Americans don't think much about Bulgaria. There are less than 100,000 Americans of Bulgarian ancestry– and we've never fought a war there. Most of the Bulgarian-Americans that there are live in 4 cities where hyphenated Americans don't stand out: New York, L.A., Chicago and Miami. After the collapse of communism in 1989, over a million Bulgarians left their homeland, but most scattered through Europe, especially Greece and Spain, but also to Canada, Germany, the U.K., Italy and Latin America. Most Americans would be hard-pressed to point to Bulgaria on a world map.
In the summer of 1969, I was driving a shiny new VW camper van to India from London. The conventional wisdom along the Hippie Trail was to drive straight through Bulgaria without stopping– from the Yugoslavian border crossing at Dimitrovgrad through Sofia and then straight down the A-1 motorway to the Svilengrad border crossing west of Edirne (historically, Adrianpolis) in Turkey– and then immediately on to Istanbul. It was a 2 or 3 day drive from Dubrovnik on the Adriatic Coast… and I was having done of it. I was eager to explore Bulgaria and not just Sofia. And it was my first lesson about the worthlessness of Hippie Trail conventional wisdom. When the A-1 forked north to the Black Sea, I was on it– while my passengers all eager to get to Istanbul, complained noisily. We were soon in Burgas where I met some random Bulgarian kids. We took a 2 week tour of the country and months later I was still eating dried and canned fruits and vegetables we had gotten on communal farms in the part of the country few American tourists ever went to. So… I for one have fond memories of Bulgaria.
I was sorry to see that on Sunday they elected a Trumpist type– a pro-Putin, right-wing populist, Rumen Radev– as president. And he won big as the anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, anti-corruption, pro-Putin candidate. Yesterday the pro-NATO prime minister, Boiko Borisov, resigned. Awkwardly, Bulgaria has been a member of NATO since 2004.
Radev, who has never held political office and who was educated in Alabama, is outspokenly pro-Putin and pro-Trump. Borisov told the media after his party was pulverized at the polls that “in this election, the people showed us that something is not as it should be. That our priorities may be good, but obviously there are better ones. So the most democratic thing, the right thing to do is to (resign).”
Coupled with political instability, Bulgaria's tilt toward Russia is a blow to the country's western European allies and underscores Moscow's growing influence in southeastern Europe.
In Moldova, another ex-communist state near the Black Sea, voters were expected to install a pro-Russian candidate as president and slam the breaks on seven years of closer EU integration in an election also held on Sunday.
While most of the key decisions in Bulgaria are taken by the government, the president, who leads the armed forces, can sway public opinion and has the power to send legislation back to parliament.
Radev is not advocating NATO member Bulgaria abandon its Western alliances, mindful of the financial impact of EU aid and the country's long history of divided loyalties.
But he has called for an end to EU sanctions against Russia and said Sofia should be pragmatic in its approach to any international law violations by Moscow when it annexed Crimea.
“We listened (to the voters') concerns. We said that we will work for Bulgarian national interests, that's what gave us broad support,” a jubilant Radev told reporters.
Many in the Balkan country are keen to see restored trade with their former Soviet overlord, hurt by economic problems and sanctions, and to protect vital tourism revenues.
Speaking on Sunday evening, Radev said he hoped for good dialogue both with the United States and Russia and expressed hopes that with a new president in Washington, there will be a drop in confrontation between the West and Moscow.
“In his election campaign (Donald Trump), already elected, said clearly that he will work for a better dialogue with Russia. That gives us hope, a big hope, for a peaceful solution to the conflicts both in Syria and in Ukraine and for a decrease of the confrontation,” Radev said.
Although Bulgaria's economy is expected to grow at a relatively healthy rate of about 3.1-3.3 percent this year, having shaken off recession, it remains the EU's poorest member, with average wages about 470 euros per month.
Rampant graft in public administration is seen as a key factor slowing the small Black Sea state's progress in catching up with its wealthier EU peers.
According to a report in Politico yesterday, Trump aides are telling Obama to immediately stop interfering in any foreign policy and that its all up to
Putin Trump and his crew of misfits now.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis