On May 12, Bulgarians went to the polls and gave the nod to the party — Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) — they’d just ousted from government in demonstrations a few months before. The party that came in second, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) was the successor of the Communist Party that had earlier generated a huge wave of protests in 1989-90. Faced with this choice between two different versions of Groundhog Day, many people simply avoided the polls altogether. The turnout for this parliamentary election was the lowest in the country’s short democratic history: only a shade above 50 percent. True, even fewer Bulgarians turn out for the European Parliament elections, but that’s the case throughout the region.
In addition to the usual charges of corruption, fully one quarter of the votes in this election effectively didn’t count. One in four voters chose parties that didn’t make it over the 5 percent threshold. In addition to the two top vote-getters, only two other parties made it into parliament: the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and Ataka. The former, which has traditionally advocated on behalf of minorities such as ethnic Turks, was buoyed by a high turnout of overseas Bulgarians living in Turkey (many of whom were unceremoniously kicked out of the country by the Communist government in the 1980s). The latter, led by journalist firebrand Volen Siderov, has capitalized on discontent with the economy.
So, now the fun begins. Four parties that don’t necessarily have a lot in common must figure out how to form a governing majority. It’s a perennial feature of Bulgarian politics, with the occasional wild card thrown in like a returning King. In fact, it’s so predictable that I talked about the challenge of forming a coalition government way back in October with Iskar Enev, an independent IT professional who helped set up many of my interviews in Bulgaria.
“The biggest winners will be GERB and the Socialists, and the MRF will be the coalition partner that no one can ignore,” he told me. “This will be an unfortunate configuration, and a very unproductive coalition in terms of passing laws.”
Like many Bulgarians, Iskar Enev is pessimistic. He views emigration as a live option. He has lived abroad but now stays in Bulgaria largely out of inertia.
“Maybe something will change and I can help,” he offered in a glimmer of optimism. But it passed quickly. “It’s a minor possibility,” he concluded, “nearing zero in probability!” The May 12 elections, for the time being at least, seem to have confirmed this conclusion.
Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall and what your reaction was?
I actually remember when they were announcing this on TV. I was tying my shoes and preparing to go to school. My father and I were watching TV. I thought that interesting times were to come. But my father said, “This is staged, it’s not genuine. Don’t be so excited.” But I was excited because it was a change and no one knew what would happen. The same day, I was seeing some kids from neighborhoods and we were making political jokes about Todor Zhivkov. But we didn’t know that later that day there would be an announcement of his resignation.
Did much change in your school after that?
Yes, up to that time, we were referring to the teachers as “comrades.” I remember that the teacher came to the classroom and said, “From now on you will call me Mrs.”
How did you feel about that?
It was fun. Now I start to wonder how I was perceiving socialism when I was living in it. I don’t remember now how I was understanding it. I was in the Pioneers, but I didn’t like the uniforms and ties. All the boys were playing cowboys with the ties, and they were dirty all the time. Our parents said we would get in trouble because we weren’t keeping the uniforms clean.
Do you remember the first moment when you became politically aware?
I lived in France from 2001 to 2004, and there I was exposed to extremely political movements like left-wing unions and different informal political groups informal.
You were corrupted by Western leftism.
Yes, you could say that!
You’ve been quite negative in your assessment of what has happened since 1989. Why?
I compare to what could have been done in the health care system, for instance. We’ve gone in the opposite direction, and it’s led to the destruction of so many things.
How do you think the minority question influence the next elections? Will it play a critical determining role or only a minor role?
I think that the ruling party, the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), will make a coalition with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) and maybe the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). I think that BSP will have better results in the next elections, so GERB will have to reconsider. GERB is playing the anticommunist card that makes a coalition with BSP seemingly impossible. But the reality after the next election, in which GERB will still get a lot of votes but not enough for a majority, is that they’ll have to make this coalition. I think that the nationalists will not make it into parliament or they will be very marginal, like Ataka. Ataka has almost ceased to exist. VMRO is very vocal in the media, but I don’t think they have a big enough base to make into parliament. Meglena Kuneva will have better results than the nationalists, but I don’t know. The biggest winners will be GERB and the Socialists, and the MRF will be the coalition partner that no one can ignore. This will be an unfortunate configuration, and a very unproductive coalition in terms of passing laws.
People have a strange love of Borisov. I made a connection to the French Revolution. There was a moment when the people went to the castle of the French kings and took the king to Paris. Even then they were thinking of him as a good king involved with bad people. They even claimed that, for example, Marie Antoinette was spending too much on dresses and that was the reason for the bankruptcy of the country, and it wasn’t the fault of the king.
Some people have told me that things won’t change here until an entire generation dies off. What do you think?
I don’t think that’s the case. That’s a biological perspective on transition. I don’t like it.
What will it take for there to be a fundamental change that you and others are waiting for?
I don’t know what it will take to change things for a better. I used to say as a joke that someone should establish a party for the forced emigration of people. The sole objective would be to make agreements with other countries to forcibly remove all Bulgarians from Bulgaria.
It’s like when the body has a severe infection and you have to replace the entire blood supply!
It was just a joke. People joke that there are only two ways to change Bulgaria. Terminal one and terminal two. That’s where I got the idea from. There have been three waves of mass emigration. The first was after the changes in 1989. The second was in 1999-2000. That’s when my mother went to France. And now in the last 2 years, another wave has been developing.
If these people come back, do you think they will change things?
There are two models. The first group was the young people who came with the Tsar’s party with some western knowledge. They promoted themselves as young qualified Bulgarians coming to help. Then there was the other Bulgarians who came back and were just disappointed. Either way, I don’t see outside people coming back and changing things.
You’re still here. Why didn’t you go to Terminal One or Terminal Two?
I’ve been there. And I came back. I’m party of this second group of disappointed people.
You could leave again.
I came back for personal reasons. And then I just stayed. Inertia. But the prospect of emigration is always valid.
There’s no positive reason for you to stay?
Maybe something will change and I can help. It’s a minor possibility — nearing zero in probability!
What is your feeling about the prospects of the new Left here in Bulgaria?
The new Left has a hard time and will continue to have a hard time because of this perception that it’s associated with the past. It’s very hard for the new Left to introduce any perspectives. I hope this is not the case but the traditional Left in the form of the BSP may try to coopt this movement.
Some people have told me that 15-20 percent of the population supports Ataka policies even if its vote count fluctuates. There’s an even larger number that supports a softer extreme nationalism. What do you think?
I think that the core supporters of these extreme nationalists are really marginal. But as you said, the support for this soft nationalism is much larger. What concerns me is that not many politicians or other people address the problems that these supporters of soft nationalism are worried about. It’s a mistake to leave these problems to nationalist parties and organizations. Whether it’s the new Left or the organized parties, someone has to address these concerns or these people will turn to rightwing parties. But I don’t see this happening.
Sofia, October 1, 2012