WHO ARE VAZRAZHDANE'S VOTERS?

by Anthony Georgieff

Extremist party makes big gains among Bulgarians abroad

Since the fall of Communism in 1989 and the introduction of multiparty elections the following year Bulgarians have been given a Constitutional right to go to the polls regardless of whether they actually live in Bulgaria or not. Whether this is good or bad is a question that political scientists continue arguing about. Some developed democracies (Italy, France) allow it, others (Denmark) do not. In the case of Bulgaria, the provision was originally implemented in an attempt to ensure voting rights for about half a million Bulgarian Turks. They had been expelled by the former Communist regime in the sunset stages of the late 1980s forcible Bulgarisation campaign euphemistically referred to as the Revival Process.

Since then Bulgarian embassies and consulates abroad have organised makeshift polling stations for Bulgarian emigrants to cast their ballots whenever general elections in Bulgaria were being held.

The picture of Bulgarian citizens living outside of Bulgaria has changed significantly since the "Great Excursion" (another euphemism for the mass departure of Bulgarian Turks in the summer of 1989). No one has the precise numbers, but it is estimated that, as of 2022, of about 8 million Bulgarians worldwide at least 2 million live outside their country of primary citizenship. It is estimated that about 250,000 are in the UK, about 150,000 are in Greece, 30,000 are in Canada, 300,000 are in the United States and so on. All of them above 18 years of age have the legal right to vote in Bulgarian elections. So, Bulgarian political parties have eyed them as potential supporters and have conducted campaigns specifically targeted at them. How do their votes make a difference?

The 2022 general election indicated the obvious – despite the flirts various political parties such as the PP, or Changes Continued; the DB, Democratic Bulgaria; and the ITN, or the There is Such a People party, have attempted with the Bulgarian communities abroad the Bulgarian Turks in Turkey remain the largest group of expatriate voters. They invariably cast their ballots for the DPS, the Turkish-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms. The conclusion to be drawn from this is simple: the largest group of Bulgarian expats prefers to vote along ethnic lines. Some of them may realise and even accept the various criticisms of the DPS as being corrupt and nepotistic, but they have a surefire counterargument: They (the DPS) may be sons of bitches, but they are our sons of bitches. All the other players, who swear left, right and centre they will never have anything to do with the DPS, have no response to that.

The 2022 voting pattern was both unsurprising and at the same time rather shocking. Despite the declared hopes of the DB to gain a significant amount of votes abroad, the party that claims to represent Bulgarian intellectuals – the "urban right wing" as it calls itself, it turned out few Bulgarian expats espoused its mantras. The Turks voting for the DPS by far outnumbered them. So did the PP, or Changes Continued, the party led by former Prime Minister Kiril Petkov that emerged as the overall winner in the 2021 election but now trails behind Boyko Borisov's GERB.

As anticipated, Vazrazhdane, or Revival, led by Kostadin Kostadinov, who has been nicknamed rather pejoratively "Kostya Kopeykin" (see p10 for a full explanation of who the original Kopeykin was) did well. Kostadinov fared better than the "intellectuals" of Hristo Ivanov and even the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, of Kornelia Ninova. Of all the votes, Vazrazhdane garnered over 10 percent while the BSP and the DB had to suffice with 9.30 and 7.45 percent respectively.

Kostadinov is both radical and extremist. His extremism is of the usual ultranationalist type: Bulgaria above all, the Macedonians are Bulgarians, Turkey is the arch enemy and so on. In that he is not very different from Ataka of Volen Siderov, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria of Valeri Simeonov and the VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, of Krasimir Karakachanov. It is to be noted for the record that the latter two were allies to Boyko Borisov's ostensibly pro-Western government: Simeonov was a deputy prime minister and Karakachanov was a defence minister. Kostadinov's radicalism, however, brings a new note to the Bulgarian political morass. Vazrazhdane is entirely pro-Russian and pro-Putin – at a time when the Kremlin's bloody war in Ukraine continues unabated. He wants Bulgaria out of NATO immediately. He wants a referendum on Bulgaria's continued membership of the EU. And he wants everybody who works for what he calls "foreign-sponsored" NGOs lined up and sent to a labour camp.

While his views are totally at loggerheads with all other mainstream political parties, including GERB, they are apparently being espoused by as many as 10 percent of all Bulgarian voters who bothered to walk to the polling station on 2 October. Kostadinov is now the leader of the fourth largest party in the Bulgarian National Assembly, surpassing both the DB and the BSP.

What analysts saw as an unexpected development was that a significant chunk of the Vazrazhdane votes – over 14 percent – came... from abroad. Revival came first hands down in Australia, in Russia and in South Africa. In most EU countries they did remarkably well. They garnered about 29 percent in Spain, 28 percent in Czechia, 27 percent in Italy, 22 percent in Germany and 20 percent in Greece. Vazrazhdane got 23 percent in the UK. They got 32 percent in Canada and 18 percent in the United States.

Given the virulent anti-Western stance of Kostadinov and his pro-Putin rhetoric, the most logical explanation is that apparently the Bulgarians in the countries where Revival did so well in fact cast their ballots against their host governments. 22.3 percent in the UK and 18 percent in the United States voting for someone like Kostadinov, who unequivocally and aggressively rejects all the West stands for in the current situation, is at least a litmus test for the prevalent sentiments in the Bulgarian emigrant communities.

However, it is more complicated than that. From a purely practical point of view, Bulgarians living in Germany, France, Italy and Spain voting for Kostadin Kostadinov means they stand in rejection of the very premise that enabled them to settle in Western Europe in the first place. If Kostadinov does succeed in his threat to take Bulgaria out of the EU, they will automatically lose the right to live and work wherever they are now – and will have to return to Bulgaria.

Social psychologists and perhaps psychiatrists will have plenty of raw material to experiment with in the aftermath of the 2022 general election, but a first-hand interaction with and knowledge of the Bulgarian emigrant communities will help shed some light. Unpleasantly – and contrary to what the leaders of Democratic Bulgaria and Changes Continue want to believe – the overwhelming majority of Bulgarians abroad are not Harvard or Oxford graduates. They are menial workers scratching to make a living or sponging on welfare benefits. Typically, they are resistant to integrating themselves in their host societies as they prefer to live in their tightly-knit, yet fraught with disputes and animosities, little Bulgarias. In short, they experience what psychologists refer to as identity crises. Returning to Bulgaria is not an option for many because of economic and social reasons.

Additional pressure is being put on them with the plethora of (usually Russia-generated) fake news about "genderism," the perceived moral and social decay of the West, the "necessity" to reinstall "traditional Bulgarian values," and so on.

In the wake of the 2 October 2022 election it remains to be seen how long a life the current National Assembly in Bulgaria will have. But it is important to note that sweeping the real reasons for the popularity of the likes of Vazrazhdane under the carpet will only make things worse. Whether they will start getting any better in the longer run is as good a guess as any. 

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