Bulgaria’s anti-vaxx fervor reaches new heights

Police barely thwart anti-vaxx protesters’ attempts to storm Bulgaria’s National Assembly building.

Four police officers were taken to the hospital, and several journalists were injured, after a crowd protesting the government’s new anti-Covid measures became strange and violent in the Bulgarian capital’s city center on January 12. According to reports, multiple attempts were made to gain access to the legislature building. There were numerous police detentions that followed. One of those detained was said to be in possession of a firearm.

In general, the protest was small, with only about 1,000-2,000 (in a city of 2.5M) people taking part. Many of them are said to have been brought in from Bulgaria’s province on buses provided by Vyzhrazhdane, a minor nationalistic party that managed to gain a dozen seats in parliament during the most recent round of elections.

This organization bears all the hallmarks of a right-wing sect, attempting to channel general discontent in Bulgarian society not only into nationalistic mythology (as Bulgarians like to joke: the first dinosaur was also Bulgarian by nationality), but also into other far-right trends, particularly popular in Eastern Europe. One such trend is rampant anti-vaxxerism, while the other is lumpen-Russophilia, as it is known in Bulgaria. Despite Russian authorities actively campaigning in favor of mass vaccination, such organizations ignore it and are portrayed as pro-Kremlin. The Vyzhrazhdane party, like many other such groups that like to characterize themselves as pro-Russian, are simply a loose range of individuals who recruit from the most frustrated sections of the Bulgarian population to be a part of something that poses as an alternative. Given that many Bulgarians regard Russia as a brotherly nation and that Russia-bashing is now fashionable in the West and ipso facto for the Bulgarian ruling elite, many people see Russophilia as a way of opposing the mainstream political process, which has been extremely destructive for Bulgaria since 1989. The majority of Bulgarians who identify as Russophiles have little to no understanding of the Russian leadership’s ideas and policies.

The protest was especially symbolic because it occurred on the same day that a record number of new cases of Covid-19 were reported in Bulgaria, the EU country with the lowest vaccination rate, far below the average.

The protest began as the day’s sitting of the National Assembly came to an end. Meetings of standing committees scheduled for the afternoon were canceled.

Protesters held signs reading “hands off our children” and “I want a normal life,” and chanted “freedom” and “Bulgaria.” Some demonstrators carried Confederate and Gadsden flags, popular far-right symbols. Additionally, Russian songs were played over the PA system at one point.

When protesters pushed the police cordon back to the doors of the National Assembly’s main entrance, National Security Service (agency that protects government officials and institutions) personnel inside the building used furniture to barricade the doors from within.

One MP from Vyzrazhdane, which has 13 legislators in the 240-member legislature, was seen attempting to remove a table from the makeshift barricade. Other MPs reportedly urged security personnel to remove the barricade and allow the crowd into the Parliament building.

Kostadin Kostadinov, the leader of Vyzrazhdane, addressed the crowd via video link. He is known in Bulgaria for his extremely hostile views on ethnic minorities and the LGBT community. He is also known for his pro-Russian sentiments and has called for physical assaults on those who do not share his views, referring to them as “rabble” and “stupid scum” who should be “put down like dangerous animals.” Kostadinov is currently in quarantine, which explains his video appearance.

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who is also in quarantine, stated on television that if he had not been in quarantine, he would have been “happy” to speak with the protesters. Petkov also stated that if protesters sent a working group of qualified medical professionals, he would be willing to receive a delegation after his quarantine ends.

“If there are people from their protest who have professional qualities, we will be happy to hear their ideas for a more constructive way to manage the Covid crisis,” Petkov said, adding, “I do not operate under pressure.” He stated that the green certificate program would not be abandoned.

On Wednesday (January 12) morning, MP Tatyana Sultanova-Siveva read a declaration on behalf of Petkov’s We Continue the Change party against the Covid-19 misinformation spread by Vyzrazhdane, though the declaration did not mention Kostadinov’s party by name. The declaration stated that the anti-vaccination disinformation campaign had caused extreme disunity in society at a time when it should have been fully united. It also noted that representatives of a parliamentary party with no medical education have repeatedly and openly spoken out against vaccines, referring to them as “experimental liquids” and “dangerous substances.”

“In this way, they foster people’s distrust and sow confusion, demonstrating a complete lack of concern for people’s health and our already precarious health-care system,” Sultanova-Siveva said.

Sultanova-Siveva also pointed out that representatives of Vyzrazhdane are acting hypocritically by advising citizens not to get vaccinated, despite the fact that all or the majority of them are being vaccinated. Even within the party’s parliamentary group, most MPs now have green certificates, which they are encouraging to be protested.

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