Fear, hate return to Bulgarian politics ahead of upcoming EU presidency
For obvious reasons, Bulgarian domestic politics is not readily understandable to outsiders especially those who don't speak Bulgarian. How could you explain the setup in the new Bulgarian parliament to an outsider who knows about Europe and the United States, but who is unable to understand who and what stands behind names such as GERB, Ataka, United Patriots and Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation? If one were to make similes with Western politicians, perhaps one could imagine that Bulgaria will be ruled by an Orban (minus the charm and suaveness, but with plenty of Balkan pepper added) in coalition with a male Marine Le Pen, a Geert Wilders and a Nigel Farage.
Increasingly, Bulgarian domestic politics is not readily understandable to the Bulgarians, who do speak Bulgarian, either.
How come? Bulgarians, traditionally the poorest in the EU and the unhappiest on the planet if polls are anything to go by are rather cynical when it comes to the politicians they have themselves elected into office. In Bulgaria, the old, Communist-era joke about the optimist and the pessimist not only continues to make the rounds, but is getting rejiggered time and again to reflect new realities. Pre-1989, a pessimist was someone who considered half-a-glass of Rakiya to be half-empty while an optimist looked at it positively: it was half-full. In 2017, or exactly 28 years after Communism is no more, the same joke sounds something like this: a pessimist thinks it can't get worse than that while an optimist looks at things positively – it can, it can…
Can it really? Looking at the composition of this country's current parliament and the top figures of the main parties in it optimism is perhaps not your average Bulgarian's knee-jerk reaction. To start off with, let's look at the main players.
Boyko Borisov, the leader of GERB, or Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria. A member of the former Communist Party, Borisov was in the Interior Ministry's Fire Department in 1989, when Communist-era dictator Todor Zhivkov was toppled from power. Democratisation was to start and one of its tenets was de-Communisation (something like the de-Nazification of post-war Germany). Interior Ministry official were given a choice: relinquish your Communist Party membership or leave the service. Borisov left the service to maintain his loyalty to the Communist Party.
In the 1990s he went into the protection business, setting up a successful protection company. Anyone with a more than passing knowledge of Eastern Europe in general and the Balkans in particular in the 1990s knows what "protection" in those days meant.
Borisov took turns as the personal bodyguard of Todor Zhivkov, who died in 1997, and then of Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the former Bulgarian monarch who returned to Bulgaria in 2001 and was elected prime minister. The former king sensed Borisov's charisma and appointed him chief secretary of the Interior Ministry, which in daily language translates as this country's top cop. There was no stopping him now. Borisov left the service in 2005, this time for good, and became mayor of Sofia.
In 2008 he set up GERB (for an explanation of what the acronym means see above). GERB won the general election in 2009 and since then has been in power, save for a spell in 2013-2014 when the non-GERB government of Plamen Oresharski was forced to resign by street protests. At that time the protestors chanted they demanded transparency and reforms. What they got in return was GERB again.
In 2017 Boyko Borisov is set to become prime minister for the third time. It might be worth noting that he never finished any of his two previous terms in office. He resigned once, in 2013, when economic destitution and the continuing polarisation of Bulgarian society forced a number of Bulgarians to commit suicide in public by… self-conflagration. The second time he resigned was in early 2017. The reason he gave was his disappointment that his handpicked candidate for president, Tsetska Tsacheva, failed against Ret Gen Rumen Radev, the nominee of the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party. Radev is now president, Tsacheva failed to be elected an MP in her native town of Pleven.
Borisov's natural allies in the new parliament is a motley crew of extreme nationalists, who recently pulled their act together and became the United Patriots. It must be underlined that the word "patriot" in Bulgarian, when used without the quotation marks, usually invokes the struggle for national independence in the 19th century. The three main groupings in the United Patriots know that and call themselves "patriots" to stir up national sentiments, but hardly anyone would argue they have anything in common with the rebellions, revolutions and relative enlightenment of the 19th century.
Who are the United Patriots? Their leader is Valery Simeonov. Born in a military family, Simeonov grew up in various locations in southeastern Bulgaria. Shortly after 1989, he became one of the leaders of the newly-founded SDS, or Union of Democratic Forces, in Burgas. In the 1990s he went into business, first setting up a company to install a cable TV network in Burgas and later founded his own TV channel. SKAT TV, now broadcasting nationally, has for many years been branded as the most uncouth propaganda tool for Bulgaria's nationalists. It has been repeatedly fined by Bulgaria's Media Council for breaking media laws. In 2011 he co-founded the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria. SKAT became its mouthpiece. Internationally, Valery Simeonov's identifies with the UKIP.
Ahead of the 2017 general election Simeonov was seen shoving off elderly Bulgarian ladies crossing the border into Bulgaria in order to vote. He owns a motel near Malko Tarnovo which currently lodges Border Police staff deployed along the Turkish border to control migration.
When asked on the record what he thought of an elected politician getting money from the state to accommodate security personnel in his hotel Aleksandar Karakachanov, the leader of the VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, snapped: "Better house Bulgarian officers than Turkish ones." This statement sums up Karakachanov's attitude to politics, both domestic and international, and explains his relative popularity with a segment of the Bulgarian nation. His VMRO claims to be the heir to the historical VMRO, a movement that fought against the Ottoman Empire, in the late 19th and early 20th century, for the liberation of southwestern and southeastern Bulgarian lands. Those lands are now in northwestern Turkey, northern Greece and of course in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
The Macedonian "question" is complicated and difficult to comprehend to anyone but the people who live here. It would take many pages to even touch upon the complexity of it, but for the purposes of this article suffice it to say that the VMRO in the late 19th and early 20th century used what in the late 20th century would be billed terror tactics (taking hostages, planting bombs in public spaces and committing political assassinations) to achieve its political aims. No organisation in southeastern Europe exemplifies better the old adage that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.
Karakachanov's VMRO has little to do with the original VMRO. Confusingly, the Bulgarian VMRO has nothing to do with the VMRO-DPMNE, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Party of Macedonian National Unity, in the Republic of Macedonia, which has been in power in Skopje for the past 10 years.
Karakachanov does not recognise the existence of a Macedonian nation. To him and his followers, the Macedonians are Bulgarian, like they were in the 19th century.
Notwithstanding the eccentricities of Karakachanov, perhaps the most colourful politician in the United Patriots grouping is Volen Siderov, the founder of Ataka. Siderov, who has been convicted of hooliganism and the disruption of public order, likes to put up a fight. In 2010, visibly inebriated, he put up a scandal onboard a Lufthansa flight. German police later said he refused to obey the crew's instructions and even "stormed" into the aircraft's kitchen. In 2013 he was elected chief of the… Parliamentary Ethics Committee. The following year he abused verbally and even physically a French diplomat onboard a Bulgaria Air plane from Varna to Sofia. In 2015 he put up another scandal on Rakovski Street in Central Sofia. His troops stormed into the National Dramatic Arts Academy and accused students of… selling drugs. Then Interior Minister Rumyana Bachvarova had to come in person to calm down the situation.
Siderov's xenophobic, anti-gay, anti-Gypsy and anti-Semitic language makes the whole of the Le Pen family pale in comparison. Some analysts compare his appearance and gestures to those of Hitler. To this, Siderov replies: "I have always carried the Orthodox cross on my neck!" He likes to capitalise on his good relations with Putin's Russia and in 2014 even started his election campaign in… Moscow, where he had been awarded a Russian medal.
Very briefly, these are the main players who will be in power in Bulgaria for the next four years. What unites them is fear and hate. One of Boyko Borisov's trade marks has been fear-mongering. His Either-Elect-Me-or-Else method works remarkably well in a Bulgaria that collectively sees little ahead except the deadends of the never-ending "transition" from Communism. And fear goes hand in hand with hate: against the Turks, against the Gypsies, against the West in general and America in particular, against the gays, against anyone who does not go to church and refuses to start wearing baggy trousers for 19th century peasants.
In 2013, the massive street rallies in Sofia that brought down the Oresharski government were furious that Siderov had given his support for the then ruling coalition which they billed an amalgamation of National Socialists and Communists. Siderov and his ilk are now allies to Boyko Borisov's GERB. Street protests of the 2013 magnitude are unlikely to happen in Sofia in 2017, however. Bulgaria's politics have reached a stage where even Bulgarians have difficulties understanding it.