Ukraine isn't the only Eastern European country that Russia feels entitled to meddle with.
Moscow has now demanded that Bulgarian officials crack down on lawbreakers who have been defacing Soviet-era monuments in the capital city of Sofia in recent months, the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency reported on Wednesday.
The latest infraction involves an ossuary — a memorial that contains the bones of Soviet troops — in Lozenets, a leafy neighborhood outside the city center. Someone dumped red paint on the memorial's fur-cap-wearing, machine-gun-wielding trooper on August 1, the night before the 123rd anniversary of the founding of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the forerunner of the Bulgarian Communist Party that ruled the Balkan country between 1946 and 1989.
"We express our deep indignation at the desecration of the monument," said a Russian Foreign Ministry statement.
Bulgaria's government hasn't responded to the request, and it's not clear if the paint was vandalism or a political protest. But red is the color of the Socialist Party.
It wasn't the first time people in Sofia have targeted Soviet-era monuments that, like throughout much of Eastern Europe, seem to dot every neighborhood — even though countless statues of Lenin, Stalin, and others were torn down after the fall of communism.
In May, activists painted the Ukrainian and European Union flags on the ossuary — a clear statement against Moscow's influence in the former Soviet republic.
Three years ago, artists painted the likenesses of Ronald McDonald, Santa Claus, and various American comic book characters over the bronze figures on the towering Monument to the Soviet Army in the city center. Folks once put ski masks on the figures, too, in protest of Russia's harsh treatment of the art collective Pussy Riot. Activists painted the army monument pink in 2013 to apologize for Bulgarian soldiers helping the Soviet Union suppress the Prague Spring in 1968.
Bulgarian political scientist Dimitar Bechev wasn't surprised that someone chose the Socialist Party's anniversary to make a statement. In July, after a series of scandals — including the suspension of a Russian natural gas pipeline project, a run on banks, and the EU freezing aid funds over corruption allegations — the Socialist Party government resigned.
"It's not vandalism. It's highly political," said Bechev, who is a fellow at the London School of Economics. "For a number of years, nobody paid attention to the monuments. But the level of politicization in Bulgaria has put them in the spotlight."
The activists who likely dumped the red paint on the monument were probably also adding their voice to the ongoing debate among Bulgarians about their relationship with Russia. Once the Soviet Union's most trusted ally, Bulgaria — like Ukraine — has extensive economic entanglements with Russia that many want to sever.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea, his support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July, many Bulgarians fear Moscow might seek to expand its power in their country, despite Bulgaria's membership in NATO.
"The Ukraine crisis has turned into some sort of a domestic story in Bulgaria," said Bechev.
He noted that disagreements over letting a Soviet-era monument stand in Estonia led to a street brawl in 2007 between pro-EU Estonians and ethnic Russians, which resulted in one fatality and dozens of injuries. In May, Russia similarly demanded that Polish authorities investigate alleged vandalism of a Red Army monument in the southern town of Raciborz.
Bechev wasn't sure whether Moscow had adopted a more aggressive stance against so-called vandals in Eastern Europe as part of its strategy of confrontation with the West, or whether the demands stemmed from other developments in the Kremlin.
"It could be just that Russia is more prickly," he said.
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