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The sinking fortunes of Euroscepticism in Bulgaria

by Philip Dandolov , Ph.D.

The 2014 European Parliament elections were notable for the remarkable gains for Eurosceptic forces, mainly in a number of the “old” member states such as France, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. Bulgaria represents an interesting case, as it was one of the few countries in which Euroscepticism saw a significant retreat, with none of the parties that managed to cross the electoral threshold and gain seats in the EP espousing anti-EU orientations.

In explaining the disappointing performance of Bulgarian Eurosceptics, it is of the essence to look at the reasons behind the electoral failure of Ataka (which secured only 2.96% of all votes cast for its worst election performance since the founding of the party in 2005), the key progenitor of the Eurosceptic undercurrent. Three main factors could account for Ataka’s dwindling popularity and its inability to establish itself as a viable challenger to the pro-EU status quo in the country.

The first serious blow to Ataka’s appeal occurred in May 2013 when its party members did not vote against the formation of an unpopular coalition government including the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (MRF).  It has to be noted that the support base of the latter largely consists of ethnic Turks, Romani people, and Muslims of any ethnicity in Bulgaria. While Ataka’s leader Volen Siderov did not endorse MRF’s role at the helm the country and justified his decision to implicitly back the newly formed Oresharski government by referring to the disastrously anti-nationalist policies of the previous administration that had been headed by Boyko Borisov  and had been forced to resign in February 2013 after a wave of public discontent that started off as protests against EU-imposed austerity measures, such assurances were not deemed convincing by the majority of Bulgarian citizens. The appointment of Delyan Peevski, a controversial businessman and media magnate, as head of the DANS national security agency in June 2013 by the new Oresharski government (subsequently reversed) immediately triggered a new wave of massive protests. While the majority of the protesters had a markedly pro-European profile (though some disgruntled former sympathizers of Ataka also participated in them), the demonstrations exhibited a slight anti-Turkish sentiment and a strong dislike of the MRF (of which Peevski is a member), on which Ataka was no longer able to successfully capitalize due to its peculiar position as a “hidden coalition partner” of the new government.  In fact, in that period Ataka was frequently lambasted by protesters with centre-right leanings and patriotic parties such as the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB)  for betraying its nationalist credentials and acting in an opportunistic fashion and contrary to its underlying principles, among which was an uncompromising opposition to and refusal to acknowledge the MRF’s right to call itself a political party.

No longer in a position to credibly claim to be an anti-MRF bulwark in Bulgarian politics, Ataka’s tacit support for BSP was arguably another serious miscalculation, which further reduced its popularity. From the outset, Ataka attempted to portray itself as a party that would keep the new government in check (the reasoning being that if the Oresharski cabinet decided to implement “anti-Bulgarian” policies such as increases in electricity prices, Ataka would pull the trigger on it by joining forces with the main party in opposition Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (CEDB) and voting in favor of a no-confidence motion).  However, among political scientists such as Antoniy Galabov  and the pro-EU crowd on the streets, Ataka’s underlying identity increasingly started to be seen as mirroring that of BSP.

The vast majority of Bulgarian and foreign analysts  are in agreement that BSP was unquestionably Europeanized and pro-integration as early as the late 1990s,  but for many citizens on the centre-right of the political spectrum the party remains strongly associated with “archaic communist values” and even mild pro-Eurasianism rather than Europeanism. The Peevski appointment only served to solidify this perception. As political scientist Ivan Krastev commented in its immediate aftermath, “such shenanigans only made sense if the government had decided for the country to leave the European Union”.  Thus, going back to Ataka, the role that it played as a lynchpin for BSP for a period of more than a year eroded its image as a legitimate anti-establishment party and a “naughty outsider” with more bark than bite. Ataka (at least in the minds of those Bulgarians fully convinced in the merits of EU membership) is perceived to have begun to evolve in the direction of a government insider with the potential to influence the much larger governing party (BSP has since 2005 consistently been the second most supported party) in an anti-European direction. In this regard, while in the past most political scientists viewed Ataka as an irritant rather than a serious threat to the country’s continued Europeanization,  the BSP government’s dependence on Ataka for the political survival of its technocratic government, made the nationalist party appear as a more dangerous force than before to the uncompromisingly pro-EU crowd. It is no surprise that in the early phase of the protests, the demonstrators emphasized the need for “more Europe rather than less” in their exchange of messages with then European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, Viviane Reding, and expressed concerns regarding the Oresharski cabinet’s conciliatory attitude towards Ataka.  When it became clear that the Oresharski government would be unable to fulfill its full mandate after the junior coalition partner (the MRF) called for early elections in June 2014, Ataka followed suit by explicitly withdrawing its support from it,  but this did little to repair the damage to its reputation and placate the pro-EU crowds as well as a significant part of its former nationalist sympathizers. 

To compound matters further, Ataka did not help itself by adopting a manifestly pro-Russian tone in the aftermath of the Ukrainian revolution and the subsequent Crimean crisis, with Siderov’s party being the only one (with Parliamentary representation) in favor of recognizing the constitutionality of the Crimean referendum.  It is certainly possible that the heightened level of threat on the popular level due to Ataka’s misplaced anti-Europeanism in the context of the increasingly lukewarm relationship between Russia and the EU may have played a part in reducing the appeal of Russophilia in Bulgarian society – until then most Bulgarians with admiration of Russia and Russian culture did not necessarily consider themselves opponents of or “hard” Eurosceptics concerning EU membership. While some pro-Russian demonstrations took place in Bulgaria during the 2014 spring season, the turnout was quite small.

Thirdly, new challengers on the nationalist front have been more than willing to use the situation to their advantage and steal the thunder of Ataka. The formation of a Patriotic Front electoral alliance in August 2014 that includes the IMRO – Bulgarian National Movement (the oldest nationalist party in Bulgaria) and the NFSB, which openly acknowledge that they are softly Eurosceptic and fully opposed to Ataka’s virulently anti-EU rhetoric and potent nationalism,  may in the near future provide a new niche for those citizens whose outlooks combine conditional Euroscepticism and strong identification with Bulgarian nationalism. The Patriotic Front has been praised by some political scientists such as Ognyan Minchev  as having the potential to offer an authentic nationalist alternative due to so far resisting the temptation of donning the Russophile mantle (despite the strongly pro-Russian views of a minority of its members).  In the early Parliamentary elections that took place on 5 October 2014 (following Plamen Oresharski’s resignation in July 2014 and the prior agreement between the main political parties), it garnered 7.3% of the votes, emerging as a 5th electoral force (while Ataka occupied the 7th spot in terms of popular backing), earning 19 seats in the National Parliament in comparison to Ataka’s 12.

In essence, Ataka will certainly have a mountain to climb if it is to successfully rebound to its previous heights in the near future (though it did manage to find representation in the 43rd National Parliament, contrary to the expectations of most pre-election pollsters and some sociologists).  The nationalist party has almost exhausted its policy options and to an extent lost its way with the patriotic-minded electorate, even if it still tends to be viewed favorably by those Bulgarians who are concerned that the country may be unnecessarily distancing itself from Russia. A full rebranding of the party may be needed or a steep descent into fringe status in Bulgarian politics appears to be in the books. Bulgaria remains one of the poorest EU member states, but no obvious Eurosceptics (on the right or the left side of the political spectrum) interested in picking up the baton from Ataka are lurking in the shadows.


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