Good Nationalists, Bad Nationalists and Pro-European Governments
Hardly anything could be said in defense of the new government's ideological profile, which is quite blurry; at the same time much can be disputed about its future "pro-European" stance. Will Bulgaria lose momentum in its efforts to enhance democratic values?
Maybe. Or maybe not.
But there are certainly more reasons to believe the latter is true.
On Friday, hours before lawmakers gave the "thumbs up" to Boyko Borisov (once again Prime Minister) and his cabinet, DPS Chair Lyutvi Mestan, leading the party that uses every occasion to remind it is "the most pro-European" party in Bulgaria, painted a gloomy picture of Bulgaria's future, mostly with regard to its geopolitical orientation.
He said "Bulgaria is returning to the state of pre-democracy" and is losing its way, which was previously pointed by its "Euro-Atlantic" integration and its civilizational choice.
It is dangerous "to distinguish between good nationalists and bad nationalists" saying "ones are better or less nationalist than others", also in the words of DPS's leader, referring to the tendency to demonize Ataka (widely considered to be more "radical" in ideology) and the PF, said to be rather "moderate".
In fact Mestan has been crying foul for weeks, sharing its concerns in letters to all leaders of the European Parliament's mainstream parties. One of them, EPP Group head Joseph Daul, even warned GERB leader Boyko Borisov last week against shaking hands with one of the parties in government, the Patriotic Front (PF). Daul argued Europe would not tolerate adherence to such outspoken nationalist values and is against any prospects of the PF entering into a coalition. Borisov was in fact at the verge of renouncing PF's support while Daul was in Bulgaria, though he was quick to backtrack.
Skepticism about what the cabinet of conservative GERB, right-wing Reformist Bloc (RB), nationalist PF and left-wing ABV is quite natural if one judges by the parties' orientation. But is the Front really as "nationalist" as Daul believes?
It says Bulgaria needs tough measures against any prospective threat against Islamic State (IS), mandatory Bulgarian language exams for six-year-olds (a perceived inconvenience for the ethnic Turk minority in a country where Bulgarian is still the single official language) and purging any corrupt cadres from the administration, specially referring to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.
As for the latter, the DPS has good reasons to protest, since PF's accusations (and those of other parties as well) are directly threatening it, but should also try to make their point to fend off any attacks carried out by a vast number of the parties at the moment.
With regard to the former two, bolstering security and promoting integration through language (currently a huge problem for a number of European states) are nothing of an "evil" insofar as they do not go hand in hand with instilling ethnic or religious tensions. But even if these and other points were dangerous and deviating from the concept of being "European", it would be unrealistic to believe they will be achieved.
Austria is certainly an example showing that, honestly speaking, Europe's reaction to perceived nationalism in Bulgaria is nothing uncommon; in 2000 Vienna was imposed sanctions by the (then) 14 other member states over the formation of a coalition government including J?rg Haider's far-right populist Freedom Party of Austria and legitimizing "the extreme right in Europe".
But Bulgaria of the 2010s is definitely not Austria of the 2000s. After the previous relative success of parties like Ataka in Bulgaria's Parliament (it was the fourth-biggest political force in 2013 and had enjoyed some substantial support since 2005) nationalist sentiment in its previous "anti-ethnic" form is not on the rise and seems to have a stable electorate supporting two or three small parties.
And it is precisely Ataka that proves the so much feared "national populism" hardly stands any chance in Bulgaria.
Did Europe intervene when GERB opted to count on the support of both Ataka (then outspokenly anti-Turkish) and the Blue Coalition to form its first government in 2009? Indeed, the move drew criticism from the Party of European Socialists (PES), but no further action ensued. Just as the case with PF is now, Ataka was not in the government. Neither could Brussels do anything when the party was a "kingmaker" in the previous legislature, supporting the quorum of parliamentary sessions and ensuring the socialist-liberal coalition could remain in power. The DPS did not protest then that a party which had previously engaged in acts of violence against Muslims was having a vital role to keep Parliament (and therefore the government) afloat.
At the same time Ataka had made a huge shift in its rhetoric and purported ideology by 2013, de facto renouncing ethnic nationalism and only promoting fight against European "neo-colonialism" (in the new legislature it does not even slam at Europe, but says it should be wary of US influence and seeks to defend it instead). One cannot help thinking this change was conducted while it supported GERB, since it could not be "radical" while at the same time being in power. It also knew that the government parties would never have approved any of its more extreme proposals.
Despite rising fear of Europe's mainstream of political extremists, Brussels (and also politicians in EU members' capitals) are fully aware populists are only able to block motions and cannot be decision-makers. The more power they have, the more they tend to give up some of their harsher demands and soften the tone to guarantee their political survival. This is what Ataka did, and its decision surprisingly yielded results, with the party choosing to gather support by benefiting from dangerous government decisions (experts say it made it into Parliament after the caretaker cabinet gave the green light to a decision to rise electricity prices, provoking social anger and boosting Ataka's projected share of votes days before the October 5 elections).
PF co-head Valeri Simeonov, a former associate of Ataka leader Volen Siderov, and his partner Krasimir Karakachanov seem to be more careful, with Karakachanov surprisingly failing to even declare his years-long aspirations to be Defense Minister (in order to be Deputy Parliament Speaker) in order not to provoke the anger of GERB and the Reformist Bloc.
Bulgaria's political environment is now too tense and people are too tired to strong political messages to allow radicalism. GERB leader Boyko Borisov is, on the one hand, too cautious about his image of a "pro-European reformer" to afford inaction against any demands of such "radical" policies placed by the PF. Patriots, on the other hand, would not risk their alleged role in the government and their secured seats in Parliament, after having entered so narrowly (7.28%), since they do not know where the next vote could lead.
We are now to see if "nationalism" results in any deviations in Bulgaria's "civilizational choice." But judging by parties' current political behavior the worst scenario is that Bulgaria's stance could remain just as "pro-European" as it has always been until now: commitment to reform, but mostly in the form of empty talk.