Sofia, Bulgaria—Unique among nations in my experience, Bulgaria is resistant to flattery. I had previously visited the Balkan country in 2006, when it was still visibly suffering from the aftereffects of shock therapy—the common euphemism for an ill-planned and corrupt transition from a decrepit state socialism to casino capitalism. The scenes at that time were familiar in all the former Warsaw Pact nations of the 1990s and 2000s, but with perhaps a harsher edge: an emptied countryside, degradation of public spaces, obvious mafiosos lording over the citizenry (I was particularly struck by the opulent and almost pharaonic tombstones honoring fallen gangsters), and a population that skewed old as the young sought opportunities abroad. In this environment, many in Bulgaria looked for hope in closer integration with the West. Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004, the European Union in 2007.

Returning to Bulgaria in 2022, I initially thought that at least the EU membership was partly a success. The country, to my outsider eyes, seemed much more prosperous than it was in my last visit. Roads that had once been rugged terrain are now paved; omnipresent cranes testify to robust rebuilding; and the nightlife in the capital city of Sofia continues to flourish.

But my optimistic take on Bulgaria’s future soon foundered against the rock of Balkan cynicism. If Bulgaria has a national character, it’s one that is self-doubting and at times self-denigrating (a trait first noticed in the early 20th century by the founding father of Bulgarian sociology, Ivan Hadjiiski). If you praise the country’s beauty and recent progress, you’re likely to get wry disbelief (if you’re lucky) or outright scorn for being foolish.

In truth, Bulgaria remains the poorest country in the EU. Many Bulgarians feel that EU membership has been a mixed blessing, since it’s intensified a brain drain as talented youngsters move abroad. The country’s demographic future remains bleak. Bulgaria’s population peaked at nearly 9 million in 1985. It currently has 6.8 million people and is expected to shrink to under 6 million by 2050. It’s experiencing the fastest population decline of any country in the world.

An argument on a street car in Sofia proved instructive. A middle-aged man noticed that my wife, Robin Ganev, was speaking English to our daughters. He turned to a friend and said in Bulgarian, “These English people, what did they come here for? In the worst heat too. There’s nothing to see here.” Robin, who was born in Bulgaria, looked him in the eye and patriotically responded, “I am Bulgarian. I came here to show the kids where I am from.” The truculent passenger refused to yield: “What for? This country won’t be on the map soon. I hope someone comes and conquers us soon, so we won’t exist.” Robin valiantly tried to make the case, responding, “Don’t say that. There are many good things here.” The Bulgarian had the Beckettian last words: “No. There’s nothing here.”

The streetcar passenger was extreme in his nihilism, but more somber variations of his pessimism are rife in Bulgarian public life.

The entire issue of national self-pride is the subtext of the failure of former Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s coalition government, which lost a no-confidence vote in June. Petkov came to power at the end of 2021 as head of a coalition of parties united around an anti-corruption agenda. His background marked him as a Western-oriented politician: Born in Bulgaria, he moved with his family to Canada when he was 14. His education was in Canada and the United States (he received an MBA from Harvard). He’s worked for North American corporations for most of his adult life.

But his anti-corruption agenda was quickly sidelined by foreign policy disputes. Petkov took a strongly pro-NATO line in the Ukraine/Russia war: He expelled 70 Russian diplomats and resisted Russia’s call to pay for gas in rubles. Bulgaria is heavily dependent on Russian gas and there were fears that the country could face a difficult winter of fuel shortages for its anti-Russia policy, at least prior to the U.S. pledging support for the Bulgarian energy sector.

This pro-NATO and anti-Russian stance put Petkov at odds with much of the political establishment and public opinion. Bulgaria has traditionally been, along with Serbia, one of the most pro-Russian nations in Europe. The traditional story of Bulgarian nationalism celebrates Russia’s role in helping liberate Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. (Contemporary historians like Maria Todorova, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois, have presented a more nuanced view of the centuries under Ottoman rule, but these arguments have made only partial headway in popular consciousness.)

Older Bulgarians, in particular, tend to be Russophiles. They grew up in a country where Russian was the second language, where Russian radio and TV was a staple of their media diet, where Russian tourists were a common sight on beach resorts along the Black Sea.

Although the statues of Lenin were toppled after the anti-Communist revolution of 1989, other markers of respect for Russia remain part of the texture of Bulgarian life. The country is rich in statues celebrating the Red Army for defeating fascism in the Great Patriotic War (the very small number of fascist Bulgarians who sometimes deface these monuments don’t reflect public opinion). While staying in downtown Sofia, we were not far from a central street named after Nikolai Ignatiev, the Russian foreign minister who championed Bulgarian independence (and great grandfather of the writer Michael Ignatiev).

Petkov himself admits that his policies were at odds with 80 percent of the population. According to The Guardian, Petkov said he “believed 20% of Bulgarians supported Russia in the war and another 60% ‘don’t want to take a strong stand’ on the invasion.”

Petkov sees this opposition to his pro-NATO policies as a sign of softness and irresponsibility. He told reporters in June, “I’m afraid that [Bulgaria] will become a much more timid, soft state on the rhetoric against the war.” But what Petkov sees as strength, other Bulgarians see as subservience to NATO and the United States.

In Sofia, I talked to Velislava Dareva, a well-known historian and journalist known for her sharp dissents from government orthodoxy. She had been a dissident under Communism, earning expulsion from the party for her critiques of the ruling order. She remains a dissident against the new NATO order.

Dareva is dismissive of Petkov. “He’s been in Canada since he was a kid,” she contends. “He just doesn’t know the Bulgarian people or Bulgarian history. He was dropped here from the outside.” Petkov’s decision to give full support to NATO makes no sense, she claims. “Bulgaria is a member of the EU and NATO on the one hand, but that shouldn’t mean we have to destroy our relationship with Russia,” she asserts. “Bulgaria as a member of these organizations shouldn’t behave as a vassal and do whatever they are told. They have to defend their own interests. If someone thinks Bulgaria doesn’t have its own interests and needs, that person is wrong.”

The current political crisis in Bulgaria, then, is a battle between competing visions of national pride. For Petkov, Bulgaria will gain national strength by being a pillar of NATO. But for his critics, being completely in step with NATO is a sign of weakness.

The current disputes about foreign policy have put anti-corruption reform on the back burner. This was the key issue that brought Petkov’s coalition to power last year. The inability of the state to combat corruption remains a pressing problem. It’s one source of the pessimism many Bulgarians feels about their country’s long-term prospects.

It’s possible to imagine a better future where Bulgaria finds its unique national destiny as a bridge between Russia and the West. It is perfectly situated to serve as a conduit and cultural translator. But that future requires an end to current hostilities, which shows little or no signs of happening anytime soon. If Europe coalesces into a new permanent cold war, then Bulgaria is likely to suffer even greater marginalization.