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Bulgaria conflicted in 9 May celebrations

13/05/2015

Having a coffee on the footpath in front of a cafe on Shipka Street on Saturday, waiting while my daughter had her piano class, with the renovated Doctors’ Garden park which separated us resplendent in its Spring verdure, I couldn’t help but notice that a group at a neighbouring table – my age (none of us will see middle-age again) – were wearing ribbons of orange and black vertical stripes. It’s the ribbon of Saint George, but the Slavic not the English variant. And what it told me was that these citizens of Sofia, Bulgaria, these eight past years a member of the European Union, had been in the centre, at the ceremony held on 9 May at the monument to the Soviet Army. Which still stands, defying all attempts over the past 25 years to have it consigned to history.

I didn’t ask them but it could reasonably be assumed that these people were communists. For why else would they take the time and trouble to celebrate, here in Bulgaria, the victory of the Red Army over Nazi Germany in ‘the Great Patriotic War’?

In the communist era, the 9 May was a major holiday in Bulgaria, with the opportunity being taken every year by the country’s slavishly loyal Communist Party to remind the powers that were in Moscow just how grateful Bulgaria was to have been delivered from fascism. The 9th of May competed only with the 9th of September – on which date in 1944 the Red Army had crossed the Danube and formally occupied this hapless Balkan country – in trumpeting Bulgaria’s triumphal and fraternal march to communism.

And therein lay – and still lies – Bulgaria’s dilemma. To celebrate 9 May as the day on which Nazi Germany capitulated to the Soviet Union is to celebrate the ascendancy of the totalitarian regime which was then to control Bulgaria for the next 45 or so years. But as it happens, there are two other causes of celebration available at this time of year.

So Bulgaria could – indeed did at the official level, albeit modestly – commemorate the preceding day, the 8th of May, which is Victory in Europe Day. The day in 1945 when Nazi Germany capitulated to the ‘Western’ Allies, to wit, the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Which was of course the same event as was repeated, at Stalin’s insistence, some 24 hours later in Berlin.

But the conflict for poor Bulgaria in celebrating Victory in Europe Day is that it was one of the losers in that particular world war. It’d been one of Nazi Germany’s few allies, a card-carrying member of the Tripartite Pact, until changing sides two days before the Red Army’s arrival in September 1944. Out of deference to Russia’s special place in Bulgarian history (notably liberation from five centuries of Ottoman occupation in 1878), Bulgaria had made a point of never actually declaring war on the Soviet Union, and no Bulgarian troops were involved in the German invasion of that country. But the belated switch of allegiance to the Allied side, and some ceremonial harassment of fleeing German troops, didn’t cut it with the Soviets who declared war on Bulgaria as the Red Army massed on the Danube. Thus it was that for a brief period Bulgaria found itself at war with all the major combatants in World War 2.

So it tends to stick in the Bulgarian craw to celebrate either the 8th or the 9th of May. In truth, the Second World War provided Bulgaria with precious little reason for celebrating anything.

Happily, 9 May is yet another holiday – it’s ‘Europe Day’ as well. But not because of 1945. Rather because on that day five years later in 1950 Robert Schuman of France issued his portentous ‘declaration’, thus giving birth – so it is now celebrated in Brussels and Strasbourg and elsewhere – to the European Union.

Here in Sofia on Saturday last, there were some modest official ceremonies involving the president and other dignitaries. This is right and proper, since Bulgaria has since 2007 been a card-carrying member of the EU. European money has paid for a lot of things, including major infrastructure projects such as completion of the cross-country motorway and the impressive expansion of the Sofia underground rail network, which the country could never have itself funded.

But beyond the official flag-waving and attendant dutiful but muted coverage by the television channels that evening, one could be forgiven for being unaware that anything out of the ordinary had happened on Saturday, 9 May 2015. Certainly, none of my students knew anything about it on the following Monday.

Truth to tell, there continues to be widespread ambivalence within Bulgarian society about the whole process of abandoning communism and embracing the European Union (not to mention NATO). My students, for the most part, have the good fortune to come from families which have done well out of the past 25 years. But for a great many more Bulgarians, the fruits of these momentous and traumatic events have yet to be realised. The country remains the European Union’s poorest. Europe Day has yet to establish its credentials here.

So, Victory in Europe Day, the Day of Victory in the Great Patriotic War, or just plain Europe Day. As so often in its troubled past, Bulgaria finds itself conflicted whichever way it turns.

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