Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.
Three items in Volen Siderov’s office reflect his current image. The religious icons on the wall speak to his embrace of traditional Bulgarian values and to the agreement his party concluded with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in 2006. The antique sword hanging nearby stands in for his militancy. And the heavy boxing bag is part of his personal commitment to physical fitness as well as a willingness to engage in physical altercations.
Volen Siderov is the leader of Ataka, perhaps the most controversial political party in Bulgaria. Ataka – or Attack – came to prominence in 2005, when it placed fourth in the parliamentary elections. Siderov himself came in second in the presidential race the following year. The party’s platform mixes a left-wing critique of globalization with a frankly nationalist approach to minority policy. He wants to replace Bulgaria’s flat tax with a progressive tax, but he believes that all ethnic Turks are just Bulgarians forced to convert to Islam in centuries past. He is deeply suspicious of neo-liberalism, but he also blames Roma for crime and corruption and doesn’t acknowledge attacks on the Roma community.
Siderov made the leap into politics from journalism. He was the editor of the opposition newspaper Democratsiaback in 1990. He started a TV show called Ataka in 2003 that would serve as a platform for his political views. Ataka, I’ve been told, came very close in 2005 to seizing power during the political chaos that eventually produced a coalition government of King Simeon’s party, the Socialists, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Although Ataka again came in fourth in the 2009 elections, with nearly 10 percent of the votes, the party has since faded. Siderov pulled in less than 4 percent of votes in the 2011 presidential elections, and the party’s popularity dropped below 2 percent earlier this year. It has since climbed back to about 5 percent.
I interviewed Volen Siderov in his office in Sofia back in October. His press department arranged for two large cameras to record the interview, one trained on him and the other on me. My portable videocam looked like a toy in comparison. The camera crew looked more like Occupy protestors, with t-shirts and hightops, than the followers of a far-right party. The modern, well-secure office was buzzing with activity, which was in stark contrast with the dusty and nearly empty office of the Social Democratic Party that I’d recently visited.
Most of the interview was taken up with Siderov’s response to my initial question about 1989, which provided the Ataka perspective on recent Bulgarian history. It was more of a lecture than a Q and A. He spoke very calmly, prompting my interviewer to remark afterward on the sharp contrast with his appearances in parliament and on TV.
On economic matters, Siderov indeed sounded like a left-wing critic. “I started to realize that the process of globalization might be good for some people but not at all for others,” he told me. “Several years later, the works of Joseph Stiglitz from the World Bank were published in Bulgaria, and I read my thoughts in his articles. He, and others from the World Bank and the IMF, argued that the goal of these financial institutions was to colonize poor developing countries. Instead of strengthening these countries, which is the purpose of these institutions, they were actually marginalizing them, converting them into large masses of poor people without their own industry or a much-needed public sector. In addition, there was the dominating presence of transnational companies in these countries, which sucked up all the profits.”
But when the conversation turned to social matters, he popped up on the other side of the political spectrum. He denied the reports of attacks on Roma that had taken place in Bulgaria. It was the opposite, he insisted.
“The struggle of our party is to make the Bulgarian nationality a category of prestige, so that the inhabitant of a ghetto would be proud to call himself Bulgarian,” he told me. “My concern is that a number of international organizations instill the thought in these people that they are different and should act differently. But, anthropologically, they are not much different. They are not colored. We do not have the difference between blacks and whites here. Racism was never an issue in Bulgaria. However, when crime rates rise, and all this crime originates in these ethnic groups, people start having negative sentiments. So there is not a single village in Bulgaria that has not been robbed by the Gypsy groups.”
Those who believe that Ataka is a party of the past should not write off Siderov so quickly. He is politically adept, able to craft his message for different audiences, and clearly tapping into the considerable anger in the Bulgarian population about two decades and more of inequitable economic reform. Though interethnic relations in Bulgaria are relatively good by Balkan standards, considerable tensions exist below the surface that a nationalist party can exploit. The next Bulgarian parliamentary elections will take place in May. Ataka won’t win, but it could gain enough seats to play a role in determining the ultimate outcome.
I am on the U.S. blacklist. Yes I am, truly. Mr. Warlick, the latest U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, had an interesting encounter with me in a restaurant. Sitting there, several tables away, I wrote on a piece of paper that the United States owes Bulgaria about $2 billion dollars for the military bases they have in Bulgaria. They have failed to pay this debt since 2006. This was a rough estimate of the rent on four military bases in Bulgaria. I handed him this sheet of paper, and I told him, “You have a bill to pay.” He threw it away, and he said he would destroy me. That’s the absolute truth. There are a lot of witnesses. There’s even an amateur video. This is why I’m saying that I’m on the blacklist.
I work a lot in Japan where the United States has even more bases and owes even more money.
They should claim it then.
They’ve tried. They’ve gotten the same answer.
Okay, that’s the official policy then. I should know not to feel like the special U.S. enemy.
Can you tell me something about the events that took place in 1989 and you’ve involvement and evaluation of them?
Events are an abstraction. One can evaluate people, or groups of people, or governments, or organizations. But the events in Bulgaria were not the result of natural phenomena. They were the result of well-focused policy, externally and internally.
Back in 1988 and 1989, I was a member of organizations that were against the communist regime, such as Ecoglasnost, the Union for Human Rights, and the Podkrepa trade union. I was the secretary of the Sofia organization of Podkrepa prior to 1989. This was a dissident struggle that did not attract many people. It was mainly the intelligentsia and mainly people from Sofia. People in these organizations believed that with the fall of the communist regime, things would settle down in a democratic fashion along the lines of the freedoms that were missing — the freedom of expression, the freedom of speech — as well as in terms of lifestyle, because back then we were frustrated from an economic point of view. The Communist nomeklatura had a life of luxury, whereas those who were not a part of the nomeklatura did not have such opportunities.
It turned out that we were too naive. Because back then, there were 12 members of the politburo of the Communist Party, along with their families. Nowadays, the nomenklatura, the economic oligarchy, is much more numerous. However, the division between the very rich and the very poor is much larger.
Going back to 1990, this movement, the Union of Democratic Forces came into being, which included 16 organizations. And in February 1990, the Democratsia daily newspaper started to be issued. This attracted the hopes of so many people. They believed that this organization would resolve problems and impose justice. In fact, looking back on these days from the distance of time, this was not even possible, because we had neither the people prepared to do this, nor did we have the vision of what to do. Cliches were thrown into the air, such as “Let’s dismantle the totalitarian system” and “let’s have pluralism” and “let’s impose a market economy.” Such clichés were accepted without criticism and analysis. The absence of a vision was used by the former communist party to preserve its power in the form of an economic oligarchy and to strengthen the position it had with various institutions.
This internal deception is clear. Less clear is the external deception that happened during the period 1990-1992.
I will tell you a story that I witnessed personally. At the end of 1990, in November, the second cabinet of then-Prime Minister Andrei Lukhanov resigned. In the elections for the national assembly that had taken place the previous June, the Bulgarian Communist Party (BSP) had preserved its dominant positions. However Zheliu Zhelev from the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) was elected president. There was no constitution in place. So, in November, there was strong turmoil, a lot of rallies and strikes were going on, and eventually Lukhanov did resign.
In Zheliu Zhelev’s office, all the leaders of the organizations within the UDF got together with the leaders of the BSP: Aleksandar Lilov, Zhan Videnov, and others. I was present as the head of the Demokratsia. We started discussing what to do next. The cabinet had been ousted, and in a crisis like this the usual approach is to hold new elections. The people in favor of holding new elections were several people from the UDF, including me, Aleksandar Jordanov of the Radical Democratic Party, Petar Dertliev of the Social Democrats, and Peter Slabakov from Ecoglasnost. All the rest representing the UDF, however, opted for the other approach: not having elections.
Then, out of the blue, Zheliu Zhelev gave his opinion. He said: “If we have new elections, it will mean civil war in Bulgaria.” We couldn’t record this meeting, but I took notes and I have a detailed record. After that, the UDF representatives laid low and agreed to his opinion. This is how, with just a single phrase, Zhelev ultimately crushed the hopes of victory for the UDF. At the time, the opinion polls indicated that if new elections were held, the UDF would have been victorious. We would have had our revenge for the parliamentary loss in June. But Zhelev said, flatly, “no,” because somebody suggested to him that this would mean civil war.
Three or four months earlier, during the June elections, there had been no indication of a civil war. I’m sure there would’ve been no civil war that November. But Lukhanov and his group had instilled this thought in Zheliu Zhelev that elections should not be held again and a sort of expert government should be established instead. So, on January 1, 1991, a mixed coalition cabinet led by Dimitar Popov was set up without elections. The vice prime minister representing UDF was Dimitar Ludzhev and Aleksandar Tomov was the representative of BSP. The UDF had several ministers, including the minister of finance, Ivan Kostov, and the minister of industry, Ivan Pushkarov. There were also several ministers representing the BSP.
The voters got confused. We received very strong feedback from the readers of Democratsia. They asked us what we were doing. Was the UDF in power or were we the opposition? After all, you can’t criticize a cabinet in which you have your own ministers. This resulted in a drop in support for and satisfaction with the UDF. The national assembly had no limitation in time: it could have lasted for five years. And this type of cabinet made the picture rather fuzzy.
There was also a more radical current: the movement of 39 people who held a hunger strike in the park in front of the parliament building. They were insisting on quick elections. I supported them as the head of the newspaper, although I collided with the political director of the newspaper. That was Georgi Spasov, an advisor to president Zhelev. He took the opposite view: that the 39 people were not right and we should continue with what we were doing.
This was a very critical situation. It was quite unnerving. Popov’s government liberalized the prices, and suddenly the prices went up several times. There was four hundred percent inflation, and this melted away the savings of the people. This was the first strike against the finances of the average Bulgarian person.
At the end in 1991, we finally managed to have new elections. The UDF had a 1% majority, but we didn’t have enough MPs to form a parliamentary majority. And Philip Dimitrov became the prime minister after being forced to align with the pro-Turkish party of Ahmet Dogan, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. This government lasted for eleven months until Dogan withdrew his support. At the end of 1992, this cabinet stepped down after a non-confidence vote in parliament.
Again no elections were held. The same trick was used for a second time. But a government was set up, again an expert government, with President Zhelev advisor Lyuben Berov in charge as prime minister. And this government lasted for almost two years. During this time, the melting away of people’s savings continued. We also saw the rise of criminal groups, of gangsters. The power of the state was missing; the police were not there. Along Rakovski Street you could hear gunfire.
This gangster time in Bulgaria was the second blow against the middle class. Anybody with a business, a small shop or anything, was subject to racketeering. To get protection, they paid for a sticker that indicated that a particular criminal group guarded their business. Otherwise people were beaten up, shops were destroyed, and the state was not there to interfere. Bulgaria had 62,000 policemen at the time. These criminal groups could have easily been neutralized. My personal view is that three weeks, maybe a month, would have been enough to do away with them.
But that didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen for a purpose. This anarchy made it possible for the enrichment of those in power, and those related to them. All this racketeering was orchestrated. Behind each gangster group or leader, there was a cop, an agent from the secret service, or someone from the regular police force. The gangsters were well protected: by the police, by the prosecutor’s office, and by the court. Of course, this involved massive bribery, and widespread corruption undermined the state. The role models for children, for youngsters, were those criminal bosses.
Many of these gangers were former athletes, mainly from wrestling but also martial arts and boxing. Before 1990, the state had taken great care of these athletes. They were educated in special schools. They had a number of privileges. They had good salaries if they brought back medals from competitions. At some point, however, they were told that they could rob and beat up people, and nobody would touch them. These guys were well disciplined. They were raised in sports boarding schools, where discipline was very strict. They would never do racketeering or inflict violence unless told to.
Finally, at the end of 1994, we had elections. So, that was four years without elections, from 1991 to 1994. This is why I’m against the non-political expert government: the responsibility is vague and you don’t know who’s in charge. In 1994, the Bulgarian Socialist Party came back as a legitimate power because this period of anarchy and lack of security shattered the trust of the people that a democratic society could be build with a strong order and rule of law. The rich became the symbol of criminality, so whoever had money was a criminal. This is how the idea emerged that the Bulgarian capitalist is a bad guy and the government is also a bad owner of property—this is something that the UDF insisted on too. People suggested that Bulgaria could not deal on its own as a state, nor could it introduce a market economy. If capitalism in Bulgaria was charged with criminality, every capitalist was a criminal. This was not true of course, but this was the perception of the people.
In the next period, the period of colonization began. So Bulgarians did not trust in their own society. They did not believe that the state could ensure order, that there could be a Bulgarian sort of capitalism. And this is how the erroneous conclusion emerged that somebody from the outside should come here and establish rules for the country. If everyone here is a bandit, then somebody should come here to take over our assets. This is how the understanding of a normal rule of law, a normal state, and a normal economic model was corrupted.
Then the next crisis hit us hard, the currency crisis at the end of 1996. This was related to the loss of value of the Bulgarian leva, the bankruptcy of banks, and the melting away of the last savings that people had. This currency crisis resulted in ousting the government of the BSP. In the elections of 1997, the UDF returned to power under the leadership of Ivan Kostev. During this government, the model for colonizing Bulgaria evolved fully.
The economic assets that Bulgaria had at this time were neither small nor purely operational. During communism, when we intellectuals protested against the restrictions on intellectual and artistic freedom, a lot of economic capacities were nevertheless built up at the time. Some of these economic capabilities were very successful. We exported not only to the Soviet Bloc but also to Western countries. We had a well-developed chemical industry, auto industry, metallurgy. There was serious manufacturing, which not only provided a livelihood for the population — despite the leveling out of incomes — there was no unemployment during communism. It was not only heavy industry. Agriculture was traditionally a well-developed sector in Bulgaria. Also during communism a social system was built, which provided free and accessible education and healthcare for the masses. There were recreational facilities, and there were opportunities to buy property and get cheap loans. That is to say, the socialist order provided a measure of social security. True, you couldn’t get rich fast. You couldn’t become a banker or an oligarch. But you could have a well-ordered and secure life ahead of you. For most people, this was an acceptable model.
During that period of time, all these capacities that were operational were destroyed. They were closed down without building anything in their place. In 1997, total privatization started. It was done the Bolshevik way. Everything was privatized very quickly. When you do this quickly and on a large scale, someone inevitably loses out. The numbers vary, but one estimate is that assets of over 100 billion leva were sold for 2 billion leva. Basically, operational factories and companies were given away for petty cash. Afterwards, a number of these facilities were broken down and sold for scrap. During this period, 1997-2001, millions of Bulgarians lost their jobs when factories closed down. This resulted in social collapse for a large number of Bulgarian people.
At the same time, a small group of people got richer and richer. If because of privatization, you sell a factory that’s worth 1 billion leva for 10 million leva, and you put 2 million leva in your pocket, suddenly you’re a millionaire, after being just a clerk earning 200 leva a month. At the same time, however, the livelihood and the future of 3,000 people that used to work there and their families are destroyed. The cynicism of all this was that the Kostev government claimed this was what capitalism was all about, this is how things should be done. They didn’t say it as their own conviction. It was instilled in their brains from outside. In 1997, immediately after the elections, the expert government of Stefan Sofiyanski signed a memorandum with the IMF, which obligated Bulgaria to carry out this total privatization very quickly, irrespective of price, and liquidate its social sector, cutting its educational and health care systems. This was called a reform without any vision of what was actually necessary.
I can understand privatizing an asset to make it work better. If it produced a product that could be sold on the market, create new jobs for the people, and improve salaries for the workers so they can have a better standard of living, then we would all applaud this privatization. But the very opposite happened, in fact.
During these years I realized that our enthusiasm in 1990 was misplaced. By opening up to the process of globalization we weakened our government and our state. It may be good for the companies that come over and buy Bulgarian firms, but it’s not good for Bulgaria.
In one of the first deals, for instance, the Belgian company Union Minière came over and purchased a copper company in Pirdop, near Sofia. Several years passed before it became clear that, through this deal, the foreign company had enriched itself. In the sludge itself there were some precious metals, which were very valuable. The waste alone brought more profit to the company than the price it paid for the factory. And this company was paying salaries to Bulgarian workers that were 10 to 15 times lower than the salaries it paid its Belgian workers. Nobody in Bulgaria was fighting for higher salaries. The trade unions should have intervened, but they had different games to play. The government literally stated, and I’ll quote from memory, “Welcome investors: we have cheap labor to provide.”
So, like a pimp, the prime minister of Bulgaria offered his own fellow countrymen to work for petty cash. Instead of protecting the Bulgarian population, instead of insisting to investors that Bulgarian workers should be paid similar salaries or at least half the amount, the prime minister allowed Bulgarian workers to be paid 200 euro where Belgian workers received 2000.
This was yet another blow to the average Bulgarian. Even those with jobs received such small salaries that they couldn’t make it into the middle class. My accusation to the West in general — the civilized, great, and unattainable West – was that it never once said, “Stop it, you’re wrong, this privatization is going the wrong way. Do not rob your own people.” What would have been the right approach to making Bulgaria a member of the family of well-developed countries? There was no response from the EU or the European Community back then, nor from the United States. The U.S. ambassadors took a very didactic stance on a number of issues, but I never heard them wonder how a pensioner would survive on a pension of 50 or 100 euro a month. How could people make ends meet at all? If you want to have a solid partner, that country should have a middle class. The United States and Western countries should partner with it as an equal.
When I realized that things were going the wrong way, I came to the conclusion that principles of national sovereignty, or nationalism as we define our political party Ataka, was a defensive response to this collapse of the state, the economy, and the social system. I started to realize that the process of globalization might be good for some people but not at all for others. Several years later, the works of Joseph Stiglitz from the World Bank were published in Bulgaria, and I read my thoughts in his articles. He, and others from the World Bank and the IMF, argued that the goal of these financial institutions was to colonize poor developing countries. Instead of strengthening these countries, which is the purpose of these institutions, they were actually marginalizing them, converting them into large masses of poor people without their own industry or a much-needed public sector. In addition, there was the dominating presence of transnational companies in these countries, which sucked up all the profits.
Ideologically, I realized that there was a clash between the model of globalization and the model of national identity. This is not the clash of civilizations offered by Samuel Huntington, the clash between Islam and Christianity. The true clash is between the globalization model and the well-developed national sovereign state that has a well-preserved identity, economy, middle class, and social system. During the last 22 years, Bulgaria has become a more strongly colonized country. After the period of total privatization, several governments came to power with a softer approach to governance. But the assets were already stolen. Which meant that the subsequent governments – of King Simeon II, the tripartite government of Sergey Stanishev, and now the GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria) government — could reshuffle what was left and take what was possible to take.
Currently, we have a colonization model, which is supported by this government. The evidence of this is that Bulgaria is fourth in terms of gold deposits, and experts in geology claim that the gold deposits that we have not yet developed are worth hundreds of billions. And yet the government has given a 30-year concession on these deposits to a foreign company. This company is exporting whatever it finds without any controls. It makes huge profits and pays a very minimal concession fee. Similarly, Bulgaria sold all the sectors with guaranteed profits –electric company, mobile networks, water utility.
And this is how we get to vision of the Ataka party that I established in 2005 as a patriotic formation to stand up against globalization, the model that has destroyed the state. We argue that all the sectors that are profitable should be in Bulgarian hands. This is not xenophobic; it doesn’t indicate a bad attitude toward foreign companies. It only originates from our desire to protect Bulgarian interests. If Bulgaria were at the level of Luxembourg or Germany or the Netherlands, parties such as this one wouldn’t be necessary. However, having analyzed the reasons for the poor standard of living of Bulgarians, I realized that the colonization model was to blame. I realized that some opposition to this process was needed and that Bulgarian nationalism, as I defined it, was a defensive response to the disintegration that took place. Just as a body, which is infected with a virus, starts building up its own resistance through the activation of the immune system, the same happens with societies.
However, my discrediting started as a result of this approach. For a period of seven years now, the mass media has presented me as too extreme, as a person who is dangerous, who stirs up hostility against non-Bulgarians, as a very fearful nationalist who would start a civil war. Again this threat of a civil war! People are easily scared. They don’t want to have clashes or riots. It’s very easy to lie to them, and to say to them I’m an extremist who’s against the Gypsies, the Muslims. This is how the political influence of Ataka, and of the ideology I created, was pushed to the margin. And instead of having a stronger presence and influence in parliament as a counterbalance to the colonization policy, we received only 8 or 9% of the votes. And now there is a struggle pushing us even further to the margins.
This has been very interesting, especially the discussion of the clash between globalization and sovereignty, the mistakes made over privatization, the decision by Zhelev to avoid a civil war. I want to ask you another question about 1990. Another issue that was very important at that time, was the question of the role of ethnic Turks and the rise of Movement for Rights and Freedom. I’m curious whether you think there was a different approach that could have been made at that time on ethnic minority issues.
Whether a different approach was possible is not worth discussing. Because only time can tell what was right and wrong. The paradox here was that when I was part of the dissident organizations before 1989, I was against this forceful change of the names of the movement—they’re not Turks, but that is another story. As intellectuals, we were against violence (although there were no such severe repressions as it is presented now). But there was this attempt to forcefully change the names. Now, however, I think this was a good thing, because these people are the descendants of Bulgarians who were converted to Islam by force.
After the Seljuk Turks invaded the region as the occupier in the 14th century, there were two big waves of mass conversion to Islam, and Bulgarians suffered the most of all the Balkan people. Some scholars estimate that if this genocide against Bulgarians did not take place, we would have been a nation of 50-60 million in the 19th century, similar to Germany and France. The duration of the yoke imposed on Bulgaria during the Ottoman Empire was 482 years, and during these centuries a Bulgarian Christian had no rights. He was the third category of human being. He couldn’t ride a horse. He couldn’t own property. He couldn’t build a church with a tower higher than a mosque. He had to pay a separate tax for not being Muslim. Every two years, every Bulgarian family had to give away their healthiest and the strongest boys. This happened by force, of course. These were the so-called janissaries, a special squad in the Turkish army. They were converted to Islam, turned into fanatics, and these same people came back as Muslims to kill their own countrymen.
One of the most enlightened Turkish statesmen of the mid-19th century — he graduated from the Sorbonne in France and was in charge of the Russe region – wrote an article for Scientific Review, a French magazine, in the 1860s. The article was on Balkan relations, and he said that on the territory of Bulgaria at the time – which included Thrace and Macedonia — there were a million-plus Muslim people. They were not Turks. They were all descendants of Bulgarians that had converted to Islam. This was something written by a Turk who eventually became an Ottoman prime minister. It’s not a claim made by me, who is supposed to be a xenophobe and extremist. I say this because in 1989 and 1990, and afterward, we’ve been told that these people are Turks, that they are ethnically different. But the people living in the Rhodope Mountains, in particular, don’t even speak Turkish. They are Muslim, but they keep Christian symbols in their houses that were handed down through the generations. In their graveyards, archeological excavations have turned up Christian icons and Christian symbols. So, these people keep the memory of their Christian identity.
However, since 1989, Turkey began to act through its secret services and government authorities to stir up these people and persuade them that they are Turks, that Turkey was their homeland, that they were being humiliated and oppressed in Bulgaria, and that they should rise up and oppose the government. Between 1985 and 1989, there was a series of terrorist attacks in Bulgaria. Bombs were blown up. The most serious attack happened at the Bunovo railway station. A bomb was placed in a carriage for women and children, and eight people were killed, including a pregnant woman. The responsibility was taken by the Turkish National Liberation Front. Their activists afterward became the leaders of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Indeed, some of them were incarcerated, but terrorism is prosecuted very severely everywhere. Some received the death sentence, back when capital punishment was still in place.
At the beginning, the initial name of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was the Movement for Rights and Freedoms of Turks Living in Bulgaria. This ending was dropped eventually. It was established as an organization based on religious beliefs. I’m not saying ethnic here because I just stated that I don’t think these people are ethnic Turks. But in order for one to understand this clearly one should spend a lot of time studying the sources. Nowadays they are all referred to as Turks. By calling them Turks we are actually helping the policy of Turkey, which claims that every Muslim is Turkish. The Turkish constitution has a provision, probably one of the first of its kind, which states that each Turkish citizen is Turkish by nationality. Their policy aims to suggest that whoever is Muslim is Turkish.
Since 1989, the Turkish secret services and government authorities are very active in manipulating the people living in the Rhodope Mountains. They close them off in close-knit communities, and they instill in them the notion that they are different from Bulgarians. And these people, 20 years on, have become even more close-knit and isolated. Those who didn’t even speak Turkish were trained in the language. A lot of money is invested in setting up their schools, mainly religious schools. And this community is now a state within a state.
This is a danger for Bulgaria, because we as patriots would like to integrate these people in a normal way. We do not want to be in this inappropriate situation in which a citizen from the city of Kardzhali cannot even communicate in Bulgarian and is a foreigner in his own country. This is all done with a purpose by envoys coming from Turkey, and with the support of the leaders of the Movement for Rights and Freedom. At the same time, I’m used as the scarecrow, and my party is depicted as an enemy that would like to destroy them. These people are hard working but uneducated, and it’s not difficult to manipulate such people. They form a close-knit community, which always votes for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms no matter what. When the elections come up, they line up and vote for a number. They vote for a number that was given to them in advance. This is why Ahmed Dogan, their leader, has no need to deliver speeches in parliament. He’s an MP, but he never sets foot in parliament.
Another major problem in Bulgaria is the criminality of the Gypsy minority. There’s the same syndrome of encapsulation. The Gypsy barons are also bosses of criminal groups. They are interested in closing off this population, in keeping this group poorly educated, illiterate even, in order to use them for drug dealing and other kinds of criminal activity. The profits from all this goes into their hands. The Roma neighborhoods do not pay taxes. They do not pay electricity or water bills. They line up to receive their social welfare and child welfare. They don’t work. They’re always shrugging and saying, “No work’s available for us.” How can there be work for someone who could never read or write? When schools were set up to encourage children from the Roma minority to study, providing them busses and snacks, they just didn’t go. The parents didn’t let them go. Because the children were needed to be trained to be pickpockets or for begging. It’s more profitable than work.
To what do you think is the proper policy, specifically on Roma issues?
The policy should be to give opportunities for mandatory primary education and imposing sanctions if children don’t go to school. No social assistance should be given to families whose children do not go to school or to parents who just pretend to look for a job. And this is how we get to another one of our vices. Usually the governments don’t want exercise such control because of the so-called purchased votes. I can swear that we never bought Gypsy votes, but I think that there is no other party in Bulgaria that has not bought Gypsy votes. The mechanism is simple: money is given to people in charge, who collect the ID cards of the Gypsies and they go to vote.
I’m curious if you’ve worked with some of those people in the Roma community to come up with an alternative policy.
I do not have the executive power to do that. If I did, if I had some financial control, I would do that. I would say that there are no collective rights and freedoms. Rights and freedoms are individual, and everybody is responsible for their own development. These communities should be taken out of their own isolation. These people should be forced to send their children to school. They should be taken out of this environment, which only breeds crime, and each child should be allowed to develop on their own individually.
Do you support the desegregation policies?
There are such schools already. We never had a problem with such mixed schools. We never had a negative attitude. In fact, this ethnic division is not correct because we are all Bulgarian nationals. This is our view. By insisting on ethnic origin, people are artificially separated. I don’t understand why politicians and political commentators and the Gypsy leaders themselves insist on specifying what ethnic group they represent. I, for instance, represent the ethnicity of the Thracian Bulgarians. I can speak about the history of my family. But we in this nation are Bulgarian nationals. And if you focus on ethnic origin, whether you’re Gypsy or Eskimo, no matter what, you place ethnic origin above the nation, and it should be the other way around. Americans say that they are Americans. They may be of Puerto Rican origin or Black, but they are still Americans.
The struggle of our party is to make the Bulgarian nationality a category of prestige, so that the inhabitant of a ghetto would be proud to call himself Bulgarian. My concern is that a number of international organizations instill the thought in these people that they are different and should act differently. But, anthropologically, they are not much different. They are not colored. We do not have the difference between blacks and whites here. Racism was never an issue in Bulgaria. However, when crime rates rise, and all this crime originates in these ethnic groups, people start having negative sentiments. So there is not a single village in Bulgaria that has not been robbed by the Gypsy groups. People are attacked. They are killed only for 10 leva. There are shocking stories. The government overlooks these crimes. There is even a directive that the police should not intervene, so as not to create any ethnic tensions. This creates even worse sentiments among Bulgarians, because they feel that a double standard is being applied.
There a number of reports of such attacks, but on Roma. With the police not interfering.
Attacks on Roma? I’m curious to seeing such data. I don’t know who would write such reports. This is far from the truth. Attacks on Roma, for being Roma alone, are unheard of. If there were some clashes, they were between the Roma people who perpetrated certain acts. However, a number of organizations offer double standards and write such reports. It doesn’t matter for these organizations if a Roma person committed a crime. It only matters that someone is sent to prison. Then they start providing lawyers, and they claim that repression is exerted. This is very harmful because it creates a double standard. The law should be the same for everyone, and right now it’s not. There have been cases, which I’ve quoted them in parliament. The forest ranger, whose job is to protect a forest, sees Gypsies cutting trees illegally. He tries to interfere, and a gang of 10, 15, 20 people fight back with knives and axes. The person ends up in the hospital in critical condition, and he says he will never again intervene. The police patrol goes to intervene in a fight at a weeding, and against three policemen there are 30 or 50 people. And if the policeman shoots, he will be sent to jail. So, no policemen would like to intervene. This is the reality. I’m not basing my attitude on the fact that people are of such an origin. The facts are shocking. And this is how the negative attitude towards the whole ethnic community is shaping up, and this is not good, and I do not agree with this. But it’s the logical consequence of the state of affairs.
You talked about globalization. As you probably know, globalization also has had negative effects on the United States. Even though the United States benefits, we’ve lost manufacturing in the United States. A very similar kind of collapse of manufacturing happened as here in Bulgaria. But the question is, most people here in Bulgaria say, “Bulgaria has no choice.” It’s a small country, with 7.5 million people. How can Bulgaria find a place in the world without integration in Europe, and integration in the global economy. What other option is there? And I’m honestly interested, because I have no answers.
There are countries that are not integrated in the EU. They are not larger than Bulgaria. They are not more numerous in population. They do not have oil. Switzerland, for instance. The party I founded and I myself have proposed a model for Bulgaria so that Bulgaria can be neutral and not participate in military blocs.
We should have a better policy, without leaving the European community. The EU, however, is built on the wrong foundation. It should be a set of countries that trade between each other on equal footing. That was de Gaulle’s idea of Europe. And now the trend is to make it a new Roman Empire, something that we don’t accept. And there is strong opposition coming from parties identical to ours.
Toward the EU, we should be cooperative, of course, but we should never forget that the world is larger than the EU. There are huge economies to the east: India, China, the former Soviet bloc countries. In the south, we used to have wonderful trade relations with the Arabs. All this was lost for us. We also need to remember our own deposits of gold and precious metals. We already have indications that in the seabed of the Black Sea there are huge deposits of gas, and even oil. If we are sensible, we would restore ownership of these assets to Bulgaria, so that we could utilize these natural resources. We used to be the energy exporter to the Balkans.
We should have a global policy, but we should also take care of our own sovereignty, so that we can have a better standard of living for the small number of people that live in this country. Bulgaria has the population of half a capital city in a large country. If Bulgarian statesmen are unable to provide a good standard of living for such a small country, why think about national policies? We should just give up and become the territory of whoever wishes to come and take us. This is the direction where we are heading.
This is why there is always a choice. Our choice is to place our interest at the top without being confrontational. I didn’t want to confront the U.S. ambassador. I did it half-jokingly, because this was not a diplomatic event. I just wanted to say that there’s no free lunch. Things cannot go on like that forever. It was not a confrontation; it was a defense of our interests. Unfortunately, Bulgarian politicians who take this position, they start thinking that a tap on the shoulder of the ambassador is more important than the standard of living of their fellow countrymen.
So, there is choice: to make Bulgaria a more sovereign country, with a strong economy, with well-developed technology and education, and with the highest standard of people. I’m convinced that this is possible.
Sofia, October 2, 2012
Interpreter: Vihra Gancheva