Ukrainian women in Bulgaria: “We are not Nazis”

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Many Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria feel isolated and hostile. They are often insulted as Nazis. This also has to do with the deep-rooted Russian sympathy of many Bulgarians.

Demonstration in Sofia (04/07/2022): There is also solidarity with Ukraine

The Ukrainian Olena (name changed by the editor) is afraid. The 46-year-old art therapist from Kiev fled to Bulgaria in early March 2022, a few days after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But she also doesn't feel safe in Sofia, where she currently lives: “A Bulgarian boy, 12 years old, told my daughter, who was the same age, that all Ukrainians should die. Since then, she's wanted us to go home. The rockets are there less bad than this,” says the frightened mother. The boy claimed that all Ukrainians are Nazis and that Russia will conquer them soon.

Pro-Russian demonstration in front of a Monument to the Soviet Army in the Bulgarian capital Sofia (05/04/2022)

Everyday life in Bulgaria, which is considered very Russia-friendly. At the same time, Bulgaria is the least friendly country towards refugees from Ukraine – according to a report by the UN refugee agency UNHCR from January 2023. According to the report, a total of 148,451 Ukrainians have entered Bulgaria since the beginning of the war. However, two thirds of them have left the country.

Julija (name changed by the editor) from Dnipro, who also sought refuge in Bulgaria in March 2022, is also planning this. The 60-year-old woman complains about the hostile attitude of many Bulgarians: “Right from the start we felt unwanted and isolated in Bulgaria. I have no idea why most of the Bulgarians I met look at us so angrily. Me guess because people like Kostadinow keep suggesting that the Ukrainian refugees live at the expense of the Bulgarians because the state supposedly takes care of them.”

“Russian rift” through society

Yulia is referring to the leader of the ultra-nationalist Vazrazhdane (Rebirth) party, Kostadin Kostadinow, who leads the third largest parliamentary group in Sofia. Recently, Kostadinov claimed that the Ukrainians were all Nazis and that once his party came to power, it would immediately expel Ukrainian “tourists” disguised as refugees.

Kostadin Kostadinov is the leader of the ultra-nationalist Rebirth Party

Kostadinow and Vazraschdane can be classified quite clearly as pro-Russian and anti-European. Russian flags and pictures of Putin are often seen on the Vazrazhdane “peace marches”. Recently, participants in such a demonstration smeared red paint on the EU Commission's representation in Sofia.

It is only a small, vocal minority that manifests itself in Bulgaria in this way. But it is undisputed that many people in the country sympathize with Russia. The roots of this sympathy go far back in history. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Tsarist Empire helped the Bulgarians to free themselves from the sometimes extremely brutal 500-year Ottoman rule. After World War II, the Bulgarian Stalinists had the closest relationship with the Soviet Union of any Eastern Bloc country. At times they even considered joining the USSR – which was rejected in Moscow.

Today there is a deep rift in Bulgarian society over the Russia question. One part of the population is strictly anti-Russian and demands a hard break with the former “big brother”. The other part upholds the myths of the Bulgarian-Russian brotherhood. It also expresses anti-Western and anti-EU narratives.

“Bulgarian music plays here”

Just like the Vazrazhdane party. Olena is devastated by the threats of the party leader Kostadinov and the vandalism of his sympathizers. She cannot believe that the police in an EU country allow attacks on diplomatic missions without reacting.

Sofia: Supporters of the pro-Russian Rebirth party have smeared the European Commission Representation with red paint

Olena is grateful to the friendly Bulgarians who helped her and her family in the beginning. But at first she couldn't understand the hostile mood in other parts of the population: “Slowly we realized that it was certain Bulgarian politicians who were inciting such negative feelings about Ukraine,” she says. “We've also seen their sympathizers provoke – during demonstrations in support of Ukraine, for example.”

On the fringes of a pro-Ukrainian concert, Olena says, she saw men with Bulgarian flags shouting at the Ukrainians that they were Nazis and should get out of Bulgaria. “A little later, people gathered on the neighboring square in front of the National Theater,” she reports. “They played Bulgarian folk music and danced to it. At first I thought: How nice that the music of two cultures can be heard in two neighboring squares and people are almost happy together. I went up to them and asked if I could dance with them. But when they found out that I'm Ukrainian, they rudely replied that I should dance with Ukrainian music on the other square. Bulgarian music is playing here,” says Olena.

She and her family will not stay in Bulgaria. She believes that all Ukrainians want to go home as soon as the war is over. “I doubt that anyone would stay here,” she says in a sad voice. And then she has to think of Kostadinow again: “I'm afraid the Bulgarians have an ongoing problem with politicians and parties like this. Because Kostadinov spreads lies – and everyone believes him.”

The Bulgarians pay for the refugees ?

Kostadinow's assertion that only the Bulgarian taxpayers footed the bill for the Ukrainian refugees is not only contradicted by the fact that Sofia has already received more than 100 million euros from the EU as refugee aid for people from Ukraine.

Ukrainian women renovate the refugee center in the central Bulgarian city of Plovdiv

Julija has another argument. “I'm a graphic designer working from home for a foreign company,” she says. “I don't get any aid or other support. Many of my compatriots here in Bulgaria also work from their home office for various employers. In Bulgaria we spend money every day: on food, on clothes, on everything our children need. That's how we help also the Bulgarian economy. Why is nobody talking about it?”

Instead, many Bulgarians are talking about the allegedly very expensive and large cars that Ukrainians drive. That's very unfair, Olena thinks. “We shouldn't be denigrated as a nation,” says the outraged Ukrainian. “If we are Nazis, as some people here claim, how is it that we were brought up to respect human values ​​and rights?” Then she comes back to the incident with her daughter: “What kind of Nazis are my daughter and I? And why should a 12-year-old boy think we should die? It's a very dangerous thing.”