(Sofia) The conservative party of ex-prime minister Boïko Borissov and the liberal list led by ex-pro-European leader Kiril Petkov are neck and neck after the legislative elections in Bulgaria on Sunday, according to exit polls. The two forces are credited with 25 to 26% of the votes each.

These tight results augur a new puzzle to form a stable government, in this Balkan country which voted for the fifth time in two years.

Far from the hopes born of the wave of anti-corruption protests in the summer of 2020, this inflation-stricken country of 6.5 million people, the poorest in the EU, is sinking into a costly political crisis .

Since the fall of former Conservative Prime Minister Boïko Borissov after a decade in power, the different parties have been unable to build a coalition and interim governments have succeeded one another.

A stagnation accentuated by the conflict in Ukraine in a society historically and culturally close to Moscow, which is torn over the aid to be provided to Kyiv.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. Sunday morning (12 a.m. EST). The first estimates from the exit polls are expected at the close of the polls at 8 p.m.

Boyko Borissov went to vote in jeans and, according to him, “the worst would be if no government majority emerges” this time again. “Most people are calling for an end to instability,” he said after slipping his ballot into the ballot box.

All smiles and accompanied by his Canadian wife, Kiril Petkov claimed to have voted for Bulgaria to finally access “the life of a normal European country” and for its citizens to stop emigrating.

As of 11 a.m., turnout was the same as in previous elections at nearly 9 percent, according to the election commission. Abstention looks strong.

Voters appear a bit disillusioned.

“To vote is to make an effort to restart the administration which is currently blocked by the absence of government,” explains Krassimir Naydenov, a 57-year-old employee. “But I don’t trust anyone anymore.”

Faced with this “worrying spiral of elections”, Lukas Macek, associate researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute for Central and Eastern Europe, says he is “skeptical about a possible outcome unless Boïko Borissov withdraws”. .

“You find the same pattern as in other central European countries: a former leader who clings on, while the other parties refuse to ally with him, without however having much in common otherwise”.

Kiril Petkov’s Let’s Continue the Change (CC) party has this time joined forces with the right-wing Democratic Bulgaria (DB) party. In the absence of partners, however, they can only hope to form a minority government, which is inherently fragile.

Despite the reluctance towards Boïko Borissov, whose image is tainted by corruption cases, the pro-Western camp has an interest in joining forces, judge Ognian Peitchev, a sixty-year-old engineer met at a recent rally for Ukraine.

“I fear the influence of pro-Russian parties in the next parliament,” he said.

The socialists of the PSB, heir to the former communist party, refuse any delivery of arms to Kyiv and openly defend the ideology of the Kremlin.

Just like the young ultra-nationalist formation Vazrajdane (Renaissance), well on its way to continuing its ascent: it is credited with 13.6% of voting intentions, against 10% in October.

A scenario that is favored by Russophiles like Mariana Valkova, 62 years old. “Both Petkov and Borissov are really upset with Moscow. Under these conditions, I prefer that a government not be formed and that Radev remain in charge, ”says this head of SME, nostalgic for the USSR where she worked.

From exodus to corruption, from yogurt to rose, here are five things to know about Bulgaria.

Bulgarians emigrated en masse following the democratic transition of 1989, a movement further amplified by joining the European Union in 2007.

While the country was close to 9 million inhabitants at the end of communism, it had only 6.5 million in 2021, which ranks it among the champions of depopulation in the world.

Penalized by labor shortages and brain drain, Bulgaria remains to this day the poorest and most unequal member of the EU. Shaken by political instability, it had to give up joining the euro zone in 2024.

The average salary is 995 euros per month, less than half the European average.

Endemic corruption is the other evil that plagues Bulgaria, a poor student of the EU in this area according to the NGO Transparency International.

Medicine, education, justice, police: bribes and dirty money poison the daily life of Bulgarians, ulcerated by the privileges of a political class that often leads the way.

Apartments acquired at ridiculous prices, villas built with European funds, privileges and bribes brought thousands of protesters to the streets during the summer of 2020.

This wave of protests ended the reign of former conservative Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, while leading to political instability unprecedented since 1989.

Bulgarians often look towards Moscow and the Russian offensive in Ukraine has not shaken the convictions of many Russophiles: a large section of the political class opposes the delivery of arms to Ukraine.

Bulgarians are Slavic and Orthodox Christians like Russians and both countries use the Cyrillic alphabet. This cultural proximity is reinforced by historical ties, with Russia liberating Bulgaria from five centuries of Ottoman rule in 1878.

A Muslim minority (about 13% of the population) remains from this era, despite attempts at forced assimilation under communism.

Represented by the political party MDL, the Bulgarian Muslims bring together the Turks, the Pomaks (descendants of Bulgarians converted during the Ottoman period) and some of the Roma.

The proximity to Russia also translates into an energy dependence inherited from the Soviet Union, of which Bulgaria was a satellite. Despite American objections, Sofia has extended the TurkStream gas pipeline carrying Russian gas through its territory.

Since April, however, Bulgaria has not received deliveries from Gazprom, which the previous government refused to pay in roubles. And the country is seeking to diversify its sources of supply.

This largely mountainous country prides itself on being the homeland of yogurt, whose paternity is also claimed by Turkey.

It was a Bulgarian researcher, Stamen Grigorov, who discovered in 1905 the bacterium Lactobacillus bulgaricus, essential in the fermentation of milk.

Another pride: Bulgaria is one of the main producers of the Rosa damascena rose variety, whose essence is irreplaceable for the world’s great perfumers. The Bulgarians make jam and even brandy from it.

It is also the cradle of the Thracian civilization (from the 4th millennium BC to the 3rd century AD, which became famous for the production of exquisite gold objects.

The Orthodox calendar has preserved many traditions of pagan origin inherited from the pre-Christian era of Bulgaria, the name of which appears for the first time as early as the year 681.

In the middle of winter, inhabitants disguised as monsters – koukeri – chase away evil spirits.

Then in June, a purifying dance – nestinarstvo – is performed barefoot over burning embers on the feast of Saints Constantine and Helena.