Bulgaria marks national day under shadow of Putin’s war on Ukraine

Freedom was the central theme of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s message to the nation as it marked its national day on March 3, a theme that resonated against the background of the military onslaught ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin against Ukraine.

March 3 is the anniversary of the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano that was key to Bulgaria’s liberation from Ottoman rule and the restoration of its statehood.

In the battles for that liberation, soldiers from Russia, Ukraine, Finland and a number of other countries played a crucial role.

For years, it has been customary for Bulgaria to thank Russia for that crucial role, but in recent years, that matter also has been the cause of controversy.

In March 2018, Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, who attended ceremonies at Shipka Peak, took offence at Bulgaria thanking other countries in addition to Russia.

But that distant controversy pales in comparison with the heightened emotions in 2022, sparked by Putin’s war on Ukraine.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been condemned by the government of Bulgaria, a member of Nato and the EU, and according to a recent poll, has led to Putin’s approval rating in Bulgaria halving.

In a video address, Petkov – behind him a 19th century “Freedom or Death” flag, in hues not entirely dissimilar to those of Ukraine’s flag – said that March 3 1878 was synonymous with the word “freedom”.

Freedom was not gained through a single act, he said, tracing the long and difficult struggle that Bulgaria underwent to gain its freedom.

“Freedom is the most valuable human right. We are used to taking it for granted, but on days like today we should realise that without it, nothing else is worth it. It is our responsibility to protect and uphold it every day,” Petkov said.

“Freedom does not come for free,” he said.

“It comes with the blood of those who took part in the April uprising, with the fearlessness of the volunteer militia, with the faith of the people of Batak, with the self-sacrifice of the thousands of fallen soldiers – Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Finns, Poles, Romanians. On this day we can only say: Thank you,” Petkov said.

But the military aggression launched against by Putin, that has drawn near-universal condemnation across the world, did not deter Bulgaria’s Russophiles from displaying Russian flags at various ceremonies in Bulgaria, including at Shipka Peak.

Petkov and National Assembly Speaker Nikola Minchev attended the Shipka Peak ceremony, though President Roumen Radev and the Russian ambassador – the latter in a break with tradition – absented themselves.

Two years ago, as the Covid-19 pandemic began in Bulgaria, Radev went to Shipka Peak in defiance of the then-government’s ban on mass events. At the time, he said that the government was trying to quarantine the national holiday. This year, Radev confined himself to attend the morning ceremony in central Sofia.

The Russian ambassador had been at the memorial at Shipka Peak the day before – coincidentally making it not possible to answer a summons to the Foreign Ministry to be officially informed that Bulgaria was expelling two Russian diplomats identified as spies, and to be informed of Bulgaria’s objection to the insulting language being used against it by her embassy.

But at Shipka, there was a small mob from the pro-Kremlin Vuzrazhdane party, the smallest group in Bulgaria’s National Assembly, with just 13 MPs in the 240-seat Parliament.

During the official proceedings, conducted while large numbers of Bulgarians waited to lay wreaths and other floral tributes, the Vuzrazhdane mob booed Petkov and Minchev, shouted that they were “traitors” and called for them to resign. They threw snowballs at the Prime Minister, Speaker and other official guests.

In his address, Minchev said: “Today’s world is different from yesterday’s, today’s world is full of risks and dangers. A few hundred kilometres from Bulgaria, a war is being fought”. This brought more boos and other verbal abuse from the Russophiles.

Petkov expressed his concern at the divisions in the country.

“It is time for Bulgaria to say – Bulgaria is united, we are all Bulgarians and we all honour the national day of Bulgaria,” Petkov said.

“Anyone who wants to create division today, on the national holiday, does not work for the interests of our country. It is time to say that Bulgaria is above all,” he said.

(Photo of Petkov: government.bg)

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