Bulgarian Populism: Premodern, Postmodern

15. 3. 2017

In the 1990s, the European Union was perceived as the champion of the Bulgarian people against local lords. In the last decade though, both European and local politicians seem to be part of the same establishment, acting against the ordinary man.

It might seem strange that in the middle of a severe crisis the poorest country in the EU decided to veto the opening of accession talks with neighboring Macedonia (November 2012). The official reason was the wish to establish neighborly relations between the two countries, but the real one was hardly concealed. Bulgaria joined Greece in its 20-year fight against those “thieves of history,” the grievances being that the official language of Skopje was but a dialect of Bulgarian and that the Macedonian nation was “invented.”

The massive support for this act, performed seven months before the next parliamentary elections, showed once more the potential of identitarian politics. Instead of discussing the possible advantages of opening up borders, boosting trade, or attracting European funding for trans-border cooperation, the average web 2.0 citizen indulged in fantasies about historical revenge.

Bulgaria is not an exception in this growing tendency to replace interest by effect. Of course, there has never been something like pure rationality in politics; my point here is that passions have acquired the status of the only genuinely disinterested motivation for public action and have somehow taken the place of the common good. There have been real military operations intended to improve the declining popularity of leaders (Thatcher’s Malvinas, Putin’s Chechnya); there have been aggressive police operations (Berlusconi and Sarkozy throwing out Balkan Roma); there have been purely symbolic acts of confrontation (the displacement of the bronze Soviet soldier to the cemetery in Tallinn).

The particularity of countries like Bulgaria is that they passed directly from premodern to postmodern forms of mobilization. As most of the Balkan (except Turkey) societies are relatively egalitarian, class divisions are unstable and, moreover, perceived as illegitimate. Communism upset the social structure even more, as twice in less than a century completely new elites emerged out of nowhere thanks, first, to nationalization in the 40s, then to re-privatization in the 90s.

I define populism here not only as a non-mediated, emotional relation between leaders and citizens, but also in terms of the deliberate discrepancy between promise and reality, posture and capacity.

One striking fact about Bulgarian political life is the rapid change of governments; in fact since Stefan Stambolov at the end of the 19th century (the communist dictator excepted) no prime minister has ruled longer than five years; the above mentioned having been slaughtered in his seventh year of office. In the period of the second republic (from 1991 to the present), this has meant not only that no party has won a second term but that at each election a new party has emerged out of the blue to attract substantial support, with two of them winning astonishing majorities (Todorov 2012).

The 2011 surprise party, “Bulgaria of the Citizens,” formed by the country’s first European Commissioner Meglena Kuneva and promised some 6 to 12 percent by sociologists, is a good illustration of the characteristics of such formations: It declares itself disgusted by both left and right, but still insists on being right-wing; it claims to be a citizens’ movement, but registers as a party; it promises expert action, and at the same time a willingness to be guided by the people.

Bulgaria is simply pursuing a long tradition: this country deposed its monarchs three times—in 1886, after the disaster of WWI, and by the communist-organized referendum in 1946. Deception is inherent to democracy, and post-communist countries are especially keen on looking for new saviors (Basescu in Romania, the Kaczynskis in Poland), but the Bulgarian hope in political miracles seems the strongest.

It accounted for the amazing success of the former king in 2001, who won the elections only two months after having created his nostalgic-populist movement “Simeon II.” The national-populist “Ataka” came into parliament directly from the TV screen, using the name of a political talk-show and headed by its presenter. A more gradual, but still unexpected success was achieved by the now ruling police-populist “Citizens for the European development of Bulgaria” (GERB), led by the former head of the Ministry of the Interior.

Smaller formations keep popping up at each election. Touristic regions regularly see the emergence of local coalitions interested in transactions with municipal land, supposedly defending the locals against the national center. The so-called “business parties” are even more cynical, as they are organized by tycoons who pay for votes (the present rate is €50) and mobilize their employees to militate for the cause. A party like this funded by an energy boss trying to escape justice almost entered the last parliament. A novelty in the genre was 2012’s hyphenated hybrid between a small police-nationalist- populist party, supporting the government and an owner of a network of pharmacies: “Order, legality, justice—Mareshky.”What makes such enterprises possible is the disillusionment and disgust of citizens, and especially the uneducated and poor Roma, who would rather sell their vote than hope for change. No party really wants to change the situation as everyone buys votes; thus citizen organizations regularly appeal for massive participation, which seems to be the only remedy for this, as high turnout raises the cost of final success. Mandatory voting has also been considered, but liberal voices oppose it, presumably, because liberties are at stake.

The extreme instability of the party system, that hardly represents definite sociological groups, produces a constant fragmentation, especially on the right.

With the approach of the elections in June 2013, the nationalists of “Ataka” split in four (At least three other extreme right formations already exist in the country). The so-called traditional right, having reoriented the country towards market democracy, has undergone bitter divisions since the beginning of transition. There are as many as five Bulgarian members of the European People’s Party, which seems to be an all-time record. Paradoxically, the only stable formation that has survived the change of leaders several times is the former Communist (i.e. totalitarian) party! But again, are the starving retirees and the new nomenklatura-capitalists who vote for it united by some common interest? Or is it the identification with the socialist past that creates unity? One might notice that, nostalgic as they are, the socialist government introduced the 10% flat tax rate, which counts among the most neoliberal legislations in Europe.

According to many sociologists, there are chances that six, seven, even eight parties will enter Parliament in June 2013. Moreover, most of them have already excluded entering into coalitions with a majority of the rest, as the very term “coalition” was strongly discredited during the last center-left majority. The ruling GERB broke away from the extreme-right “Ataka”; the socialists reject the Turkish minority party with whom they governed; Mrs. Kuneva does not want to cooperate with anyone. There were similar situations in southern Europe after WWII which led to changes of the proportional election system. But for now, this seems out of the question; the confrontational style introduced by the new populist right makes any consensual change impossible. If the present minority government had to attract “independent” deputies through shady arrangements, the next one will require even more machinations to do so.

How can we interpret the permanent deception in politics and by politicians? Even in this very poor country there are periods of relative prosperity, nevertheless the ruling elites are usually dispatched with outright hatred.

In Bulgaria, power is accredited with too many expectations; the communist ideology of omnipotence certainly has not favored realism. As a result, popular feeling, inflamed by the commercial media, is regularly swinging from depression to mania as, for example, during the difficult accession talks most citizens were sadly convinced that “they will never let us in.” Then, when in 2007 EU membership suddenly became a reality, popular hatred was unleashed upon the politicians for not being tough enough during negotiations and for having sacrificed part of the nuclear industry under pressure from Brussels. This type of deception has become the norm during recent decades, especially with the rise of social networks. Whatever politicians do/don’t do, they are wrong.

The tendency is present all over the democratic world: Pierre Rosanvallon (2008) called it “counter-democracy,” insisting on the increased role of citizens in blocking, vetoing and judging political power. One aspect of the change is that democratic deliberations have become permanent due to the new forms of communication. On the other hand, mobilizations are mostly negative, as the “no” has a more immediate impact than the “yes” in a rapidly changing world. Besides such consideration of form, the content of politics at the periphery of the industrial world has always tended towards the symbolic; issues like blasphemy, national insult, conflicts over sexuality overshadow rights, taxation, or social justice.

Let me try to illustrate the complex link between symbolism and interest in Bulgarian political culture. There are three master-passions that mobilize the citizens here 1) recognition by the world, 2) (broken) territorial dreams, and 3) the love-hate relation with Russia.

Recognition by the “Great powers” in the 19th century has nowadays turned into EU monitoring and US approval. Real issues like corruption are not approached by alternatives of political action, but debated in the perspective of the subsequent rapport by the commission. In the 90s, the union was still perceived as the champion of the Bulgarian people against local lords; in the last decade, both European and local politicians seem to be part of the same establishment, acting against the ordinary man. The monitoring report thus is merely a behind-the-scenes arrangement. Fighting corruption is overshadowed by more “important” questions as to whether those in power are still supported by the EU, and whether they are respected or sneered at.

As to the socialists, no one really analyses what their position is (if any?); the passionate debate turns around the election of their leader Stanishev at the head of the European socialists. Does PES recognize the relatively milder Bulgarian socialism, with less mass killings and no dissidents as a bridge towards what Donald Rumsfeld called “New Europe”? Is it the young, educated leader, driving a motorcycle in a leather jacket? Or do they rehabilitate the hateful communist past? Issues like the flat tax somehow naturally recede into the background.

Let me stress the active role of the western ambassadors, who ever more often take stands on national issues. The previous first US diplomat, Mr. Warlick, was famous for that; he even campaigned for the development of shale gas technologies. This seems no longer an (imperial) exception. The French ambassador organizes debates on the need to harmonize taxation within the EU. Most recently, the German ambassador engaged in sharp criticism of the Bulgarian media. As is typical all over the periphery, foreign voices are stronger than domestic ones; when a local activist wants to create an echo he/she tends to pass information to a western official, researcher, journalist, NGO-activist. The reaction is usually due not to whatever facts are revealed (which are usually well-known), but to the “shaming” effect of the foreign gaze.

The second nebula of passions is Russia—the empire that established the new Bulgarian state in the 19th century after a war with the Ottomans, and then “liberated” the country a second time from its own government during Stalin’s time in power. The pro- and anti-Russia axis has marked the entire history of the nation, upsetting the normative coordinates of left and right. The right is ideologically opposed to Moscow; the left promotes it. This might seem strange if you keep in mind that Russia has been ruled for two decades now by a very right-wing political establishment. But the emotional dimension seems to prevail, as in the rest of Eastern Europe. The strange result is that important questions like the independence of the gas supply or NATO’s abandoned anti-missile shield are perceived in terms of gratitude/ingratitude towards “Granny Ivan”, as Bulgarians call Russia.

Finally, it might seem strange, but relations with neighbors are still marked by the unfinished wars, liberations, and reunifications of history textbooks. In fact, Bulgarian nationalism is rather weak; having no clear goal or doctrine it combines historical and demographic pretentions, grievance at the great forces and bitterness at its own incapacity to achieve the “national ideal.” The previously mentioned symbolic revenge against Macedonia is the most recent example. But similar symbolic tensions surface easily at any moment when borders are concerned. Would they support the entry of Turkey into the EU? Officially yes, but public opinion is massively against it. Would they be ready to help the Greeks out of their crisis? With the level of hatred against those “lazy rascals” generated in the digital public space, no government would dare to do it.

Needless to say, unlike Orbán’s Hungary, no one imagines serious territorial acquisitions. The bitterness over failed historical possibilities (less advantageous developments are never considered!) express, in fact, the fear of the sudden opening up of the country to global exchange. Anti-Turkish hatred, drawing upon the 16th century, hides the flooding of the Bulgarian market by cheap goods, which have destroyed local economy. The fall of the wall was a serious shock to the country as the 1988 level of purchasing power was only reached as late as 2003. Deindustrialization has downgraded engineers to construction workers, teachers to cleaning ladies. Due to the combination of a low birth rate and high emigration, the last Bulgarian citizen is predicted to die out In 2134. Even if the standards of living have been rising since hyperinflation in 1996, the comparison with similar countries is painful: in 1965, Bulgaria was at the level of Hungary; today Hungary’s economic output is double that of Bulgaria.

The theatre of historical injustices conveys present anxieties. There seems to be no alternative to the global marketplace and one hardly hears real debates on protecting local business, attracting immigrants, or the rebuilding of social policies. But such consensual fatalism is replaced by periodic eruptions of passions if the Macedonians “have stolen our Czar Samuel.”

To sum it up, besides the populism of the center, fueled by the publicity in the media and commercialization of politics, there is the populism of the periphery. If the former masks the subjugation of political power by economy, the latter acts as a smoke-screen hiding the impotence of states to respond to popular demand.

Ivaylo Ditchev

Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University, Bulgaria. He has been teaching abroad, mainly in France and the USA. He is also an editor of the journal for cultural studies Seminar BG.

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