The Balkan nations share more things than they would like to admit. The fates of the nations in the supposed “powder-keg” of Europe are closely intertwined, not least through myths and cultures – Krali Marko is a hero for Serbians, Bulgarians, Macedonians; slivovica has its counterpart in rakia or raki’and of course minorities get left on the “wrong” side of the border. What the Second World War managed to achieve in Central Europe with more or less ethnically homogenous states (there are a few exceptions of course) being created thanks to a genocidal policy and mass movements both East and West in the last months of the war, it didn’t do in the region between the Black and Adriatic seas.
What runs through the mentality of the region is also, thus, nationalism. When cultures are closer than they want to admit, they accentuate the traits that are unique to them and adopt a neurotic defensive reaction – a term once used by a historian to describe Irish political culture – against their neighbours. However, as the recent example in Serbia and Kosovo shows, the problem always stems from an uneasy domestic situation. The history of the Balkans is actually littered with some surprising tolerance of minorities – Tito’s Yugoslavia was a good example; Mazower paints a picture of a heterogeneous but prosperous Salonica in his City Of Ghosts; Bulgaria saved its Jews from the Holocaust.
Yet the nineties and the first years of the 21st Century have seen the same conflicts arise again. After the horrors of the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, many things remained unsolved – Kosovo’s independence and the consequences for the diminishing, shrinking Serbian republic; the status of the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia, poised precariously between a true independence, claims to its name by Greeks and conflicts over history with Bulgaria; and the root cause of all this – nationalism of the peculiar Balkan variety.
Names and images pop up when we think of nationalism in the Balkans – Milosevic, Srebrenica, paramilitaries, the song by Goran Bregovic – “Kalashnikov”. Most are, of course, linked with the former Yugoslavia. But there are the others, “quiet” nationalisms that are potentially as dangerous if not more. The accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the European Union in 2007 not only brought Cyrillic, more corruption and a new Daily Mail campaign, but also enabled the creation of the Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty Party in the European parliament – a group that now doesn’t exist due to the fallout after Italian measures against Romanian immigrants prompted the Greater Romanian Party to withdraw from this coalition. And yet, the capacity for such a movement to emerge thanks to two frankly insignificant players in European politics does point to the strength of nationalism in two countries which are relatively stable by Balkan standards.
The example of Bulgaria is illustrative of the continuing problems in the peninsula. Bulgaria is a nation of nearly eight million people, with a history of toleration of minorities and with a substantial Roma and ethnic Turk population. For years, even under the Ottoman rule that the nation endured for nearly five centuries, ethnic Bulgarians and ethnic Turks could live side by side. The Bulgarian Central Revolutionary Committee, the 1870s organization for the liberation of the country, forbade Bulgarians from attacking ordinary Turkish citizens in the struggle for independence in its program.
This stability continued into the 1980s, when Todor Zhivkov, the infamous Communist ruler for the majority of the life of the People’s Republic, started a campaign for “Bulgarisation” of the Turks in Bulgaria, forcing them to change their names and resulting in almost 300,000 leaving the country. The mid-to-late ’80s climate of terrorism by ethnic Turks, police actions against whole villages in their drive to “Bulgarise” them, and then the sudden collapse of the monolithic state, threw things wide open. The rampant privatisation and ineffectual government of the nineties left a legacy of division that simply did not exist before. Roma families, left without the jobs provided for them under Communism, and fell into poverty and crime; the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) monopolised the Turk vote and was an element of every coalition government since its inception; unemployment rose generally as the country experience a profound loss of identity.
It was, in short, a good climate for a latent nationalism to come to the fore – one that was present since the ’80s. The National Union Ataka is the natural outgrowth of this. A party that was created only two months before the 2005 legislative elections, a coalition of insignificant right-wing and ex-Communist splinters, managed to win 9% of the popular vote in June of that year, bagging 21 seats out of 240 in Parliament. Little, you might say, but considering it was running against parties with decades-long history such as the Socialist Party (BSP) or ones that had already had a stint in office such as the National Movement Simeon II (NMSII), it was no mean feat. What is more, its leader – Volen Siderov – managed to poll 25% at the presidential elections of 2006: the only candidate apart from the winner, Georgi Parvanov, who made it to the second round (brought about by low voter turnout). For a party that is based around a strong Fuhrerprinzip, that is significant.
This use of evocative language by the author is of course, deliberate. The party has been called fascist by many, and its members do appropriate the jackbooted style of many ultranationalist groupings. A close examination of its stances, set out in the “20 Points Of ATAKA”, reveals a nationalist, populist, but not fascist party. What are its main currents? At the heart of the political program lies a statement that Bulgaria is a monolithic, one-nation state, indivisible along ethnic or religious lines. Ethnic or religious differences cannot be put above the national identification – this automatically excludes the person from the nation.
The party also attacks the MRF and the national channel’s news in Turkish indirectly by stating that the national language is Bulgarian only, and that any ethnic parties are prohibited. The party also supports an ill-defined criminalisation of verbal attacks on national “holies”. On economic issues, it supports a protectionist policy and state provision of health, social security and “spiritual and material prosperity” for all citizens. The party aims for an isolationist foreign policy, including a withdrawal from NATO, operations in the Middle East and the expulsion of US bases from national soil. Quite apart from that, unofficially but widely supported, is the inclusion of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in political decisions – a de facto merging of state and church.
What emerges is a party that cleverly combines populist policies designed to appeal to both business people and the common person on economic grounds, and a tapping of cultural chauvinism that is an expression of dissatisfactions on the part of many Bulgarians with the current state of affairs. It is easy to blame Romas for crimes and the West for poor conditions – whipping up the historical Turkish threat is also popular. Calling to spirituality, which is on the upswing amongst the traditionally conservative country, is also a good source of support. The official program of Ataka is worrying enough – it would create a state based on ethnic supremacy where other ethnic groups would not be allowed to be heard in the political process.
Privately, things are worse. The author himself has seen the graffiti – “All gypsies into soap” – and a visit to the forums of Ataka’s newspaper would reveal what its members really want. Complete social regression is the norm of the day, the ideals of Christianity imposed on all society thus actually eliminating freedom of religion; scapegoating of the traditional suspects – Romas and ethnic Turks which goes hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism (which Siderov himself is guilty of in his various books). Ataka is not a fascist party. If it was it would be easy to dismiss by people too.
It is an ultranationalist entity that has addressed real existing problems such as poverty, income disparity, crime and corruption at the highest levels of politics in radical ways – nationalisation, exclusion of foreign business in preference for domestic firms, unofficial but likely harsh actions against ethnic minorities and the branding of the current government as one of Turks and not Bulgarians. Centred around a strong leader figure with undeniable charisma and intelligence as well as a sharp tongue, rallying social conservativism, economic promises that hark back to an almost quasi-Communist state of the nostalgic yesteryear, Christianity, populist history that is directed against “those other Bulgarians – the Macedonians” the party has a strong base from which to build on.
The consequences would be disastrous, of course. Bulgaria is not faced with quite the same sectarian problems that confront Serbia, but it has a very sizable and growing Roma population while the nominally Bulgarian population is facing a demographic collapse. A Roma population that, it has to be noted, did not revert to crime when they had housing and educational and job prospects in the years of Communism. But rational debate is thin on the ground in Bulgaria – the popular media is distinctly “patriotic” as in the popular history show of Bozhidar Dimitrov that champions any Bulgarian achievement with often scant academic support, when Ataka itself has a channel and when people find it easier to blame others rather than take action themselves.
You might say that the election results show little, yet the voter turnout has always been extremely low – under 50% – and Ataka can only grow, with many of the voters who didn’t support the party in 2005, now turning towards it: the last polls done in Bulgaria shows the party second in popularity only to the ruling Socialists. When the generation of the “red grandmas” – the elderly who vote Socialist out of nostalgia and promises of social security – leaves the political scene (and with some flocking to a party that is also promising pensions), who knows what might happen? What we are facing is quite frankly a quiet nationalism rising up in a country that is, by Balkan standards, stable and on the upsurge in economic terms. A nationalism that could threaten a virtual civil war between ethnic groups. The Kosovo scenario is unlikely – there are no distinct regions in the country that could secede or are likely to do so even if ethnic Bulgarians are the minority.
There is still, of course, time. The next legislative elections will show whether the party has retained its appeal. But as long as it manages to play at its populist game while the establishment does nothing to address organised crime and corruption among its own ranks, the mentality of the population is unlikely to change. With the centre and centre-right of the political spectrum fractured in a way that we only think Communists can follow, there are few alternatives to the status quo in a political sense. Whilst everyone looks to Serbia or the Caucuses for the obvious signs of nationalism and ethnic trouble, a quiet, unfashionable force is rising in one of the nations that the EU would like to portray as a model for the Western Balkans.
And at the end of the day, as we know, the Balkan nations share many, many characteristics and traits.
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This post was written by Victor Petroff