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Bulgaria: Opportunities and Challenges

By Dr. Miklos K. Radvanyi

By the Balkan region’s standards, the Republic of Bulgaria is a country of peace and stability in south-eastern Europe. A member of NATO since 2004, and a member of the European Union since 2007, Bulgaria overcame the worldwide financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, and has produced since 2014 a solid annual GDP growth of three percent. The currently reigning Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, head of the Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria, also known by its acronyms GERB, which means in Bulgarian “coat of arms”, is into his third term, leading a coalition government that faces some challenges.

The main cause of this concern is the junior partner in the coalition called United Patriots that, in reality, comprises three small nationalist parties: the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, also known by its Bulgarian acronyms NFSB, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov, the Bulgarian National Movement, also known by its Bulgarian acronyms IMRO-BNM, headed by Krasimir Karakachanov, and the Attack (Ataka), headed by Volen Nikolov Siderov.

Having won by a simple majority in the national elections in the spring of 2017, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had no choice but to team up with the United Patriots which was instrumental to prevent the Bulgarian socialists from forming a government with the ethnic Turkish party, the Movements for Rights and Freedoms, also known by its Bulgarian acronyms the MRF. Thus, in spite of the Prime Minister’s bitter experience with the doggedly xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and even racist politicians of the Patriotic Front between 2013 and 2017, he decided to give the coalition a highly uncertain second chance.

Thus far, the coalition government has not lived up to Mr. Borisov’s and the voters’ expectations. A sizeable number of Bulgarian human rights activists and a significant number of intellectuals published on May 29, an open letter calling for the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov, who has been entrusted to oversee the country’s demographic policy and to head the Federal Council of Minority Integration. Mr. Simeonov has had a long and shameful history of anti-Semitic, anti-minorities, and neo-Nazi statements and actions. As early as the beginning of the 1970s, when he visited the former concentration camp in Buchenwald, he posed for so-called “joke photos”, on which he and his fellow students mocked the victims of Nazi terror by standing in attention and raising their right hands in the familiar Nazi salute.

A photo, depicting Pavel Tenev, a member of the coalition government, showed him standing erect and saluting to a wax replica of an SS soldier in a Paris museum. Commenting on the photo, Mr. Simeonov stated and simultaneously asked rhetorically: “Come to think of it, who knows what kind of joke photos we took there (in Buchenwald). Can anyone say now, submit your resignation and go back to the village.”

Members of the sizable Roma community in Bulgaria have not fared better by Mr. Simeonov. Commenting in the Parliament on the size of the Roma families he exploded thus: “They are brazen, feral, human-like creatures that demand pay without work, and collect sickness benefits without being sick. They receive child benefits for children that play with pigs on the street, and for women that have the instinct of stray dogs.”

Not to be outdone, several members of his party and members of the two other parties comprising the United Patriots have taken a page from the Qur’an and affectionately called members of the Roma minority pigs and apes. To add insult to injury, Mr. Simeonov party’s program includes a proposal to demolish “Gypsy ghettos” and the isolation of Roma in closed “reservations.” For good measure, the party program also suggests that such “reservations” could be used profitably by dressing them up as “tourist attractions.” To demonstrate his retrogressive personal development, Mr. Simeonov publicly mused about establishing “modern concentration camps” for the country’s minorities. Mr. Tenev resigned of his government position. Mr. Simeonov steadfastly has refused to relinquish his position.

Understandably, the European Union has become uneasy about the shenanigans of Mr. Simeonov. More worrisome for Brussels is the fact that Bulgaria will assume the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union from January to June 2018. With the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban pursuing similar nationalistic policies and openly courting the Hungarian minorities in several European Union member states, Brussels will have to work up the courage to energetically counter any attempt by the newly admitted nations to subvert the joint European model of development that is based on the democratic principles of the founding states. Otherwise, unchecked national populism and revisionism would threaten the historically long simmering divisions within those societies and would risk of perpetuating national and ethnic enmities within the European Union too.

Clearly, Mr. Simeonov is hindering Bulgaria’s attempt at overall development. Moreover, Mr Simeonov has a very serious conflict of interest that opens the door to the genie of unfettered corruption. Indeed, Mr. Simeonov has been developing businesses based on tourism along the south-eastern coast of the Black Sea. With his closest friends and business partners, such as Vetko Aabadjiev, the Dinevi brothers, Rumen Chandarov, Vladimir Kissiov, and others, they strive to monopolize the hotel, restaurant, and entertainment businesses in what is called the Sunny Beach area. Only a couple of months ago, the most popular television show in Bulgaria, called the “Slavi’s Show”, proved the corrupt nature of Mr. Simeonov’s dual role as Deputy Prime Minister and the owner of hotels. One of his hotels is in a small town by the name Malko Tarnovo, near the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Bulgarian border guards have used the hotel “Koiat Rog” whose expenses have been paid by the government. Naturally, the hotel is owned by a company belonging to Mr. Simeonov. Indeed, while attacking competitors in the tourism industry, Mr. Simeonov is using his high government position to eliminate any competition to his and his close friends’ businesses.

Finally, Mr. Simeonov has launched an aggressive campaign against an American electricity company, charging that the local affiliate is overcharging customers. Simultaneously, he and his like minded colleagues shuttle between Sofia and Moscow in regular intervals. Knowing the corrupt nature of the Putin government, it is not difficult to conclude that money might be the real motive behind Mr. Simeonov’s patriotic outrage.

In conclusion, Bulgaria deserves better than a Deputy Prime Minister like Mr. Simeonov. Moreover, because of Mr. Erdogan’s erratic domestic and foreign policies, combined with Russia’s illegal seizure of the Crimea, the strategic importance of Bulgaria for NATO is enduring and essential. It is in the United States’ interest too to further the steady development of democracy in this eastern outpost of NATO and the European Union. Prime Minister Borisov has been doing a yeoman’s job steering his country towards political stability and economic prosperity. The United States and the European Union have no better friend than he. Assisting him and his government in their quest is in the best interest of Bulgaria’s allies.