SOFIA -- A mother in Bulgaria says she is relieved that her son is living abroad and out of reach of what she fears is coming at home: not only a military draft of able-bodied men but deployment to Ukraine to fight invading Russian forces in the bloodiest conflict the continent has witnessed since World War II.
"For the first time, I am not worried that my son left Bulgaria," Elena, who didn't want her real name to be used, told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, explaining that she became worried after hearing about a "possible military mobilization."
No such plan or intention has been announced, let alone discussed or mentioned, by the Bulgarian government.
Like much misinformation today, this rumor likely sprouted and spread on social media. In this case, a pro-Russian Facebook account with more than 10,000 followers and a popular rapper breathed much of the life into the rumor in Bulgaria.
In this case, those spreading the misinformation on the draft appeared to have latched onto a kernel of truth: members of the government had discussed revising a law requiring training for members of the country's military reserves during peacetime. In fact, on January 18, the Constitutional Court was asked to weigh in on the legality of such a move.
In explaining a potential revision of the law on reservists, acting Defense Minister Dimitar Stoyanov said a ruling could help clear up legal ambiguity on the matter dating back to at least 2016. Since then, Bulgarian officials have said the government was not weighing whether to restore mandatory military service -- something that was scrapped in 2008 -- nor readying for a general mobilization.
But despite such assurances that no mobilization or deployment to Ukraine was even being discussed, some Bulgarians weren't convinced.
Yordan Halachev, who has more than 11,000 followers on Facebook, was skeptical of the government's motives, writing sarcastically: "No, it's not related to the war in Ukraine. The government is just asking!" Halachev's account posts exclusively pro-Russian content, mostly concerning the war in Ukraine but also international relations in general.
One of those reading and sharing the post by Halachev was Elena, who says she has worked in the past as a journalist. Elena denies she "panicked," but was concerned especially after reading in the "international press" that mobilizations had occurred elsewhere in Eastern Europe, although no country in that region has taken such action or is planning to.
Talk of Bulgaria being dragged into the conflict in Ukraine and even mobilization has percolated from time to time since Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, voiced especially by those on the pro-Kremlin side of the political spectrum, not least the ultra-right-wing Revival Party and its leader, Kostadin Kostadinov.
Halachev's January 19 post on Facebook was quickly shared and spread, with one person commenting, "The meat grinder has jammed." It was also passed around among likeminded Facebook groups, RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service found. An account named Nikolina Mihailova has posted the content in 11 such groups, three of which have over 150,000 followers.
The mobilization rumors were amplified when popular rapper Stanislav Naydenov-Spence prophesized on his show on January 12 that such a move was coming. "They will send the Bulgarian Army to Ukraine," he told thousands of followers without offering any proof.
Like all countries in the EU, Bulgaria now has a fully professional army with 37,000 personnel, according to data for 2019 from the World Bank. The reserve force is reported to number about 45,000. A 2021 Bulgarian Defense Ministry report found that a significant number of reservists lacked military training.
Under the current law, Bulgarians in the military reserves cannot be called up for training in peacetime, since any training must be done on a voluntary basis.
Across the EU, Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has prompted a rethink on defense, with officials in capitals across the continent questioning the capabilities of their respective military forces.
War On Social
While the exact origins of the Bulgarian mobilization rumors are unclear, Russia's war against Ukraine is also being waged online, with the Kremlin accused of intensifying its disinformation activities.
"The disinformation surrounding Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 marked an escalation in Russia's long-standing information operations against Ukraine and open democracies," the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said in a working paper in November 2022.
Bulgaria has proven fertile ground for fake news, much of it allegedly planted and or nurtured by Kremlin-linked actors. The country has been in political limbo since June 2022, when the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Kirill Petkov collapsed after a no-confidence vote after just six months in power. The country in April will hold another snap parliamentary poll, the fifth such elections in two years.
During the COVID-19 crisis, Bulgaria suffered the EU's highest death rates linked to the virus as vaccination rates lagged, partly thanks to skepticism fed by disinformation on social media by Kremlin-friendly forces.
"Bulgaria offers a particularly fruitful environment for the spread of pro-Russian disinformation. Levels of media literacy are low while the country's communist past has ingrained pro-Russian attitudes into the cultural mainstream," the Bulgarian news site Kapital Insights wrote in May 2022.
While rare, rumors of EU citizens being mobilized to fight in Ukraine have emerged in at least one other country.
In the Czech Republic, disinformation on social media spoke of Petr Pavel, the retired army general who defeated populist billionaire Andrej Babis in a runoff vote on January 28 to become the new president, preparing to draft Czechs into the army to go off to fight in Ukraine. During the campaign, Pavel, who served as chairman of the NATO Military Committee, was portrayed as a warmonger.
It was unclear who was behind the campaign in the Czech Republic, and police announced they were investigating. Eventual loser Babis had paid for billboards with the message that the Czech Republic would be dragged into full-scale war if he was not elected.