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30 May 17

Far Right in Bulgaria is no Laughing Matter

Tom Junes

The Bulgarian far right’s kitschy stunts often draw mocking laughter – but their ascent into government is not a joke.

Photo: Stephen Mackenzie/Flickr

Last week Russian president Vladimir Putin provoked a rare display of unity among Bulgaria's political class and beyond. All it took was for Putin to mention that the Cyrillic alphabet had come to Russia “from the Macedonian lands” in the presence of Macedonia’s President, Gjorge Ivanov.

From Bulgaria's opposition socialists, often accused of fawning on Russia, who expressed surprise at Putin's remarks to the ruling nationalists and far-right leaders, resorting to offering the Russian leader some one-line history lessons. 

The consternation clearly demanded an official reaction, prompting Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to respond that it was “un-European” to argue about history.

For years, I had been moving back and forth from Central Europe to the Balkans. Ultimately, I took up residence in Bulgaria.

As a professional historian, I had become well acquainted with the strands of nationalist-inspired populism and memory politics that have appeared in countries like Poland. In this sense, the over-emotional reaction to Putin's “alphabet gaffe” resonated with some familiarity.

Arguably, Putin had made a nuanced statement. He did not refer to the current Macedonian state but used the term “Macedonian lands” in order not to offend Bulgarians, Macedonians or Greeks. His assertion could be seen as in line with the historical narrative of Bulgarian Tsar Boris I commissioning St. Clement of Ohrid to popularise the Slavonic language.

This, of course, was lost on Bulgaria's politicians who were keen to score some cheap points by creating a little media spectacle.

Yet, while such kitschy displays of patriotism based on a shallow understanding of history by Bulgaria’s political elite could provoke laughter, other issues relating to history do not.

Nationalist myths, like ones about which modern “nation” can claim copyright to the Cyrillic alphabet, not only distort history but often serve to bolster worrisome political developments such as the ascendancy of the far right.

Since Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, fears of right-wing populists and of the far right breaking through in Europe rose to alarm levels.

However, only in one country did the far right actually manage to enter government. Yes, in Bulgaria. The United Patriots, 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 now hold significant ministerial posts - responsible for defence, the economy, and the environment.

The alphabet soup of far-right parties that make up the United Patriots likes to indulge in nationalist kitsch. A few years ago, TV Alfa, which is linked to ATAKA, ran weather reports for “Bulgaria on three seas” based on a map of the First Bulgarian Empire.

When the NFSB and VMRO threw their lots in together, it was announced at a press conference with the party leaders flanked by a number of men wearing tacky costumes of “heroes of Bulgaria's past”.

Before the elections in March, the now United Patriots initiated a border blockade to prevent voters coming in from Turkey. In order to stop such “foreign interference”, they employed bagpipers in traditional dress and “kukeri” to chase away evil spirits.

Such antics can be ridiculed as a fringe freak show, but Bulgaria's far right is no laughing matter. Their leaders are notorious for their abusive racist comments and hate speech. Simeonov, who holds the vice-premiership in government, stated in parliament that Roma were “ferocious humanoids” whose children “play with pigs in the street” and whose women “have the instincts of street dogs”.

Another “Patriot” leader, Siderov, known for committing violent acts of hooliganism and even assaulting a French cultural attaché, has in the past denied the Holocaust, called for raids on Roma “ghettos”, and has spun anti-Muslim rhetoric to incite religious violence in front of Sofia's only mosque.

This has contributed to a climate in which hate crimes, targetting members of national minorities like Roma and foreigners alike, has become rampant.

Anti-refugee sentiments are whipped up regularly; vigilante groups patrolling the border even made for rare Bulgaria-featured international news. The sad plight of refugees in Bulgaria has been documented by Human Rights groups, but Bulgarian journalists who write positively about the refugee cause have been harassed.

Anti-Turkish or anti-Muslim frenzies arise when convenient for political expediency, as all parties now dabble in populist hyperbole. The authorities have neglected to act decisively against the xenophobic climate, thereby enabling and normalising the far right.

Last autumn, the chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Krasimir Kanev, was beaten up in daylight in front of the parliament, an attack he attributed to rising nationalist political rhetoric.

The far right, in its various incarnations, has faired quite well electorally. As a result, for years every Bulgarian government had to rely on the support of the far right in parliament to govern. But now the far right has become the junior governing partner.

Already, some of the “Patriots” in government have caused controversy when photos emerged of them giving Nazi salutes.

While Borissov tried his teflon hand at crisis management, demanding their resignation, he saw the problem as rather that the photos had been made public than what they represented.

Simeonov allegedly dismissed the affair by joking how he made funny pictures in the former Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald. Shortly after, as if to add to bad taste, Simeonov was appointed to head the country's National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues.

None of this is a joke or a matter of bad taste.

Bulgaria clings to a myth that it saved its Jews during the Second World War. This myth conveniently ignores its complicity in the near-total extermination of Jews in Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia and Thrace, a result of the country’s alliance with Nazi Germany.

Walking around in my neighbourhood in Sofia, while navigating potholes and broken-up sidewalks, one can see scores of Celtic crosses and swastikas sprayed on the walls of building after building.

The prominence of Nazi and far right symbols adorning the city is ignored. Perhaps one can blame ignorance and a lack of historical knowledge.

But then, again in my neighbourhood, on Lincoln Boulevard, one “patriotic” graffiti boasts: “We remember Neuilly!”, referring to the punishing post-war peace treaty Bulgaria had to sign in 1919. Seriously? Neuilly?

Perhaps there are other things in history that should be remembered. Or will it take Putin one day to remind the Bulgarian political class of them?

Talk about it!

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