What's left when you are (far) right in Bulgaria?
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
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.
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.
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.
Which way is 'right'?
In recent years, an increasing number of EU member states have had a serious increase in the presence, action, and political influence of extreme political formations. The emergence and strengthening of intolerant, xenophobic, even racist forces coincides with and benefits from the social degradation - unemployment, poverty, desperation - and the deep economic crisis plaguing the European economy - primarily in the countries of the European South.
In Greek politics, we can see a large group of forces - including parliamentary representatives, whose extreme political discourse, symbolism and action, recall the darkest pages of recent European history, from the 1930s and early 1940s. Such examples include the practice of verbal and physical violence, the glorification of the Greek military dictatorship (1967-74), repeated violent attacks on civilians and foreigners, and the use of threats against political opponents.
In Greece, many political analysts are sounding the alarm about the rise of extremist, racist and intolerant right-wing forces in Europe. They express a deep concern about the representation of political groups who don’t hesitate to use violence to impose their views. Many citizens in Greece support the view that the rise of the far right is natural, because governments have failed to come up with adequate policies and provide leadership. As a result, people support the extreme right and the extreme left. In these times, the first focus falls on the ‘the foreigner’. The alien foreigner is considered as a danger or a threat, so the average citizen is turned towards the extreme right, leading to a thriving rise of extreme political formations.
Let’s look the latest events in Greece. According to Al Jazeera’s blog an even more embarrassing episode, this time directed at the Samaras administration, occurred the week just as a meeting of European Union finance ministers was about to end in Athens. Politician and spokesperson for Golden Dawn Ilias Kasidiaris submitted a transcript to parliament of what he claimed was a recorded conversation featuring cabinet secretary and close Samaras aide Panayiotis Baltakos.
A video of the conversation, which appeared later, has gone viral: Baltakos, on camera, admitted to someone with a voice very similar to Kasidiaris' that senior ministers had pressured judges to remand in custody Golden Dawn MPs, including party leader Nikolas Michaloliakos, on charges of directing and participating in a criminal organisation. Baltakos also let on that the persecution was politically motivated, as ruling party New Democracy, whose leader is Samaras, was losing voters to Golden Dawn.
The arrests followed the stabbing to death of a man by a reportedly self-confessed Golden Dawn sympathiser last September. Baltakos was forced to resign, while the respective justice and public order ministers mentioned in the video denied any involvement.
This combination of so-called neo-Nazis and the elected government does lend itself to a perverted sense of irony. It applies to what seems like a definite rise of the far right across Europe, as mainstream parties seem to lose a great part of their appeal before this May's European Union Parliamentary elections. I expect a continuation of this current in the near future. It seems that the developments will be rapid and all the Greek citizens ought to work towards a resolution of the situation and apportion blame where need be.
We have to complete Europe. We must make Europeans
We’ve already talked about the relations between southern and northern Italians and the political message based on racism, propagated by the party called Lega Nord. One of this party’s statements, at the peak of its popularity at the end of 1990s, recalled the “Celtic origin” of northern Italians, in order to stimulate a sort of “Po-valley nationalism”.
History shows that the people who inhabit the Italian peninsula share different ancestors, due to their proximity both to continental Europe (for northern Italy) and to the Mediterranean area (for southern Italy). But the existence of Italy itself is a demonstration that it is actually possible to bring together several different peoples that would never have thought of being together, and this can serve as an example for the current divided EU.
One may think that Italy is a homogenous nation or, better still, that its population is homogenous. In 1991, non-Italian citizens living in Italy accounted for no more than 0.6%. In 2001 they represented 2.3% of the population. In 2011, 6.8%. Yes, this integration of an increasing number of “new Italians” (as many, currently, love to call the long-domiciled foreigners in Italy and their Italian-born children) is not always easy and intolerance may grow. But extreme actions are very rare: there is no Geert Wilders in Italy, there are no political parties based on anti-immigration sentiments. This may also be because such programmes sound suspiciously fascistic, and in Italy any kind of revival of a fascist party is against the Constitution. Of course, extremist parties that try to survive within the confines of the law, do exist. But they do not gather much support. The largest one is Lega Nord, which has the support of around 4% of Italian voters.
This is the current situation. But it has not always been like this. Italy was one of the last, among the biggest European countries, to become a nation-state. That happened in 1861 (and was only completed ten years later), through a war promoted by the Kingdom of Sardinia. Until then, the Italian peninsula was divided into several states, including the kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Papal state, the kingdom of Sardinia and a lot of small duchies, grand-duchies, kingdoms of medieval heritage. These differences are still alive and visible today: if you move from one place in Italy to another, even within small distances, you can find different dialects, traditions, even food. In this aspect, I think that Italy is one of the most heterogeneous countries in Europe.
But we’re all Italians, sharing a common language and values, citizens of one of the biggest countries in Europe that would never have experienced its post-WWII development had it stayed divided into grand-duchies. And everyone would acknowledge this.
Of course, as I said in the beginning, part of the unification (annexation of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies thanks to the popular “Mille expedition”) was undertaken through violence and this cannot be a model. But there were also some states that voluntarily decided (through plebiscites) to hand over sovereignty, to join the kingdom of Italy in order to pursue the values of a stronger, more united state. And this has to be a model for Europe today: a united Italy was enough to cope with the rest of the world in the XIX century, but for the globalized world a truly united Europe, in which European states and citizens have to believe in order to hand over some sovereignty, is necessary.
This will not be easy, but if it was possible to unite the fragmented people of the Italian peninsula, it will be possible to unite Europeans, the necessary condition to advance towards a united Europe. As Massimo d’Azeglio said, “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.” Adapting this to current needs, let’s say: “We have to complete Europe. We must make Europeans.”
Why the left is responsible for the rise of the far right
The far right is in ascendance. Although their programmes differ widely, most far right movements are united in their rejection of Europe, immigration, and in their approval of a more traditional type of society. One should not wonder at their rise - the political left have tried everything to avoid this but only ended up encouraging them further with their attempts.
The main difference between European far right parties lies in their economic policies. Those who favour a more free market economy (rare as they are) are generally also much more liberal with regards to civil rights issues. One may even argue whether they fall under the far right category at all, because after all ‘rebels’ like Nigel Farage from UKIP and the Dutch Geert Wilders and his party know about the importance of a free economy.
This is unlike many other far right movements, for example the French Front National, which favours essentially socialist policies without a leftist tolerance on civil rights issues. The big problem with the political left is failing to understand that economic and civic liberty are necessarily dependent on each other. That economic freedom is a condition of - though not always a direct requisite to - a free society. With all their resentment against the market economy, they foment conditions in which people are much more likely to view political issues from a far right perspective. The good intentions of the political left lead to the ascendance of the political right. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
There are different reasons for this. Some people even argue that fascism is essentially a leftist idea stripped of its leftist ideals. But the main responsibility for this knock-on effect must be laid at the door of the much-loved adjective, "social". The philosopher F.A. Hayek describes it as a "weasel word", sucking out the meaning of other words like a weasel sucks out an egg, only leaving the shell. Hayek, who also recognized the interdependence of economic and civic liberties, is certainly right in this regard. Social policies may intend to be social, but they seldom are. Indeed, they rather create conditions where far right notions of politics and society can thrive.
First of all, leftist social policies make people dependent. Although it is often argued that they are necessary to enable independence, this only holds true in rare circumstances. Certainly, there should be some support for those in need, but this is not the question. It is not about who shall be supported, but about who supports.
If public policy proceeds as it does in most countries today, then it will make people dependent. Not only those they support (and they support almost everyone with different things) but also those they tax to make this questionable miracle possible. True independence means to decide for oneself what to do with the fruits of one's labour, rather than having others making the decision.
In this regard, dependence nourishes far right views. For example, immigration: the dependant is (wrongly) concerned about the immigrant taking away his employment or receiving social security payments without having contributed anything. Not knowing about economics because he does not need to, this is a very basic fear, unfortunately often encouraged by populist politicians. One can argue even further: dependent people are more likely to develop traditional views of society with a rejection of gay marriage or in favour of a strong "law-and-order" state. They are used to someone providing them with security, and are thus increasingly incapable of coping with an increasingly stressful daily life. All ‘foreign’ things become hostile to them. It is a vicious circle: the security provider is asked to provide more and more.
The individual consequences of economic liberty are strong, but there are also societal consequences other than spiraling dependency. An economically free society is for example not only more wealthy in general, wealth certainly raising levels of tolerance towards others (who are no threat, since they are similarly wealthy). There is also a free flow of knowledge in a free economy - knowledge now shared by all people regardless of their race, gender, religion and sexual preferences. One should not underestimate this effect on society. A greater diversity and success of the ‘alien’ creates more tolerance and allows people to grow more independent.
So, now we can return to the far right and its current success. The reason is that economic freedom is continuously undermined by national as well as EU policies. Not only do social policies increase people’s dependency - all the regulations, though enacted with good intentions, do the same. They may give people the feeling of being protected, even though it remains rather questionable. It causes more negative side effects like rising prices, lesser quality of life, etc.
One should not forget that the highest achievement of the European Union is the core of a free economy: the free movement of goods, services and people. People studying, trading, visiting each other unites and creates mutual respect and tolerance, not a top-down order from Brussels. The more dependent people are, the less likely to take up these opportunities - neither studying, nor trading, nor visiting other countries. They will stay safe in their government-financed homes, eat government-financed meals, watch government-financed TV and vote every four years for parties to provide them with even more security.
The political left thrives on creating security. For some time it provided it, but at the same time it has undermined it. No wonder it will collapse soon. Being already very dependent, people won't leave their comfort and security to abolish the socialist policies which brought in their imagined threats (like immigration). Nevertheless, government interference is like dependence: a vicious circle - it gets worse and worse.
If we want to live in a united Europe of tolerance and liberty, we ought to understand this. The far right can only grow in conditions provided by the left. As long as leftist parties are still in the majority, and continue down their political path, it is the road to serfdom. Only more, not less, economic liberty can save us from yet more years of the far right horrors Europe unfortunately already knows well.
Education is important in this regard, but education has to be "bottom-up", not "top-down". The EU may try a thousand things to prevent the far right from gaining more and more votes, but the effects will be marginal. Only "bottom-up" experiences, people experiencing the merits of free interaction with each other and free use of the fruits of their labour will be truly independent, avoiding the trap far right parties have set up.
Today, due to government interference, while increasingly difficult, it is still possible to live an enjoyable life. But being robbed of your personality, being controlled in your thoughts, not being able to express your religions and sexual preferences - these are all things we can expect in far right-controlled societies – that would certainly be unbearable. Let it not come to that!