Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has approved the resignation of a deputy minister and requested the dismissal of a senior civil servant after pictures surfaced of the two officials giving Nazi salutes.
The scandal could theoretically threaten the newly-formed ruling coalition between Borissov’s Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and the nationalist United Patriots.
Deputy Minister of Regional Development and Public Works Pavel Tenev resigned on May 17 over a photograph that depicts him saluting a waxwork of a Nazi officer in a French museum. Borissov accepted his resignation the following day.
The picture, published on Tenev’s personal Facebook page, was taken eight to 10 years ago, Dnevnik daily reported.
Tenev had taken office just a couple of days earlier. Although not a party member, he came from the quota of GERB’s junior partner, the United Patriots coalition. After he stepped down, Tenev claimed that there was “a humorous element in most of the photos” he took at the Grevin waxworks museum. He also stated that he does not share the philosophy of fascism at all.
Borissov tried to play down Tenev’s blunder with the rather surprising comment that “it’s human while on business trips to make such jokes”.
Borissov assessed that Tenev was the best and the most prepared of all the deputy ministers from the United Patriots, and the scandal is a blow to his career. The prime minister also discussed the issue with Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov, who is one of the leaders of the United Patriots.
“I signed the resignation, and for me the case is closed. I responded in the best possible way,” Borissov concluded.
The picture provoked a very strong negative reaction among many Bulgarians on social media, while others saw it just as part of the nationalists’ normal rhetoric. Nazi symbols and salutes are commonly used by young Bulgarian supporters of the far right parties that are now part of the government alongside GERB. The country has witnessed numerous cases of people being assaulted by such youngsters because of their skin colour or religion, many of them going unpunished.
Meanwhile, Simeonov defended Tenev and said that he might have made similar gestures on a visit to the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp in the 1970s.
"Come to think of it, who knows what kind of joke photos we took there... can anyone say now, submit your resignation and go back to the village," Sega daily quoted him as saying.
Simeonov denied making the comment to the daily and threatened to sue, according to bTV. He also said that the whole scandal was an attack against the government and against him.
On May 18, the situation evolved further after Borissov requested the dismissal of Ivo Antonov, the head of a directorate at the defence ministry, over a similar picture, bTV reported.
Antonov is also shown giving a Nazi salute, while posing in front of a World War 2 German tank at the Military History Museum in Sofia. The picture was taken public three years ago when Antonov was nominated as a deputy defence minister in Borissov’s previous government. That, and allegations of him being a Hitler sympathiser, led to his nomination being withdrawn at the time.
Antonov, who is connected to the United Patriots, was taken to hospital later on the same day after having symptoms of a heart attack, daily 24 chasa reported.
The two cases could seriously shake the ruling coalition and force Borissov to seek support from other parties in the parliament. In such a scenario, the most likely new partner would be Volya led by businessman Veselin Mareshki, who has already promised support for the government. The predominantly ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) could also back Borissov formally or informally.
The scandal erupted as the Hungarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his “illiberal democracy” policies are being heavily criticised by EU officials. Four left-leaning factions in the European parliament have now tabled a joint motion for resolution aimed at initiating Article 7 against Hungary for breaching EU values in the contested Central European University (CEU) case. Should Borissov be seen as failing to respond to the Nazi salute pictures, his government could come in for similar criticism.
The United Patriots coalition includes three nationalist parties – the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), VMRO-Bulgarian National Movement and Ataka. Their respective leaders are Simeonov, Krassimir Karakachanov and Volen Siderov. Karakachanov is Deputy Prime Minister for Public Order and Security and Minister of Defence, while Siderov is a lawmaker.
Previously, NFSB and VMRO comprised the Patriotic Front, which was not part of GERB’s previous government, but usually supported it in the parliament. The Patriotic Front, and now the United Patriots, are probably most remarkable for their declared opposition to the predominantly ethnic Turk parties in Bulgaria that include the established DPS and the relatively new player Dost. Before the March 26 early general elections, the United Patriots blocked border checkpoints between Bulgaria and Turkey in a bid to prevent “electoral tourism”. In turn, the DPS and Dost label the United Patriots as “fascists”.
Tenev is the second deputy minister in the new government to lose his post shortly after taking office. On May 17, Borissov dismissed Deputy Minister of Health Stoil Apostolov only a day after appointing him. The reason was TV reportage about irregularities in a hospital managed by Apostolov, who was a GERB appointment.