Bulgaria nationalists soften tone to enter government


Bulgaria's new Prime Minister Boiko Borisov reacts after being elected in the parliament in Sofia, Bulgaria 4 May 2017.

SOFIA - Bulgaria's nationalist scene has long been a byword for racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. But now with their entry into government, they appear to have softened their tone -- and are even pro-EU.

In elections in March, the United Patriots (UP) alliance -- made up of three parties, the VMRO, NFSB and Ataka -- emerged as the third-biggest force with 27 lawmakers in Bulgaria's 240-seat parliament.

Now, these nationalists have formed a coalition under Boyko Borisov with the centre-right GERB party that was due to take office on Thursday.

This could ruffle some feathers in Europe, particularly within the European People's Party (EPP), the biggest group in the European Parliament and which counts GERB among its members, said BBSS Gallup analyst Parvan Simeonov.

"Most probably this will sound alarm bells ringing," Simeonov told AFP. In the first half of 2018, Bulgaria holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Holocaust a 'lie'

The most extreme party within the UP alliance is Ataka ("Attack"), created in 2005 by Volen Siderov, a firebrand who has called the Holocaust a "lie" and has been convicted multiple times of inciting racial hatred and hooliganism.

"Homosexuality is a disease... There is a fine line between homosexuality and paedophilia and it is easily crossed," Siderov said in 2006, the same year he made it into the second round of the presidential election.

He has railed against Bulgaria's leaning towards western Europe and away from Russia. In 2014, he burned the EU flag and in 2015 visited Russian-annexed Crimea.

The other party within the UP, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), has focused its vitriol more on Bulgaria's impoverished and marginalised Roma minority, who number around 700,000.

Party leader Valery Simeonov told parliament last year that the Roma were scrounging "ferocious humanoids" whose children "play with pigs in the street" and whose women "have the instincts of street dogs".

READ: Rouhani and hardline rival register for bruising Iran election

The Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO) meanwhile is led by Krasimir Karakachanov. Last year, running for president, he called for migrants to be stopped at the borders with "batons, tear gas and water cannons".

The VMRO also sees Macedonians as Bulgarians. All three parties have their own television channels, broadcasting a mix of Kremlin propaganda, reportages about thieving Roma and folk music and traditions.

Before the elections, members of the NFSB and the VMRO blockaded Bulgaria's border with Turkey to stop "agents" sent by Ankara coming to vote. More than 200,000 ethnic Turks with Bulgarian passports reside in Turkey.

'Compromise is necessary' 

But now the nationalists have ratcheted down their rhetoric, focusing more instead on issues like poverty and voicing support for staying in NATO and in the EU -- in contrast to some nationalists elsewhere in the bloc.

"Compromise is necessary if you want to drive the train and not just ride on it," Ataka's Siderov said. Simeonov and Karakachanov are deputy premiers in the new administration. Siderov, however, is not in the cabinet.

Some of the new government's programme clearly carries the nationalists' signature, however, such as plans for "patriotic education", more police, a tough line on immigration and plans to outlaw Turkish financing for Bulgaria's Turkish minority.

Whether they have really changed their spots remains to be seen, however.

"The fact that they have changed their language recently doesn't change their hostility to minorities and migrants," said Daniel Smilov from the Centre for Liberal Strategies think-tank.

Paid Content