The rise of nationalism in Bulgaria is the outcome of long-ignored problems that may now threaten inter-ethnic relations, writes Yana Buhrer Tavanier in Transitions Online.
Simeon is sitting on a wooden chair in his yard; the chair is old and broken and the yard no bigger than five square meters. There is no grass in this yard, no trees, no birds, just dirt. Simeon has his bare feet in the dirt, the weather is hot and his shirt, stuck on his back, is unbuttoned. His brown eyes are staring in the direction of his house.
The door is missing and it is easy to see inside: children sleeping on the bed, someone sleeping on the ground. A woman behind the cracked dusty window is giving him angry looks.
“People here do not like journalists. But there is no other way for our voice to be heard,” Simeon says with a sigh. He could be 20 or 35, but while his age is indefinable, it is easy to determine certain facts about him: he is poor beyond the boundaries of imagination, he is illiterate, and he has no bright future to look forward to. Basically, he is like every other Roma in this ghetto, just a 10-minute drive from the very center of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.
“We are really afraid,” he repeats. “Some people here have a radio at home, they listen very carefully and then we gather to discuss the news. Did you know that Ataka wants to turn us into soap? This is what their voters have been screaming, turn the gypsies into soap!”
Melodrama at the polls
Simeon was referring to Ataka, or Attack, a new political movement whose strong showing in the 25 June general election seems to have taken everyone by surprise.
In fact, there were as many surprises in the elections as in a bad Latin American tele-drama.
First of all, these were the elections with the lowest turnout – around 55 percent – in Bulgaria’s post-communist history, despite the fact that there was a lottery for voters and the lucky ones could win television sets, mobile phones, or cars.
Second, seven parties and coalitions entered parliament, a record high for this country.
Most people expected the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) to win at least 40 percent of the votes, but this did not happen. The BSP-led left-wing Coalition for Bulgaria won 31 percent, thus finding itself in the difficult position of being the largest party but still struggling to form a government.
The Socialists are currently holding talks with the second and third political powers in parliament, the National Movement Simeon II (NDSV) of the former Bulgarian king turned prime minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski, and the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS).
The DPS, which has been a member of every government since the fall of communism, has already declared its willingness to participate in the next one. But since a BSP-DPS pairing is not enough to form a majority in the 240-seat parliament and any of the three right-wing parties are quite unlikely to join the left-leaning coalition, all eyes are now on Saxecoburggotski. Without doubt he isn’t planning to easily give his seat to BSP leader Sergey Stanishev.
In consequence, “who is going to be the new prime minister, and at what price” is one of the two things everyone in Bulgaria talks about.
The other one is Ataka.
The nationalist coalition was formed in May and less than two months later won more than 8 percent of the vote, becoming the fourth-largest group to enter parliament. Such a party is a novelty for Bulgaria, where since the fall of communism, ethnic Bulgarians, Turks, and Roma have avoided the kind of ethnic tension that caused bloody wars in other Balkan countries. Almost everyone – political analysts, journalists, sociologists – declared Ataka the biggest surprise of these elections.
Many also opined that the support of some 400,000 voters was simply a “protest vote.”
But it wasn’t quite so.