Recently, pro-Russian, populist propaganda in Bulgaria has become much louder and more visible. Bulgaria's homegrown oligarchs, even those not directly related to Russia or Russian businesses, have appeared to take Moscow as a role model and have come to see propaganda portraying a weakened EU and failed civil society as means for reducing opposition to the amalgamation of the political and business spheres, according to "Anti-Liberal Discourses and Propaganda Messages in Bulgarian Media" a paper recently published by the Human and Social Studies Foundation - Sofia.
Propaganda by state-controlled media in Russia must be placed in the context of the rising wave of populism throughout the world over the past decade or so. A new populist discourse has emerged - anti-liberal, anti-globalist, nationalist, while sovereignitism is becoming ideology, which is being adopted by various actors. Messages similar in style to the those of Putin and Lavrov can be heard from Trump, Le Pen, Orban, Erdogan, and others.
Russia can be said to have played a leading role in the creation and exploitation of populist sentiment. Although Moscow is not powerful enough to direct the effort single-handedly, it was the Russians who first systematically propagated a populist critique of globalization beginning with the turn of the new century. Russia's approach amalgamated left-wing critiques of corporate capitalism with conservative,right-wing critiques of cosmopolitanism and liberalism, both of which it portrayed as a smokescreen for Western conspiracies.
Such language has served Russia well as a basis for its propaganda: 1. Every internal unrest within Russia's former sphere of influence can be labeled acts of "foreign agents" directed by the West, as in the case of color revolutions, such as in Ukraine; 2. International agreement or attempts to impose norms can be abrogated or countered because internationally accepted democratic norms are "screens" for the real intentions of the West; 3. The idea of sovereignitism constructs a national body threaten by foreign powers and susceptible to governance by using racist and anti-immigrant language, but at the end the purpose is to dismantle the checks and balances within the system of governance, blurring the distinction between politics and economy.
This is how the Russian propaganda package can serve any local oligarch who wants to achieve the above mentioned goals. It is not a coincidence that in propaganda of this sort emerged in Bulgaria in full force in 2013, with the purpose of countering massive civil protests against corruption and calling for the ruling government to step down. Language similar to that perfected in Russia was applied by pro-government media, mainly connected with the media mogul Delyan Peevski, to label anti-government protesters as "Sorosoids" and "foreign puppets". Following the annexation of Crimea by Russia in early 2014, the Russian made package received a geopolitical, pro-Russian rhetoric from new and existing Bulgarian and Russian-made agencies and media, such as the newly created Russian agency News Front and the Bulgarian magazine A-specto.
Between 2013 and 2016, the number of Euro-sceptic pieces published on Bulgarian websites and print media swelled 16-fold; anti-NATO and anti-US publications increased 34-fold. Articles attacking the independence of the media, the independence of the judiciary, and pluralism and civil society increased by a staggering 23 times. Publications hailing Russia for the rise of its "political and spiritual might", the strength of "Russian arms", etc. soared between 42 and 144 times.
Data for 2017 is still being processed, but similar trends are expected to be identified. This heightened propaganda is brought by the symbiosis of various media outlets: ones with an ostensibly pro-Russian geopolitical profile that are probably backed by Russia or by Russian businesses operating in Bulgaria, as well as media of local oligarchs (including, but not limited to, Mr Peevski's outlets). The EU, NATO and the US are systematically attacked by those media in order to discredit any form of outside institutional control over Bulgaria that prevents the state captured from within. By dealing with "foreign agents and puppets", those propaganda fueled media eliminate the resistance of the civil society of the gradual deflation of the democratic institutions of their meaning. The captured state is then used to protect these oligarchs from global competition and allow them to funnel public resources into their business.
As the Polish case with the rise of populist anti-EU discourse shows, however, a similar propaganda package could serve entirely anti-Russian goals.
The populist propaganda package in Bulgaria is pro-Russian, because the Russian economic footprint in the country exceeds 25% of the total Bulgarian-held assets and also because Russian propaganda adapts to the available local traditional cultural stereotypes. Balkan nations were liberated with the decisive Russian participation, Slavonic and Eastern Orthodox ties persist, and some the nations in the region had gone through a similar Communist indoctrination.
It is the mixture of these ingrained cultural stereotypes that populist propaganda is addressing nowadays. It does this by building on the shared societal feelings of discontent, of social and individual failure: "we are always the poorest in the EU", "we are being treated as second-class citizens".
Propaganda feeds on such expressions of popular discontent as they can the traditional stereotypes of "us" (the Bulgarians, the Slavs, the Eastern, the Orthodox) as opposed to the West and its liberal ideology. However, populist propaganda provides no remedies for such unhappiness, it doesn't have a recipe for economic growth or adjust the educational systems. Luckily, many people realize this is the case.
* Dimitar Vatzov teaches philosophy at the Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski