View from Sofia: Fear and loathing

Fear. The word travelled across Bulgarian media and between the lines of reports and political speeches in the days after the Brussels attack. The feeling that an attack on Brussels concerns Bulgarians (probably more than Paris or Ankara), together with the quantitative rise of terror attacks, has changed the mood in the country. The poisonous mixture of terrorism, migration, a devastating war not far from our borders, and euro-scepticism, came together as a scary and ugly backdrop to the public debate.

Refugees have a different biological make up, was the claim made by a public intellectual with an academic background. Migrants are being paid by Georgie Soros to travel and destabilise Europe, a former constitutional judge proclaimed from the TV. The attacks triggered extreme nervousness towards everyone different, which in turn triggered official statements to the effect that tolerance means bearing with those who are somehow lesser people.

Against this background, the government is demonstrating resolve in handling the threat of terror attacks. On March 23 it adopted a strategy for combating radicalisation and terrorism, which includes an anti-terrorism bill that has to be ready for presentation to the Cabinet within two weeks. The same day, Bulgaria’s Parliament approved amendments to the law against the financing of terrorism, which allow it to freeze the funds of individuals, organisations and lawyers on whom sanctions have been imposed for terrorism or financing terrorism, by the United Nations Security Council, or the European Parliament.

On the night after the Brussels attack, an anti-terrorism exercise took place, which involved the police closing down a number of streets in the city centre and the Sofia metro railway being closed. Minister of the Interior Rumyana Buchvarova assured that the exercise had been planned for a long time and had no connection to the terrorist attacks in Brussels. She added that after the news of the Brussels attacks, Bulgaria had carried out full border checks on those leaving and entering the country.

Amid this climate of nervousness and the bold moves by the government, Bulgarians wonder what to think about the EU-Turkey deal. They dislike the fact that Turkey not only gains a large amount of money but also gets away with assertive behavior that has ramifications in Bulgarian politics. However, the priority of diminishing the refuge flow, seems, at least partially, to be stronger than the general feeling of being blackmailed by the neighbours, by the unknown foreigners, by Europe’s indecisiveness to act.

  • This first appeared on the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations on April 5.



Vessela Tcherneva

Vessela Tcherneva is deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of ECFR’s Sofia office. Her topics of focus include EU foreign policy and the Western Balkans and Black Sea region. Between January and July 2022, she held the position of Foreign Policy Advisor to the Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov. From 2010 to 2013, she was the spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov’s political cabinet. Previously, she was secretary of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and former German President Richard von Weizsäcker; supervising editor of the Foreign Policy Bulgaria magazine; and political officer at the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington, DC. Tcherneva holds an MA in Political Science from the Rhienische Friedrich-Wilhelm Universität in Bonn.