Bulgaria marks the national holiday in the shadow of Putin’s war against Ukraine

Freedom was the central theme of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s message to the nation on March 3 National Day, a theme that resonated against the backdrop of the military attack on Ukraine ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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

In the struggles for this 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 this crucial role, but in recent years the matter has also been the subject of controversy.

In March 2018, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Kirill, who attended ceremonies at Shipka peak, took offense in Bulgaria and thanked not only Russia but also other countries.

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

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

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

Freedom was not won by a single act, he said, tracing the long and difficult struggle Bulgaria endured to gain its freedom.

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

“Freedom doesn’t 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 thousands of fallen soldiers – Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Finns, Poles, Romanians. On this day we can only say: thank you,” said Petkov.

But the military aggression launched by Putin, which has met with near-universal condemnation around the world, hasn’t stopped Bulgaria’s Russophiles from displaying Russian flags at various ceremonies in Bulgaria, including at the Shipka summit.

Petkov and Speaker of the National Assembly Nikola Minchev attended the ceremony at the Shipka summit, although President Roumen Radev and the Russian ambassador – the latter contrary to tradition – were absent.

Two years ago, when the Covid-19 pandemic began in Bulgaria, Radev went to the Shipka summit, despite the then government’s ban on mass gatherings. At the time he said the government was trying to quarantine the national day. This year, Radev limited himself to attending the morning ceremony in central Sofia.

The Russian ambassador had been at the Shipka summit memorial the day before – which, coincidentally, made it impossible to answer a subpoena to the State Department to be officially informed that Bulgaria was expelling two Russian diplomats identified as spies, and about to be informed of Bulgaria’s objection to the offensive language used by their embassy against it.

But in Shipka there was a small mob of the pro-Kremlin Vuzrazhdane Party, the smallest faction in the Bulgarian National Assembly with just 13 deputies in the 240-seat parliament.

During the official proceedings, which took place while large numbers of Bulgarians waited to lay wreaths and other floral tributes, the Vuzrazhdane mob booed Petkov and Minchev, calling them “traitors” and urging them to resign. They threw snowballs at the Prime Minister, the Speaker and other official guests.

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

Petkov expressed concern about the divisions in the country.

“It’s time for Bulgaria to say – Bulgaria is united, we are all Bulgarians and we all honor the Bulgarian National Day,” Petkov said.

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

(Photo of Petkov: government.bg)

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