Critics are accusing Bulgaria’s top broadcast and new-media regulator of falling for the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare after Sonia Momchilova likened UN-backed evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine to anti-Putin “propaganda.”
More than 1,400 bodies were discovered in a suburb of Ukraine’s capital after Russian troops withdrew from Bucha following a 26-day occupation in March 2022. Evidence cited by the United Nations and the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor indicated that Russian forces carried out systematic brutality in Bucha, including execution-style killings of civilians.
The chairwoman of the Council for Electronic Media (CEM), Momchilova drew swift local and international censure along with calls for her dismissal when she told YouTube vlogger Asen Genov’s Kontrakomentar program on June 19 that “just as there is Russian propaganda, we cannot deny that there is also [some] in the opposite direction,” adding, “You know, about [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s illness, that he’d been replaced [by a double], Bucha, and so on.”
There has been speculation for years over the 70-year-old Russian president’s health, sometimes including unsubstantiated reports alleging the use of lookalikes for public appearances.
One day after her comments to Kontrakomentar, Momchilova lashed out on Facebook at local news site Dnevnik, which had long argued that coverage of the Bucha tragedy in the Bulgarian media reflected an “information war” between Russia and “Ukraine and the democratic community.”
A Bulgarian think tank, the Center for the Study of Democracy, published a report in April in which it asserted that “pro-Kremlin disinformation is most prominent in countries with deep-rooted cultural and historical alignments to Russia,” singling out Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Serb enclaves in the Balkans in particular.
Momchilova’s comments equating Bucha reports with anti-Russian “propaganda” emerged amid a broader and highly politicized debate over Bulgarian National Radio and perceptions of bias and “propaganda insinuations” in some of its programming. Russia sanctions and other tough responses to the invasion of a post-Soviet neighbor have proved divisive in Bulgaria amid political stalemate and two years of inconclusive elections. In the discussion about the public radio broadcaster, Momchilova had suggested the show in question was serving the role of public media by reflecting the attitudes of the public.
A former prime ministerial adviser and communications specialist, Momchilova was appointed to the CEM by pro-Russian President Rumen Radev in 2021 and became chairwoman of the council half a year later. Two of the five council members are presidential appointees, while the other three are appointed by parliament.
She has come under criticism before. Two NGOs demanded her resignation earlier this year over her criticism of a joint investigation (including by RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service) of Bulgarian authorities’ treatment of migrants at the border. Momchilova cast the decisive vote to keep herself in office at the time.
Her recent outspokenness has also extended to issues of gender and sexual orientation, including mocking EU job offers in the context of the Pride movement and what she described this week as a “digital and polygenderist transition towards…total monkeyfication.”
The Ukrainian Embassy challenged Momchilova’s comments likening Bucha reports to anti-Russian “propaganda” on June 21, calling them “unacceptable and manipulative.”
It noted that Bulgaria was a signatory to an EU declaration in 2022 condemning “in the strongest possible terms the reported atrocities committed by the Russian armed forces in a number of occupied Ukrainian towns” including Bucha.
The embassy statement said it “expects the Council for Electronic Media and the relevant Bulgarian institutions to refute and take the necessary measures to respond to the dangerous and misleading claims regarding the atrocities committed by Russian occupiers in Bucha. These claims contradict the official position of the Republic of Bulgaria as a member state of the EU and NATO.”
Shortly afterward, the U.S. Embassy in Sofia issued a statement warning that the “Kremlin’s disinformation machine goes into overdrive when denying Russia’s targeting of civilians.” It cited the “massacre” at Bucha and added, “Don’t be fooled by the lies.”
Less than an hour after that, Momchilova’s interviewer Genov also circled back to say her “inconsistent statements regarding the war in Ukraine worried me seriously during our conversation.” He said he was concerned at their effect on Bulgaria’s image.
“We are outraged by a statement by the Chairman of the Council for Electronic Media, Sonya Momchilova…in which she defines the tragic events in the city of Bucha as Ukrainian propaganda,” the signatories complained. They called such a “qualification…a cynical disregard for the truth and an insult to humanity.”
“Such behavior sends an extremely harmful message to our already vulnerable media environment and damages the prestige of Bulgaria,” they argued. The signatories also echoed Kyiv’s demand that the council and all “relevant Bulgarian institutions” refute Momchilova’s statement.
It is unclear how much agreement the journalists’ appeal would have garnered among legislators. But the council acted first.
“The Council for Electronic Media categorically does not share any suggestions related to the denial of the atrocities in Bucha,” it said in a June 22 statement. It called the events there “a monstrous act of torture and the killing of civilians.”
The absence of any names attached to the five-member council’s statement means it was unanimously supported, including presumably by Momchilova herself./RFE-RL/