We are publishing this article in cooperation with the Serbo-Croatian internet portal Bilten.
The current government coalition in Bulgaria comprises one center-right and three far-right parties (Ataka, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria – NFSB, and VMRO). These three “junior” partners, which go by the name of “United Patriots” (UP), exert political gravity that goes beyond the concrete sectors of the state apparatus they control. This article traces some manifestations of that outsize influence.
The current government is the second official coalition between mainstream and far-right parties (excluding informal and situational coalitions). This coalition “formula” has become completely normalized, pointing to a palpable degeneration of political life in a country where a mere decade or so ago, the very contestation of elections on the part of the far right used to send shockwaves among liberals and would trigger no small amount of conferences and conventions as to how to stem the rise of the far right.
The UP control the ministries for defense, economics and the environment. The Ataka party holds the ministry of economics with the ex-director of the state agency for privatization at its helm. The NFSB holds the ministry for the environment, with a far-right climate denialist and libertarian as a minister. And the leader of the VMRO party doubles as a defense minister. However, their activities transcend their narrow ministerial mandates.
For example, since the beginning of 2019, the main foci of activity for the far right have been traditional problematics such as the so-called “Roma question” but also the liberalization of the labor market, welfare reforms, the privatization of nature, new developments in citizenship policy as well as the deepening of Bulgaria’s euro-Atlantic integration. (While normally chastised as Russia’s “fifth column” in Europe after the manner of France’s Front National, these parties in Bulgaria are overwhelmingly pro-European in their geopolitical orientation, except for Ataka.)
Let us consider some of these issues in greater detail.
Since assuming their seats of power, the far right energetically tasked themselves with deepening the pro-business, anti-welfare course of reforms. This involved a campaign against the so-called “fake disabled” which whipped up media hysteria about the “grave” abuses of the Bulgarian welfare system by fraudulent claims for disability assistance. Similar to the system in the UK, the new rules for the dispensation of pensions now hinge on an extremely conservative estimation of disability percentages that pronounces even sufferers from multiple heart attacks “fit to work”. In reality, according to estimations by trade union experts no more than 0.05% of disability funds are misused, but facts do not matter when the aim is less to curb welfare abuses than to enforce cuts across the entire welfare state by mobilizing consensus for the cuts from the very demographics that will be negatively impacted by them, and from society at large. The disastrous consequences of the latest round of cuts are already visible. For example, absurd cases like that of the diabetic with three heart stents whose disability pension was suspended now make their way regularly into the newswires.
The affront against people with disabilities is yet another chapter of the welfare cuts which followed an early spring episode of anti-Roma pogroms. Those pogroms resulted in a vicious state-led backlash…against the very victims of the pogroms: cuts, the demolition of “illegal” Roma homes without compensation, peppered with racism and a punitive “ Roma integration strategy” pitched by the defense minister from the VMRO. That strategy proposes relaxation of the “right to self-defense”, armed civic patrols in Roma settlements and cuts to the already severely minimized welfare provision with the stated aim to “force Roma children back to school”.
Within the sphere of welfare cuts, however, it is impossible to single out the far right since the ruling party GERB was the first to propose the new rules for child benefits dispensation and financial assistance to families living in extreme poverty. (And the opposition party BSP generally agrees with these measures.) Among the affected will be the 147 families who live in state-subsidized housing, meaning that the much-lauded efforts to “save money” will save 68,653 BGN or ca. 35,000 EUR.
Meanwhile, as the government slashes welfare spending, the ministry of defense is preparing to spend a whopping 3 billion BGN (1.5 bn EUR) for eight F-16 fighter jets. Earlier this year the fighter jets tender spurred a public controversy, unfortunately of the wrong kind. Nobody questioned the need to buy such expensive military equipment; instead, the public debate revolved around the choice of supplier, with the producer of the Grippen jet that contested the result of the public tender getting smeared with accusations of being a vehicle for “Russian involvement” even though they are a Swedish company.
The far-right parties in power not only pursue active an pro-business policy (of the “correct” geopolitical orientation) but they also know a good business when they see one. VMRO functionaries, who head the Agency for Bulgarians abroad (an organization aiming to keep alive ties with Bulgarian ethnic minorities and diasporas) got recently embroiled in a scandal around the sale of Bulgarian passports to foreigners, as the ex-director of the citizenship directorate in the Ministry of Justice alleged.
But the United Patriots’ innovative approach to citizenship does not end here. In June 2019 they announced a proposal for the creation of a “Bulgarian” identity card certifying ethnic minorities of Bulgarian descent in countries such as the Ukraine, Macedonia, Moldova, Albania and so on. The document will give the right of its holder to work in Bulgaria but not to vote. In effect, the UP delink economic from political citizenship rights in a new, highly reactionary citizenship regime, based on “ethnic substance”. Said regime integrates people of “Bulgarian descent” economically in the labor market but not politically. In fact, one of the justifications for the reform to the Citizenship Act was tackling the deficits of the labor market. It is a truism that Bulgaria is one of the fastest shrinking nations in the world, with the UN demographers projecting a precipitous decline to 2 million people by 2100. The UN also urged Bulgarians to “get used” to the fact that population levels around 1989 (when Bulgarians numbered over 9 million) will never be repeated. The demographic catastrophe is mostly due to outmigration, and Bulgarian business associations often complain of labor shortages. However, they are not prepared to raise salaries in “the poorest EU-member state” in order to stop the migration flow into Western Europe and incentivize Bulgarians working abroad to return. Instead, they enlisted the UP to draft a bill which makes it easier to “import” third-country nationals of poor or war-torn countries for badly paid seasonal jobs in Bulgaria. The far right gladly obliged and the bill was passed opening the labor market for 500,000 foreign workers despite their otherwise uncompromising attitude towards refugees, routinely disparaged as “economic migrants”.
Finally, another sphere the patriots have been active in is the state child policy. This spring the Ministry for Social Policy and NGOs co-drafted the so-called “Strategy for the Children 2019-2030”, a liberal document trying to counter, among other things, the alarming rate at which Bulgarians abandon their children (1000 for 2018 alone) and the still prevalent physical forms of punishment. The far right, together with evangelical churches (which the VMRO used to passionately oppose in the early 1990s), the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and other conservative civil society organizations, staged protests and whipped up hysteria on the media that the strategy opens the way for the state to separate children from their families and give them to “black gay couples” for adoption. Needless to say, none of this is true and the Child strategy is fully aligned with contemporary liberal “de-institutionalization” orthodoxy but, as with the “debates” about the Convention for the prevention of violence against women, none of this matters. Meanwhile, there are already mechanisms in place to take children into state custody, going back to decades ago, that are often directed against very poor parents, punishing them for their poverty by placing their kids in foster case, but their plight does not interest the far-right defenders of family values and the sovereignty of private (middle class) individuals. Again, much like the fate of the Istanbul Convention, the opposition to the child strategy yielded results and Prime Minister Borissov, fearful as ever for his regime’s “stability”, caved in to the commotion and suspended any further implementation of the strategy.
This is not an isolated incident but points to an emboldened conservative tide in Bulgarian society which also began problematizing the legality and consensus around abortion, a topic that had been hitherto absent from public debates in Bulgaria. This conservative tide still does not mobilize huge electoral support (the far right’s combined electoral result in this election was 12%) but their influence on other parties, on civil society and public debates (i.e. by pushing everyone further to the Right) should not be underestimated, as attested by the sorry record of this government on policy concerning children and women.
In conclusion, these issues prove once again that the far right only poses as anti-establishment in order to implement the very established austerity, militarist and anti-labor policies of the centrist parties once they get hold of power. Meanwhile, they uphold the new reactionary citizenship and labor-market liberalization policies, all the while affirming the right of husbands and fathers to enforce order and dispense ‘justice’ at home by raw physical force.
Jana Tsoneva is a PhD student in Sociology and Social anthropology at CEU, Budapest. She researches the latest anti-government mobilizations in Bulgaria and is interested in theories of populism, ideology and civil society.