Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has once again highlighted the risks associated with the EU’s considerable dependence on conventional energy supplies from Russia. Although the current energy crisis began before the war, it was exacerbated by Russia in an effort to blackmail the EU and its members to abandon their common energy security, green energy transition, and foreign policy stance in support of Ukraine. The invasion has served to expedite the EU’s diversification away from Russian energy and has also shown signs of potentially hastening the transition away from fossil fuels. As such, the European Green Deal has taken on a new significance as a means of addressing the implications of the war and reducing the EU’s dependence on Russian energy, which provides Moscow with one of its largest cash inflows.
Nevertheless, Russia’s near total gas supply cut to Europe and the resultant skyrocketing affordability risks have also led to a resurgence of coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) in European economies, which remain highly carbon intensive. Significant discrepancies in public support for climate change policies remain across the EU, with members in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) prioritizing other socio-economic issues related to poverty and economic prosperity. Simultaneously, the Kremlin and its European proxies have continued to systematically push disinformation narratives that portray the Green Deal as utopian and economically counterproductive.
According to comparative policy research, Bulgaria remains one of the most vulnerable EU and NATO member states to foreign authoritarian influence. The country has been a long-standing target for information interference by the Kremlin and its local enablers, including an increasing tendency to target energy and climate-related subjects, especially the Green Deal, while also promoting large-scale Russian energy projects. Previous monitoring by the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD) in 2021 indicated that most of the local disinformation related to the Green Deal was produced and disseminated by Bulgarian media and political and economic entities known for systematically amplifying the Kremlin’s influence. Given Bulgaria’s significant vulnerability to disinformation and the low levels of information literacy in the country, these activities cast doubt on Bulgaria’s ability to abide by its commitments regarding the Green Deal.
In cooperation with the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Beacon Project, CSD monitored Bulgarian public discourse concerning the Green Deal from April to September 2022 on Facebook. The present analysis seeks to update and improve understanding of the key disinformation narratives related to the Green Deal and the actors that drive them, as well as to provide recommendations for public policy solutions.
The analytical framework was based on monitoring Bulgarian public Facebook space for mentions of the Green Deal using the CrowdTangle social media listening tool over a five-month period (from 20 May to 20 September 2022). The top 100 most interacted with posts from each one-month period were selected and manually marked with a set of narrative tags designated by CSD. These tags corresponded to key contextual information regarding the contents or the publishers of the post, including whether the author was a political actor, the established geopolitical orientation of the actor, any sentiments regarding Russian energy projects in Bulgaria, as well as sentiments regarding key international actors, including the EU, NATO, the US, and Ukraine.
Key narratives and actors
A total of 479 posts were collected, totaling some 73,033 interactions. Some 42% of the posts opposed the Green Deal, 40% supported it and 18% were neutral. However, the posts opposing the Green Deal or expressing a neutral stance toward it were considerably more popular, accounting for 64% and 22% of all interactions respectively. Some 34 posts conflated opposition to the Green Deal with opposition either to NATO, the US, or Ukraine, including some of the most interacted with posts (totaling 3,601 interactions). Additionally, 24 posts promoted energy trade with Russia or Russian energy projects, with a total of over 3,039 interactions.
Figure 1: Number of Interactions on Posts per Sentiment on the Green Deal (20 May to 20 September 2022)
Source: CSD based on data from CrowdTangle
The activity of parliamentary represented political actors on Facebook (the most dominant social media in Bulgaria by far) clearly demonstrates how well-known Bulgarian politicians normalize disinformation narratives about the Green Deal while promoting anti-Euro-Atlantic and anti-democratic sentiments in the process. They do so both in Bulgaria and in the wider Euro-Atlantic community, particularly through the European Parliament (EP). In fact, of the 22,141 interactions accounted for by Bulgarian political actors, over three-quarters, or 77%, were opposed to the Green Deal. Moreover, political actors are also promoting large-scale Russian energy projects, especially the Belene nuclear power plant project, as Bulgaria’s only solution for energy security.
Figure 2: Number of Interactions on Posts by Bulgarian Political Actors per Sentiment on the Green Deal (20 May to 20 September 2022)
Source: CSD and IRI based on data from CrowdTangle
The main political actors discussing the Green Deal and driving negative attitudes towards the initiative were politicians from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the nationalist far-right Bulgarian National Movement (or VMRO), and the staunchly pro-Kremlin hyper-populist Revival (Vazrazhdane) party. The collected data clearly indicates that the most popular discussions on the Green Deal are deployed by these nationalist or Russia-leaning parties as discursive tools aimed against both their internal political rivals and against the EU and the wider Euro-Atlantic community. There were notable differences in their rhetoric opposing the Green Deal, with VMRO and Revival taking a more sensationalist and conspiratorial approach relative to BSP’s more restrained (but still misleading) stances.
During the monitoring period, the most widespread and popular narrative opposing the Green Deal portrayed it as a utopian ideology that was hurting the EU and its member states, especially in connection with reduced natural gas supply from Russia following its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. One of the most notable examples was a post published by Ivo Hristov, an MEP from BSP, of a speech he gave in the European Parliament on the RePowerEU plan. Hristov claimed that it was irresponsible to advance and “ideologize” the Green Deal at the price of “lowering the temperature of hot water and restricting people’s shower time”. According to him, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “should not be turned into a reason for Europe’s energy suicide”. He promoted “seeking peace” and “ensuring competitive prices from reliable sources”, strongly implying a perceived need to restore energy supplies from Russia despite its ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine. With 1,887 interactions at the end of the monitoring period, this was the sixth most interacted with post for the whole initiative.
In another example, a popular post by Angel Dzambazki, an MEP and vice-chairman of the VMRO party, of a speech he gave in the European Parliament opposed the “utopian and ideologised Green Deal” as supposedly being the key reason behind the energy price spikes. Other posts by Dzambazki blamed the ‘pinkish-green talibans” in Brussels for allegedly almost destroying the fossil fuel industry by promoting a Green Deal utopia of wind and solar energy. Posts by pro-Kremlin media used similar rhetoric to praise Russia for its opposition to the “gender ideology that is the Green Deal” as part of a wider fight against political correctness, feminism, and “racial replacement” (a white nationalist far-right conspiracy theory).
Various other anti-Green Deal narratives and topics gained traction throughout the observation period, including ones drawing parallels between Ukraine’s President, the Green Deal, and the EU’s COVID certificates, known as green certificates. A popular post, gaining some 1,100 interactions, purported to show the “three things that destroyed Europe”, namely “the Green Deal, the green certificates, and Zelenskyy”. Published in a known pro-Kremlin public group by one of its members, the post showcases how disparate concepts are unified in a single anti-systemic and pro-Kremlin framework. This wordplay on Zelenskyy’ name (which translates to ‘green-man’ in most Slavic languages) was utilized in other posts, claiming that “all things green” - the Green Deal, green certificates, and Zelensky - were being forcefully imposed on ordinary people.
Elena Guncheva, who until recently was the deputy-leader of the pro-Kremlin Revival (Vazrazhdane) party, described “the liberal’s handbook” in one of her posts, which was one of the most popular in the dataset with some 850 interactions. In it, Guncheva gave a set of satirical suggestions for Bulgarians supportive of the Green Deal following Gazprom’s halting of gas supplies to Bulgaria for refusing to pay in rubles. For example, Guncheva suggested that Bulgarians should sit in front of portraits of Biden, Mustafa (the American ambassador to Sofia), and Kiril Petkov (the former prime minister of Bulgaria’s last regular government) to keep warm. This post showcases how unfounded portrayals of the Green Deal and of sanctions against Russia are used to attack the US, the EU and their perceived allies in Bulgaria.
Countering pro-Kremlin and anti-democratic disinformation necessitates a multi-stakeholder, whole-of-society approach that integrates action by policy-makers, civil society and the private sector, and makes effective use of cooperation with EU, US, and Euro-Atlantic institutions. This calls for the establishment of several layers of defense against the production and spread of disinformation, as well as against the governance gaps that enable it. A functional institutional framework must aim to tackle both the supply of disinformation as well as the demand for it by deploying a combination of deterrence and preventative measures in an integrated manner.
A top priority is increasing the reach of higher quality reporting by improving the overarching media landscape, enhancing media freedom and facilitating independent journalism. Ensuring the transparency of ownership and business structures of media outlets, as well as implementing limits to media ownership concentration, is a key step. Independent media should be supported by building funding mechanisms and sustainable business models through independent platforms anchored on the private sector, while simultaneously minimizing the media sector’s dependence on government support. Guarantees should be created to ensure the independence of media authorities from political pressure and for the implementation of competition and anti-trust laws fairly and in strict accordance with the rule of law.
Data collected from digital forensics should be used to inform national security threat assessments and risk assessments of the dangers posed by disinformation to critical security issues, such as foreign policy, energy security, and Bulgaria’s commitments under key EU policy initiates like the Green Deal. These efforts should be conducted in the framework of and in cooperation with existing digital security mechanisms established by NATO in the EU, such as the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence and the EEAS’s Strategic Communication Task Forces and Rapid Alert System.
Deterrence measures must be complemented by preventative measures that aim to increase societal resilience and address the public demand for and appeal of disinformation. Providing strategic communication units in government ministries with the funds and resources needed to consistently raise awareness and clarify policy initiatives is a key step toward building trust in democratic institutions. This is particularly important in the context of the Green Deal, which most Bulgarians are unfamiliar with, but whose individual elements are widely supported by the Bulgarian public. Preventative measures should also leverage the experience and expertise of civil society in the creation of educational resources that increase information literacy and are geared toward different target groups. Government support for regular public awareness campaigns, standard-setting initiatives, and normative appeals will likewise help curb the demand for disinformation.