The left and right wing in Bulgaria

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

In Bulgarian politics, the right-wing has traditionally been Western-oriented and the left pro-Russian. Yet since the country's entry into the EU the differences between left and right have decreased and more pragmatic policies are being pursued, writes Bulgarian MEP Emil Stoyanov (European People's Party) in an exclusive commentary for EURACTIV.

This analysis was sent exclusively to EURACTIV by Emil Stoyanov.

''The left and right wing in Bulgaria have never exactly met the bourgeois concept of left and right. In the classic understanding of the two political streams, the left is represented by the non-wealthy struggling for social justice in society, while the right is constituted from more wealthy people who stand behind traditional Christian values, nation states and market relations.

In reality, even in Western European countries, it is difficult to see these models in their pure form, especially since World War II. Today in Western Europe, the ideology and thinking of left and right politicians are getting so similar to each other that it is extremely difficult for the voter to distinguish between them, and he often gives similar political weight to the left and right. In recent years in Austria and Germany, this has led several times to coalition-building between the right and left. It seems that in modern Europe, the classic left and right wing – or more precisely the parties representing them – are already quite shattered and should seek new political models, but this is a different story.

By returning to the roots of the modern Bulgarian state – namely the last twenty years of the 19th century – we see that since Bulgaria won independence from the Ottoman Empire, two main political parties were formed straight away: the Conservatives, representing the right wing, and the Liberals – the left wing. Already then, a phenomenon appeared in our political life. This phenomenon is typically Bulgarian and is still valid today. In Bulgaria, the conservatives are modern-minded people, who aim for a pro-Western orientation of our country; the liberals are nostalgic about Russia and Russia's support for Bulgaria's independence.

In other words, besides the traditional characteristics of left and right, the two political wings also bear also geo-strategic perceptions and orientations. Usually, the so-called right is Western-oriented, while the left political wing is pro-Russian. The brightest representative of the right is Stefan Stambolov, while one the left it is Petko Karavelov. Both of them are admirable Bulgarians, sincerely following their beliefs. The following story from our history will remain memorable and educational: Petko Karavelov was released from custody from the Black Mosque and in front of the entrance, an English journalist asked whether he was beaten. Karavelov raises his head and says: 'In my homeland no such things happen'.

After World War II and the actual occupation of Bulgaria by Soviet Russia, the parties were liquidated in times of unprecedented terror, with thousands of political killings and persecutions. The only party that remained was the Bulgarian Communist Party, created by Stalin and following the Soviet model. This was neither left nor right wing, but a solely political weapon of the Soviet Union. Its task was to pursue pro-Soviet policy in the country.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, the Bulgarian political landscape has again become very colourful and interesting. Amazingly, in the space of a year hundreds of parties were created. Obviously, fifty years after a forced political abstinence, Bulgarians needed to express not only their convictions but also actively participate in public life – something that was forbidden before.

The Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) proved to be closest to the classical right, bringing together most of the modern, pro-Western and anti-communism thinking people in Bulgaria, while the left wing was represented by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) – successor of the Bulgarian Communist Party and of its nostalgic attitude towards communism and Russia.

The determination of left and right did not happen exactly in 1989. In the first years after the fall of communism, the political leaders were simply divided into communists and anti-communists. Even this was quite controversial – in the UDF group, dozens of communists and police had sneaked in, managing to hinder the revival of political life in Bulgaria. It is enough to recall that the first leader of UDF, Zelqo Zelev, was a former communist and was elected into the parliament as president with the votes of communists. The second leader of UDF, Petar Beron, was a proven co-operator of the Communist State Security and his long political career over the years confirmed this without any doubt. I would not want to list all other names – like Gaytandzhiev, Vodenicharov, Georges Ganchev and Petko Simeonov – because I feel embarrassed that these people were able to mislead millions of Bulgarian supporters of democracy.

In the BSP, things were also not one-sided, but for different reasons. Under the pressure of Western European Socialists and public opinion in Bulgaria, former communists decided with discontent to call themselves socialists and to look as such – at least on the outside. Some of the more honest and decent people left the party, saying they swore to be communists and cannot change overnight. Most of them remained in the party. They separated, however, into two main groups – some did not want to say goodbye to communism, and just wanted to deceive, while others wanted to become social democrats and Europeans.

In the UDF, a clearer right-wing policy was formulated during the first UDF government led by Philip Dimitrov between 1992 and 1993 and the second between 1997 and 2001 when the Prime Minister was Ivan Kostov. Then, with support and pressure from the West, major economic reform was carried out in the country. The process of returning the land was completed and large-scale privatisation was conducted for more than 50% of the former state economy, which was virtually not functioning.

Privatisation transformed Bulgaria in about two or three years and the Bulgarian market economy finally started functioning. This process, together with the favourable economic environment in Europe, launched a decade of continuous economic growth. This made Bulgaria a country with European economic standards, and entry into the European Union became possible. The initiator of privatisation in Bulgaria was Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Alexander Bozhkov, who unfortunately paid a high price – in personal as well as in political terms. I hope that history will appreciate his qualities and merits. The process of transforming state property into a private one was strongly contested by the BSP and led to the practical dissolution of the UDF.

The political irony was shocking: the UDF had to pay a very high price for the reform that saved the country from collapsing. However, voters were convinced that this was unjust and punished the democrats for this. Something similar happened in Germany, where Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democratic Party managed to make the historic reunification of East and West Germany. However, that cost the German taxpayers additional taxes and they voted against Helmut Kohl and the Christian Democrats for the next two terms as punishment.

In this period, 1997-2001, Bulgaria also had a particularly successful foreign policy. President Petar Stoyanov had a major role. He won the elections in 1996 in an extremely unfavourable environment, when the political scene was totally dominated by BSP. Stoyanov was the first Bulgarian politician who clearly stated in his programme that his priorities will be NATO and the European Union. In those years, this was provocative. Most politicians in Bulgaria were not fond of NATO, and the left were against NATO but did not mention that entering the alliance was a precondition for EU membership.

Petar Stoyanov's victory fostered a crisis in the left wing and so it came to the famous winter of 1996 when the government of the Socialist Party lost control over the country, stores were empty, there was no electricity and the people occupied the parliament and threatened the communists with violence. With moderate action and huge public support (over 80% of the population), newly-elected President Petar Stoyanov managed to master the situation and prepared the coming of the UDF government in March-April 1997.

The beginning of 1997 marked the practical separation from communism. From this historical moment – the end of 1996 and early 1997 – began the clear orientation of Bulgaria towards the West. The priorities of the country towards NATO and the European Union were clearly defined and also written down in state documents.

This policy was irreversible after the first visit of a US president to Bulgaria. Bill Clinton was a very charismatic and influential politician and a world leader for his time. He accepted the invitation of Petar Stoyanov, with whom he maintained close relations, and visited Bulgaria as an expression of gratitude for its support in Kosovo. This visit was historic. It marked the return of Bulgaria to the civilized world and showed us on the global political scene. The Bulgarians euphorically welcomed Bill Clinton in front of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Stoyanov is one of the only Bulgarian politicians who today maintains friendly relations with Bill Clinton and is a member of the council of his foundation. And the Clinton family still plays a key role in world politics, so Bulgaria continues to have an important friend.

Ivan Kostov's government lost the elections in 2001, dogged by real and made-up corruption scandals and because of the authoritarian character of Ivan Kostov, which was not acceptable to the majority of the public.

The parliamentary elections were won by the former king Simeon Sakskoburggotski, returning from a long exile. It is difficult to define the kind of policy he made. Economically, his government supported right-wing policies to reduce the tax burden and strengthen the banks and the economy. In political terms, he had warm relations with the left wing, which he revived by the gradual return of left leaders to power. He was particularly close to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), with which he was in coalition. On the European stage, the party of our former king became a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, which often provoked a smile, because nobody had ever seen a liberal king before.

The current Bulgarian government of Boyko Borisov came to power with a clear right-wing programme. It is too early to predict whether this will be strictly implemented. Moreover, given Bulgaria's actual membership of the European Union, autonomous economic steps of the country are becoming less possible. The truth is that more and more decisions will be taken within the European Union and Bulgaria's capital will move 2500km to the west, in the direction of Brussels. In political terms, the party of Borisov is in the group of Europe's right and is a member of the European People's Party, which gave its political support for the European and national parliament elections in 2009.

In conclusion, it can be predicted that within the European Union, the differences between left and right will decrease. Most likely a general and pragmatic policy will be continued, which aims to balance the United States, China, Russia and Turkey.

Looking at the proportions in the European Parliament, as well as at the interaction of the different political groups in it, I am convinced that this policy will be neither left nor right. But it will be supported by both left and right, and also in most cases by the Liberals and Greens in the European Parliament.

Maybe a time is coming when we will not talk that much about left and right, but more about common European and civilisation interests. And, in this line of thought, it would not be a surprise if in the coming decades the focus of left and right will become history and substituted by the topic of global world development. Then, politicians and their supporters will not be divided into left and right but into globalists and regionalists.''

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