Ataka's views are a hodgepodge of Russian Orthodox fundamentalism, European anti-Semitism, and a local brand of venomous nationalism
Is Volen Siderov a Bulgarian version of Haider or Zhirinovsky? Does his good showing in the first round of the residential election parallel the rise of Le Pen in France? Are all the 600,000 Bulgarians who voted for him racists and xenophobes?
When Siderov came second in the Bulgarian presidential election on 22 October, local and international analysts gave worrying answers to these questions. Siderov and his far-right party Ataka were dubbed everything from "extremist", "anti-Semite", "anti-European" and "xenophobic" by the French newspaper Le Monde, to a "natural disaster" by Bulgarian daily Standart, and "fascist" by political scientist Andrey Raychev.
Siderov and his cronies rebuffed all such categorisations. These ultra-nationalists reiterated their slogan "To return Bulgaria to the Bulgarians" and claimed that they were only trying to "awaken" the citizens. They fiercely resented being called fascist.
On the night following the first round of the election, viewers of the Bulgarian National Television channel witnessed a pathetic verbal duel. Ataka's deputy chairman Pavel Shopov confronted a reporter for labelling his party "fascist". "Lots of the media say it is," was the reporter's lame response.
Not that there isn't anything to support the reporter's view. Siderov is an advocate of the theory of a global Jewish conspiracy, as promulgated by the Nazis. He wants to curb minorities' rights and has been indicted by a court for incitement to racial hatred. He has been photographed with the leader of the Ku Klux Klan and is a passionate proponent of xenophobic views. In his "Bulgaria to the Bulgarians" policy, his opponents say that he implies that ethnic and sexual minorities are inferior.
But the reporter's bewilderment was an expression of many Bulgarians' confusion. Unlike citizens in the developed democracies, Bulgarians had not had experience of far-right political extremism before the spring of last year, and they still have difficulty in identifying it clearly. As a German newspaper felicitously put it, Bulgaria is an old culture with new problems. To add to the confusion, not only does Siderov blatantly reject the labels the press bestow on him, he denies much of what he has been quoted as saying, in public interviews and in court.
Volen Siderov appeared on the political stage in the early 1990s as the editor-in-chief of Demokratsiya, the newspaper of the democratic wing. He resigned in 1992, as the paper drifted away from its ideological position or, as some allege, because he was not satisfied with the extent of his power.
In the following years, Siderov vented his spleen in several less influential national newspapers, but eventually his invective was no longer palatable even to the gutter press, and he could no longer find outlets for his views.
This rift with the press brought Siderov to the decision in 2003 to launch his own talk show, Ataka on Bulgarian cable TV channel SKAT. He used the programme to expound on topics such as the "terror of Gypsies", "racial discrimination against Bulgarians in Bulgaria", and "US Negroes above Bulgarian law". The content of his presentations and studio discussions gradually became the foundation of his future party.
At the beginning of 2005, Siderov announced his intention of taking part in the general election. This move was not taken seriously by most of the established parties - until the July elections, that is, when Ataka won 21 out of 240 seats in the Bulgarian parliament, resulting in widespread dismay.
Ataka's task was not a difficult one. By the start of 2005, the forever-feuding Socialists and democrats had come to an agreement about what they considered to be the top national priorities: membership of NATO and the EU, with all the reforms these would entail.
Since losing power in 2001, the democrats had not acted as a serious opposition, their main goals coinciding with those of the ruling centre-left coalition. Instead, they were doomed to squabble over matters of little political weight.
At the same time, Siderov promoted goals that no one else in the country did. He proposed withdrawing from NATO and holding a national referendum on decommissioning the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant reactors, even at the price of delaying EU membership.
He promised to call a halt to, and even reverse, reforms on human rights and the integration of minorities and to punish the entire political establishment - for everything.
"We are enraged!" was the customary opening of Siderov's presidential election campaign speeches. After the vote, many analysts concluded that Siderov's slightly softened language, combined with his attacks against everything and everyone, united not only racists from the far right, but many who felt disillusioned with the current social milieu. By dubbing the Siderov vote "anti-establishment", they tried to find comfort in the claim that there could not, in fact, be 600,000 fascists in Bulgaria.
However, this could turn out to be wishful thinking. More than half a million Bulgarians found it acceptable to vote for a person who holds views in common with the Nazis, even if it was only out of some kind of social despair. Six hundred thousand Bulgarians either subscribe to Siderov's view that minorities are to blame for social misfortunes, or find in his rhetoric an expression of their own views.
Perhaps some of them do not realise what their ideology is commonly known as, but that hardly changes its nature. Siderov's statements are often bolder than those of his European brothers, and contain as many elements of Nazi beliefs as those of Jorg Haider. They are more offensive to minorities than those of Le Pen. His xenophobia is as apparent as that expressed by the nationalistic Vlaams Blok in Belgium, which was dissolved after a court decision in 2004.
So far, Siderov has published three books: The Boomerang of Evil, The Mammon's Power, and Bulgarophobia. One of these titles was published by the Zharava 2002 printing house, which also released on to the Bulgarian market the works of Hitler, Goebbels, Mussolini, and Jurgen Graf.
In The Mammon's Power, Siderov speaks of a global Jewish conspiracy, implying that the Jewish race is responsible for most human misfortunes in the world. The text contains numerous offensive references to Judaism, such as that the "Talmud understanding of the world is enslaving", and that "Judaism is ...elitist, xenophobic, racist and in opposition to the philosophy of God."
In 2002 Siderov reportedly took part in a Moscow conference denouncing the Holocaust, reminiscent of when Jorg Haider was attacked by his opponents for attending a large scale Waffen-SS remembrance ceremony. The Bulgarian media circulated a picture from the event showing Siderov with the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Revisionism of history forms another link between Siderov and his European counterparts. Le Pen's remarks that the gas chambers of the concentration camps were just a detail in the history of the Second World War were condemned in court and are considered proof of his anti-Semitic views. Roeland Raes of Belgium's Vlaams Blok
was forced to step down from his position as party leader in 2002 over similar claims and for casting doubt on the authenticity of Anne Frank's diary.
Siderov did not discuss the Holocaust in his speech at the conference in Moscow, but stated that "mainly radical Jews, financed by other Jews - capitalists from the United States and Western Europe" had engineered "the fall of Communism in Russia and later in the East European countries".
Mixed in with his prejudices against minorities, xenophobia forms an important part of Siderov's rhetoric. One of Le Pen's gravest offences is considered to be his remark earlier this year concerning the French World Cup squad, when he commented that it contained too many "coloured" players and therefore, was not an accurate refl ection of French society.
But even this sounds relatively tame when compared to some of Siderov's statements. "In only five to 10 years, Bulgaria may turn into a territory commanded from outside. It would be populated by foreigners and Bulgarians will serve as servants and slaves," he said at a 2005 campaign rally. In a public speech, he stated that "Bulgaria should not become a Turkish province. It should not become a Gypsy state... it should not turn into a Jewish colony. Or anyone else's colony..."
Siderov's anti-European views are mostly confined to criticism of EU economic pressure and minorities' protection policy. "... this big wave of external and internal factors, which aims to deprive Bulgaria of Bulgarians. They work to annihilate the Bulgarian nation. They work for its Gypsyisation and Turkisation. They work for anything but the Bulgarian nation to consist of Bulgarians," he said on his Ataka programme on SKAT TV in May 2005.
While Siderov's anti-Semitism and xenophobia more or less match those of the European far right, his open hatred of local minorities often exceeds that of his counterparts. Ethnic Gypsies and Turks are systematically attacked in his speeches. He calls for limiting their rights, often stating that these two ethnic groups pose a threat to Bulgarians.
An example of one of his softer statements; that his aim was never to turn Gypsies into soap, rather that he would buy soap and give it to them to use as intended, was in the style of Jorg Haider. Several years ago, the Austrian politician was accused of anti-Semitism for a comment made about Ariel Muzicant, a Jewish community leader. "I do not understand how someone named Ariel (a washing powder brand name) can catch so much fi lth," said Haider of Muzicant.
But Siderov often talks tougher. He regularly opposes what he terms the "Turkisation" and "Gypsyisation" of the country. On a number of television programmes and in political statements, he has implied that minorities should not have any say in the running of Bulgaria.
On the campaign trail in Burgas in June 2005, Siderov declared that there were municipalities, in which "only the Turkish language is spoken!". He said that, "This is a shame, today, in 2005, in sovereign Bulgaria."
Opposing Turkish language broadcasts in Bulgaria, he commented on his TV programme that, "The state television of Bulgaria, with state money, broadcasts news in a language we do not understand. To many Bulgarians this language is unpleasant to hear, because it is related to the language of those who have murdered, and performed genocide on, the Bulgarian nation for many years".
His attempt to soften his tone during the presidential campaign resulted in the explanation that he had nothing against any Roma who would recognise their Bulgarian national identity.
The Russian Connection
Something which connects Siderov to the numerous extreme right parties in Russia is the stress that he places on the nation's Orthodox beliefs. Eastern Orthodoxy is often defended with Nazi arguments, such as the threat posed by the global Jewish network, or with xenophobic ones: "In modern times the Papacy is in competition with the Cosa Nostra," Siderov wrote in The Boomerang of Evil. This associates Siderov not only with Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, but with several other extreme right political organisations in Russia: among them the Union of Veneds and the Navi Church.
Some analysts see the rise of Volen Siderov in Bulgaria as a wake-up call to the establishment. If a man of his views did well in an election in Britain or France, he would be regarded as a passing nuisance. But this is, after all, the Balkans - which makes Siderov's onslaught all the more sinister.
In the Dock
The Citizens Against Hatred Association have filed eight suits against Volen Siderov. So far, the Sofia District Court has found Siderov guilty on one charge and he was ordered to limit the invective in his public speeches. The remaining trials are pending. Siderov's tactics in court are to deny all accusations and to avoid giving direct answers to questions concerning his personal views.
One of the more bizarre facts in recent Bulgarian history is that six years ago Siderov received a professional award from the Union of Bulgarian Journalists. The organisation, inherited from Socialist times, has now lost much of its influence, but still numbers among its members many of the older generation of journalists.