Two Bulgarian former presidents enter controversy over Russian Patriarch Kirill’s dispute over history

Two Bulgarian former heads of state have entered the controversy sparked by Russian Patriarch Kirill taking offence at other countries being accorded a place along with Russia in the victory over the Ottoman Empire in 1878 that led to Bulgaria’s liberation.

Kirill’s visit to Bulgaria for the 140th anniversary of the Liberation ended with him complaining about Bulgarian leaders who acknowledged the role played by soldiers from other countries in defeating the Turks. The controversy soured what had been expected to be a public relations coup for the Kremlin, to which Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church are extremely close.

Rossen Plevneliev, who was Bulgaria’s president from 2012 to the beginning of 2017, weighed in with an article posted on the website of 24 Chassa on March 6, headlined “It is good for Bulgarian politicians to thank, not to worship, Russia”.

Plevneliev said that he did not agree with the celebrations of Liberation Day, Bulgaria’s March 3 national day, being dominated by the visit by Russian Patriarch Kirill “as if we have forgotten that the Russian Orthodox Church almost always took anti-Bulgarian positions, such as the imposition of the schism of the Bulgarian Exarchate in 1872”.

The former president said that he disagreed with the Bulgarian vice-president having venerated the Russian Patriarch and welcoming him at the airport, “degrading and insulting the Bulgarian state and not respecting the state protocol”.

This was a reference to vice-president Iliana Yotova, a long-standing Bulgarian Socialist Party member, having fallen to one knee in front of Kirill on his arrival at Sofia Airport.

Plevneliev also attacked his successor, incumbent President Roumen Radev, for exalting in his speech on Shipka Peak the feats of Russian soldiers, while “failing to acknowledge soldiers from all the other dozens of other nations and states, including our partners today in the EU like Finland, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia, and others such as Serbia, Montenegro, Moldova, Ukraine and so on, who fought and in many cases gave their lives for the freedom of Bulgaria”.

“This is an insult to our partners and a big gaffe by the Bulgarian head of state,” Plevneliev said.

He said that while he was president, in every speech he had mentioned all the nations that had taken part in the Russo-Turkish war.

Plevneliev added that no one should forget that Russia had opposed Bulgaria’s 1885 Unification (the accession of the short-lived Eastern Roumelia to the rest of Bulgaria) and how Russia had urged Serbia to invade Bulgaria.

The former president said that he did not agree with the Russian Patriarch, at an official lunch given by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod, imposing a “correct reading of history”, which – Plevneliev said – was nothing more than a further manipulation of history by Russia.

Plevneliev said that in several of his speeches, he had warned of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ideology of aggressive Pan-Slavic Orthodox nationalism.

“The Russian Orthodox Church is now fully subordinate to the Russian state and is an integral part of President Putin’s ambitions to redistribute spheres of influence,” Plevneliev said.

“I disagree with Bulgarian nationalists financed by Russia, waving the Russian rather than the Bulgarian flag, and serving the Russian, and not the Bulgarian national interest, to be called patriots and to be part of the ‘united Bulgarian patriots’,” he said.

Plevneliev said that Bulgaria expressed its gratitude to Russia for the liberation from Turkey, respected the achievements of the Russian people and culture, and shared the common values of Orthodox Christianity, but had gone its own way, for the European and democratic development of Bulgaria.

Petar Stoyanov, who was president of Bulgaria from 1997 to 2002, said that whether Bulgaria owed thanks to Romanians, Lithuanians, Finns and Ukrainians “is, I think, our issue”. As small as the contribution of these countries may have been, “we are obliged to express our gratitude,” Stoyanov said in a March 6 interview with public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television.

This question had become a very sensitive topic, he said.

As to March 3, “what is this national day, if it will divide Bulgarian society?” He said that he had read many comments, and they were confrontational.

“The attitude of Bulgarians towards Russia cannot be changed and there is nothing wrong with that,” Stoyanov said.



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.