Accessibility links

Breaking News

Pro-Kremlin Forces On Rise In Bulgaria Ahead Of European Elections

Peter Volgin, here being interviewed by Russian TV, was known for his radio show Politically Incorrect. 
Peter Volgin, here being interviewed by Russian TV, was known for his radio show Politically Incorrect. 

SOFIA -- Peter Volgin was not shy about using the public airwaves in Bulgaria to spew pro-Russian disinformation.

Such was the outcry that irate listeners and others picketed outside the state radio headquarters in the capital, Sofia, in February 2023 to demand it pull the plug on Volgin's program called Politically Incorrect.

And given his Kremlin-friendly proclivities, it was perhaps little surprise when Volgin announced in April he was taking a leave of absence and hitting the political trail, running as a candidate for the far-right, pro-Russian Revival Party in upcoming elections on June 9 in Bulgaria to the European Parliament.

Volgin is one of a handful of pro-Russian candidates who could win one of Bulgaria's 17 seats in the European Parliament. The poll will take place alongside another to elect deputies to Bulgaria's unicameral National Parliament, the sixth such election since 2021 in the country, which has been beset by political instability for several years.

The expected extremist inroads in Bulgaria are anticipated elsewhere in Europe as well, amid apparent shifting political allegiances across the continent.

Between June 6 and June 9, voters in all 27 EU member states will go to the polls to elect 720 members of the European Parliament. The elections are held every five years, and each country is allotted a certain number of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in direct proportion to its population size. Voters elect national parties, but after the elections, the MEPs organize into political groups in the European Parliament that align with their parties' political ideologies.

Rise Of The Right

In France, far-right leader Marine Le Pen's National Rally is polling ahead of President Emmanuel Macron's Renaissance party. Next door in Germany, Alternative for Germany, a party under police surveillance for its extremist views, is second in opinion polls, tied with the Social Democrats.

Many of these far-right parties don't only parrot the Kremlin line but are alleged, in some cases, to have ties with Moscow. In March, Czech authorities busted a pro-Russian network that not only gave a platform on social media to pro-Russian politicians but paid some of them as well. European officials have warned of increasing Russian meddling in these elections.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen

In Bulgaria, given the country's traditionally friendly ties with Russia going back at least to the 19th century, when Russia helped Bulgaria in its fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire, Kremlin narratives definitely don't fall on deaf ears.

"Bulgaria falls in line with many of its European counterparts in that far-right parties are gaining or stabilizing their influence, albeit for different reasons," explained Rumena Filipova, chairwoman of the Institute for Global Analytics, a Bulgarian-based think tank. "In Bulgaria, the pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian discourse of Revival is a distinctive feature, which builds on pro-Russian sentiments in society molded by Russian historical propaganda about Moscow's supposed status as a 'liberator/savior' of Bulgaria," Filipova explained to RFE/RL in e-mailed remarks.

Filipova has also written elsewhere that polling data in Bulgaria suggests increasing numbers of younger people are turning toward antidemocratic ideas, a trend, she says, is rising in Europe, especially in the former communist-ruled countries.

In announcing his campaign to run for the Revival Party on April 16, Volgin vowed to rid "Europe from the European Union," as well as fight what he and his ilk consider so-called Russophobia in the bloc.

After his announcement, Milen Mitev, general director of Bulgarian National Radio (BNR), told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service that "Volgin can no longer be a presenter at BNR after he had officially committed himself politically."

BNR employees are bound by its editorial standards and code of ethics, which forbids them from involvement in politics, including campaigning in support of political candidates or causes.

Volgin has repeatedly courted controversy, given his penchant for spewing Kremlin-friendly propaganda on the Politically Incorrect program that he hosted. After the protest outside BNR headquarters calling for Volgin to be fired, the Council for Electronic Media, a Bulgarian media regulatory agency, months later said it had identified "propagandistic innuendo" in his broadcasts.

Revival's Revival

His party of preference, Revival, is notorious for cheerleading for the Kremlin, backing Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and opposing any Bulgarian support for Kyiv. In March, Revival put forward legislation to pull Bulgaria out of NATO, which failed.

A month earlier, in February, members of Revival traveled to Moscow, where they paid a visit to the Diplomatic Academy of the Foreign Ministry, a state institution notorious for allegedly grooming Russian spies.

Revival emerged as a political force in Bulgaria in 2021 when it won seats in parliament for the first time. By April 2023, Revival had secured a record 14.2 percent in another snap election. It is now on the verge of sending members, like Volgin, to the European Parliament for the first time.

"The electoral successes of Revival have been underscored by the gradual normalization of the far-right nationalist discourse in Bulgaria as the party was able to move from its early presence primarily on social media to becoming part of established media outlets," explained Filipova.

Polling also shows, as Filipova noted in a recent article, eroding support for democracy among younger people in Bulgaria, following similar patterns in Hungary and Serbia.

"Indeed, contrary to expectations that young people should necessarily be more democratic, liberal, and pro-Western in their views than their older counterparts, polling results demonstrate a consistent pattern of youth attitudes in Bulgaria (and especially those CEE countries that have experienced authoritarian rule) that favor a 'strongman model of leadership,' think that the EU is 'dictatorial,' and are less critical [of] far-right nationalists than all other age groups," Filipova told RFE/RL.

As analysts note, the elections to the European Parliament are taking place in the shadow of another national poll in Bulgaria, with the results of both elections expected to largely mirror one another.

Opinion polls heading into the elections for the European Parliament put the coalition of two center-right parties, GERB and the Union of Democratic Forces, in first place, followed by the reformist We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria coalition. The liberal Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) -- which traditionally represents Bulgaria's ethnic Turk and Muslim populations and is led by business tycoon and U.S.-sanctioned politician Deylan Peevski -- and Revival are vying for third place, followed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the recast former communists.

If vote results largely mirror pre-election prognostications, Revival, BSP, and DPS could send as many as six members -- nearly a third of the country's allotment -- to the European Parliament.

Since the last elections to the European Parliament in 2019, the political landscape has changed much in Bulgaria, argues Petar Bankov, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, and is "characterized by growing fragmentation, the marginalization of the left, and the increasing strength of right-wing parties, ranging between the liberal right to the populist radical right."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.