by Anthony Georgieff

Plethora of disunited small groupings swear they are 'genuine' alternative to GERB, former Communists

Twenty-nine years after the fall of Communism, Bulgaria stands more disunited than ever. Bulgarians are split not only between rich and poor; between those who can afford to pay their electricity bills and those who can't; between the people in the derelict villages and the people in Sofia and the large towns; between those who speak proper, Sofianite Bulgarian and those who don't; and between those who are favoured by GERB because they pay their dues and those who are out of favour and get their businesses destroyed. They are also split between those who don't get a mention in the notorious files of the former State Security and those who do – for real or imaginary reasons; between those who think the EU wants to impose a "third gender" on Bulgaria's families and those who insist the Istanbul Convention for the Prevention of Violence Against Women was just that, a legal tool to protect women from violence; those who think Second World War Nazi ally, King Boris III, was a formidable figure to be celebrated and those who think he was, well, a Nazi ally. Because public debate – any public debate in the absence of credible mainstream media in Bulgaria – is being conducted mainly on Facebook, those who think one thing rarely converse with the people who think otherwise. Shouts and insults rather than dialogue have become the norm, and anyone who dares voice a different opinion gets immediately branded as a "fascist," a "Communist" or any of the many slurs associated with either of the two. Arguments in Bulgaria of the 2010s are always ad hominem.

Life is of course a lot more nuanced than the black-and-white picture on the Bulgarian-language Facebook, and translated into real-life politics the divisions described above are not as clear-cut. Or are they?

Bulgaria at the moment is governed by an embattled prime minister, Boyko Borisov, whose GERB would be unable to do a thing unless it gets the continued support of three ultranationalist parties, Ataka, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, and the VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation. For the past 10 years since Boyko Borisov rose to national prominence, his GERB, clearly a leader's party, has gained notoriety for employing people on the basis of their allegiance and loyalty to the leader rather than much in the way of professional qualifications or political acumen. GERB remains a mastodon, probably the only one in current Bulgarian politics. Significantly, its stability, and the large number of people who continue to vote for Borisov, is not to be explained with the hypothetical trust in its leader, who does remain charismatic in his own inimitable Balkan way. Especially in the smaller towns where the main employer is the local councils, anyone who digresses from GERB is bound to be pushed out of the bandwagon. Conversely, anyone who strictly toes the line, whatever that may be at any given moment, knows a reward will be forthcoming.

One of Borisov's favourite ploys is to let his men do whatever nonsense they have thought up while Borisov himself is to be seen inaugurating kindergartens and/or stretches of asphalt road. Then, depending on the size of the public outcry in front of the Council of Ministers in Sofia or on Facebook, he would appear centre-stage and "put things in order." In that sense, Borisov has superseded his alleged mentor, Todor Zhivkov, the leader of the Communists who Borisov says he hates so much.

Seen from a Western standpoint, Boyko Borisov is good as long as he delivers on US and European requests for police cooperation. From a domestic standpoint, however, with his increasingly authoritarian methods and disrespect for the law whenever it suits him he is often considered a mini-Orban, minus the anti-Western rhetoric.

On the other side of the spectrum is the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party. It is not as monolithic as GERB as it is split between slightly more liberal reformists and slightly more hard-boiled conservatives. Kornelia Ninova, its current leader, sometimes successfully balances between the two, preventing the BSP from splitting too badly and ensuring it remains a credible alternative to GERB at least in terms of the number of voters concerned.

Then you have the DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Born in the aftermath of the so-called Revival Process in the 1980s, when the Communists went ahead with a forcible Bulgarisation campaign against the country's sizeable Turkish minority, the DPS has a more or less stable support, mainly in the areas where Turks are a significant minority or even a majority. Regardless of what everyone else claims and all the real or made-up criticisms being pitched against the DPS, it is likely to remain a key player in Bulgaria's politics and possibly a balance-of-power in any government in the future.

The situation in the right wing is completely different. Bulgaria's "right wing" – if there is such a thing at all – is a concoction of various and sometimes extremely varied groupings. These include the recently founded Democratic Bulgaria Alliance, which consists of the DSB, or Democrats for Strong Bulgaria, the Yes, Bulgaria Movement and Bulgaria's Greens. Then there is the DBG, or Movement for Bulgaria of the Citizens, and the SDS, or Union of Democratic Forces, the original pro-democracy party founded on the ashes of Bulgaria's Communism, in 1990. Then there are the small, almost minuscule parties and groupings bearing names such as New Republic, Bulgarian Democratic Community, Bulgarian New Democracy and so on and so forth. And of course at least a dozen jaywalkers ramble among them and swap alliances and allegiances in a bid to feel which way the current political wind blows.

Interestingly, some of these parties speak of themselves as "Bulgaria's urban right wing." What they mean is to represent themselves as urbane enough to be able to govern the country – or at least jump the 4 percent election threshold and enter parliament. In actual reality, however, "urban" in this case should be understood quite literally: the "urban right wing" commands little or no support outside Sofia.

Significantly, Bulgaria's right wing is purely political. None of the small parties identifying themselves as being pro-democracy has any coherent agenda in, say, the economy, health care, agriculture etc. What they are united on is half a dozens "pivotal points": vitriolic criticism of Bulgaria's President Rumen Radev, a former Air Force general, whom they bill a Russian "puppet"; the notion that Russia never liberated Bulgaria in 1878; the conspiracy theory that the whole of Bulgaria's largely botched transition to democracy post-1989 has been clandestinely masterminded by real and imaginary operatives of the Communist-era State Security; the conviction that US-manufactured F-16 aircraft are much better than the Swedish Grippen fighter jets; and possibly the quality of the newly installed pavement in Central Sofia, which they think is bad.

Anyone digressing from those will immediately be billed a "Communist" or worse.

Against this background, it is difficult to imagine how the so-called rightwing parties will be able to enter any future parliament. Whenever there is a new general election, Bulgarians, who notoriously tend to vote with their feet, will probably get more of the same. GERB and the BSP will perform strongly, the extreme nationalists will probably wane in popularity, and the DPS will again hold the balance of power. The right wing will remain... urban. 


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