towards refugees. European states, which for years have maintained racist and Islamophobic anti-immigrant policies and collectively repelled any attempts by refugees from African and Asian countries to reach Europe’s shores, are now suddenly concerned about refugees from Ukraine. Hungary and Poland, two of the countries with the most hysterical anti-migrant policies, have suddenly opened their doors to refugees from Ukraine. This welcome is doubly conditioned, first, by the ongoing orientalization of Russia, which coincidentally is being constructed even by Putin’s recent staunch allies in the EU, Hungary, and Poland, and second, by viewing fleeing Ukrainians as an opportunity to inject cheap labor into their thirsty economies, without the price of “difficult integration.” A similar assignment of a higher value to (newly seen as) “white” refugee labour from Ukraine is happening everywhere in Europe. In Bulgaria, politicians from across the spectrum have described refugees from Ukraine as a breath of fresh air for a Bulgarian economy “suffering from a shortage of personnel” (as stated by Minister for the economy Kornelia Ninova). Prime minister Kiril Petkov also yearned for Ukrainian programmers, and then directly stated the racist basis of the decision to accept refugees from Ukraine – they are not the refugees “we are used to”, who have a “dark past” and are “terrorists”, but are “Europeans” and “educated people.” What Petkov did not say, but was clear to everyone, was that Ukrainian refugees, unlike others, are white. In recent days, it has also become clear that refugees from Africa and the Middle East who are in Ukraine are being stopped from reaching asylum in other European countries on Ukraine’s border. The racism and Islamophobia of Fortress Europe’s refugee policy is being reproduced in this conflict as well.
But the political projections of Islamophobia as the determinant of this “civilizational” choice do not stop there. They are also mobilized in Orientalist discourses buy outlining the participation of Chechen fighters in the war. European Conservatives and Reformists MEP Angel Dzhambazki announced that the “Chechen Bashibozuk” were advancing into Ukraine under Russian banners. Similarly, Radan Kanev, a MEP from the center-right EPP, expressed outrage at the “jihadist mercenaries”. Such concurrences in the positions of the right and the far-right are no coincidence. Russia’s military aggression has been successfully managed by right-wing and far-right pro-NATO activists to form a consensus around the pro-war measures taken by the state and the Alliance as vital and necessary to safeguard our physical survival.
This militarist and racist basis for the attitudes towards the war, collectively presented as the ‘national interest’, is a potent weapon for dealing with dissent. It can be observed on two main fronts – against the anti-war idea and against the left in general.
In the first place it is a question of disciplining the people into the spirit of militarism. All those who advocate peace become national traitors. Opponents of the increased militarization of NATO are declared apologists for Russia and Putinists (which is further complicated by the fact that Putin’s defenders also use anti-war discourse). Some of the champions of military resistance against Russia, such as the far right ex defence minister Karakachanov, have also mobilised homophobic arguments, claiming that while the Russians have raised soldiers, we Europeans have raised “genders” and now we are not masculine enough to stand up to Russia.
Secondly, the war is being used for the final defeat of the left in Bulgaria. For this purpose it is necessary to systematically tie the left to Russia. Again, the basis for this is historical revisionism, but a favourable ground is also the support for Putin among sections of the ‘conservative left,’ which recognizes in him a counterweight to US imperialist aggression (and ironically does not recognize or prefers the same imperialism when it comes from Putin). For the right, however, the war is a good opportunity to try to do away with the left, since opposition to NATO from the left in the context of a military threat allows the categorization of all left-wing people and traditions as anti-Bulgarian and pro-Russian, sweeping the internationalist roots of socialist, leftist and Marxist movements globally under the rug. Today, the project of uniting Russophilia and Leftism as the two factors that are holding Bulgaria back from a civilizational leap forward towards the West aims to reach its completion.
A shining example of this is the campaign to remove the Monument to the Soviet Army (MSA) in Sofia. Under the mimicry of solidarity with Ukraine, the tearing down of the monument is in fact an enterprise to erase the anti-fascist struggle from our collective memory. A struggle that is historically tied to the Soviet Union and that continues to be on the terrain of the left, onto which today all the negative notions of the period of state socialism are transferred.
The justification for removing the MSA is the disciplinary narrative of opposing the current aggression against Ukraine, and as an emanation of the civilizational rejection of the despotism of the East. Russia’s aggression was equated with the Third Ukrainian Front’s entry into Bulgaria in 1944, presenting the two events as a function of the same thing. Thus, not only the monument, but also the idea of the left itself, traditionally equated with the Soviet legacy, is subordinated to orientalist, racist, and Islamophobic notions of the despotic East as the antithesis of the democratic, civilized West.
If we allow such understandings of the left and the anti-war idea to gain ground, we will end up with a pro-war, highly militarised Bulgaria. I fear that the dramatic surge in military spending of recent years will be multiplied, and that nationalism and the pro-NATO consensus will be regularly used to silence the left. Last but not least, faith in the military and the status of the senior officer corps in society would be amplified, thus forming a precondition for the rise of even more authoritarian forces.
The struggle against the naturalisation of such discourses guarantees opportunities for the advancement of leftist causes in general. The immediate task is unconditional peace in Ukraine. There is an urgent need to organize all anti-war forces on the left to oppose Russian aggression, but also against all similar wars around the world, exposing the present and historical responsibility of NATO and great power imperialism. Between Russia and NATO, we must choose peace and solidarity between peoples!