Communists vs Anti-Communists: Is Bulgaria Still Divided?
As Bulgaria’s presidential candidates have been trading increasingly vicious blows bidding to become the next head of state on Sunday, an issue that long dominated the public debate has resurfaced: the division of “communists” and “anti-communists” in the public space.
To raise the issue twenty-seven years into democracy – an anniversary celebrated this week – seems strange for a country that has been an EU member since 2007 and became a NATO state three years earlier, having confirmed its Western orientation in the 1990s and not having seen a major political party deny it since then. What is more, most Bulgarians clearly prefer their country to remain in the EU and there has not been any widespread anti-Western movement even as the migrant crisis and Brexit called European unity into question.
So, Why Even Talk about It?
It all began just after the presidential election’s first round, when exit poll results were announced giving an edge to Rumen Radev, the candidate backed by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) whose running mate is an MEP with the party.
“There is a risk that Bulgaria will wake up next week to a President who is a red general,” Health Minister Petar Moskov, a member of right-wing DSB party, said. “I want Bulgaria to continue being part of NATO and the EU, so there is one single line despite all the differences between GERB and RB,” he said, in a reference to the main ruling GERB party and its junior coalition partner Reformist Bloc (RB), of which DSB was part until earlier this week.
Bozhidar Lukarski, the leader of UDF party which is a key member of the RB, added that it was important not to allow “Communists” to return to power. “We removed the Communists and now do not expect from us to be the party that once again will return them to have the power to get decisions,” Lukarski explained – and he was meaning the Bulgarian Socilaist Party (BSP) which endorsed Radev and which is a direct heir to the Bulgarian Communist Party (BKP), the one that ruled Bulgaria during the Cold War.
He also argued there is “a clear dividing line of ‘communism vs anti-communism’ in these elections and urged people from the right-wing political spectrum to oppose Radev’s candidacy.
During her televised debate with Radev, three days out of the runoff, GERB candidate Tsetska Tsacheva on Thursday “revealed” in front of the public that her grandfather had been executed by the Communist authorities in 1952 (claiming that was the first time she was making the confession in public – even though she had done so in a 2011 interview). Despite not being a direct attack at Radev, her words may resonate with those Bulgarian nationals whose relatives or beloved ones fell victims to Communism. However, it may leave indifferent those who remember that Tsacheva, not knowing about the fate of her grandfather, was a member of the BKP herself.
Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov went even further this week warning that, with the prospect of Radev winning and a new socialist-dominated government being formed upon Borisov’s resignation, Bulgaria may be facing a choice of civilization.
Does the “Anti-Communism” Tune Hold Ground?
The BSP gave up communist ideology, refurbishing and rebranding itself for the public, in the mid-1990s. However, its active political presence (including several governments it formed) during Bulgaria’s transition prompts many to hold the party accountable for widespread corruption, stagnant economic standards, and a perception Bulgaria is being outperformed by all Eastern European member states when it comes to democratization.
This fire is also being fuelled by the RB, an heir to the vibrant anti-communist movement of the 1990s which swept to power in 1997, but ended up falling to pieces four years later and has been trying to ramp up support by vowing to eradicate “communists” even from the shady links of power – an unmistakable, almost archetypical reference to the BSP. The RB has also been warning the country will be pulled away from its Euro-Atlanticist path and drive it the Russian orbit again in the event of socialists gaining more levers on power. Moreover, as the BSP kept its ties to Russia and, accordingly, the support of the nostalgic part of the elderly Russophile electorate (many voters who were active citizens under Communism do not share these feelings) - even though Vladimir Putin and other executive officials in the country are far from being left-of-center.
A common perception has thus become the association of the BSP with “communism” and “Russia”, despite the fact that Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, whose party GERB is conservative and has also used the “anti-communist” card, has also been seeking rapprochement with Russia over the past months.
Does the Anti-Communism Rhetoric Play to Anyone’s Advantage?
Whether an election can be won along "communism-anticommunism" lines has however become a matter of dispute.
While social scientist Andrey Raytchev, co-founder of Gallup International, disbelieves portraying a candidate as "anti-European" cannot work to the main ruling party's advantage, electoral affairs expert Dimitar Dimitrov is confident her personal story will reverberate with "a generation that can imagine what a burden such family secrets have been throughout people's lives."
Young people, however, view Communism and the post-communist transition as "Medieval history" and cannot find any emotion in it, Dimitrov has added in an interview with the Bulgarian National Radio.
According to Professor Nadezhda Mihaylova - Stalyanova, the collision works only for one part of the Bulgarian voters, mainly for those who are more politically active. Stalyanova, who heads the Center for Investigation of Political Speech, has told the Bulgarian National Television She also says that recently there is a big change in the political speech in Bulgaria, especially during the last week.
According to Mihail Mirchev, a left-leaning social scientist who ran for Sofia Mayor on the BSP’s ticket last year, Radev is not part of the left-wing political space and is more playing to the right, so these elections “would be difficult to fit into the left-right spectrum”.
Other voices have questioned the term “communist” as misleading, many former BKP members having migrated to other political structures.
An outspoken communist, Kostadin Chakarov, the ex-head of the Union of Communists in Bulgaria, told Bulgaria On Air TV earlier this week that "a vast part of the people after November 10 [the onset of democratic changes" fled the Communist party and crept [into all other parties]" as the regime was being dismantled.
The voice of communists in Bulgaria is isolated, with one having to be "anti-communist" to earn a good position in the public space. "Being wealthy and building a career is tied to being anti-communist. Bulgarian[s] are practical and have tilted this direction."
On Sunday, Bulgaria faces neither a “choice of civilization” or a Russia-EU dilemma. The division is only being artificially fomented by parties and their effort to appeal to certain voters. In fact, both candidates have sought dialogue with the Russophile electorate by either seeking a removal of sanctions on Russia or arguing Sofia should pursue a friendly relationship with Moscow. This makes the “communism” divide irrelevant – but certainly adds to it a pro-Russian tune, without ditching NATO or the EU.
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