The writer of this Brief has spent most of the summer at the Bulgarian seaside, which is crowded with Russians and Ukrainian beachgoers. The image is surreal: although coming from two countries at war, these people are just here to enjoy life.
Bulgaria was already known as the “Cote d’Azur” of the Russian middle class. According to publications, 300,000 Russians have bought real estate in Bulgaria after the collapse of the Soviet Union, mostly apartments on the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast.
Since Vladimir Putin started his war of aggression against Ukraine, their number has dropped to some extent, but there are still many Russians enjoying the climate and good life EU member Bulgaria can provide.
Reportedly, additional Russians have arrived to avoid conscription. Indeed, I saw two generations: the retired and the 30-40 year-olds, clearly visible on the beach, in restaurants and supermarkets.
In parallel, many Ukrainians also moved to Bulgaria after the war started.
But make no mistake, they are not exclusively women, as officially announced. Thousands of expensive cars with Ukrainian number plates can be seen on Bulgarian roads, and almost all of them are driven by young men.
I cannot vouch for reports that Ukrainian men can easily leave their country by paying bribes at border crossing points. But I can confirm that a small army of young Ukrainian men, with evidently very good financial status, judging by their vehicles, are in Bulgaria, avoiding conscription.
As I saw in Bulgaria, the Russians and Ukrainians are enjoying life.
As a child, I saw Czechoslovaks on the Bulgarian beaches glued to the radios in the summer of 1968. They had forgotten about vacations, all they needed to know was what was happening after the Warsaw Pact armies invaded their country following the rebellion in Prague.
There is nothing like that regarding Russians and Ukrainians in the summer of 2023.
I listen to their conversations, where they mainly discuss where to spend their money or complain about the services they are getting. Of course, these are just some of my random impressions rather than a sociological survey.
And I saw no animosity between Ukrainians and Russians there. Possibly the Ukrainians assumed that the Russians were draft dodgers, just like them.
Conversely, the Bulgarians I spoke to were disheartened by this image of a cowardly Ukraine, which contradicts the official press reports about heroism and sacrifice, that prefers basking in the sunshine on the beach.
Most of the cars with Ukrainian number plates are new and very expensive, and the leisurely lifestyle of their owners doesn’t suggest that they are trying to help their country in any way.
Moreover, Ukrainian cars don’t pay road taxes or parking fees, infuriating many Bulgarians.
What I have seen is probably one of the havens where draft dodgers end up. Possibly this is a relatively low-cost haven, but this is why its clients are more numerous.
To see the glass as half full, it’s nice that far away from their capitals, Russians and Ukrainians show no sign of enmity. The downside in the case of Bulgaria is that public opinion finds it challenging to see the Ukrainians as heroes and defenders of Europe who need our support for as long as it takes.
The opinion of the Bulgarian public and political class remains divided on the Ukraine war, with an important part of it considering that the West pushed Russia into a corner, which is why it got the result we know.
There is an “Atlantic” majority in the parliament, but I doubt the same majority prevails in society.
This is why Bulgaria will remain one of the ‘weak links’ in the Russian propaganda war to destabilise the West. And it’s not entirely Bulgaria’s fault.
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Look out for…
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Greece, attends informal dinner on Monday evening with leaders of the Western Balkans and other leaders from the area.
High Representative Josep Borrell in Santander, Spain on Tuesday, attends ‘Quo Vadis Europa?’ event at Men?ndez Pelayo International University
EU institutions in summer recess.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor]