Bulgaria’s New Cabinet and EPP’s Flirt with the Extreme Right

A version of this article was first published in Bulgarian at Baricada.

Two weeks ago, on May 4, flamboyant Bulgarian rightist leader Boyko Borisov swore in for his third time to serve as the country’s prime minister. A return to the helm of power in Bulgaria is not an honour that anyone else can boast for the period since 1989.

In November 2016, Borisov filed the resignation of his second cabinet, after the candidate of his political party GERB, Tsetska Tsacheva, was defeated in Bulgaria’s presidential elections by Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) nominee Rumen Radev. That was a move familiar from 2013, when the first Borisov cabinet stepped down, faced with massive protests over rising prices and corruption. Both times the resignation came at a juncture that seemed crucial for keeping sufficient support to win the subsequent parliamentary vote.

In late March 2017, GERB won its fourth parliamentary election in a row, scoring a narrow margin ahead of the Socialists. With Borisov returning to power after but a short break, and GERB refraining from introducing any significant rehashes of their policies, analysts both supportive and critical concurred that Bulgarians will be getting ‘more of the same’.

There is, however, one big elephant in the room that few care to discuss. GERB’s coalition partner in the new cabinet is the extreme right-wing nationalist coalition United Patriots (OP), comprising the parties VMRO, National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, and Ataka. This is the first time Bulgaria’s nationalists – who have enjoyed MP seats since 2005 – directly enter the country’s executive.

The fact that GERB – a mainstream rightist entity, member of the European People’s Party – was able to seal a ruling coalition with extreme nationalists without it causing much of a fuss needs to be considered within a broader European context. And this is a context that has seen EPP politicians increasingly both flirting with nationalists and incorporating some of their messages into their own agenda.

The recent French presidential election provides an unlikely illustration. Media painted an enthusiastic picture of the triumph of alleged progressive reformer Emmanuel Macron – a bringer of hope – over retrograde nationalist Marine le Pen. In his victory speech, Macron warned, among other things, that today, “our civilisation is at stake”. Such Huntingtonian turns of phrase have lately become so blatant in European political discourse that they no longer strike the ear as odd or especially conservative. In this specific situation, they can be excused as hand extended to supporters of Macron’s defeated opponent.

However, if we look at the ballots cast, things get more interesting. Results show that, in the second round, the le Pen vote was boosted foremost by people who in the first round casted their ballots for the main moderate rightist candidate, republican François Fillon. If you voted for Fillon, it was over 2 times more probable that you’d vote for le Pen, than if you had voted for best performing left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

This is in blatant contraction with a string of commentaries, both before and after the elections, that insistently argued le Pen and Mélenchon were the two sides (right and left) of the same radical, anti-EU coin. The (perhaps unintended) effect of such interpretations is that they occlude the degree to which the ‘traditional’ European right is complicit with rising pro-fascist sentiments in Europe.

Of course this is a well tried symbiosis. Its specific workings today are complex, but we need to at least mention the messages emitted by media and those in power. For instance, respected newspapers such as French Figaro and German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has been giving space for quite some time to analytic texts that attempt to link Islam in itself with violence and backwardness. Worried by the ascent of Alternative for Germany, Angela Merkel’s cabinet hardened its rhetoric towards migrants. Of course, Party of European Socialists politicians are too not immune from that process. Think of former French interior minister and PM Manuel Valls, his repression of migrants, and his contribution to the nationalistic debate. Days after the French election, Valls has announced he is willing to run for a “presidential majority” in the upcoming June French parliamentary elections in support of his former cabinet colleague, president-elect Macron.

Back in late March, right after he won the general elections in Bulgaria, GERB leader and PM-to-be Borisov travelled to Malta for the EPP congress held there. Contrary to expectations, EPP representatives voiced no misgivings – much less protestations – against the looming coalition of the major Bulgarian EPP member with the far-right Patriots. At the end of April – just days before the new Bulgarian cabinet was voted by Parliament – Hungarian nationalist PM Viktor Orbán got a pat in the back by fellow EPP leaders gathered in Brussels, ostenstibely in order to question his anti-democratic policies amid calls to suspend his Fidesz party’s membership.

All this gives clear signals about what’s permissible, and suggests in outline the flirtation I am referring to. In some major EU countries, traditional rightists gradually open up to nationalist sentiments, in the hope of siphoning away votes from the extreme right. In some cases – especially if they are with smaller, new EU member-states – rightists are also ready to accept that extreme rightists will get hold of power.

This is a process manifestly motivated by EPP’s desire to maintain its dominant position in European politics – a position it has enjoyed since the start of the financial crisis. In this way, different rightist leaders are free to manoeuvre and even to argue there is no alternative to their alliance with nationalists – if we bear in mind their country’s stability, or the stability of the European traditional right. And ‘stability’ has been GERB’s chosen slogan since 2014.

At the same time, the crisis and austerity measures are part of the other route to understanding the traditional right’s flirtation with the fascists. To neo-liberal European conservatives and liberals, stimulating fascistic fears is a comfy way to deflect discontent with austerity from growing into a viable left alternative. Or, for that matter, fascists are a useful scarecrow to use toward electing a new technocrat who will impose new cuts.

The French example once more comes to mind. Macron, socialist president François Hollande’s former economy minister, who reversed the latter’s promises to protect labour from capital, will have a new opportunity to implement his program of tax cuts and curtailing of labour rights. French working people have renewed their protests on the very night of the elections.

In Bulgaria, policy priorities published by the GERB-Patriots coalition include fiscal discipline, a commitment to keep unchanged what is one of the most unjust tax systems in Europe, as well as the introduction of a string of punitive ‘social security’ measures akin to and including workfare. All that with a few nods to upholding the security of Bulgaria’s borders and the country’s cultural identity, i.e. familiar nationalist fodder.

This is no big surprise, as real leftist messages were practically absent during the election campaign. What is however striking is that, in Bulgaria, a German-style grand coalition between GERB and BSP proved itself to be less acceptable than the coalition with the nationalists.

After the March general election, Bulgaria’s 240-seat Parliament was split into 5 political groups: 95 MPs for GERB, 80 for BSP, 27 for the Patriots, 26 for the liberal Union for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), and 12 for the new party Volya, chaired by controversial businessman Veselin Mareshki. But as things stood, neither the Socialists, nor DPS were deemed to be viable partners for GERB. In a political scene that has in the past years shifted significantly to the right, and that is less and less about genuinely political difference – much like elsewhere in Europe – this situation was presented as a legitimate mitigating circumstance for the alliance with the nationalists.

In the minds of many Bulgarian rightists, both BSP and DPS have long stood for political corruption. But that hardly sets them apart from GERB, who has become notorious for its clientelist workings.

What is perhaps even more important for the current standing of these two parties is BSP’s leftist past and at least nominally leftist present, as well as the support by an important part of Bulgaria’s sizeable Turkish minority for DPS. Of late, both parties also came to be associated with alleged Russian interests in Bulgaria. Thus, in the local context, Bulgarian nationalists came to be seen as acceptable against the backdrop of red scare, ethnocentrism and Kremlin baiting, combined with the usual ‘no-other-alternative’ argument.

In addition, many from Bulgaria’s intellectual elite are increasingly expressing nostalgia for pre-1944 Bulgaria, a Bulgaria that in their minds was a country treading a ‘European’ path of entrepreneurship and civil society. But this was also a Bulgaria ruled, since the 1920s, by a series of (quasi-)fascist cabinets that brutally suppressed leftist and liberal opposition, and that allied with the Nazis during World War II.

The United Patriots already have two vice-PMs in cabinet, as well as a number of ‘expert’ ministers and vice ministers. VMRO leader Krasimir Karakachanov is vice-PM for public order and security, and minister of defence. NFSB leader Valeri Simeonov is vice-PM for economic and demographic policy. During the election campaign, Simeonov became notorious when he physically confronted Turkish Bulgarians at an OP rally, attempting to prevent them from returning to the country in order to vote. The third OP leader, Volen Siderov, who will stay in Parliament, has on his CV, among other things, the authorship of books such as My Battle for Bulgaria and the publication of a diverse array of anti-Semitic conspiracy literature.

This gives us some hints as to just how acceptable Bulgaria’s United Patriots are. Their way to power was paved at least since Borisov’s 2014 cabinet, formed in coalition with a junior liberal partner, received the Patriots’ parliamentary backing, much to the approval of some commentators. It is a scandal that in 2017 analysts didn’t cry out to heaven when the nationalists formally assumed power. Instead, many have worked to convince the public of the expert virtues of the new government. But this is a scandal that has been long in the making.

Traditional European rightists are going to pay a high price for that. Less than 20 years ago, the EU could not tolerate Jörg Haider’s extreme rightist Freedom Party coming to power in Austria. In early 2018, as Bulgaria takes over the rotating EU Council presidency, Haider’s counterparts will stand at the bloc’s helm.

Of course, this will happen only if a sudden burst of popular discontent with austerity doesn’t force Borisov to table his third resignation earlier. This is an option not to be discounted in a country that not only remains the poorest member of the EU, but also the one where inequalities run deepest. As things stand, however, Bulgarians seem unlikely to rise in protest against the fact that they are ruled by a coalition including the extreme right. Nevertheless, the March elections showed some signs of hope, when the Patriots got fewer votes and fewer MPs than in 2014 (when Ataka ran as a separate party).

It is probable that allying with GERB and staying in power will compromise the OP’s unity and legitimacy. But we should not hurry to rejoice at their possible decline. The niche has been opened and will be filled with new entities. And part of it will be filled by traditional right parties as they continue to gradually slide towards the extreme right.

We should not be surprised if in the long run, Bulgaria’s Borisov 3 cabinet comes to serve as precedent for similar future coalitions in other European countries. It is high time that both politicians and analysts awoke from their neoliberal slumber and moved beyond the false alternatives of pro-EU vs. anti-EU, Atlanticists vs. Russophiles, open globalists vs. closed protectionists.

A division into Europe of several speeds – one of ‘progressive’ western countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, the other of increasingly authoritarian eastern states such as Poland, Hungary or Bulgaria, – far from offering a solution, will only exacerbate the problem. For all these countries are already interconnected, and authoritarianism the latter is not without its causes in the neoliberal processes gripping their ‘progressive’ counterparts.

The burning issue is now – more than ever in the last few decades – to expose the renascent interplay among capital, technocratic governance, and fascism, and to counteract it with a renewed political agenda centred on a notion of justice.

P.S. As we were preparing this text for publication, a vice-minister of regional development appointed by the United Patriots, Pavel Tenev, caused some controversy when Facebook users circulated a picture he had published of himself giving a Nazi salute to a wax figure of a Wehrmacht officer in a Paris museum. Vice-PM and National Front leader Valery Simeonov spectacularly intervened, dismissing the gravity of the picture and adding: “As a student in the 70s, I visited Buchenwald. Thinking about it, who knows what prankster photos we’ve made there… Therefore, should someone come out and request my resignation now…?” This far, very few media publications have taken issue with this outrage. The Bulgarian Socialist Party has come out with a statement strongly denouncing Simeonov’s and Tenev’s words. Tenev filed his resignation. That reactions have been so few and that the controversy has remained so low-key unfortunately only reinforces the argument above. Bulgarian PM and leading EPP politician Boyko Borisov and added a final touch: “I am convinced that on your trips you have all made similar jokes. It is only human!”

Ognian Kassabov teaches philosophy at Sofia University. He has been a member of the New Left Perspectives collective since 2015.