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Bulgaria’s dangerous flirtation with the far-right

The rise of the far-right in Bulgaria has led to an increase in xenophobia. The European People’s Party is facing a troublesome trend among some of its members.

May 21, 2019 - Radosveta Vassileva - Articles and Commentary

Ataka demonstration in front of the EU parliament representation in Sofia in 2016. Photo: Ivan Ivanov (cc) wikimedia.org

“Gypsies, Turks, Armenians and Jews are guests in Bulgaria and if they are good guests, they can live peacefully here,” argued Zvezdomir Andronov, leader of the Bulgarian National Union, on one of the most popular political talk shows in Bulgaria on 22 April 2019. Telling Bulgarian citizens they are “guests” in their own home is, in layman’s terms, scandalous. It is also astonishing that the most influential TV station in Bulgaria – bTV – provided a platform for an ultra-right party, which is not represented in Parliament, to express views which are incompatible with Bulgarian law, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and diverse international treaties.

Sadly, in the past few years, the far-right rhetoric has become so common in both media and government that it seems Bulgarian society has lost its sense of measure. At a time when a far-right alliance is on the horizon on an EU level, it seems important to analyze how and why far-right nationalism and populism gained solid ground in the country.

A marriage of convenience

It is often forgotten that Bulgaria’s dominant party GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria), which is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), is currently in a coalition with three parties – VMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation), NFSB (National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria) and Ataka (Attack). While their representatives label themselves merely as nationalists, their political narrative and priorities fall in line with far-right values. GERB partnered with these parties because it could not formally disclose its hidden alliance with DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedoms): Boyko Borissov had propagated the myth they were his archenemies for a long time.

As a result of their newly found partnership with the far-right, GERB had to make more concessions on EU values, including minority rights, and turn a blind eye to flagrant abuses of political privilege. This may not have been a difficult compromise because GERB do not seem to hold human rights in high esteem. Bulgaria has lost a case on the most fundamental “right to life” (Dimov v Bulgaria) before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) because of a violent police operation personally led by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov when he served as General Secretary of the Ministry of Interior. Bulgaria has also lost numerous cases on the lack of fair trial at the ECHR because of statements and orders by Tsvetan Tsvetanov, GERB’s Vice President, who was Minister of Interior in Borissov’s first government.

GERB’s coalition with three far-right parties, however, established xenophobia as a government policy. VMRO’s leader Krassimir Karakachanov who is the Vice Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense in Boyko Borissov’s third government seems committed to a rhetoric of polarisation. In recent years, he has been promoting his ideas about offering the Romani minority “free abortions” to limit their population. In early 2019, after an incident in Voivodinovo, Bulgaria in which two Roma men beat up a Bulgarian army officer, Karakachanov went as far as saying that “Bulgarians had no more patience for the gypsy arrogance” and he called for a “final solution to the gypsy question.” Stigmatising a vulnerable minority which comprises almost 10 per cent of the country’s population based on the wrongdoing of two people is already problematic, but the choice of words matters too – Karakachanov’s statements resonate Nazi rhetoric, he used “gypsy” instead of “Roma,” which is considered pejorative, etc. His “solution” to the concrete challenge was to order  the demolishing of illegal Roma housing in Voivodinovo without ensuring alternative accommodation for more than 50 people, including children. In April 2019, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, which had assisted the victims in submitting an application against Bulgaria before the ECHR, reported that the court issued an interim measure obliging Bulgaria to provide housing.

Valeri Simeonov, leader of NFSB, does not shy away from making racists statements and disparaging vulnerable groups either. On two separate occasions when making speeches in Parliament in 2014 and 2015, he referred to Romani people as “ferocious anthropoids.” In a twist of perverse irony, Simeonov was appointed as Vice Prime Minister responsible for economic and demographic policy in Borissov’s third government in 2017. Unsurprisingly, this responsibility did not make him mind his language. Shortly after, in response to a shocking photo of one of his party members performing the Nazi salute, Simeonov commented: “Who knows what prank photos I have from Buchenwald?” In 2018, he insulted mothers of disabled children who protested against the government’s failure to properly support children with disabilities and to implement the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by calling them “a group of screaming women who speculate with their children…[and who] have no maternal instinct.” Massive public uproar followed, so in November 2018 Simeonov resigned as Vice Prime Minister citing “a media campaign against [his party]” as a reason for his decision.

Dangerous liaisons

It is noteworthy that while citizens had been asking for Simeonov’s resignation for months, Borissov acted nonchalant. When asked why he did not make Simeonov step down in October 2018, he commented: “I can ask for his resignation but this has no legal value…If I try to force him to resign, the entire political construct will fall apart.” This statement seems to summarize GERB’s policy towards the far-right: these parties can do what they want as long as they help GERB stay in power.

What is the price of this political construct? The far-right narrative at the highest ranks of government is just the tip of the iceberg. This rhetoric signals to others that one can get away with inappropriate statements. In April 2019, Bulgaria’s Deputy General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev said in an interview that all “gypsies” lie. Moreover, a rhetoric of polarisation encourages hate crime. In 2019, Sofia’s synagogue and an anti-fascist memorial were vandalized. This April, obituary notices invited people to commemorate the anniversary of Hitler’s death at Dupnitsa’s Jewish cemetery. Meanwhile, Roma housing was burned in what commentators called “racist violence.”

GERB pretends not to notice neo-Nazi events too. Every year Bulgaria is the venue of Lukov March ­– a large-scale neo-Nazi march organized by the Bulgarian National Union. According to the Bulgarian Association of Holocaust Survivors and Their Children, the representatives of GERB and VMRO voted against the ban on this march at Sofia’s city council, so in practice they supported the event. Even though both the World Jewish Congress and B’nai B’rith International have condemned the march as antisemitic and xenophobic, Bulgaria’s government has been reluctant to release a formal statement. GERB also backs discriminatory policies, particularly against the already marginalized Roma minority.

The ghost of corruption seems to haunt this construct, too. In 2018, Bulgarian citizens were shocked to learn of a passport scam run at the highest political level. Under Bulgarian law, citizenship is free if one proves their Bulgarian heritage. Employees of the State Agency of Bulgarians Abroad issued thousands of fake certificates of Bulgarian origin against bribes of up to 5000 euros. However, a whistle-blower asserts that the scheme was set up by VMRO and that  Krassimir Karakachanov and Bulgaria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ekaterina Zaharieva are implicated. While both have denied these allegations, the whistle-blower has provided journalists and international institutions with documents corroborating her claims. Unfortunately, an objective investigation is impossible in Bulgaria considering the political status quo as well as the fact that Bulgaria’s prosecution traditionally acts as a mouthpiece for the government – it currently benefits from only 6 per cent public confidence.

EU, wherefore art thou?

While Borissov’s reasons to embrace the far-right seem transparent, the dual standards in the EU appear striking. Manfred Weber, EPP’s Spitzenkandidat, vowed to fight nationalists who want to destroy the European project. Yet, Weber never showed any concern for GERB’s alliance with Eurosceptic nationalists governing Bulgaria. Joseph Daul, EPP’s President, has expressed worries about racist rhetoric in the Netherlands, but he has remained silent on the racist statements by representatives of Bulgaria’s government.

The Juncker Commission, in general, has adopted the three wise monkeys pictorial maxim vis-à-vis the country. For instance, whereas Vera Jourova, the current Commissioner for Justice, has built a name as a defender of Roma rights, she has not found the time to condemn the anti-Roma rhetoric and policies in Bulgaria. In stark contrast, in 2019, the Chairman of the US Helsinki Commission Rep. Alcee L. Hastings condemned “a mob attack against the Roma community and a police station in Gabrovo, Bulgaria” as well as the anti-Roma language at the highest ranks of Bulgaria’s government.

It is also interesting that while the EU Commission spent a lot of time and effort to denounce the golden-visa schemes in Cyprus and Malta, it swept the Bulgarian passport scam under the carpet. Bulgaria’s case is certainly more worrisome because EU citizenship is being sold for cheap in a fraudulent scheme. In fact, it appears that the main reason why the passport scam became too big for Bulgaria to hide was that US law enforcement officials arrested two people suspected of terrorism with such passports and asked Bulgarian authorities for an explanation.

What does the future hold?

While pro-European commentators fear the rise of the far-right on a pan-European scale, Bulgaria’s case illustrates that mainstream parties like the EPP have contributed to the legitimisation of far-right rhetoric and policies. VMRO, NFSB and Ataka gained just 9.31 per cent of the votes in Bulgaria’s parliamentary elections in 2017. However, not only they entered the government, but also GERB gave them some of the most attractive seats in cabinet – the minister of economy, the minister of defense, the minister of the environment as well as two Vice Prime Minister seats. Political calculations clearly trump EU values: this is the sad lesson to take and to ponder before European elections 2019.

Radosveta Vassileva teaches law at University College London. Her research interests encompass comparative public and private law and EU law. She maintains a personal blog dedicated to the rule of law in Bulgaria.

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