When photographs surfaced of two Bulgarian government officials giving Nazi salutes, the resulting political storm highlighted the risks of veteran Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s decision to form a coalition with the far-right United Patriots.
Borissov is well known for his centre-right beliefs, but his choice of coalition partner will force him to constantly seek a balance between the European Union values he espouses and his partners’ nationalist beliefs. This puts him in a potentially awkward position but if he successfully plays the “good cop” while expanding his support base further to the right at his partners’ expense, he could still emerge the political winner.
As the Nazi salute scandal unfolded, Deputy Minister of Regional Development and Public Works Pavel Tenev resigned on May 17 after just two days in office over a photograph that depicted him saluting a waxwork of a Nazi officer in a French museum. The deputy minister had posted the photo on his Facebook page several years earlier.
Borissov accepted Tenev's resignation the following day, but failed to condemn his actions. Instead, he defended Tenev with the rather surprising comment that “it’s human while on business trips to make such jokes”.
A few hours later Borissov demanded the dismissal of Ivo Antonov, the head of a directorate at the defence ministry, over a similar picture.
The prime minister’s handling of the crisis is a good indicator of how he will balance the extreme nationalism of his coalition partners with his more moderate position going forward, and turn such situations to his advantage.
His defence of Tenev was clearly an attempt to calm down his coalition partner and Tenev’s main defender, National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) leader Valeri Simeonov, and to gain an advantage that he could use later on. On the other hand, the subsequent sacking of Antonov was intended to leave no doubt among fellow EU leaders that he would not tolerate nationalistic propaganda.
“He wants to calm down the situation, but is also gaining a trump against Simeonov who is now his debtor,” Dimitar Bechev, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, noted and added that, despite the scandal, the coalition will most likely survive, but Borissov will dominate.
Lurch to the right
The strong performance of the United Patriots - they gained 9.31% of the vote in the March 26 election - is in line with the rise of the far right in several countries in both western and eastern Europe.
The patriots are a hard-right alliance of anti-migrant nationalist parties comprising the NFSB, the Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO) and Ataka. They blend far right and far left ideologies, as shown by the Nazi salute scandal juxtaposed with their calls for Bulgarian utility companies to be nationalised again. They openly support Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The rise of far-right parties can be seen in mainstream European politics as a consequence of the increasing scepticism about the EU. “Clearly there are larger trends that are going on in EU politics and the issue of the EU, its appeal and functionality,” Cvete Koneska of Control Risk tells bne IntelliNews.
Bulgaria can hardly stay unaffected by these trends and Borissov’s third government could test the waters by going further to the right than the GERB leader usually positions himself. Moreover, party members are pushing for a change of policy towards nationalism. Some analysts even have predicted that in his third term as prime minister, Borissov could go as far as his Hungarian counterpart Victor Orban.
“This comparison aims to put Borissov in a negative light in most of the cases… However the comparison between Borissov and Orban is not completely groundless. Some of GERB’s ideologists have been urging the party to adopt conservative principles, putting the emphasis on the historical mission of the Christianity in Europe and in the world. These theorists want Borissov’s formation to harden its tone towards the minority communities in the country,” said Petar Cholakov, chief assistant at the Social Control, Deviation and Conflicts department at the Institute for the Study of Societies and Knowledge.
Bulgaria’s image abroad has already significantly worsened after the election of a president who is believed to be pro-Russian and after GERB chose to form a coalition with the nationalists.
“Sofia has a serious image problem,” Bechev said and added that, if Borissov chooses to go far right, this would lead to marginalisation of the country within the EU.
A convenient alliance
Despite the concerns about the resurgent right, the coalition with the United Patriots seems convenient for Borissov as he will definitely dominate and his partners will not cause trouble in key areas such as judicial reforms. According to analysts, they only need small compromises to be happy (such as securing the border with Turkey and a firmer position towards migrants). Borissov can concede on these areas without jeopardising his policy agenda.
Most analysts agree that Borissov’s strategy is to allow the nationalists to share power symbolically, leaving them to speak freely on topics that would not threaten Bulgaria’s commitments towards the EU and Nato.
“I don’t think that the United Patriots are that influential and that powerful in the parliament. They certainly don’t seem to be as experienced in politics to be able to successfully manoeuvre Borissov around and push him to the far right,” Koneska said.
Cholakov added that the participation of the nationalists in the government is somewhat symbolic as two of the four ministers from the quota of the United Patriots are close to GERB.
“The actual formula of the coalition cabinet is 1 + 3,” Cholakov said. Namely, of the four UP ministers only VMRO leader Krasimir Karakachanov really has power within the government.
“Mr. Simeonov will be a deputy prime minister without portfolio … The benefit for Mr. Simeonov is to gain political dividends, while thinking out loud on his favourite topics: the demographic crisis among the ethnic [minority] Bulgarians, accompanied by the high birth rate (in order to remind of the rhetoric of the populist radical right), which is specific to the minorities, who are [considered by the United Patriots to be] parasites living from social benefits, thefts etc.,” Cholakov said.
The good cop
Meanwhile, the more experienced Borissov is likely to use his alliance with the nationalists to present himself in a positive light to observers from both right and left - as he did during the Nazi salute scandal.
By using the rhetoric of the far right parties, GERB could attract the supporters of those parties. Even if Borissov does not agree with his fellow party members on the need to move to the right, he will need to please his coalition partners by making compromises and adopting some of the policies the United Patriots are demanding.
At the same time, although the perspective of gaining more supporters could seem very tempting to Borissov - who is losing support and is facing more and more difficulties forming majority in parliament - he is not very likely to go far right as this would cost him support from the EU.
“I think that Borissov will most likely adopt the role of the conciliator, the defender of the European values. He will be the good cop who will raise his hand to protect the public peace and consent when politicians like Valeri Simeonov, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of NFFS, threaten them,” Cholakov said.
Bechev agreed and added that more likely Borissov will be busy excusing his coalition partners in front of his external partners.
Domesticating the political animal
Meanwhile the United Patriots seem very keen to participate in the government and could therefore soften their rhetoric. “To them, the participation in power is more important and for that reason they will adjust,” Bechev said.
One of the leaders of the nationalist parties comprising the United Patriots has a history of violence – Volen Siderov, the leader of Ataka. He had many times started physical fights, as well as offended people and parties, even breaking into the office of the public broadcaster BNT. Although he has been under investigation several times, he has never been sentenced.
The parliament voted to lift Siderov’s immunity after he reportedly harassed students from the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts (NATFA) in Sofia on several occasions. Claiming he had information about drug dealing and drugs hidden in the building, he made several personal inspections at small shops around the university. On October 23, 2015, Siderov, Chukolov and around a dozen Ataka supporters entered NATFA's building, and allegedly shouted insults and tried to beat students.
Two days later, after polls closed in Bulgaria’s local elections, Siderov and his supporters again visited NATFA, angering students and local residents. Police had to rescue Siderov from the angry crowd, but not before a man managed to hit him in the face.
However, since then Siderov seems to have calmed down. According to analysts, he was “domesticated” by his new coalition partners and is not very likely to undertake radical actions. Moreover, his party cannot survive another election without being part of a coalition as Ataka’s popularity has significantly dropped in recent years, mainly because of Siderov’s cooperation with those in power. His MPs have backed governments led by both Borissov and the rival Socialists, which angered their voters.
Divide and rule
Despite the slight moderation in the United Patriots’ stance, the parties are very different from GERB’s previous coalition partner, the right-wing Reformist Bloc. However, Borissov may pursue a similar divide and rule policy towards them.
The Reformist Bloc, which was member of the ruling coalition during Borissov’s second mandate, split in early 2016 when 10 of its 23 MPs defected to the opposition. According to analysts, their internal disagreements were strengthened and used by Borissov.
The veteran politician could now take a similar course and use the internal disagreements between the parties forming the United Patriots to achieve his goals.
“[The] NFSB got less than VMRO in the parliament and in the cabinet. Ataka is also marginalised. Borissov will manipulate those divisions just as he did with the Reformist Bloc in 2014-2016,” Bechev said.
Although the coalition between GERB and the United Patriots seems more stable than the previous coalition that supported Borissov’s second government, it is hard to predict whether this government will serve its full mandate. Most analysts say that either option is equally likely as Borissov seems to have started using early elections as a tool to gain more support or to avoid losing voters. He has resigned twice as prime minister already, both times provoking early elections.
GERB won the 2009 election, but Borissov was forced to resign in February 2013 amid mass protests over high energy prices, low living standards and corruption. After 18 months under the Socialist-backed technocratic government of Plamen Oresharski, which served a short mandate accompanied by months of anti-government protests, Bulgarians backed GERB again, but with a smaller share of the vote than in 2009. Borissov formed a new minority government, with support from a mixed bag of rightwing, leftwing and nationalist parties, including two of the parties in the United Patriots.
This government resigned at the end of 2016 after GERB’s candidate Tsetska Tsacheva lost the presidential elections and Rumen Radev, the candidate backed by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), scored a convincing victory.
“Borissov is showing a tendency to use more and more the tool of the early election,” Bechev said.
Cholakov agreed and added that the government could resign shortly after the end of Bulgaria’s EU chairmanship.
“At the moment when the United Patriots begin to stifle in the passionate embrace with Borissov and the support for them starts eroding, they will turn against him… The early election will be either in the autumn of 2018 after the EU chairmanship has ended, or in 2019,” Cholakov said.
The expected short term of the new government does not suggest implementation of significant reforms pledged by GERB in its election platform.
“The generous promise in the programme are cunningly planned for a full mandate. Many of them will most likely not be completed,” Cholakov said.