Peter Georgiev is a freelance journalist covering sports and technology. He has an MA in Data Journalism from the US, where he worked for the investigative team of NBC News. Prior to that he worked for the primetime news of the Bulgarian National Television, as well as as a host of #Evropa, it’s weekly program about Bulgaria’s EU presidency in 2018. He is the host and producer of the documentary podcast Victoria.
„These are not the refugees we are used to.“
On February 25th, a day after the Russian invasion in Ukraine, former prime minister Kiril Petkov addressed the nation following an extraordinary meeting of the European council. In his attempt to provide clarity on the outcome of the conflict, Petkov wrongly predicted that Kiev would fall within days. Meanwhile, already in the first 24 hours of the conflict, more than 82000 Ukrainians had sought refuge outside the country. The prime minister appealed to Bulgarians to show hospitality in the wake of the refugee crisis:
“These people are European, they are intelligent and educated. We, just like everyone else, are ready to welcome them. This is not the usual refugee wave of people of uncertain backgrounds. No European country is afraid of them.”
Instead of positive sentiments, Petkov’s comparison of Ukrainians to migrants from the Middle east provoked accusations of racism. And while the countries in Central and Eastern Europe welcomed refugees warmly in the first weeks of the war, the following months gradually proved Petkov’s second prediction wrong. The prospect of assisting millions of newcomers caused tensions between Bulgaria and its European partners, while the ill-conceived strategy of the 4-party coalition government drastically changed their public image. Some Ukrainians woke up to discover a pickaxe stuck in their car, others found offensive notes. At the same time, a storm of fake news and disinformation on social media framed refugees as public enemies.
The myth of the rich Ukrainians
In response to the refugee crisis, Petkov’s government launched a humanitarian aid campaign synchronized at the EU level. However, his then-chief of staff Lena Borislavova made a misleading statement when presenting the measures, exposing the policy to a prolonged attack. In a March 2022 briefing Borislavova announced that in the next three days each Ukrainian citizen in the country would receive “up to 40 lv per day in financial aid”. This was not meant to be a direct cash payment, but to subsidize hotels providing accommodation and food to refugees. This important detail was, however, lost in translation. The media tried to fix the government’s communication blunder, but it was too late to prevent the outrage.
An Ukrainian refugee is to receive 1200 lv per month, while a Bulgarian retiree has to survive on a 400 lv pension – this misleading comparison vilified the people displaced by the war. Refugees can indeed apply for financial aid of 375 lv, but it is a one-time grant for entire families, not individuals. However, online articles pitted poor Bulgarians against Ukrainians seeking temporary protection in an otherwise non-existent competition for funds. Help for the latter was largely provided through the EU cohesion funds, as in many other states. It did not affect the raise in pensions for Bulgarian citizens.
At the same time, a number of rumors about refugees started making the rounds: that Ukrainians don’t need any assistance, because in most cases they drive expensive cars, that they park them on our beaches and even fail to pay for fuel. Without any justification, such isolated cases became the face of the hundreds and thousands of fleeing Ukrainians in Bulgaria.
In stark contrast to his initial appeal for compassion, prime minister Petkov himself contributed to the image of the “well kept refugee” in the end of May, when he said he opposed “luxury stays in Bulgaria”. His statement came in response to criticism against the former vice premier for effective governance Kalina Konstantinova, who had spoken rather sharply on the subject the day before. And while Kalinova eventually apologized to refugees, this episode deepened the divide between the people seeking protection and some parts of the population.
The threat to Bulgarian society
Besides being a burden, Ukrainian refugees are portrayed on many occasions as a threat to society. Only last week, the armed robbery of a cash transport vehicle made the headlines: the perpetrators appeared to drive cars with Ukrainian license plates. Though the plates turned out to be fake, the incident was instrumentalized to reinforce the idea that criminals are secretly entering the country under the guise of refugees.
The narrative of the dangerous Ukrainian migrants gained traction in April with posts such as the poorly doctored, yet copiously shared fake photo of a person “desecrating” the national monument to Liberation on Shipka peak by painting it over with the Ukrainian flag. The stereotype of Ukrainians as vandals however seems to be more popular elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe. In an in-depth investigation, the Ukrainian outlet Detector analyzed social media in 11 countries and concluded that refugees are most commonly accused of corruption, ingratitude and of destabilizing societies.
In April, the Polish fact-checking website Demagog published an in-depth analysis of the major types of disinformation spread in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Altogether, these countries have welcomed more than 1.7 mln. Ukrainian refugees. It provides a breadth of examples of fake news from Poland and Hungary about Ukrainians attacking local citizens and contributing to a rise in violence. Demagog’s research shows that these rumors originate with anonymous Twitter accounts, websites with pseudoscientific content, far-right politicians, as well as with fake profiles of real personalities. In Poland such sources also push stories about migrants from Africa and the Middle East crossing the border from Ukraine to commit rape and theft. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian people are portrayed as hostile towards minorities.
According to Factcheck.bg, more than a million users in Bulgaria have been exposed to false claims that Bulgarians in Ukraine are systematically harassed and even murdered. The anti migrant rhetoric, however, is not only limited to accusations of violence. Fresh on the heels of the pandemic desinformation wave, posts on social media and sites of dubious origin have been talking about a surge of HIV-positive Ukrainian refugees. This theory has been debunked by both Factcheck.bg and the Bugarian National Radio. The public radio also exposed another false claim about healthcare – that the rehabilitation hospital in Pancharevo discontinued life-saving treatments in order to host Ukrainian refugees.
The “indiscreet” charm of Ukrainian women
Anxiety caused by the influx of refugees in Bulgaria has also been underpinned by myths of the corrupting influence of irresistible Ukrainian beauties. Cautionary tales of free-spirited Ukrainian women offering “happy ending massages” at Black Sea resorts started circulating online ahead of the summer season. The linked article was published in Lupa.bg and reprinted in other sensation-seeking websites such as Bradva.bg and Skafeto.com. There is not a single specific source cited or a piece of legitimate data in it. An analysis with Crowdtangle shows that over half a million Facebook users came across this text.
Another article on the website Flagman warns that “hot Ukrainian women” were dumping the prices of Bulgarian erotic dancers at the resort of Sunny Beach. The article purports to quote an anonymous “angry dancer at a leading disco by the sea”, and it is featured on other similar websites, such as Vtori Front. The two publications have generated a total of nearly 10,000 reactions on Facebook. A third article in Standart newspaper takes aim at the anxieties of Bulgarian women, alarming them that local bachelors have “gone crazy about Ukrainian women”. The article refers to “statistics on civil marriages between Ukrainian citizens and Bulgarians since the start of the war”, but the data quoted does not provide conclusive evidence for the theory.
An investigation by the Kyiv outlet “Detector” reveals that the stereotype of Ukrainian women as sex workers is far from limited to Bulgaria: in fact, it is becoming the staple of disinformation campaigns in Central and Eastern Europe. According to the publication, pro-Russian sources are trying to discredit Ukrainian refugee women by painting them as gold-diggers who spread sexually transmitted diseases.
A smear campaign against Ukrainian women appeared in Poland as well. Some users of the chat app Signal received a link to an article warning that most refugee women were “of childbearing age” and would be happy to receive “permanent status as Polish wives”. Finally, the myth of Ukrainian women “stealing” men has been reinforced by a story about a Briton who left his family for a young refugee from Lviv. The Polish rendering of their affair provoked thousands of reactions on Facebook.
In the shadow of war
The plethora of rumors and conspiracy theories about the refugees’ nefarious intentions did not halt the many civil initiatives in their support. Volunteers have helped asylum seekers find work and have collected funds for medical aid. But in the long run, empathy may give way to aggression under the pressure of the ongoing war and the tide of disinformation.
Speaking more broadly, inciting hatred against Ukrainian refugees is yet another tool to justify the Russian aggression in Ukraine and influence public opinion about Vladimir Putin’s invasion.Some media and public figures are promoting the deliberate vilification of refugees in order to limit support for Kyiv, while the upcoming expensive heating season helps further attempts to portray Ukrainians as Nazis, terrorists and ungrateful guests. In the face of an ongoing political crisis with no clear solution, people seeking refuge from war in Bulgaria might be victimized once again, this time by local power struggles.