Dear foreign correspondents,
It is difficult to navigate the Bulgarian political scene without prior knowledge. From an outsider’s perspective, it might seem as if the political Left and the Left-wing President are challenging the conservative nationalist right-wing coalition government as well as the party which represents the ethnic Turks in the country.
It might seem the Left is also marching against corruption and the Chief Prosecutor, who claims to be battling corruption himself.
A good starting point for understanding the situation would be
Rule Number 1: Nothing is as it seems in Bulgaria
On the surface, it might look as if the ruling party GERB is a broad conservative-right structure, similar to Western European Christian democratic parties.
Since the creation of the party its face has been current Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. He was not only former communist dictator Todor Zhivkov’s bodyguard, but has also pointed out to Zhivkov as one of his inspirations. Before becoming a bodyguard, Borissov studied at the Simeonovo Police Academy; he applied to the Department of State Security, another name for the totalitarian secret services. After the unsuccessful bid, he went on to become a fireman. When the Soviet regime fell in 1989 and the country transitioned to a democracy, he refused to leave the Bulgarian Communist Party. For that reason he was temporarily forced out of the Interior Ministry system.
Despite positioning itself on the right of the political spectrum and claiming to “fight the communists”, GERB has remained unfazed in the face of certain communist-era practices. The party attempts to control the economic sector and has nationalized certain factories and whole sectors. The Chief Prosecutor, who is close to GERB, considers the entire privatization process to be a crime and wants to open an investigation into the matter.
In Bulgarian, GERB stands for “Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria”.The party, however, has exacerbated the country’s energy dependency on Russia and is allowing the dissemination of pro-Kremlin and radical religious anti-European propaganda in the country. GERB has withdrawn bills — and the Istanbul Convention — succumbing to pressure from said propaganda.
It might appear that the Bulgarian Socialist Party is on the left of the political spectrum. But BSP exhibits signs of ultra-conservatism and often lapses into fundamentalist and orthodox rhetoric. The Socialists defend “traditional” and “Orthodox Christian” values. They played a major part in the campaign against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. They stoked the fire of misinformation campaigns against the Child Protection Strategy and the Social Services Bill. The Party chairwoman’s verbiage is often homophobic or transphobic. The current leadership wants to mold Bulgaria according to the model of Putin’s Russia — with a complete lack of tolerance towards homosexuals and keeping eyes wide shut to domestic violence.
BSP’s former chairman Sergey Stanishev wants to bring the party closer to its European homologs. But the government he was in charge of in 2008 advanced one of the most radically conservative economic reforms in the country with the introduction of a 10% flat rate tax on income and profit.
The Bulgarian Socialist Party is the political heiress of the Bulgarian Communist Party, which ruled the country during the totalitarian era. Near the very end of the Communist regime, in 1989, the Party led a massive ethnic purge. Over 320,000 ethnic Turks were forced out of the country and into Turkey, after years of coercing them to change their names with Bulgarian ones (in the 70s the names of the Bulgarian Pomak population — Slavic Muslims inhabiting Bulgaria — were also forcefully changed).
Thirty years later, BSP has offered no apology for what is now known as the Revival Process. The party’s apparatchiks continue to claim that the actions of the totalitarian regime were “historically right”.
The majority of ethnic Turks and Pomaks, as well as a smaller proportion of the Roma population, vote for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. The MRF is part of the Liberal political group (ALDE) in the EU Parliament. The Party’s manifestos are textbook examples of a liberal political project. However, the MRF is anything but liberal. The party has an authoritarian structure and is controlled by Honorary Chairmen Ahmed Dogan. A former State Security agent during totalitarianism, Dogan takes pride in the so-called “Bulgarian ethnic model”, or in other words, the fact that Bulgaria did not have a Yugoslavia-type war.
But at the same time, the MRF makes no effort in integrating Bulgarian ethnic minorities as a functioning part of social life, instead reinforcing their isolation from society. MRF’s electorate believes that this is the only political formation that can protect them from a majority of ethnic Bulgarians who are hostile to them. This conviction is fueled by nationalist parties and the strong anti-Turkish sentiment instilled early on by national education. In the end, all these factors allow the MRF to exploit rather than protect the Turkish minority.
Counting on these core supporters and using methods and networks inherited from totalitarian state security structures, the MRF manages to be a political force even when not formally in power. Ahmed Dogan once said to his supporters: “I dish out the pieces of the government pie”. That, at least, he can be trusted on. This dynamic reinforces the anti-Turkish sentiment in the country, despite the fact that the beneficiaries of the informal webs of power, money and influence are ethnic Bulgarians. This includes Dogan’s close associate Delyan Peevski, who exerts immense influence as a media and business owner in Bulgaria, both overtly and behind the scenes.
Oftentimes nationalist parties who claim to defend an ethnic majority in a given country belong to the far-right. In Bulgaria things are not so straightforward. GERB and BSP both have nationalists of their own, which become coalition partners if and when necessary.
Until recently, BSP could count on the pro-Putin formation Ataka (coming from the noun “attack”), but the party lost its appeal when it supported Plamen Oresharski’s government. Seven years ago, there were massive protests against this government, sparked by MRF Delyan Peevski’s appointment as head of the National Security Agency. Ataka’s constituency understood that the party and its leader, Volen Siderov, are not against the MRF, despite their ultranationalist rhetoric. But another pro-Putin formation is now emerging on the horizon, ready to take Ataka’s place: Vazrazhdane (meaning “revival”).
GERB counts on VMRO and NFSB, currently in a coalition named United Patriots. The Patriots claim to be right-wing, despite VMRO’s leader Krassimir Karakachanov’s past as a state security agent for the communist spy structures. They have also not shown any signs of opposition to the MRF-dependent GERB government.
All in all, the MRF and the nationalists are much like Charlie Chaplin and The Kid from the eponymous movie, the nationalists being The Kid: one breaks the windows, creating a sense of danger, and the other promises to fix it, rallying voters.
The nationalist parties in Bulgaria are anti-Turkish in theory, but even more so anti-Roma in practice. A significant part of the Roma minority in the country is forced into extreme poverty. It is also a paradox that there are Roma citizens and whole Roma polling places who vote for VMRO, because their votes have been paid for or because they have been promised to keep their homes. Nevertheless, the nationalists always manage to stoke the flames of one or another “ethnic conflict”, which in turn, ends up with the demolition of Roma dwellings.
The Chief Prosecutor
For the first time a Bulgarian mass protest demands the resignation of the Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev. On the surface, it seems like our Chief Prosecutor fights crime. In reality, he exerts political and economic pressure on inconvenient opponents. The problem is rooted in the Constitution, since no one is above the Chief Prosecutor. As one of the former occupants of the post Ivan Tatarchev once said: “Only God is above me.” And despite the Constitutional Court’s decision that any prosecutor can investigate the Chief Prosecutor, in reality, this remains impossible since the hypothetical prosecutor leading the investigation would be forced to operate in a system controlled by the Chief Prosecutor.
Former Chief Prosecutors have also abused power, but Ivan Geshev crossed the line blatantly and aggressively, provoking protests even outside of professional circles who had also stood against former Chief Prosecutors.
There are many foreign media claiming that current protests in Bulgaria are in defense of the President. The current President, who is in open conflict with the Government and the Chief Prosecutor, is rather taking advantage of the protests. Supported by BSP, he is a President in opposition, threatened, pressured and humiliated by the Chief Prosecutor. Traditionally every Bulgarian President has considered that the Presidency should play a stronger role in government; Rumen Radev is no exception.
Current protests were not initiated by the President or BSP, but by representatives of a small party outside of Parliament called “Yes, Bulgaria”. Alongside the Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (or DSB) and the Green Movement, they form the coalition Democratic Bulgaria.
A few weeks ago activists from “Yes, Bulgaria”, led by its leader and former Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov, exposed the Government’s dependency on the MRF. They tried to dock their boat on a beach next to Ahmed Dogan’s summer residence. The beach is supposedly public land, but access is restricted. They were stopped by guards from the National Service for Protection, who did not identify themselves nor had any legal reasons to be present at the location. This episode sparked the protests.
Where is Democratic Bulgaria on the political spectrum? Tough to tell. DSB is a conservative and Christian democratic party; the Green Movement is an ecological party, although not as much to the left on the spectrum as her European homologs; “Yes, Bulgaria” prefers to avoid ideological determination and rather insists on fighting corruption as its main value.
Combating corruption and the desire to reform the Judiciary unite Democratic Bulgaria, but the parties within the coalition are very different in some respects. The only one among them to defend the rights of minorities — ethnic or LGBTQ — is the Green Movement. On this subject, DSB takes a more patriotic-conservative stance, albeit not a nationalist one. “Yes, Bulgaria” defends those rights on principle but is afraid that speaking on such issues might drive its already scarce constituency away; therefore, it remains rather passive.
Is there a strong political formation on the political scene to advocate for minority rights? No.
Protests and Déjà Vu
The current protests can be seen as a continuation of the unrest during the Plamen Oresharski government 7 years ago. In both cases, they target a government unable to break free from MRF’s hold. But in 2013-2014 we had a BSP government, whereas today the governing party is GERB.
It is no doubt entertaining to watch the two political forces as they mirror one another, slogans included. If before BSP were the ones chanting “Unity!” and GERB — “Resign!”, today the roles are reversed. The people who were targets of the protests years ago are now part of the protesting crowd (except the MRF), alongside the new nationalists from Vazrazhdane. And even though “Yes, Bulgaria” was at the source of the protests, there is no guarantee that the coalition Democratic Bulgaria will draw the benefits from the civil unrest; it might end up being used by others to secure the grip on power.