Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time in Bulgaria will have identified two major aspects of life here. To begin with, few things, if any, are really what they seem. And next, despite all protestations, declarations and proclamations to the contrary, despite small gestures and acts performed by politicians of various hues designed to create the impression otherwise, Bulgaria remains staunchly in Russia's sphere of influence ‒ at least in spirit, if not in real politics.
The kind of red-carpet treatment given to visiting Russian patriarch Kiril, who was mobbed by all the top officials in Bulgaria including the president, the prime minister and the speaker of parliament, exceeded all expectations. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who looks his best when he is playing football on the outskirts of Sofia, rather than when he tries to fit into an evening suit to give a speech in front of some delegation, vied to be seeing kissing various parts of Kiril's attire, such as the cross hanging around his neck. So did gentle Rosen Plevneliev, the GERB president, and the seemingly no-nonsense Tsetska Tsacheva, the "iron lady" of the Bulgarian National Assembly, who usually has no trouble ordering various "strongmen" such as Ataka's Volen Siderov to shut up. At various masses, events, wreath-laying and so on, they were joined by a bunch of current and former top brass as varied as former Socialist President Georgi Parvanov and former Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Bulgaria is officially a secular state, but since the fall of Communism Eastern Orthodoxy, the traditional faith of most ethnic Bulgarians, has been increasingly used by all who happen to be in power to assert some kind of national consciousness. There is a sense of belonging to some fictitious "Slavonic" brotherhood, where the Orthodox Russians, and not for example the Catholic Poles (also ethnic Slavs) or the Orthodox but not ethnic Slav Greeks, hold the winning hand. Orthodox priests are official guests at every public event, large and small, in Bulgaria, including military parades and the opening of shopping malls. The dignitaries who conduct these events have little or no trouble associating themselves with the Orthodox Church, regardless of the fact that Bulgaria is a multiethnic and multicultural society, with a significant number of Muslims and other non-Orthodox minorities, as well as non-believers. Hardly any of these can like to see the leaders they have elected favouring one religion over another.
The Orthodox religion is freely used to promote "archaeological finds" such as the recent discovery of some bones and teeth said to belong to St John the Baptist, and the government has no trouble allocating funds to sponsor anything clerical, from church building to the maintenance of ecclesiastical sites.
Not even the recent revelation that the overwhelming majority of Bulgaria's senior clergy used to be agents of the Communist-era secret police ‒ and thus served an authority other than God ‒ did anything to disturb the church-attending and relic-kissing political elite.
So far, so good. But why would the Bulgarian prime minister, a supposedly down-to-earth man who knows that opening more motorways will secure him another term in office, want to be seen kissing the hands of a foreign clergyman? Isn't the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, whose hierarchy has, since the 19th Century, reported to no higher authority, supposed to be independent? Was this just a show to appease the traditionally Russia-loving Bulgarian leftists over recent political decisions, such as the one to discontinue the Belene Nuclear Power Plant project, seen by the public as an economic blow to Russian interests in Bulgaria?
To answer these questions one needs to look closely at who the visiting Russian dignitary really was and what he stands for.
Kiril I of Moscow was appointed patriarch of All the Rus and primate of the Russian Orthodox Church after his predecessor, the former KGB agent Alexey II, died in his late 70s. To the general public, Kiril is known for his support for Vladimir Putin's domestic and international policies, and also for his penchant for expensive cars and Swiss watches.
"You are young, energetic and strong-handed," Kiril told Boyko Borisov. "God be with you!"
Apart from the blessing, Kiril stressed the negative role of globalisation vis-a-vis national cultural identity, and the importance of Christian morality in the modern world.
Bulgaria's establishment listened attentively. President Rosen Plevneliev intoned that the common cultural and religious heritage of Bulgarians and Russians was the foundation upon which the relations between the two peoples developed. Playing down the obvious fact that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church had been infiltrated by Communist secret policemen and had been made subservient to the avowedly atheist state ‒ a situation that remains unchanged to this day ‒ Plevneliev said that Christian values were becoming increasingly important to the lives of Bulgarian families and society as a whole, which was to be attributed "without a doubt" to the Orthodox Church.
Tsetska Tsacheva, the speaker of parliament, added that both Bulgaria's parliament and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church shared the great goal of working for the public good and for the development of a young generation of strong personalities.
The outpouring of friendliness, mutual understanding and historical love between Bulgarians and Russians was slightly marred by the fact that the Russian bodyguards protecting Kiril refused entry to the Russian Orthodox Church in central Sofia to a Bulgarian National Television reporter who had been critical of Russian church affairs in Bulgaria.
In tribute to the common cultural and historical heritage President Plevneliev referred to, the Russian patriarch went on to Plovdiv, where he laid flowers at the foot of the Alyosha, a huge Stalinist monstrosity that was erected on top of a hill to celebrate Bulgaria's occupation by the Red Army at the end of the Second World War. Similar monuments have been dismantled in every other country in the former Warsaw Pact, but in Bulgaria they stand to this day.
The ceremonies in Plovdiv were organised by Nikolay, the local bishop, who is seen as a likely successor to Bulgaria's own nonagenarian Patriarch Maxim. One thing that could ensure the close cooperation of Plovdiv's Nikolay and Moscow's Kiril in the future is that they both share a taste for fast cars and Swiss watches.