What’s left when you are (far) right in Bulgaria?

originally published in openDemocracy

Politics has been in a sorry state in Bulgaria for the last 14 years. For a country that was still in its dressing-gown while its Central European neighbours were fully-dressed and on the streets in 1989, Bulgaria managed a rather quick catch-up. By 1997, it was on its way to enforcing much-needed political and economic reforms, joining NATO and setting the stage for its European integration. By 2001, Bulgaria had had its first full four-year term Cabinet, which had dealt with hyperinflation, political corruption, and had even passed its first lustration law. In comparative politics terms, Bulgaria was a consolidating democracy and a growing economy, similar to that of the Slovak Republic.

A footnote on the meaning of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ wing parties in Bulgaria before I continue. As in all post-socialist states, left/right means something very different from what it denotes in mature western democracies. ‘Left’ is an empty term in itself, and only denotes a direct attachment to the former Communist Party, regardless of its contemporary place in politics. This is the Socialist Party after 1990. In the words of Dimitar Bechev, “this party is nostalgic about the pre-1989 period and of course they have a soft spot for Russia.” Accordingly, the ‘Right’ was the opposing trend – it was the negation of the past, the heart of the anti-communist democratic opposition. It was anti-Russia and very pro-Europe. In a word, the ‘left/right’ divide gets its bearings according to the parties’ association with the former regime. And this divide was a bitter one, which strongly politicized Bulgarian society and formed strong political identities in the process.

Then, in 2001, Bulgaria bucked the trend of post-socialist politics and ‘went populist’, something that has since spread around the continent. In 2001, mere months before the parliamentary elections, Bulgaria’s former king, Simeon II (of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) returned, formed a political movement, won the elections, and became prime minister. His movement formed a coalition government with the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Movement for the Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which claims to represent Bulgaria’s ethnic Turkish and Muslim population. Since then, with each new election cycle, there has been a newcomer party, which has continuously surprised polling predictions.

Enter Ataka: a self-professed ‘far-right’ and ‘nationalist’ party, which became the fourth-largest party in Bulgaria’s parliament in 2005. Its leader, Volen Siderov, had been a part of the right wing United Democratic Front (UDF) during the 1990s, serving as the editor-in-chief of its official newspaper Demokratsia. In 2000, he became the talk-show host of a show called ‘Atack’ for the cable program SKAT. He joins a long-list of UDF members, who were either sidelined or expelled from the party. The list includes, Liutvi Mestan, the leader of DPS, who had applied to join the UDF in 1990 using his Bulgarian name ‘Vladimir Zidarov, as well as the current Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, a UDF candidate for the mayoral race in Sofia in 2003. Oresharski was expelled from the party for alleged links with high-ranking members of organized crime networks.

Volen Siderov, leader of Ataka. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Ivan. Some rights reserved

Volen Siderov, leader of Ataka. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Ivan. Some rights reserved

Another footnote, this time on the meaning of ‘far-right’ in Bulgaria. Ataka gained prominence with the text-book reproduction of an aggressive discourse replete with central talking points of purity, national pride, historical identity, sovereign sensationalism. Volen Siderov established himself as a hard-line no-nonsense political activist, with a knack for theatrics and an eagerness for action. However, the political landscape changed completely after the preliminary parliamentary elections last May, which led to the formation of a coalition led by the Socialist Party and backed by the ethnic Turkish DPS and Ataka. This became a highly unexpected partnership, seeing that much of Ataka’ rhetoric has centred on ethnic hate speech and far right rhetoric. Yet once it came to governing, the three antithetical political parties seem to have rubbed along smoothly enough.

As its ties with the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the ethnic Turkish DPS became increasingly clear, Ataka’s legitimacy plummeted. Furthermore, a cable made public by WikiLeaks shows that Ataka had close-knit relations with the Russian Embassy (and by direct extension, with the Kremlin). There has been silence on this subject flowing around the ‘right-wingers’ since 2005 – that the Socialists, DPS, and Ataka are all linked with the Kremlin and that Ataka was an artificial construct aimed at galvanizing votes. The Socialist Party has never hidden its Russophile tendencies – Sergei Stanishev, the leader of BSP, is after all a Russian citizen. But Ataka, at least until now, had tried to distance itself from Putin.

All this changed after the annexation of Crimea. Suddenly, Ataka became the mouthpiece of the Kremlin in Bulgaria. Siderov held a rally, staging speeches in front of a large banner reading ‘no to EU homosexuality, it is Mother Russia that liberated us’; his party insisted that Bulgaria recognize the Crimean referendum results. Siderov went so far as to threaten to storm the government building if the government supported sanctions against Russia. In a word, a cataclysmic whirlwind for Bulgaria’s far-right-gone-so-very-left. The shift is so extensive, that on April 25, Volen Siderov kick-started his party’s European elections campaign from Moscow, opposing Bulgaria’s NATO membership and showing support for the Putin administration. He also received the ‘Patriotic Star’ medal.

Volen Siderov launching campaign in Moscow

Volen Siderov launching campaign in Moscow

Suddenly, Russia re-enters the stage as a major player in Bulgarian domestic politics. In the words of the European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, there are ‘people in Bulgaria who are agents of Russia’, which refers to Bulgaria’s attempts at bilateral energy deals and the Socialists’ attempts at standing in the way of a united European Union response over Ukraine. As one Bulgarian journalist and blogger, Ivo Indjev (who in 2007 was fired as political talk-show host, for revealing “unconfirmed information about the property of incumbent president Georgi Parvanov shortly before the presidential elections”) said recently, Bulgarian politics has been completely dominated by the Kremlin since the rise of Putin 14 years ago. Since the return of the King allegedly, Bulgaria’s politics has performed a gradual (financial, political, energy) realignment with Russia. And parties from the left, right, and centre are all fighting to gain access to funds and support from Vladimir Putin.

And now that Ataka has served its purpose, there is once again a newcomer in town, once again bound to surprise at the upcoming elections. This time, the newcomer is the Bulgaria Without Censorship (BBT) party, led by former TV host Nikolay Barekov, who attempts to mimic Volen Siderov’s forceful presence, as well as adding a populist platform of “all politicians who have broken the law will stew in prison.” Naturally, rumours promptly spread (for example from the local activist group ‘The Protest Network’) that he is corrupt and inherently connected to Delyan Peevski (the MP whose nomination to the role of Head of National Security kick-started the #ДАНСwithme protest movement last June) and Tsvetan Vassilev, a powerful banker.

Nikolay Barekov amidst a campaign feast. Photo: Dir.bg

Nikolay Barekov amidst a campaign feast. Photo: Dir.bg

Tsvetan Vassilev is accussed of using his bank – Corporate Commersial Bank (CCB) – to finance the media outlets owned by Mr. Peevski and his mother, Irena Krasteva. One of these outlets, the news channel TV7 is where the journalist-come-politician Nikolay Barekov held his job as a show host. Needless to say, all parties involved vehemently oppose any charges of connection amongst them. Either way, Barekov’s BBT looks like it will follow the same pattern of the last 14 years, the ‘from newcomer to kingmaker’ pattern, as it aims for fourth place at the European elections, as such taking Ataka’s place as political game-changer.

Putin’s influence on (far-right) parties extends west, way beyond Bulgaria. The Crimea crisis has revealed a continuous belt of support from Jobbik in Hungary to the National Front in France. Jobbik, the party which received 20% of the vote in Hungary, supported the Russian war with Georgia in 2008, and now talks the talk of hatred at a world controlled by America and the EU. They push for closer ties with the East, and prime minister Victor Orban has just signed a 10 billion Euro Russia loan for an extension of a nuclear power plant. A similar deal has been pushed up the agenda in Bulgaria, regarding the Belene Nuclear Power plant, also requiring a similar loan from Russia.

With all the maneuvering and meandering, politics has lost its authenticity. The populist appeal will sweep up the votes in May’s elections. So you are left with is an uneven playing field in which the democratic foundations in the country are eroded. As such, the door to politics as usual is shut. It’s a ‘democracy without choice’ scenario, where the voters have no bearing over those who claim to represent them. The game has changed as Bulgaria has solidified into a ‘no man’s land’ between the EU and Russia. The way the crisis in Ukraine plays out will also have a direct effect on the life of the (pseudo) far-right in Bulgaria and on the country’s future inside the European project. Prospects at the moment look bleak as Bulgaria continues to drift east, increasing its political and energy dependence on Putin’s regime.