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Pride and Scorn as Bulgaria Unveils EU’s Highest Flagpole

Raising of huge national flag in mountains of bloc’s poorest country widely mocked on social media

A soaring mast in the mountains of southern Bulgaria has made the EU’s poorest country the home of the bloc’s highest flagpole, filling some with pride and drawing scorn from others.

Nationalism and populism are on the rise in the Balkan nation, where many people remain strongly Russophile despite Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The immense 1,110 sq metre flag, meant to symbolise Bulgaria’s territory of 111,000 sq km, was hoisted up the record-breaking 111-metre pole last week in a forest meadow in the Rhodope mountains.

People take part in the raising of the flag.
People take part in the raising of the flag. Photograph: Nikolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty Images

With it, Bulgaria takes the flagpole crown from Finland, which has a 100-metre pole, though it does not nearly touch the heights of some outside Europe that are almost twice as high.

“This won’t make Bulgarians richer but it will raise people’s spirits,” said Simeon Karakolev, 45, the organiser of an annual folklore festival held at the site below the peak of Rozhen, whose foundation is behind the project.

Karakolev raised €500,000 (£429,000) in donations for the pole in a campaign embraced by Bulgaria’s pro-Russian president, Rumen Radev.

Local media said a number of public companies were approached on Radev’s behalf to donate money for the mast on the mountain meadow where the festival is held.

The campaign was widely mocked on social media, with a meme depicting the president swinging on the pole going viral, while many said a country racked with high emigration and a crumbling health system had more urgent concerns than collecting funds for a massive flagmast.

Political scientist Ognyan Minchev lamented how patriotism had been hijacked by “leaders who measure national pride by the height of a flagmast … quasi-nationalists dominated by Russian propaganda”.

A recent Open Society Foundations study found Bulgaria was among the EU countries most susceptible to Russian propaganda and disinformation.

The concrete poured for the flagpole’s foundations on the pristine mountain meadows, and alleged irregularities with its permits, also sparked calls from environmentalists to ban it. A petition against it collected thousands of signatures.

Karakolev said this was “undeserved hate” and thanked authorities for not “backing down to pressure as checks showed everything is perfectly legal”.

Radev criticised “dishonourable attempts to denigrate and break this initiative” as he and Karakolev inaugurated the structure with shouts of “Long live Bulgaria!”

Preparations for the ceremony in Rozhen.
Preparations for the ceremony in Rozhen. Photograph: Nikolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty Images

Several thousand people of all ages, many in national costume, gathered for the ceremony ahead of the three-day annual festival, taking the chance to touch the gigantic flag before it went up.

“Yes, some people don’t like it … [but] there are flags in every country. They are one of the symbols of a nation,” said Dimitar Mitev, 69, a reserve army colonel, adding that he hoped this initiative would boost patriotism.

Others were less positive.

“I felt unwell when I saw this rod sticking out of the ground in the middle of the meadows and the surrounding forests. This is human interference in nature,” said business consultant Sofia Botusharova, 38, from the nearby town of Chepelare.

Still, thousands of phone screens lit up the night as the cheering crowd waited for the flag to be hoisted. But when the big moment came there was disappointment as the lack of a breeze left it hanging listlessly from the pole.

Source : The Guardian