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Military aid for Ukraine: The bone of contention in Bulgarian politics

The coalition government is holding an extraordinary council today to discuss whether Bulgaria should send military aid to Ukraine. The meeting comes one day before the extraordinary sitting of the National Assembly scheduled for tomorrow, 4 May, at which the MPs will have to decide whether to give the cabinet the mandate to do so. At this time, three of the four formations that go into the making of the government – We Continue the Change, Democratic Bulgaria and There Is Such a People support the idea of Bulgaria sending weapons to Ukraine. However, the fourth party – the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) – issued an ultimatum, and threatened, multiple times, to leave the coalition government if the Council of Ministers takes such a decision.

Yet parliament seems set to approve the proposal to send arms to Ukraine by a majority, with only the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the smallest parliamentary group – that of the nationalist Vazrazhdane being opposed at this time.

Besides discord within political circles, the issue has also divided the public in Bulgaria – people are very much sympathetic towards the people suffering in the military conflict, and have already welcomed more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, yet they are fearful that sending military aid could drag Bulgaria into the war. Logically, there have been protests organized in the country – both against and in support of a government decision to send Ukraine weapons.

President Rumen Radev on his part stated there existed a real risk of the war escalating to a European, and even world war. “There are politicians who are ready to take this dangerous step: to put Bulgaria’s future at stake in the interest of their own gains”, President Radev said.

“I hope we shall not see the President at any of the events demanding neutrality for Bulgaria because, in his capacity of supreme commander, it is the President’s job to think of his country, of its defence and adequate position. That is certainly not something that happens at mass gatherings. The above reaction is, to my mind, inexplicable at a time when the institutions should unite and work in sync.” That is how Arman Babikyan, one of the organizers of the protests in the summer of 2020 in Bulgaria, commented President Radev’s position regarding the war in Ukraine. He added that we are seeing part of the political elite in Bulgaria withdrawing from the current public debate:

“The opposite should be happening in critical times such as these – politicians should state their position clearly, as well as the values on which this position is based, and they should lead their people. They shouldn’t be waiting for sociologists to test how many voters they stand to lose or gain if they give their support to one of the two positions. I was hoping that the fact that we are living in the modern world of the 21st century would mean making a natural, normal civilizational choice between good and evil, aggressor and victim, between a reactionary theory and normal civilized relations – but it seems I was wrong,” Arman Babikyan said.

“The war in Ukraine is a war between Russia and NATO, and that is something that became apparent in the third month of the war,” foreign policy analyst Valentin Vatsev said for the BNR. In his words the Bulgarian political class is in complete accord with itself and with its Euro-Atlantic principles.

The difficult situation the ruling coalition in Bulgaria is finding itself in has prompted some analysts to say that the government’s prospects are bleak. “This coalition was called to life by history to unite, not to pursue policies,” sociologist Andrey Raychev said in an interview with bTV.

The decision on military aid to Ukraine is just one of many stumbling blocks for Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and his team. One more foreign policy issue ought to be added to this – the need to make a decision on Bulgaria’s veto on the EU integration of North Macedonia, not to mention the economic problems ensuing from the soaring inflation and the halted Russian gas deliveries.

“The Bulgarian industrial class, businesses are not going to forgive the government for the gas shock, because it is a shock to the Bulgarian economy that looks insurmountable, I don’t know how it can be compensated,” Valentin Vatsev says.

Surprisingly, all of these problems, as well as the spawning of new parties we have been seeing recently, do not seem to have the capacity to “blow up” the government, and there is a chance that a formula will be found that will keep the Bulgarian Socialist Party inside the coalition, even though they have stated their categorical position against military aid for Ukraine many times.

“All options are open, including in the way the decision is formulated, or shifted to a collective body (e.g. the National Assembly – editorial note). As experts, we are not in the least surprised by such about-turns in positions formulated as radical,” says Assoc. Prof. Stoycho Stoychev political analyst and lecturer at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. But he says early elections in the country are not likely, as there is no political force with an interest in bringing down the Bulgarian government right now.

Interviews by Horizont channel, BNR

Editing by Elena Karkalanova

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