A new PR disaster for Bulgaria's EU presidency as deputy PM launches racist attack on German MEP

A new PR disaster for Bulgaria's EU presidency as deputy PM launches racist attack on German MEP
Ska Keller, a German MEP and the president of the Greens group in the European Parliament, joined protests against the decision to expand a ski resort in Bulgaria's Pirin national park.
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia February 11, 2018

Bulgaria’s Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov and the leadership of his far-right National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) published on February 9 a statement demanding that Ska Keller, a German MEP and the president of the Greens group in the European Parliament, be deported to Turkey after she took part in environmental protests in Bulgaria.

The bizarre racist attack came just six weeks into Bulgaria’s EU council presidency, which already got off to a bad start in January with mass protests and the murder of a prominent local businessman. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s government has issued a statement saying Simeonov’s comment is not the official position of the Bulgarian state, but is unlikely to take more serious action for fear of risking a collapse of the coalition with the nationalist United Patriots group, which includes the NFSB. 

Keller, an activist on environmental and migration issues who was elected to the parliament at the age of just 29, had spoken out against the Bulgaria’s government’s decision to allow the expansion of a ski resort in the UNESCO-designated Pirin National Park, a move that has sparked mass protests by thousands of people in Bulgaria since the decision was announced in December. 

In a statement headlined “Lets smear the skis of Ska Keller”, Simeonov’s party called Keller a “delusional”, “naughty and self-confident” liar and a “green jihadist” who has gained “shameful glory”. It also called on the ministry of foreign affairs to declare Keller persona non grata in Bulgaria and “expel her by lorry to the border with Turkey”.

Keller, a German national, studied in Turkey, which appears to have raised the hackles of the virulently anti-Turk NFSB. The far right United Patriots has declared itself to be the main opposition to ethnic Turk parties in Bulgaria. Before the general election in March 2017, the United Patriots even blocked border checkpoints between Bulgaria and Turkey in a bid to prevent "electoral tourism". In turn, the ethnic-Turk parties have labelled them as "fascists".

In its statement, the NFSB also demanded to know “from the height of which minaret, this Ska (what a name?!) who graduated from Sabanci university in Istanbul and serves the justice of a foreign country”.

The letter was sent to the European Parliament, the German government and the Alliance 90/Greens EU party family. It angered many Bulgarians and shocked Keller.

“These words are shocking and inappropriate to a vice prime minister. I have been an active politician for many years and I never heard anything like this before, neither inside the European Union nor outside,” Keller said in a statement.

The Bulgarian government has sought to distance itself from Simeonov’s words. “The position of NFSB regarding MEP Ska Keller is not the position of the Bulgarian government. The government of Republic of Bulgaria is always open to critics and respects the right to free expression of personal opinion,” the government said in the statement.

It has sought to play down the protests launched around the start of Sofia’s EU council presidency, which were initiated by numerous groups from environmental campaigners to the police. These have also thrown the spotlight onto Sofia’s record in combatting corruption and organised crime. 

Further signs that tensions over the Pirin protests are riding high came on February 9, when the programme director of the public broadcaster BNT Emil Koshlukov showed gave the finger to a guest Borislav Sandov, one of the leaders of the environmentalist opposition party The Greens and one of the protest organisers, when he appeared on Koshlukov’s show.

Simeonov is already known as a loose cannon who in October was found guilty of using hate speech against the ethnic minority Roma population, though the court in the seaside city of Varna did not impose any sanctions against him. The same month, a poll showed that 56% of Bulgarians thought the controversial right-wing politician should resign after he verbally threatened popular talk show host Viktor Nikolaev in a live studio discussion. 

Another leader of the United Patriots – Volen Siderov, the leader of Ataka – has been tried for several cases of violence and offences. He has started physical fights on numerous occasions, offended people and parties and has even broken into the office of the public broadcaster BNT. Although he has been under investigation several times and pleaded guilty in three cases, he has never been sentenced to jail.

Despite this, Borissov, the leader of the centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (Gerb) opted to form a coalition with the United Patriots in 2017. His choice of coalition partner has forced him to constantly seek a balance between the EU values he espouses and his partners’ nationalist beliefs.