Fascist parties hold one in eight of the seats in the new Bulgarian parliament, following the general election on 5 October – a big increase in their representation.
The Ataka party – yes, its name really does mean “attack” – has seen its vote fall from 7.3% in last year’s general elections to 4.52% in Sunday’s early election, called after the government resigned.
But a newly created rival fascist coalition, the Patriotic Front, gained another 7.3%, up on the performance of its two main constituent groups in last year’s polls when neither passed the 4% threshold to enter parliament.
Although the total fascist vote has dipped marginally, they will now have far more MPs between them. The PF will have 19 seats in parliament and Ataka another 11 – a total of 30 in the 240 seat assembly, according to elections expert Mihail Konstantinov. The figure, a big gain on Ataka’s 23 seats last year, is set to be confirmed by the election authorities on 9 October.
The PF is a possible coalition partner for the centre-right GERB, which came first in the election with 32.7% of the vote and is now in negotiations to form a government.
Ataka by contrast has suffered from its association with the outgoing administration. That was made up of the Bulgarian Socialist Party – a centre-left formation that emerged from the old Stalinist Communist Party – and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a centre party based on Bulgaria’s ethnic Turkish minority.
In a particularly twisted tie-up, the coalition relied on the support of the Ataka faction in parliament. The nauseating informal alliance has done nothing to improve the credibility of the mainstream partners. The BSP took 15.33% and the MRF 14.79% in Sunday’s poll, well below GERB’s vote.
Before looking in more detail at the fascists, it is worth taking a wider look at the state of Bulgaria – and it is a mess.
Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU. Its population of seven million or so has been battered and squeezed by heavy IMF-imposed austerity measures since the late 1990s, long before the current economic crisis hit the rest of Europe.
And the new government will be the fifth in two years of chronic political instability. In February of last year, massive protests against austerity, triggered by rises in the cost of electricity brought down the then government of GERB leader Boyko Borisov.
But as in many countries of the former Eastern Bloc, the legacy of Stalinism has distorted politics. The protests expressed enormous anger, but in a situation where it is hard for the very small genuine left to build.
Instead, Ataka and the Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO) – now a key constituent of the PF – were able to play a substantial role in the protests (although on a much smaller scale and with less drastic results than we have since seen in Ukraine).
The fascists were able to coopt slogans of nationalisation and redistribution – but with their own, deeply racist slant. For them, it was not the working class as a whole but ethnically “pure” Bulgarians who should benefit.
Later that year, when the new coalition government of the BSP and MRF was installed, a second wave of protests broke out, this time sparked by the appointment of media tycoon Delyan Peevski as a head of national security – an appointment that amply demonstrates that the BSP is far from socialist. This second protest wave was not as big, had a more middle class complexion and declined over the course of several months.
This time Ataka, in informal alliance with the coalition, opposed the anti-government protestors. Ataka in turn was slammed by racist and fascist elements among the demonstrators as “national traitors” for getting into bed with the mainly Turkish MRF.
The final straw that broke the BSP-MRF coalition was the suspension of work on the South Stream gas pipeline aimed at bringing Russian gas to the EU via Bulgaria. The government had wanted the Russian-backed pipeline, which was also popular with the Bulgarian public as a major source of jobs.
But the pipeline has been part of the wider geopolitical battle between Russia and the West in a part of the world where the Cold War never completely went away. When US officials added their weight to EU pressure to stop the construction project linked to Russian oligarchs, prime minister Plamen Oresharski backed down and suspended the works – and the government fell.
There is no particular sign that GERB, set to return to power in the latest turn-and-turn-about, will produce a government that is any more stable.
Meanwhile, there are two constants in Bulgaria: continuing poverty under austerity, and horrendous levels of racism – particularly directed at the Roma who make up around 10% of the population.
Roma people suffer severe discrimination in housing, health, education and employment. Many live in neighbourhoods without electricity or sewage services. Poverty is even harsher in the economically deprived and marginalised Roma communities.
Mainstream politicians do not hesitate to lay into the Roma and other ethnic minority groups. In 2009 when he was mayor of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, GERB leader Borisov dubbed Roma, Turks and pensioners “bad human material” claiming that they were Bulgaria’s greatest problem.
In 2011, anti-Roma pogroms broke out in towns and villages across Bulgaria, after a young ethnic Bulgarian was killed by a minibus driven by a Roma man. Huge armed gangs stormed into Roma areas destroying homes and attacking residents indiscriminately. The wave of violence – the worst since World War II – terrorised the Roma community.
Who are Bulgaria’s fascists?
The fascists were behind the wave of violence. The Ataka party organised “demonstrations” with the slogan “Gypsy crime a danger for the country.” Its members wore T-shirts saying, “I do not want to live in a gypsy country.”
Protesters’ slogans included “Turks under the knife” and “Gypsies into soap” – horrifically recalling the Holocaust, in which 500,000 Roma were murdered alongside Jews and other victims.
Ataka takes its name from Der Agriff (German for “the attack”), the Nazi paper run by Hitler’s henchman Joseph Goebbels. Its symbol is a swastika-style trident, superimposed on a Celtic cross design in the colours of the Bulgarian flag.
The party’s ideology is based on racism, ethnic nationalism and violence. It wants “Bulgaria for the Bulgarians”. Ataka’s main victims are the Roma, but Ataka hates Bulgaria’s Turkish and Muslim population too.
When he is not ranting about “Gypsy criminality” party leader Volen Siderov is denouncing the Turkish minority and “Ottoman domination”.
Until this year, when its vote was badly hit by its role propping up the government, Ataka had three MEPs.
But the party’s highest ever vote in any election was in the 2006 presidential poll when Siderov took 21.5% of the vote in the first round, against a background of even tighter austerity in the run-up to EU ascession. As the second-placed candidate, he went into the run-off second round when he scooped just over 24% of the vote.
The Patriotic Front has benefited from Ataka’s association with the government – and especially with the MRF, whose Turkish voter base makes it especially unpopular with racists.
It is made up of two main parties, the Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO), and the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, a split from Ataka. NFSB leader Valeri Simeonov was a key player in Ataka as owner of SKAT TV, its main propaganda outlet until the bust-up. Most of the smaller grouplets in the PF have also broken away from Ataka.
The VMRO also targets Roma and Turkish people with a vicious racism. It has links with Hungary’s nazi party Jobbik. Just before the May European elections, deputy leader Angel Dzhambazki said VMRO was in “close cooperation” with Jobbik, which had helped it to grow.
We invite them to participate in our meetings, and at the same time we take part in events organised by them.
Shockingly, Dzhambazki was elected as an MEP and admitted to the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, which includes Britain’s Conservative Party.
VMRO is an irredentist party that seeks a “Greater Bulgaria”, chomping up Macedonia and parts of Serbia, Romania and Greece. It states:
We are the Bulgarian national movement. We are heirs of the Renaissance idea of the liberation of the Fatherland in its three parts – Moesia, Thrace and Macedonia. Keep memory, but act in the present.
It remains to be seen how far the two fascist parliamentary groups will act together in parliament – this may depend on what sort of coalition GERB cobbles together and how the two fascist factions relate to the larger blocs.
But while the total fascist vote dipped slightly, their greater weight in parliament will only encourage the racist thugs and pogromists on the streets.