As the far-right asserts itself with increasing aggressiveness around the world, Michael Colborne sheds light on Bulgaria, where the far-right has managed to infiltrate all corners of the political mainstream.
It’s been more than a hundred days since a gaggle of far-right firebrands became part of Bulgaria’s new government – and it’s passed with barely a peep from the EU and western observers.
After his re-election as Prime Minister of Bulgaria earlier this year, Boyko Borisov made the United Patriots (UP), a coalition of three far-right nationalist parties, his junior partner in a coalition government. A coalition of Valeri Simeonov’s National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), Krasimir Karakachanov’s Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO) and Volen Siderov’s ATAKA, the United Patriots now hold key cabinet posts, including defence and the economy.
While he relied on the outside support of these far-right parties during his previous term as Prime Minister, this is the first time Borisov’s brought them directly into the government. To be fair, the post-electoral math probably didn’t give Borisov much choice in the matter – his pro-EU GERB only won 95 of 240 seats in March.
Only four other parties made it into Bulgaria’s parliament: the pro-Kremlin Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the Turkish minority Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), the Trump-like Veselin Mareshki’s Volya (Will) and, of course, the United Patriots. Neither the BSP nor the DPS were interested in being part of a coalition with GERB, leaving the United Patriots’ 27 seats as Borisov’s only hope for a majority.
His new junior coalition partners don’t exactly have a history of being subtle. Valeri Simeonov, for one, has called Roma “brazen, feral, human-like creatures,” and has said Roma women “have the instincts of stray dogs.” He’s even talked about demolishing Roma ghettoes and isolating them in “reservations.”
Simeonov, if you haven’t been paying attention, is now a Deputy PM.
The other Deputy PM, Krasimir Karakachanov, was also the United Patriots’ candidate for president in 2016. He’s complained that Europe is being “flooded” with migrants “who don’t want to conform to history and Christian traditions,” and has talked about the need to “repel migrants by force” if necessary. He was part of efforts to block border checkpoints with Turkey before the parliamentary elections, preventing Bulgarian ethnic Turks from coming in to vote.
Karakachanov’s also the defence minister.
Rounding out this trio is the colourful Volen Siderov, a former television host who thinks that Turkey is trying to take over Bulgaria and restore the Ottoman Empire. While he himself doesn’t have a seat at the cabinet table, his ATAKA party’s faring just fine, and is no stranger to making headlines. In 2015, former ATAKA MP Ilian Todorov and other party members stormed into classes at Bulgaria’s national theatre academy and, among other things, called students “fruitcakes” and “faggots.”
Ilian Todorov was recently appointed Sofia’s newest regional governor.
And even though Borisov is a nominally pro-EU Prime Minister, these figures he’s called up to sit at the big table are generally pretty pro-Kremlin. While pro-Kremlin, pro-Russian attitudes are already fairly strong in Bulgaria – as I’ve written about before – some of Borisov’s newest friends take that to the next level; ATAKA, for example, sent observers to “elections” held in Crimea and Donbas in Ukraine by Russian-separatist forces, and was named last month in an ECFR study as the most “anti-Western” pro-Kremlin party in Europe.
And Borisov – the pro-EU Borisov, remember – has appointed the openly pro-Kremlin Karakachanov, as one of his Deputy PMs and defence minister. Back in April, Martin Vladimirov, an analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, told me he thought the then-rumoured appointment of Karakachanov as defence minister would be a “major victory” for the Kremlin, and that Karakachanov could help drive a wedge between EU leaders over sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
“The sanctions are unnecessary and they only increase the confrontation,” Karakachanov told Bloomberg before March’s elections. “If U.S. President Donald Trump seems to be seeking better relations with Russia, then why should the EU keep imposing sanctions that cause losses to both European and Bulgarian businesses?”
But any saving grace for Borisov and company might come from the United Patriots’ own issues. As Bulgarian journalist Ivan Bedrov argued for DW recently, the United Patriots are disorganized, shallow and unprincipled, ready to change their positions when it suits them.
“They don’t know what they want,” Bedrov wrote, “nor do they know with whom or how they want it.”
Still, it’s probably not a good idea to bank on the far-right’s inconsistency and incompetence, particularly in a country where the far-right already feels empowered enough to beat up human rights activists and harass journalists who write positively about refugees and migrants, as Tom Junes described a few months ago.
As Bulgaria’s about to take its turn in the presidency of the Council of Europe in January 2018, it’s high time for the EU and western observers to pay more attention to the far-right forces in Sofia. If anything, it’s an opportunity to show people, in Bulgaria and beyond, that the “Unity Makes Strength” motto written above the doors of the Narodno Sabranie is more than just a catchy slogan.
Cover photo: “Unity Makes Strength”, Bulgaria’s Parliament Building. Credit: Michael Colbourne.