Nationalists in Bulgarian government mean rocky first fortnight for third Borissov cabinet

Nationalists in Bulgarian government mean rocky first fortnight for third Borissov cabinet

Bulgaria’s National Assembly is hardly ever a place free of acrimonious exchanges, but May 2017 is seeing ever more bitter skirmishes as the opposition goes on the attack, challenging the Boiko Borissov cabinet’s vulnerabilities over the presence of the nationalist United Patriots in the coalition government.

Amid one controversy after another, political pundits in Bulgaria continue to raise the question whether the Borissov government pledge to serve a full four-year term – counting from the time it took office on May 4 – can be kept.

In recent days, these political controversies have had a stark emotional and psychological resonance, because two have involved officials linked to the United Patriots, a grouping of nationalist and far-right parties, having been photographed making Hitler salutes.

These are images out of kilter with the image of a country that takes justifiable pride of having, in 1943, stood up to Hitler’s Nazi Germany and refused to hand over Bulgarian Jews to join the more than six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

At European level, if there are misgivings about the presence of far-right politicians in the corridors of power in Bulgaria, they remain largely unspoken publicly. A popular theory is that Europe is keeping a vow of omerta for the sake of political stability in Bulgaria while the country holds the presidency of the European Council in the first half of 2018.

But next year too, Bulgaria will mark the 75th anniversary of the prevention of the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the Nazi death camps, and will mourn the fate of the thousands of Jews in parts of Yugoslavia and northern Greece that Bulgaria – nominally in control of those territories, under the suzerainty of its Berlin ally – did not save from mass-murder.

Against this background, and the general track record of past European discomfort about far-right parties elsewhere such as Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik, images of Bulgarian officials making Nazi salutes are disturbing. Defences that at least one of the images was a “joke” are unhelpful. As the Shalom Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria pointed out on May 18, the Holocaust is never a laughing matter.

The coalition government between Boiko Borissov’s GERB, which won 95 out of 240 seats in the National Assembly in the March elections, and the United Patriots, the third-largest parliamentary group, was always going to be fraught with peril.

In the previous parliament, a now-constituent party of the United Patriots, the Patriotic Front, was a supporter on the parliamentary floor of Borissov’s then-government. Volen Siderov’s Ataka, though in the 2009 parliament having for some time informally backed the first Borissov government, was in opposition.

Now the United Patriots stand together, and Siderov is involved in a coalition government arrangement, though he has no seat in the Cabinet. A politician who frequently has been attended by controversy, and who has convictions for hooliganism and minor assault (he reached plea bargains), Siderov has in the past been alleged to be a Holocaust denier, with critics citing his book the Boomerang of Evil as evidence of alleged anti-Semitism.

But it has not been Siderov who was at the centre of the storm this mid-May, but Valeri Simeonov, one of the three co-leaders of the United Patriots and one of two deputy prime ministers that the nationalist formation has in the third Borissov government.

According to Bulgarian-language daily Sega, Simeonov made a flippant comment about Nazi death camp Buchenwald. Simeonov says that he was misreported by Sega and said on May 18 that he would take court action against the daily. Sega responded by saying that it stood by its story.

The opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, which ran second in the March elections, has fallen with grim glee on the opportunity provided by the “Nazi salute” scandal. The controversy also plays to what the opposition Movement for Rights and Freedoms – a party historically led and supported in the main by Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity – have been saying about their concerns about the presence of far-right politicians in a government deal in a European country.

Not immediately of decisive significance, but also not a good sign for the Borissov government, is that the smallest party in Parliament – Vesselin Mareshki’s Volya – which initially cast its 12 ballots to help get Borissov back into power, now effectively joined calls for Simeonov to step down as deputy prime minister.

In an acrimonious exchange in the National Assembly on May 19, BSP MPs slung accusations of fascism at the United Patriots, which Simeonov and his parliamentary group rejected. The United Patriots hit back at BSP-linked people who had been photographed on Lenin’s tomb, they said, and cited the presence of hammer-and-sickle flags at Soviet commemoration events supported by the BSP.

Siderov said that Simeonov was no Nazi. He had known him since student days, he said, in support of this assertion. Few adamant critics would accept a character reference of this kind from Siderov.

Another United Patriots MP to reject the allegations of the group including fascists was Alexander Sidi, who told Parliament that he was a descendant of Bulgarian Jews whose deportation to the mass-murder camps of the Holocaust had been prevented.

Even as allegations of fascism and Sovietism were hurled back and forth, it was not only the presence of the nationalists in government that was at issue.

The 44th Bulgarian National Assembly was elected on March 26 and held its first sitting on April 19.

On May 19, a month to the day since the first sitting, BSP leader Kornelia Ninova told the House that so far, only six bills had been tabled – four by her own party. GERB had tabled one. Volya had tabled one. There had been a seventh, linked to development and environmental conservation issues, but this had been withdrawn.

In short, in its first month, the National Assembly may mildly be said to not have done very much.

Another issue for GERB will be the fate of its bill proposing the introduction of a fully majoritarian system for electing MPs. The BSP and the MRF have already rejected the concept, saying that they preferred a mixed system of proportional and majoritarian representation. A few days after the tabling, GERB coalition government partner Simeonov came out to say that his group too favoured a mixed system.

All of this represents turbulence, of greater and lesser degrees. There is no immediate prospect of the third Borissov government falling, or the coalition disintegrating. But the question of how long this government can last, and whether it will last much beyond the end of the Bulgarian EU presidency, will continue to be asked – and eventually, will be answered./IBNA