The legitimation of neo-fascist and neo-Nazi movements in Bulgaria is happening at the highest levels – those of government. In view of the difficult economic situation resulting from long-standing right-wing measures, an overall change is urgently needed.
At the beginning of May this year, a photo went viral on social networks and caused real outrage in most Bulgarians. At the Vasil Levski National Stadium, named after one of the brightest figures in our history, a football game was played, and in front of the Levski Sofia home team’s sector, photojournalists captured an ugly shot. Two children, under 10 years of age, naked to the waist, were covered in the slogans of an extremist football gang, and one of them had a large swastika on his chest.
As the photo went viral on social networks, it provoked many comments and reactions from the institutions. The children’s parents were found and questioned, and it is not clear at the moment what the consequences will be, but most likely they will have to pay relatively modest fines. It is probable that this case will change the law and the fines will increase.
As they left the district government offices, one of the parents was asked: “In principle, do you approve of this ideology?”
“Hmm… I am a nationalist, so there is no problem. For me this is not wrong, so I don’t know… “, he replied.
In response to the reporter’s insistence on an answer to whether it is normal for the child to have swastikas, the father said that journalists “distort things,” and did not say that it was normal.
“It is not normal to have a swastika, so it has been erased,” he added, seemingly irritated, as he tried to get away from the microphones. Before he left he showed the reporter the tattoo on his head… of Vasil Levski.
“Bulgarians, Turks, Jews and all others will be equal in every respect: in faith, or in nationality, in civil terms, or in anything. Everyone will fall under one common law, which will be created by all of the nationalities”, the same Levski once preached.
Stadiums and football games are places where symbols such as swastikas can often be found, and in this respect hardcore supporters are almost without exception in Bulgaria – regardless of which team they support. The case with the two children may have a strong impact on an emotional level, but the problem does not begin or end there.
Normalization from the highest level
The problem is that for many years talk about fascism and Nazism has been largely turned into “normal” in Bulgaria – mostly under the flag of “anti-Communism”. It was allowed to become normal (unfortunately with the participation of much of the media), posing as anti-Communist, and recently as conservative, to defend events, figures and theses which supposedly had been thrown away in the dump of history many years ago.
Let’s look at some events around the three groups that currently form the United Patriots coalition which, together with GERB, governs Bulgaria.
First example. A little more than half a year ago, another scandal about a photo broke out. A newly appointed deputy minister was caught making a Nazi salute to a waxwork figure of a Nazi at a museum in Paris, and under the picture he wrote: “Reporting to the Bosses”.
After public pressure, the deputy minister was fired from his post, but this was strongly opposed by Deputy Prime Minister Valery Simeonov, leader of the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria – one of the three groups in the United Patriots coalition. Simeonov went on to say to a leading Bulgarian newspaper that he had probably made the same “joke pictures” when he was a student on a visit to Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp. According to Simeonov no man should be fired because of this kind of photo.
Second example. Several years ago VMRO – the other party, which the Deputy Prime Minister in the current government belongs to – went on a demonstration. A few metres behind them in the same procession, there was a huge banner from the notorious neo-Nazi organization, Blood and Honour.
Third example. The third member of the United Patriots coalition and a loyal GERB partner, Ataka, has its own history too. Just a few years ago, MPs and party activists organized an unprecedented assault on the mosque in central Sofia. They threw eggs at the building, provoked fist fights and racist attacks, and even set the Muslims’ prayer mats on fire. And this is just one of among many of their stories.
We can also give more random examples. Every year in Bulgaria the so-called “Lukov march” takes place – an event in praise of a Bulgarian military general who was the leader of a national socialist group in the middle of the last century, a man with absolutely indisputable, proven sympathy and admiration for Adolf Hitler and his views. In Bulgaria, “anti-fascist monuments” are regularly painted “as a protest” and as part of the “struggle with communism”. In the programme of Valery Simeonov’s party mentioned earlier, several years ago there was a point which proposed sending Roma people to “isolated settlements, to be turned into a tourist attraction”.
Have you found yourself in an atmosphere where half-naked children with swastikas are a possible sight? Knowing this brown environment, which is openly or tacitly fuelled at the highest level, and knowing from history the factors that contribute to the emergence of such ideologies, let’s take a quick look at…
The economic situation in the country
For this purpose, it is enough to use some Barricade headlines from recent months:
- “Poverty in Bulgaria still on the rise” – that is, 30% of Bulgarian citizens are living in severe material deprivation – since the average level for the EU is 6.7%, that is more than five times the EU rate.
- “European Commission: Devastating poverty and inequality in Bulgaria” – The richest 20% receive a record 8.2 times as much income as the poorest 20%, compared with an average income gap of 5.2 times for the EU.
- “The richest 1% have as much wealth as the poorest 50%” – over 80% of working Bulgarians earn less than 900 leva or 450 euros per month. Over 60% of the people work for less than 600 leva, or 300 euros.
- “Bulgaria’s total decay will be complete by 2040” – Bulgaria is at a stage of its demographic development in which the collapse and ageing of the population has reached irreversible levels. The economic consequences of this trend will be difficult to correct in the future.
Also, you must know that every fourth Bulgarian lives below the poverty line, earning 350 leva monthly. That’s over 1.6 million Bulgarians living on about 170 euros per month.
These statistics are the result of years of consistently imposed right-wing pro-market measures – in the social sphere, in tax policy, education, health care, labour law. The “flexibility” in the labour market has broken our backs.
A few words about the political context: the ruling right party, GERB, has been in power for 10 years with one brief interruption. GERB is part of the EPP (European People’s Party), and its financial and economic experts are proud of, and don’t hide, their right-wing economic views. Even further right in their economic views are the so-called liberals in Bulgaria: the ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) includes members of the Bulgarian DPS (the Movement for Rights and Freedoms) who otherwise are capable of exploiting new waves of xenophobia but not of recognizing the importance of their economic policies on why there has been such a boom in this phenomenon recently.
What can we say about the biggest party in the so-called opposition in the Bulgarian Parliament – the BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party)? This is the party that in 2007, in the government of the current PES leader, Sergei Stanishev, introduced the current flat tax system – probably the most right-wing tax system in the European Union. The BSP is the party that not only introduced the flat tax, but did it without setting a minimum threshold. Together with all the other parliamentary parties over the past three decades, the BSP has participated in numerous attacks on the labour code in favour of big business and to the detriment of the workers. Recently, under its new leadership, the BSP has made a sharp turn towards conservatism, and instead of speaking much more about those economic indicators we have mentioned, it has been coming up with conservative mantras such as “protecting traditional religious values” and is even trying to profit from the tension between poor people, setting them against each other.
The picture is such that, despite some differences – some essential, some not – all the parliamentary parties in Bulgaria are leading us along a continuously right-wing track. For years, a number of governments and political groups have directly acknowledged in their programmes that they would protect the “interests of business” and “entrepreneurs”. There is one fundamental division between parties of the left and the right, and that is whether they protect the interests of workers or those of capital. In Bulgaria, there is no parliamentary party to protect the interests of the workers.
This, then, is the socio-economic and political context in Bulgaria, which has been developing for a long time without any promise of change on the horizon. As the problems are getting worse and worse, it is time to realize that we can’t continue going down this road – it’s time to make a turn. But what kind of turn?
Left turn – forbidden!
Somewhere around the beginning of the so-called transition (towards democracy and a market economy), there was an accumulation of disappointment in the totalitarian past and a desire among Bulgarians for more freedom of movement and democracy, and in those times there was one very popular poster showing a crossed-out “left turn”. It was a road sign for a forbidden left turn, which quickly became politicized. Relying on such largely understandable moods in the early 1990s, interested elites succeeded in imposing a continuous movement to the right in which a few were favoured, and the majority usually lost, but were persuaded that these were the rules of the game and that “there is no other way”. Along with this poster came market-fundamentalist practices, and a direction was taken that wasn’t really exactly what the majority had imagined when it wanted more democracy and freedom to travel.
Imagine Bulgarian society as a group of people sitting in a strange bus. The steering wheel in this bus seems to be broken and can only make right turns. The bus is thus driving round and round a neighbourhood of poverty, inequality and exploitation. But the problem is not in the steering wheel, but in the small number of drivers who take turns in the front seats. For years, they have convinced the rest of the passengers that each traffic light is green only for “right turns”. The left turn is forbidden – don’t you see the sign?
At the same time, the rules are not the same for the majority of passengers in the bus and the drivers. The people at the front have air-conditioning, heating, and more space – but those at the back do not. There is a pile of goods at the front, yet there are less at the back, where many more are in need of them. And most importantly, in the front there is a door that doesn’t only open in front of the entrance to the dark neighbourhood. You can also get out and go in other directions. The heaven in the front depends on the people in the back, and if they get out of the bus, maybe the front will lose its goods. That is why the front is keen to keep the situation as it is. The majority don’t have the chance to go somewhere else. They want to get out but instead they ride the bus till they die, only ever making right turns, as the bus only opens its doors for them in the hellish, dark neighbourhood.
The majority in the back rarely interact directly with the minority in the front of the vehicle. They see them only when the front sends its agent to charge the majority for tickets and pick up their fruit to continue the bus’s journey. At every traffic light, the majority is convinced that the right way is to the right, and that now, very soon, the bus will reach wherever it is supposed to be going and they will be able to get out and breathe fresh air and rest at last from the endless journey. Just a little more – after the next turn right.
The majority is so accustomed to this situation that it does not even feel it is running round in circles. It is always at the starting point, but always more and more tired and outdated. At every stop the majority is grateful when they receive a small gift – a small crumb of bread, made from wheat which they themselves sowed and reaped.
Sometimes they think about throwing out of the window some of the poorest passengers, who are travelling in the trunk – perhaps if the weight is a little bit lower, maybe the bus will get to the right place after all. The greatest dream of many of the people at the back is to become a driver at the front… but not to ask for a change of direction.
We have a saying in our country that sometimes the smallest pebble can turn the wagon… or the bus. How much longer can we continue going round and round in circles without completely falling apart? Will we wait for the brown stones to turn into a great boulder that will send us to the bottom? Or will we say before it is too late: it is time for a left turn.
Draganov is a Bulgarian journalist based in Sofia, currently writing for the left analytical platform BARICADA He graduated at the University of National and World Economy in Sofia has earned a BA degree in sociology and an MA in marketing. Since 2012, he has been working as a political journalist for various Bulgarian news outlets i.a. News.bg, BGNES and BiTelevision. As a parliamentary reporter he covered the work of the 42nd and 43rd National Assembly. Co-author of the documentary movie “The Invisible People”.