Bulgarian populism



National populism emerged like a comet on the Bulgarian political scene when, in the election of 2005, a TV host unknown to the general public managed to win 20 seats in Parliament. This breakthrough caught unawares politicians and political scientists. Of course, the concept was articulated before this point in time, but the systematic academic debate dates back to 2005. The current text pursues a double agenda: to analyze both the phenomenon and its interpretations, the former being, understandably, inextricable from the latter. The prerequisites, factors and characteristics of Bulgarian populism will be highlighted; the emphasis will be largely laid on the construction of Otherness, as well as on the key arguments and interpretation patterns in the theoretical debate.

The text is a first draft of the analysis of the Bulgarian populism within the European project Rage with the participation of the Bg team – Evelina Staykova, Ildiko Otova, Vanya Ivanova, Denitza Kamenova. The text has been written in the summer of 2013 and does not cover the creation of the Nationalist party of Bulgaria and the nationalist mobilizations against the Syrian refugees of the fall and winter of 2013 which will be included in the new version of 2014.




2.1. Definitions

“If you don’t ask me, I know – if you ask me, I don’t know.“ This aphosrism was invented a long time before populism began to challenge politicians and political scientists, but it neatly articulates the dilemmas both these communities face. St Augustine came up with this sentence with the concept of time in mind, but his dictum fits perfectly the slippery, kaleidoscopic nature of populism, which evades rigorous definition. “The concept of populism is yet to gain political stability and clarity” (Malinov 2007, 71). That the outlines of the concept assume an artistic fuzziness is also due to the fact that its appeal draws in rеpresentatives from all kinds of spheres, including art – e.g. artist Vesslin Kandilarov (Kandilarov 2006).

Out of the bulk of literature defining populism and analyzing its key forms and characteristics, I will here consider the authors who have been accepted as central in the Bulgarian academic debate; the authors who have been absorbed through quotation, thus making an impact on the formation of the perception of the phenomenon and of its interpretative models. The two figures that stand out are Cas Mudde and Margaret Canovan.

Cas Mudde distinguishes between populism as ideology and populism as style. He states categorically that despite the greater visibility of the former, the key challenge comes from the latter: “In my view, even though populism as ideology is theoretically considered as the principal danger, in actuality the main threat in Europe today is populism as style” (Mudde, 2007, 115).

In Eastern Europe, the aesthetic dimension of representation and expression, i. e. the transition from the argument to the affect, or “political-aesthetic formalism” (D. Smilov), does make a huge difference, yet the researchers’ interest is largely focused on populism as ideology and politics. Daniel Smilov makes a distinction among three uses of the concept of populism: “Sometimes it describes a process of backsliding with regard to the achievements of liberal democracy before the accession to the EU. Sometimes it refers to the emergence and the advent of nationalist or radical right parties. Virtually all agree with CASs Mudde that this is a form of ideology which pits the people against the corrupted political elite” (Smilov 2008, 26).

The normative plan in the Bulgarian debate on the nature of populism plays a key role in the Bulgarian debate on populism. Bulgarian researchers concern themselves with the question whether populism is good or evil, and they are equally interested in what it represents and whether it can grow on Bulgarian soil. They ask themselves whether populism constitutes a menace to democracy and its manifested realities; whether it is an entirely negative or a more complex phenomenon.

Two polar camps are taking shape. The negative interpretations prevail in the debate. They rest on several types of arguments. Petya Kabvakchieva foregrounds the negative role of the mass consolidating around a leader, which poses a threat to the very essence of democracy. The leader can lay such exclusive claims to personifying the will of the people that it could effectively be invalidated (Kabakchoeva 2008, 3). Daniel Smilov perceives populism as an opposite of liberal democracy and as a danger to constitutionalism. The populist does not acknowledge any limitations with regard to the people’s will, which are fundamental to liberal democracy: the defense of the human rights of all citizens, whether they be in the majority or in the minority;  international commitments; the separation of powers.“The populist acknowledges no such limitations – for him the popular mandate is the sole legitimate ground for the exercising of power: no constitutional limitations can overrule this mandate. The irony consists in the fact that twenty years after the constitutional reforms, which have put an end to communism, an ideological wave is rising in Eastern Europe, and it is anti-constitutional in spirit” (Smilov 2008, 27). Another danger that populism poses has to do with abandoning the citizen perspective on the nation in the name of the narrowly ethnic concept of the people, reduced to family, friends, and birthplace – “as if the national has dissolved into local stories of kinship; as if it has been re-localized and re-familiarized” (Kabakchieva2008, 4).

“Paradoxical as it may sound, populism can possess positive traits, too” (Todorov 2008, 25) – this is Antoniy Todorov’s pithy definition of the other pole.“The very idea – the people against the elite – may or may not be pernicious. Any strategies that augment the citizens’ participation in government and extend the democratic element in representative democracies are welcome” (Todorov 2008, 25). Svetoslav Malinov adds a historical argument:“The history of populism suggests that the concept has not always been a negative one, and its manifestations were quite different from the contemporary ones“ (Malinov 2007, 72). Interestingly, the two scholars highlighting the multi-layered, not necessarily negative nature of populism, have diametrically opposite political affiliations – A. Todorov has left-centrist convictions, whereas S. Malinov is an MEP and belongs to the core of the conservative party – Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB).Other analysts assess as mostly positive the declared intention to be active. Blogger Emil Demirov perceives as significant and appropriate to the Bulgarian context Philippe Schmitter’s idea that “populisms exhibit decisionism which supplants political immobilism, and thus extends the range of politically feasible decisions” (Demirov 2013).

In brief, the Bulgarian debate on populism has a few distinctive features:

  • It emerges rather late. The main cluster of publications date back to the second half of the past decade.
  • A counterpoint of its belated conceptualization is the intense interest in populism around 2007 – 2008. Prestigious journals like Critique and Humanism devoted special issues to it – issue 23 of 2007. Objective – the journal of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee – started a series of publications in 2008. This interest became so strong that Svetoslav Malinov quipped: “The Bulgarian political debate seems to be obsessed with our topic” (Malinov 2007, 71).
  • The belated theoretical assessment of populism has resulted in predictable research deficits – both theoretical and empirical. Due to the late beginning, studies could not evolve into mature and exhaustive research: “We are yet to see a thorough academic study devoted to populism. It is to acquaint us with the tradition of populist discourse in Bulgaria; it is to describe the populist moments in our history and highlight the populist leaders“(Malinov 2007, 71).

The current analysis cannot compensate for so many deficits, but it seeks to contribute to the more detailed exploration of the currently most distinct and enduring manifestation of the phenomenon – right-wing national populism. The focus will be on the discourse of devaluation and exclusion of otherness.


2.2. Characteristics

Featuring diverse forms and having rather blurred outlines, populism has been felicitously described by CASs Mudde as a “fan-cantered ideology”. It is distinguished by several essential traits, but here I will point only those that are relevant to Bulgarian populism.

The Bulgarian debate on the nature of populism begins with what populism is not. S. Malinov foregrounds three such deficiencies of this phenomenon:

  • Populism is not an ideology (Malinov 2007). It is eclectic and inconsistent – not because it cannot, but because it will not be coherent and meaningful. Firstly, thus it distinguishes itself from its opponents – liberalism, socialism etc. Secondly, this enables it to combine diametrically opposed appeals – from the aggressive exclusion of large groups to the claim to represent the whole people. One should also point out the paradoxical similarity between populism and technocratic governance. At first glance, they look mutually exclusive, but they are both premised on the assumption that there is only one right solution to a particular political challenge. In the technocratic vision, it is the experts who articulate this exclusive solution; in the populist version, it is the people. Both are at odds with liberal democracy, which “understands things differently– it is a space for diverse viewpoints and political alternatives“ Muller 2013).
  • Populism is neither left, nor right. (Malinov 2007). The current study will focus on how Bulgaria’s Ataka party “naturally” combines radically left appeals for nationalization with radically right extremist hate speech.
  • Populism is not a sign of political immaturity (Malinov 2007). This argument holds true both in a comparative perspective and in the Bulgarian case. We discover populism both in emerging and in well-established democracies. In Bulgaria, it did not manifest itself at the beginning of the democratic transition, but, rather, at a later stage of the already consolidated democracy.

The analysis of what populism is not is complemented by an analysis of what it is, which leads to the following key assumptions and characteristics:

  • Society is divided into two rival wings, each of which is absolutely homogeneous –the immaculate common people and the venal elite (Mudde 2007). This understanding involves two reductive claims  –  the political construct of the nation is reduced to the ethnic community of the people; this people, perceived as homogeneous, excludes by definition all minorities and makes the rhetoric against them possible;
  • Appealtothepeople – the people perceived as the man in the street, “the dispossessed and the underprivileged” (Kanoan 1981, Malinov 2007). Politics must follow the common will of the people or its common sense (Mudde 2007);
  • Demagogy.“Not all demagogies are populism, but all populisms feature an element of demagogy – people are told what they want to hear“ (Eisburg2007, 102);
  • The charismatic leader as father and unifier of the nation – a figure personifying the party’s messages.  programmatic text for the 2013 election is entitled The Siderov Plan. A New Route  for Ataka;
  • Disregard for mediating institutions. Nothing should hinder the direct link between the leader and the people (Eisburg 2007);
  • The politics of dismissal. Populism’s preferred targets are the corrupt elites and foreigners, or minorities, but the blade of dismissal could be pointed as well at “the consequences of globalization and anything else” (Eisburg 2007, 103).


2.3. Types

The Bulgarian academic debate shows a preference for a simple classification of the types of populism, which distinguishes between two large groups – agrarian populism and political populism (Malinov 2007). This preference has to do with the fact that these two types are relevant to the history of Bulgarian populism, whose predecessor in the interwar period is Alexander Stamboliiski’s agrarian party.

The Russian narodnichestvo movement of the 19th century belongs to this category. Inspired by Alexander Herzen’s ideas, many young intellectuals took to the countryside to awaken the people for the cause of agrarian socialism. Despite their dedication and enthusiasm, they did not manage to win over Russia’s peasants and some of these revolutionaries got involved in more radical activity, such as assassination attempts on the tzar (Malinov 2007). The American historical experience is associated with the People’s Party, which is a proud bearer of the populist label. “Historically speaking, populism is undoubtedly of agrarian origin, related as it is to a wide range of movements and theories, brought to life by the problems of agrarian producers, unable to adapt to the capitalist modernization of the national economies“ (Malinov 2007, 74).

The contemporary manifestations of populism fall into the second large group– political populism.

Bulgarian populism follows the same chronology and typology – a neat agrarian origin in the pre-communist period and a diversification of the contemporary political forms of populism in the post-communist period.




3.         Bulgarian populism

•           3.1. Predecessors – agrarian interwar populism

Most scholars agree that the first manifestation of populism in Bulgaria is the political activity of agrarian leader Alexander Stamboliiski. Svetoslav Malinov, however, suggests a different reading of the genesis of populism and associates its origin with a particular date: “… its incontestable birthday is when the Constitutional Assembly, after a short debate, dismissed the conservative project for a constitution of the Principality” (Malinov 2007, 80). Malinov himself is a pronounced champion of the conservative cause in Bulgaria: in his academic career as a university professor he researches and disseminates the ideas of conservatism, and in his political career as MEP and member of the DSB’s leadership he stands up for conservative principles. His interpretation of the origins of populism in Bulgaria is not so interesting from an academic viewpoint: it is problematic, as it epitomizes the elasticity in the treatment of populism, with each author feeling free to accommodate his/her own content. Malinov’s take on populism is interesting from the viewpoint of political science, since it illustrates the political uses of the interpretations of populism.

Bulgarian populism follows in the footsteps of its European counterparts and its origin is agrarian. Its beginning is associated with the rule of Alexander Stamboliiski’s government (1920-23), which introduced an agrarian reform and aimed at representing the interests of the peasantry.


3.2. The post-communist context

3.2.1. Factors

The factors that proved conducive to the emergence and the rise of post-communist populism are of different hues – external and internal; social, ideological, and political. To the group of external factors we can attribute the absence of a Cold War and of globalization. It is these factors that François Eisburg defines as essential to understanding the new elements in the landscape which has evolved into the soil of today’s populism (Eisburg 2007). The end of the Cold War has rearranged the order of political priorities. During the Cold-War period, there was corruption, too, but this issue was not so much at the center of public opinion; today it is one of the top five issues in Bulgaria as well as in many other countries. For Bulgarians, globalization has coincided with Europeanization, in the sense of accession to the EU. In the first decade of the transition period, both were perceived positively, as an alternative to communism’s closed society. Paradoxically, when European integration was no longer a project but a reality, Euro-skepticism began to rise.

Among the external factors, I will highlight three groups – social, ideological, and political.

The social factors constitute the social basis for political identifications and attitudes towards politics. Scholars are unanimous that these factors evolve in a direction which makes them particularly susceptible and sensitive to populist slogans. The most pronounced distinctive trait of post-communist populism is the growing sense of the transition as unjust, disregarding the people, and benefiting a bunch of crooks. Another essential factor is the crisis of representation – as long as they do not recognize in politicians and proposed policies their own voice, “the citizens tend to vote less for values and principles, and more on the basis of a liking for a charismatic leader” (Smilov 2008). According to Smilov, “the frustration aroused by democracy” is expressed as Bulgarian citizens’ very low level of trust towards Parliament and the political parties; one can also hear its echo in the widespread opinion that the elections cannot bring about any fundamental change (Smilov 2008). A significant factor is the lack of well-functioning responsible institutions, which makes “many people prefer trusting a person rather than an institution, thus seeking an exception instead of relying on a norm”, as blogger and political scientist Vladimir Shopov suggests (2007). The academic debate is particularly sensitive to the social prerequisites. A number of scholars have pointed out that populism emerges at a time and at a place where “society itself seeks and supports it” (Znepolski 2006, 1). M. Wieviorka is even more categorical and more concrete: “if the national-populist discourse has integrated anti-Turkish attitudes, it is because part of the population has anti-Turkish attitudes”(Wieviorka 2007). Disappointment with the transition, with the elites’ failure to build up a functioning state, on the one hand, and the anti-minority attitudes of Bulgarian citizens, on the other hand, provide the social basis that paves the way for populism and sustains it. Petya Kabakchieva concludes that “Bulgarian society is in a populist situation (Kabakchieva 2008, 3).

Ideological factors.The clear-cut oppositions communism vs. anticommunism, radical change vs. gradual transition, which  left their indelible imprint on political confrontations and which lent a pattern to the political scene in the first decade, are now beginning to lose ground. There is a reconciliation of the political poles; the right-left distinction is fading out; symbolic politics is playing an increasingly essential role; nationalism and (anti)Europeanism are becoming powerful resources of mobilization. “Political competition is being shifted from the socio-economic realm to the realm of identities (group, popular, and personal identities) and to the realm of moral integrity“ (Smilov 2008, 26).

Political factors.In the course of two decades, the post-communist political scene has seen several transformations: from reformist vs. conservative through the division between left and right, to configurations with a populist orientation. “The main collision does not involve left-wing and right-wing, reformers and conservatives; the fundamental collision involves elites that share growing misgivings about democracy and an enraged society with increasingly anti-liberal attitudes” (Krastev 2007, 112). In Bulgaria, as well as in many other countries, the classical right wing (UDF, DSB) – the bearer of change – is on the verge of being completely annihilated. There is an influx of “new players who travel with a much lighter ideological and organizational luggage” (Smilov 2008, с. 26). A typical example is the party called Order, Law and Equity (OLE) – difficult to identify in terms of ideology, yet easy to recognize in its ebullient anti-corruption pathos. The crisis of the left wing is just as significant in terms of the rise of populism. BSP has adopted a rather centrist line, protecting the red oligarchy rather than the poor and the middle class. This leaves a vacancy in the radical left-wing space, which Ataka and other nationalist formations appealing for nationalization take up.


3.2.2. Characteristics

Bulgarian populism shares the key characteristics of its East European counterparts. Here I will dwell on the essential ones with two goals in mind: first, I will seek to delineate more precisely populism’s essence; second, I will seek to evince the accents in various theoretical interpretations.

An outstanding characteristic of populism is its anti-elitist attitude which reaches its peak in the paradoxical character of the populist vision. S. Malinov defines this attitude as a radical demophilia:

As far as the political elite is concerned, rhetorical figures exceed all limits. It would be insufficient to say that the elite does not deserve to direct and govern – the elite does not even have the right to think of itself as the people’s equal. Even more radically, the elite is inferior to the people, which in turn is morally sounder, and in some mysterious way, more competent than its elite. The ultimate phase of this logic is hard to articulate, and yet I will make an attempt: in fact, the people are the true elite. This species of ANTI-anti-egalitarianism puts the very limits of language to the test. (Malinov 2007,  83)


Nationalism is perceived as a universal panacea. “We, the nationalists demand…”, and there follows a lengthy list of strong wishes ranging from salaries equal to those in Belgium to the demand that “Bulgarian entrepreneurs should be in charge of Bulgaria’s industry, trade,  and banks, rather than foreigners who treat us with contempt and discriminate us as a nation (Ataka 2013,  26). This text, featuring demands on a full page with an underlined-font layout, is indicative of populism as a style, where the leader’s will and nationalist pathos are considered so mighty and self-sufficient that there is no need for policies to be implemented. Any political discourse is performative, but the nationalists are convinced that the nationalist discourse is even more performative than the rest, and that it generates realities by waving a magic wand: “The nationalists say: Bulgaria must be a nation developing high technologies”. This fable-like biblical style looks back to a superior model source: “Then God commanded, ‘Let there be light’…” Nationalism is singled out as a universal principle in domestic and foreign politics. The latter must break away from the tradition of “vassal politics” (Ataka 2013, 29).

The preservation of the purity of the Bulgarian nation and veneration for the Bulgarian national identity are the two landmarks of national populism. The first step in this ambitious program envisages discarding all traces of intercultural alloys from Bulgaria’s history and collective memory: “Discarding from the textbooks of all false theories about the Turkic, Altaic, Chudic, Finnic origin of Bulgarians, and all other similar tendentiously constructed versions which humiliate us as a nation and belittle our contribution to world culture. Legitimizing Bulgarians’ autochtonous (local) origin (Ataka 2013, 69). The fervently defended national identity needs its own roots and uniqueness, and these are expressly created in the form of 7,000 (!) years of history and a civilization more ancient than the Sumerian and the Egyptian. (Ataka 2003,  70).

Orthodoxy is the center of the moral universe of Bulgarian national populism. Negation, dismissal, and rage need a positive counterbalance, and populism pins it down in religion. The strong bonds between nationalism and religion are being knit on all levels: biographical, symbolic, and programmatic. Volen Siderov has a degree in theology. It is no accident that he chose this major after he became a political leader; his diploma is part of his nationalist toolset, along with his boxing gloves, which he boastingly wears in the video clip promoting his candidacy in the campaign of 2013.The great actions of the nationalist parties often seek sanction from Orthodox priests and make a point of showing this to the public.[1]Ataka’s campaign in the 2013 election synthesizes this religious pathos in the emblematic motto “Orthodox solidarity”. Unwaveringly, Ataka stands up for the introduction of Theology, or Law of God, as a subject in the high school curriculum. This stipulation in Ataka’s program has been preceded by a number of actions organized by several nationalist organizations. Here I will highlight three peculiar characteristics of the proposed school subject.  It has nothing to do with the discipline History of Religion, where the students are supposed to get acquainted with all major religions in a comparative perspective; Ataka’s discipline is all about the Orthodox “Law of God”. The demand is that this be a compulsory subject in the public educational system of a secular state in which the state is separated from the church. The third aspect of Othering will be analyzed in the relevant paragraph.

In Bulgaria, Ataka is one of the most vociferous proponents of anti-globalism and anti-capitalism. The dismissal is radical and categorical:

Globalism has failed. Monetarism has failed. The liberal politics of “less government, the market has the final say” has failed. The worldwide financial crisis, caused by the US, is a clear sign of this. Market fundamentalism, transformed into a religion by the financial and political establishment of the US, has suffered an abysmal defeat.. We say no to the world’s speculative capital, no to supranational corporations, which destroy market economies, no to Wall Street, and we say yes to more common sense, balance, and equity (Аtaka 2013, 2).


The discourse of negation makes use of three techniques: it equates capitalism and monetarism, as well as monetarism and financial crisis, putting forward, instead, a recipe that Ataka itself fails to live up to – “common sense and balance”. The populist rage is targeted mostly at international capital, which “drains” the national wealth: Ataka have estimated that 28 billion 257 million levs have been diverted from the pockets of Bulgarian tax payers into the treasuries of foreign companies selling food, clothes, electricity, banking services etc.“All institutions, all ministries, the fields of culture, healthcare, and education altogether receive 10 billion levs less than the foreign colonizers!“  (Аtaka 2013,  8).

Anti-Europeanism is the other topic which attracts the critical pathos of populist negation. It strikes out in three directions. The first one concerns the accusations of neo-colonialism: the EU ”is becoming a new Soviet Union, functioning by force and against the constitution” (Аtaka 2013). The full version of the program bears the arrogant title Siderov’s Plan against the Colonial Yoke; the text begins with the story of “how we were enslaved after the fall of the Berlin Wall”. The second criticism is institutional and is leveled at Europe’s institutional structure: “the fake figure of EU president has been imposed, which contradicts both national and international law”; this claim also targets the consequences of Bulgaria’s political strategy: “The Euro Pact invalidates the Parliament and the government, the elections, and democracy at large.”The third direction has to do with Europeanization as a form of globalization: “The Euro Pact reinforces the power of the supranational and corporate oligarchy“. All of these criticisms converge in a cluster whose core conveys the message, “the EU is a threat to the national identity, sovereignty, and dignity”: “Bulgaria is threatened with a loss of identity and with extinction”; “Bulgaria is losing its sovereignty“. In foreign affairs, one cannot stand up against all, even if one is an extremist. The geo-political alternative that Ataka suggests is more than indicative: Russia as ”an economic giant” (Аtaka 2013, 32). The group of giants is complemented with other distinguished representatives, such as China, the Middle East…

3.2.3. Comparison between Bulgarian populism and other post-communist populisms in Central and Eastern Europe

The comparative analysis is necessary and extremely significant for two reasons –a political and a theoretical one. In Bulgaria, national populism emerged virtually “by the book”, with a high degree of emulation. The local politicians inspected meticulously the political scene in Western countries and identified a significant electoral niche, which they decided to take advantage of. This political opportunism can be biographically illustrated with Volen Siderov’s political career: at the beginning of the reform period he was editor-in-chief of the Democracy newspaper (the organ of the anti-communist UDF); he then tried to make it to the top in different ways and eventually managed to do so with the extremist party Ataka. It was then that he altered his image and his mode of expression: he began showing up in a black leather jacket; the uplifted fist became his trademark; his smile was forever dismissed from his communication toolset and was replaced with frowning eyebrows and an angry voice. Extremism is not a spontaneous inner attitude; it is an assiduously elaborated political show. The second reason for the significance of the comparative analysis is theoretical – it has to do with the need to highlight the general and peculiar characteristics of Bulgarian populism.

Bulgarian populism is a typical example of a post-communist East European populism, and it shares the key traits of the latter. In his analysis of populisms in Eastern and Central Europe, Jacques Rupnik delineates three major peculiarities:

The first one has to do with an ambiguous attitude towards democracy. East European citizens are the ones most skeptical in Europe with regard to the democratic state of affairs in their countries, with regard to honesty in elections and the significance of their vote.“Nowadays democracy has no rivals, but it is losing part of its adherents. Populist movements express, to some extent, this ambiguity and this discontent” (Rupnik 200,  130).

The second peculiarity is rather paradoxical, too: populist movements are anti-liberal, but not necessarily anti-democratic – Ataka’s favorite buzzword is the referendum. One of the party’s most extravagant ideas concerns a referendum on Turkey’s accession to the EU. “If democracy means political legitimacy, premised on the popular vote, as well as constitutionalism (separation of powers), then populists accept the former and dismiss the latter (i.e. the idea that constitutional norms and representative democracy have a priority over values and the people’s  “legitimate” anxieties“ (Rupnik 2007,  130).

The third paradoxical trait that all new member countries of the EU share is that their peoples were Euro-optimistic before the accession and grew increasingly Euro-skeptical after these countries’ full membership was acknowledged. The complicated accession procedure had its disciplining effect, while “guaranteed” membership made room for anti-European populist critique.

The discourse of Othering and hate is the fourth significant similarity between populisms in Eastern Europe: “In the Czech Republic, every time unpopular management measures have to be undertaken, politicians bring to the fore the issue of the Sudeten Germans. In Poland, they resort to the rigorous Catholic moral norms to justify protests against different minorities, such as homosexuals; in Slovakia, the presence of a Hungarian minority is taken advantage of; in Bulgaria the Turkish minority is utilized”, says Czech political scientist Irzi Pehe (Pehe 2007,  11). All these populisms are characterized by a blend of nationalist, xenophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic discourses. The comparative analysis foregrounds the enduring nature of the racist discourse, which pays no price for its own contradictory claims, thus challenging the assumption that people value only rational discourses. Jacques Rupnik makes a general statement covering East European and all other types of populism: “the racist discourse is not attenuated as a result of its inner contradictions. In politics, contradictory discourses “work”. The population does not necessarily seek rationality” (Rupnik 2007, 172).

The comparison between East and West European nationalist populisms indicates that they are manifestations of a common “trans-European” (J. Rupnik) phenomenon. Rupnik defines it in a distinctly paradoxical vein as “desperate yet not serious”; his argument is based on the assumption that the contemporary species of national populism, unlike “that of the 1930s, does not view itself as an alternative to democracy, and operates within the context of the EU“ (Rupnik 2007, 133).


3. 3. Three types of populism Simeon, Borisov , Siderov

Populism emerged on the Bulgarian political scene in the form of a democratic paradox which could be summarized as follows:

  • In the 90s democracy was fragile, but there were no extremist parties;
  • Once democracy was consolidated, extremist parties emerged and achieved success.

1990sfragile democracy and ‘shy’ nationalism

  • All main parties were moderate. The political scene was structured around three poles – anti-communist, socialist/former communist and minority representation, exemplified by the UDF (Union of Democratic Forces), BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party) and MRF (Movement for Rights and Freedoms). None of these parties had overt nationalist claims.
  • Nationalism was not forgotten, yet it was ‘outsourced’ to small allies of the two big parties – IMRO for UDF and the United Bloc of Labor for BSP.

Beginning of the 2010s – consolidated democracy and emergence of political extremism

  • According to most criteria for democratic consolidation – free elections, circulation of elites, changing roles of governmental and opposition elites by peaceful means, etc. – Bulgaria could be considered a democratic post-communist country;
  • Despite the lack of an extremist tradition, during the post-communist transition, the party with the emblematic name “Attack” (Ataka)was created; it achieved  immediate success and entered the Parliament a few months after its emergence.


3.3.1. Soft and hard populism

Two forms of populism could be distinguished in Bulgaria: soft and hard.

Soft populism involves general appeals to the people, catch-all politics and demagogic discourses. The main representatives are former King Simeon and Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (2009 – 2013).

Simeon Saxcoburgotskiis a unique case in political history, since he is a former king, who after decades spent in exile, returned to Bulgaria two months before the 2001 general еlection, did not even manage to register a political party, and yet won the election with the incredible result of 42.7% of the popular vote and 120 out of 240 seats.

The party’s history is indicative of the second stage of the constitution of the Bulgarian political scene: if the first decade was characterized by the presence of large and solid parties with guaranteed seats in Parliament (UDF, MRF, BSP), the second decade followed an ups-and-downs pattern. The first example of this new model of “overnight fame” is the National Movement Simeon the Second (NMSS) – it rose like a star, and then vanished as rapidly from the skies of politics. Charisma wears off a bit too soon, and only four years later (in 2005), NMSS won half as many votes (19.8% and 53 seats), which was followed by its full demise in 2009.  Now NMSS has no seats in Parliament.


Results of NMSS in general elections


Percentage of the popular vote












In the context of this analysis, Simeon is interesting because of the peculiar type of populism that he introduced on the Bulgarian political scene.

His charisma comes first. Charisma’s symbolic impact originates from two completely different sources. The first one, of course, has to do with monarchy. Monarchy had never enjoyed a particularly good reputation in Bulgaria, but the decades of communist rule had softened somewhat this political memory, and Simeon astutely combined his status of ex-monarch with the symbolic capital of a European. The idea of the leader placed upon a pedestal was also manifested in the exotic decision that the party should be named after its leader (National Movement Simeon the Second)[2]– an exceptionally rare strategy which recalls vividly non-democratic precedents, such as North Korea. The first source of charisma’s symbolic capital is visible – so visible indeed that it conceals the second one. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s theory of “the empty symbol” comes in handy at this point: the leader constitutes a space both empty and attractive so that everyone could fill it with any content he/she likes. To this end, Simeon resorted to an unprecedented discursive technique – he hardly ever uttered a word. He would politely evade the journalists’ questions with the proverbial, “it will happen in due time”. He used to take advantage of his scarce Bulgarian vocabulary (due to his exile) to construct fuzzy, meaningless phrases.

The second distinctive trait of this type of political populism is its catchall politics– the movement’s official ideology was liberalism (NMSS is a member of the party of ALDE), but the party attracted voters in the center, as well as to the left and to the right. It manifested the same omnivorous tendency with regard to its partners– Simeon took on board ministers from the whole political spectrum. In the course of his second term in power, he entered a politically bizarre coalition with BSP.[3] This resulted in the dissolution of the parties’ identity.

The third peculiarity concerns the leader’s communication with the people without the mediation of the institutions. Simeon’s populism is not premised on dismissal, but rather on seduction. The people is not perceived as a political subject with diverse interests, represented by the political parties, but as a homogeneous, amorphous community.

The fourth trait is the emphasis on Orthodoxy. The idea of institutional statehood was attenuated in the name of the idea of the bond between the leader and the people through the spiritual mediation of the Bulgarian Church. It is no accident that on significant occasions in the calendar of the Church, such as the election of a new patriarch in 2013, Simeon, who no longer has any political functions, was the first political leader to show up at the enthronement ceremony.



Simeon Saxcoburgotski’s populism



Boyko Borisov is a different type of charismatic leader with a unique political career – from fireman through bodyguard of former communist leader and of former king Simeon at the same time, through Chief Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior, through mayor of Sofia to Prime Minister. His rule was marked with paradoxes: the mass street protests all over the country at the beginning of 2013 toppled his government only a few months before the end of its term, but he preserved his high rating. Populism and charisma largely account for this paradox – even after stepping down because of the citizens’ rage at the reigning corruption and mismanagement, Borisov keeps speaking on behalf of the people, assuming the role of their protector. His party GERB is a member of the European People’s Party, but he applies Simeon’s strategy of catch-all politics and charismatic leadership.

Boyko Borisov’s populism is the opposite of Simeon’s in terms of style, but it is akin to it as a type. Whereas Simeon is aristocratically sophisticated, Borisov has the common touch. Whereas Saxcoburgotski comports himself like a king, Borisov behaves like the man in the street. Both of them are the complete opposite of hyperactive politicians like Sarkozy, for instance, but whereas Simeon spends his time on activities rather obscure to the general public, Borisov zestfully plays football in his working hours. The former avoids the media and says little or nothing, whereas the latter is a constant presence on the TV screen and never stops speaking. Whereas Simeon is quite moderate in his discursive choices, Boris feels comfortable when making radical statements – he vehemently slings mud at his political opponents, while at the same time enthusiastically and narcissistically praising his own government.

Notwithstanding their different styles, the two leaders’ populisms have something in common. Their key characteristic is the obliteration of the institutions. If there is a strike, Borisov personally visits the protesting workers and promises to solve their problems. If a certain company fails to pay the workers’ wages, the good leader intervenes again and promises financial aid. It did not take long for this obliteration of the institutions to become visible, so people stopped approaching them, and if a conflict occurred, they wanted to negotiate with the Prime Minister himself. In contrast to Saxcoburgotski, Borisov constantly attacks his political opponents – ‘the detestable tripartite coalition’, BSP and MRF; he never spares his former allies Ataka, DSB, and UDF either.

Hard populism is nationalist, extremist, and xenophobic, with an accent on Othering. The process of its re-structuring is underway at the moment.

After 2005 until the middle of 2012, hard populism had a neat and solid structure. There was a pronounced center to it – the Ataka party – an adjacent concentric circle with nationalist players like BNU (Bulgarian National Union) and BNRP (Bulgarian National-Radical Party), and a more amorphous periphery with other players whose visibility was only virtually visible – xenophobic formations like the Movement of Tangra’s Warriors, National Resistance etc. It was only Ataka that had – and sought to have – seats in Parliament. The others laid no claim to participating in the big political game.


At present the opposite process of diversification and multiplication of the parties in the nationalist electoral niche is underway. These parties are taking part in the competition for parliamentary seats. The general election on May,12th , 2013 will show how successful each of them will be. These new parties share a common origin – they are all splinter groups that have broken away from Ataka; besides, they have a common target – the nationalist and contestatory vote.


Transition from Ataka’s “monopoly” over the nationalist vote to a multiplication of nationalist parties,



Ataka, with its leader Volen Siderov, is the key extremist political player with seats in Parliament. It will be analyzed further down in this text.

The Bulgarian National Unionis an organization with a neat and explicitly declared profile of aggressive extremist nationalism. It was established in 2001. The formation has political objectives and ambitions, but they are still reluctant to become a political party. As the leader of their youth organization points out in an interview, “we will do it when we are ready for it”. The Union’s activists are mostly young people. The emblematic leader Boyan Rassate withdrew in 2010 after an internal conflict over the leader’s position. Their most visible activity that the general public will be familiar with is the so called Lukov March glorifying a controversial military general from Bulgaria’s fascist anti-Semitic past; the event becomes an occasion for reviving a number of nationalist slogans. The Union’s discourse is marked by the dichotomy Us vs. Them. ‘Us’ is defined in ethnic terms: Bulgarians, patriots. In contrast to this monolithic definition of ‘Us’, ‘Them’ has many faces. Two of the most significant figures of Othering are Muslims in general and Turks in particular. Another key figure are the Roma. LGBT also occupy a center-stage position on the scene of Otherness: BNU is overtly and categorically hostile to them. The Union’s discourse naturalizes otherness – we must oppose LGBT because they are a perversion of nature. This naturalism is also visible in the Union’s organic perception of the people: they do not think of it as a political subject and a modern formation, but rather as organism in which each of us has his/her own place, but he/she should be aware where exactly he/she belongs, i.e. there is an obvious hierarchy, and therefore we must obey it. This naturalized and conservative understanding of the people fosters a conventional understanding of women’s role in society. It is no surprise that BNU is a predominantly male organization. One should bear in mind the paradox that these strong conventional views are held and aggressively promoted by young people.

GORD was established by MEP Slavi Binev, who was elected from the Ataka quota. The new party will participate in the general election on May 12th, 2013 in coalition with Proud Bulgaria, which also includes the political formations Free People, United Labor Bloc (Bulgaria’s laborists),  and the Union of Patriotic Forces “Defense”.

NFSB (Natioal Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria) was also founded in 2012. It is supported and publicized by the Skat TV channel, which was Volen Siderov’s launch vehicle.

NDP (National Democratic Party) was established on June 2nd, 2012, literally by Volen Siderov’s ex-family– his ex-wife Kapka Siderova and his adopted son Dimitar Stoyanov, currently MEP from Ataka; both of them used to be Siderov’s closest associates before they broke up for family reasons rather than political ones.


Between soft and hard the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO)

IMRO is a typical nationalist party with its roots in Bulgaria’s political history; it was quite active in the interwar period.

The party’s discourse varies from more moderate to more aggressive, depending on the political conjuncture, its coalition partners, the competition in the nationalist niche, the fluctuations in political identification; the discourse tends towards either the pole of nationalism or the pole of contestation.

IMRO’s presence on the political scene is enduring, but its roles are different – either in Parliament or outside of it.


Participation of IMRO in general, presidential, and local elections,

1994 – 2011





Total number of votes for the coalition

% – total for the coalition


number of seats


National Assembly



12 60374

24,23 %

69  seats,

2 for IMRO


National Assembly

United Democratic Forces

22 23714

52.26 %

137 seats,

2 for IМRO



Different allies in different places/ no coalition


5,92 %

(total fоr all municipalities where the party participated)

4 mayors,

123 councilors


National Assembly

Withg Gergyovden (St George’s Day)




National Assembly


(with Union of Free Democrats–Bulgarian Agrarian People’s Party- National Union)

189 268


13 seats,

5 for IMRO



Locally with GERB or no coalition


Slavcho Atanasov53,65%


City Council




National Assembly

Napred (Ahead) (disintegrated)/ Order, Law and Equity

174 570

4,1 %

10 seats,




No coalition

33 236 votes




IMRO’s coalition policies seem to be extremely opportunistic and chaotic – it would be hard to find a right-wing party that IMRO has not allied itself with. The coalitions are so numerous and so evanescent that there would be a few agreements signed within a single election, and the formations swiftly disintegrated. This political opportunism bespeaks a certain ambiguity in IMRO’s political identity: on the one hand, the party has always identified itself as patriotic, while on the other hand, the parties with which it has formed alliances hold diverse views on nationalism– some are definitely non-nationalist, like UDF, and others are populist, like GERB.


IMRO’s coalition partners



Bulgarian Agrarian People’s Party  UNion of Free Democrats




A wide range of different types of otherness constitutes IMRO’s political arsenal. All minorities are the object of discriminatory discourses, the Roma and the Turks being the most prominent groups among them. There is another kind of otherness, which is IMRO’s “trademark” – Macedonian identity. This has to do with the party’s history.


3. 4.  Ataka’s national populism

The analysis of the party should begin with the symbolic capital of its name. ‘Ataka’ spells clearly and emphatically radicalism and extremism. There is no other party – before or after it– whose name is a match for this confrontational identity. The name’s strong message plays a performative role in two directions: it “occupies” the radical right-wing segment of the political scene and represents the party leader and the party activists as ‘fighters’. Volen Siderov describes himself as a valiant warrior:”As always, I am part of a combat coalition. Since it was established, Ataka has been subject to severe criticism. Hence I have acquired the reflex to be always combat-ready “(Siderov 2013).


Participation of Ataka in parliamentary and presidential elections in Bulgaria

2005 – 2011



number of votes




National Assembly

296 848


21 out of 240 seats in the National Assembly


President –first round

597 175


Volen Siderov reaches the second ballot

President  — second round

649 387


Volen Siderov loses to Georgi Parvanov


European Parliament

275 237


3 out of 18 seats for Bulgaria in the EP


European Parliament

308 052


2 out of 17 seats for Bulgaria in the EP


National Assembly

395 656


21 out of 240 seats in the National Assembly



122 466


Fourth place in the first round



Ataka’s brief history could be divided into three periods.

I period – 2005 – 2009 – Establishment and consolidation

  • Volen Siderov founded Ataka two months before the general election in 2005; he won almost 300, 000 votes, or 8.14% and 21 out of 240 seats in the National Assembly, which puts his party in fourth place among the parliamentary forces;
  • The beginning is exceptionally vigorous, and so is the sequel at this early stage. In the presidential election of October 2006, Volen Siderov eliminated the right-wing candidate and reached the second ballot, where he confronted the acting president – socialist Georgi Parvanov. In the second round, he gathered 649, 387 votes, or 24.05% of the popular vote, which constitutes the leader’s and the party’s best result;
  • In the European election of 2009, he almost reached the figure of  2005  (275 000 votes), winning three MEP seats and consolidating his fourth place among the political parties;
  • The media origin of the new formation is typical of populist type of leadership and policy making.  In 2003, V. Siderov started  the 10-minute talk show  „Atаka“. It used to run three times a day, putting forward the points and the topics that will remain essential to the party’s agenda– corruption, the Roma invasion, the American Empire, the colonialist policies of the World Bank and the IMF.
  • The radical discourse against all (anti-elites, anti-parties, anti-media),   garnished with ceaseless scandals, is unprecedented on the Bulgarian political scene. In a pithy statement, Volen Siderov presents Ataka’s political strategy, which is focused on three priorities: „Stopping the process of islamization, or the turkization of Bulgarian citizens, getting a grip on Roma crime, and taking Bulgaria out of the colonial scheme. Everything is in the hands of foreign companies, paying peanuts for their monopoly status in this country“ (Siderov 2007, 14) ;
  • The key mobilizing slogan is “Let us restore Bulgaria to Bulgarians “. It represents „the fear of the de-bulgarianization of Bulgaria at the hands of its internal foes (Turks and Roma) and its external foes (the Americans, who support NGOs accused of encouraging the minorities’ demands and tarnishing Bulgaria’s image in the world. “ (Kapel-Pogacean and Ragaru, 2007, 156);
  • Combining a radical right-wing rhetoric and international partners like France’s National Front with a radical left-wing rhetoric and appeals for nationalization.

II period – 2009 – 2011 – partner of GERB – the ruling party

  • “Taming“ of extremism; a more moderate, bland discourse;
  • Controlled, limited nationalism. Ataka suggests that GERB should stage a referendum on the issue of Turkey’s EU accession, but the idea meets with the categorical disapproval of the European People’s Party.

III period – 2011 – end of 2012 – internal divisions, splits,resuscitated extremism

  • Many MPs quit Ataka and join the ruling party GERB;
  • After the divisions, three new nationalist parties were established – GORD, NFSB, NDP;
  • Not only was extremism resuscitated, but it reached new heights and switched from words to action: praying Muslim believers were assaulted by Ataka activists in the mosque in downtown Sofia.

IV period – mass street protests and early paliamentary elections on May 12 , 2013

  • In February and March 2013 thousands of Bulgarians took to the streets; Boyko Borisov’s government fell, and Ataka’s rating rose considerably.
  • Despite the split and the multitude of new nationalist parties, Ataka has managed to consolidate its electorate.


Ataka’s national populism




4.1. Othering based on ethnicity, religion or racist sentiments


I would rather begin the analysis of the negative construction of otherness with one single case, which is anecdotal yet quite indicative. In 2012, the President’s administration uploaded on their site the National Strategy for Integration of the Roma. The file was entitled “Маngali.pdf’. “Mangal“ is an extremely pejorative appellation for a Roma. At first, the only comment that the president’s team came up with was that the way the document was made public was “rather unpleasant”, but they took no action whatsoever. The Association for European Integration and Human Rights filed a complaint about ethnic discrimination, and only several months later, in March 2013, an employee was leniently punished.[4] This example illustrates how politically incorrect the language of Bulgaria’s top officials is. What is even more disturbing, however, is that not only Bulgarian bureaucrats use this politically incorrect language, but so do our Bulgarian leaders. Former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov referred to the Bulgarian people as “bad raw material”. In 2009, at a meeting with Bulgarian emigrants in Chicago, he described this bad raw material as follows: “1 million Gypsies, 700 or 800 thousand Turks, 2.5 million pensioners“(Kodinova 2012, 16).

In an environment where the institutions and the leaders fail to lay down norms of respect for otherness, and construct negative images instead, it is inconceivable that even more extreme discourses will not flourish.

 „Putting an end to Gypsy crime in the countryside” is one of the items in Ataka’s program. It is reinforced by an even more extremist lingo: “Gypsy gangs“,”Gypsy aggression“, “offenders of Gypsy origin“, “Gypsies beat a policeman“. These anti-Roma, extremely politically incorrect expressions are all borrowed here from the party’s program, i.e. its official position that has appeared in writing. The verbal speeches, statements, and appeals of its leaders are even more radical. Both resort to two discursive techniques with interwoven effects – they ethnicize crimе and criminalize the Roma community.

Ivan Krastev, a lover of paradoxes, has identified the greatest one – in the Bulgarian populist rhetoric, there are no significant distinctions between the elites and the Roma „Nor the former, either the latter are like us: both groups do not pay taxes; both rob the honest majority; both benefit from Brussels support” (Krastev 2007, 112).

This intellectual parallel is not accepted by wide circles in Bulgarian society with strongly pronounced discriminatory attitudes. The Internet abounds in anti-Roma appeals and petitions, attracting dozens of supporters: “No more tolerance for the Gypsies”, “I don’t want to pay the Gypsies’ expenses”.

Another landmark of the anti-Roma rhetoric is the demographic argument – expert studies staged by the party indicate that within the next decade the Roma population will reach the figure of 3 million out of a population of 8 million.

The anti-Roma pathos is so essential that it is the only manifestation of hate speech in Ataka’s program. The rest of the discursive figures of Othering unfold mostly in the variegated spaces of verbal performance: rallies, marches, slogans, speeches, interviews.

The anti-Turkish discourse is also quite vociferous. It has two different targets: a political one and a religious one. The first one is MRF – Ataka’s Bulgarian nationalism asserts itself in contradistinction to the Turkish party elite – MRF. MRF is believed to be “Ankara’s fifth column” (Kapel-Pgacean and Ragaru 2007). The two parties are like communicating vessels – MRF mobilize their electorate by emphasizing the danger of Ataka’s radical nationalism. Ataka pulls at the same string and mobilizes the nationalist voters by vehemently attacking the nepotism and the corruption reigning among MRF’s elite.

The second target is religious – Islam. Here we find the same logic of the communicating vessels: Once placed on a pedestal, Orthodox Christianity perceives as radically other the representatives of all other religions. In the case of the Roma, the transformation of the Other into an enemy is effected by criminalizing their community. In the case of the Turks, they are represented as fundamentalists. The discursive strategy is the same, but the referents switch from the secular to the religious realm: the Turks are perceived as Muslims, and Muslims are seen as radical, liable to fundamentalism. IMRO, Ataka, and BNU are following closely the so called court case in Pazardjik – the trial against imams accused of fundamentalism. The three parties have organized a number of protests, which they use to fuel the furnace of hate by reiterating as yet unproven allegations against a small group of Islam clerics. Another device of Othering is the thesis about the de-nationalization of the Pomaks, about their alleged forced rapprochement with the Turkish community and their estrangement from their Bulgarian roots. Religious Othering manifests itself in the explicit prioritizing of religions and the unequal treatment of the religions of all minorities. This hierarchy, on top of which stands Orthodoxy, is materialized in the proposal for the study of religion at high school level. This discipline is supposed to be compulsory, but the proposal concerns only the Orthodox faith. The project will be financed by the government. All other religions are relegated to the space of private initiative: „The children of Bulgarian citizens who belong to other denominations can study their faith in the form of private instruction or other extracurricular forms “(Ataka 2013, 70).

The anti-Semitic discourse occupies a peculiar space. Volen Siderov started his career with books on the world conspiracy and the Zionist plot. His language reaches incredible peaks of intolerance and xenophobia, with his gall targeted at ancient and contemporary characters and events:


Christ’s first foes are the Judean Pharisees, who adhere to the chauvinistic, anti-human doctrine of supremacy and hate toward anyone who is not Judean.

This community has undergone metamorphoses over the centuries – they have evolved from Pharisees into…various oligarchic circles of people who gather in fancy resorts to this day, where they decide who and how will be in charge of the markets, he resources, and the destinies of millions of people all over the world (cit. Metodieva  2007, 13).


Political cynicism is at its most absurd when hate speech accuses the victim of hate speech:


The first form of hate speech is the language of the Judean notables! (cit. Metodieva 2007, 13).


The Jews are “represented as the enemy in a complex manner in that they are both to blame for communism, for the post-communist transition here and now, and for the predatory capitalist order“ (Kabakchieva 2008, 4).

The most visible material sign of anti-Semitism is the annual Lukov March. It has been held for a whole decade now in commemoration of general Lukov– minister of war and politician at the time of Bulgaria’s alliance with the Third Reich, leader of the pro-fascist, anti-Semitic organization Union of Bulgarian National Legions. “Behind the mask of patriotism, by commemorating and glorifying general Lukov, the organizers of the march seek to rehabilitate and legitimize Nazism and fascism. “[5] The organizers are BNU, supported by their ‘friends’ from Ataka, IMRO, and football fan clubs.

The anti-Semitic rhetoric sounds paradoxical in the Bulgarian context. Currently, in 2013, national and international events commemorating the salvation of Bulgarian Jews during World War II are being held; Bulgarians are very proud of this glorious chapter in their history. Against this background, Siderov’s fierce anti-Semitism and the anti-Semitism of the Lukov March, concealed with the mantle of nationalism, seem somewhat weird and imitative, which does not make them less troubling.

The anti-Semitic discourse is not – as yet – essential to Bulgaria’s national populism. The latter’s fundamental position is not at all different from that of Western radical right-wing extremism: “We are not against immigrants, but let them go home”, as a youth leader has put it. The difference with regard to the West is that the anti-immigrant topic is not yet central to the political rhetoric. The reasons could be divided into two groups. The first one has to do with the history of immigration and the number of immigrants: this is a relatively new phenomenon and the proportion is still quite low – around 1% of the population. The second group features more complex reasons; they are related to the seemingly paradoxical ties between some immigrant communities and some nationalist formations. What brings them together is the common Other. If the Other is still conceived of mainly as the minorities, not necessarily immigrant, this does not mean that racism exists in more moderate proportions – on the contrary, both everyday and institutionalized racism are at very high levels. I will illustrate this with a typical example: on January 30th, 2007, a refugee from Nigeria was severely beaten up in a café in downtown Sofia. The media coverage was rather scarce, and the institutional response was even more so. Another refugee from Cameroon describes the scale of everyday racism: “The common Bulgarian is no racist, but there are such organizations – “New Nazism””, “Extremism“– which are always active. For the time I have spent living in Bulgaria, I haven’t met a black person who has not been attacked or has not had a problem, who has not been offended “(Acts of Violence… 2007, 11).


4.2. Othering based on sexual orientation

 I will open my analysis with a curious example: the joke column in the Saturday edition of a popular newspaper is entitled: “Gay, thug, gay, thug“. What is the common denominator between a group of criminals and a group of decent people with a different sexual orientation? The lack of any logical connection is here deconstructed through the blending of the two groups, which helps construct an otherness that is not only sexual, but is also redolent of criminality. In order to reinforce the impact of affect, the jokes about thugs (the proverbial Bulgarian mutras) are actually nice, whereas the jokes about homosexuals are at the opposite pole.

There are two types of curiosities here: why does a prestigious Bulgarian newspaper take the liberty to violate the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, gender etc.? Why do they violate the Ethical Code of Bulgarian journalists? The second curiosity is even more intriguing: these violations of constitutional and ethical norms have been committed by a paper owned by the German WAZ media group, which does conform to these norms. Deutsche Welle journalist Marinela Liptcheva-Weiss has not been able to find an answer to this cluster of curious queries (Liptcheva-Weiss 2008).

I begin with this example so as to suggest to what extent the homophobic discourse has pervaded the mainstream media and the public discourse, which leaves the door wide open to more extremist versions of the same language. The key discursive technique used to construct a negative image is the envisaged similarity, if not identity, between homosexuality and pedophilia.

The most visible material sign of homophobia is the parallel march, organized by Boyan Rassate’s BNU, against the annual Pride in Sofia. Rassate himself has been convicted of aggressive conduct during the Pride. The good news is that more and more LGBT overtly declare their sexual identity, and the Pride attracts more and more people every year, whereas that of the extremists seems to be dwindling. Only a few years ago, the two marches boasted a similar number of participants: in 2009, around 80 LGTB against 60 extremists (Fartunova 2009); today the margin is becoming considerably wider in favor of the former group. 



European anti-discrimination law and an inefficient judiciary: this could be a succinct representation of the legal picture with regard to the discourses of hate.

The Law on Protection against Discrimination, adopted in 2004, incorporates almost all criteria for discrimination, postulated in the European directives. It envisages the institution of a special judicial-administrative organ – The Commission for Protection against Discrimination – which has the prerogatives to consider all complaints and whose rulings can be appealed before the Supreme Administrative Court.[6] 

The following provisions of the law are relevant to the study of national populism:

Article 4 (1) (State Newspaper, issue 70 of 2004, in force as of 01.01.2005)

It is prohibited to exercise direct or indirect discrimination based on gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, human genome, citizenship, origin, religion or faith, education, convictions, political affiliation, personal or social status, disability, age, sexual orientation, family status, material status, or any other trait, stipulated by law or by an international agreement to which Bulgaria is a party.

 (2) Direct discrimination is any less favorable treatment of a person on the basis of the traits in par. 1 than another person is treated, has been treated, or would be treated in comparable similar circumstances.

(3) Indirect discrimination is placing a person, on the basis of the traits in par. 1, in a less favorable position than other persons through a seemingly neutral decree, criterion or practice, unless this decree, criterion or practice is objectively justified in view of a legal end and the means to this end are appropriate and necessary.


The problem does not lie in the law, but in its implementation. A number of NGOs assert that the judiciary functions both slowly and inefficiently.  The way-out of this impasse often proves to be the European Court of Human Rights. I will illustrate this with a typical example.

At the beginning of 2013, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee filed a lawsuit on behalf of three Bulgarian Roma citizens against Ataka for the dissemination of hate speech and against the authorities for failing to take action. The occasion was the publication of the leaflet Gypsy Crime –A Danger to the State.  It contains a programmatic article by Siderov, entitled “Are Gypsies Taking over Bulgaria”, as well as anonymous publications about the “atrocities” committed by the Roma. Although instigating ethnic hate is a crime, three offices of the prosecution at different levels refused to investigate the case (Encheva 2013). The ruling of the Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office indicates the wide gap between the assessment of the NGOs about what hate speech is and the assessment of the judiciary:  

According to the ruling, the leaflet Gypsy Crime –A Danger to the State, publication of Ataka, does not contain “opinions or comments, but only facts and circumstances”; according to the prosecutor, in this book there are no „words, phrases, nor are there any expressed views, which by their nature are anti-democratic or capable of fuelling racial animosity or hate, or capable of evolving into racial discrimination.” At the same time the prosecutor accepts that the texts in the leaflet „are in actuality… aimed at focusing the attention of the Bulgarian people on the crimes perpetrated by the minorities and by the Roma population in particular.” Yet „one could not make the conclusion that the author and the distributor of the leaflet meant to promote through it racial or ethnic hostility or to instigate hate.”[7] Ruling of the Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office of 27.02.2012.


The legal aspects of anti-discrimination could be reduced to one bad piece of news and two good ones:

  • The Bulgarian judiciary is not yet sensitive enough to hate speech and is not effective enough in penalizing it.
  • Bulgaria’s law has been synchronized, to a great extent, with European law. The Law on Protection against Discrimination has introduced a solid legal framework and has stipulated institutionalization through The Commission for Protection against Discrimination.
  • The EU is the best news because this institution guarantees the introduction of anti-discrimination norms and the correction of Bulgaria’s judiciary deficits in the European Court of Human Rights.



Bulgarian populism has a short yet turbulent post-communist history – both as a political practice and as a phenomenon that political science needs to explain

When in 2005 Volen Siderov literally stormed out of TV and into Parliament with the incredible 300, 000 votes and with such élan that he did not even manage to register his party, all analysts asked themselves whether extremist nationalism would be a short-lived or an enduring phenomenon and how much weight it would have on the political scene. The subsequent decade offered a picture which recalls waves rather than an arrow, a tide-and-ebb pattern rather than a pattern of constant ascent. The picture today – and in a medium-term perspective – suggests that national populism has settled firmly on the political scene; that it occupies a relatively marginal space, but is guaranteed to overcome the election threshold.   The other tendency is the multiplication and diversification of the political parties and organizations that have their sights set on this nationalist and contestatory electoral niche. Populist politicians voice and take advantage of the growing social frustration at inequality and inequity, the growing disappointment with the corrupt and irresponsible elites. They refract these grievances through the prism of the nationalist and xenophobic register.

Another negative tendency is the penetration of Ataka’s topics and theses into the political rhetoric of other political parties. Human rights activist Emil Cohen summarizes this process and its two consequences: “the political system is becoming ‘atakized’, whereas the prototype is being ‘normalized’” (Cohen 2007, 5).

Which direction will yield a meaningful explanation of populism? The role of the leaders is so significant that the analyses take the facile route of exploring charisma and the types of leadership. Undoubtedly, this perspective is necessary because there is no way of understanding populism without understanding the leader who communicates directly, without mediation from the institutions, with the people. At the same time, this explanation remains on the visible side of populism and fails to account for its roots and its essence. If a more profound approach is adopted, the focus will be on the depersonalization of populism and on the attempt to understand it as a situation (Popov 2006). Stefan Popov gives a relevant example: “In 2001, the super-politician of the 1990s, Ivan Kostov, was preparing for a battle with the still recovering left forces; however, the scene catapulted him out of the picture with the help of the child-of-a-king from Madrid. Such weird incidents are now beginning to be explained through populism as part of the structure of the environment“ (Popov 2006, 13).

Post-communist populism is the ultimate expression of a common tendency of transformation of the political scene, which Ivan Krastev has described as a process of erosion of the liberal consensus after the end of the Cold War and as a growing tension between democratic majoritarianism and liberal constitutionalism. “The rise of populism is an indication that the liberal solutions in the realm of politics, economics, and culture are increasingly losing their appeal, whereas the policies of exclusion are increasingly gaining popularity“ (Krastev 2007, 108).






Виевьорка, М. (2007). За популизма, пост-полулизма и съвременните митове (Of Populism, Post-populism and the Contemporary Myths). Интервю на Боян Знеполски с френския социолог (Interview  of Ivaylo Znepolski with the French sociologist). Критика и хуманизъм, 23, 169 – 180.

Демиров, Е. (2013) Образът на популизма (The Image of Populism). Личен блог, видян на  3.04.13.

Ейсбург, Ф. (2007) Старият и новият (The Old One and the New One). Critique and Humanism Journal, 23, 101 – 106.

Енчева, Е. (2013) Ново дело в Страсбург заради брошурата на Атака (A New Court Case in Strasbourg on Ataka’s Leaflet). Преса, 23.01.13.

Знеполски, Б. (2007) Сценарии на произвола: популизмът в българската преса. (Scenarios of Dissolution)  Сайт на Български Хелзински комитет от 7.05.06.

Иларева, В. (2012) Миграционният контрол и правото на семеен живот (Migration Control and the Right of Family Life).- Социологически проблеми, 1-2, 26 – 46.

Кабакчиева, П. (2008) Има ли почва националпопулизмът у нас? (Is There a Soil for National-populism  in this Country?) Обектив,157, 3-4.

Кандиларов, В.(2006) Основи на десния популизъм. (The Foundations of Right-wing Populism). Дневник, 16.06.06.

Капел-Погачеан, А. и Рагарю, Н. (2007). Романия Маре и Атака в сравнителен план: националпопулизъм и политически протест в Румъния и България (Romania Mare and Ataka in a comparative perspective: National-populism and Political Protest in Romania and Bulgaria) . Критика и хуманизъм, 23, 149 – 159.

Коен, Е. (2007) Музиката на Атака – част от репертоара на други политически ‘оркестри’(Ataka’s Music – Part of the Repertoire of Other Political ‘Orchestras’. Обектив, 147, 3-5.

Кодинова, Е. (2012) Циничният език на властта (The Cynical Language of Power). Преса, 20.12.12.

Кръстев, И. (2007) Популисткият момент (The Populist Moment). Критика и хуманизъм, 23, 107 – 113.

Липчева-Вайс, М. (2008) Вицът „гей, мутра, гей, мутра“ не бил правилен (The “Gay, Thug, Gay, Thug”  Joke Turns Out to Be Incorrect). Обектив, 161, 28.

Малинов, С. (2007) Размисли за българския популизъм (Reflections on Bulgarian Populism). Critique and Humanism Journal, 23, 71 – 84.

Мюлер, Я-В. (2013) Три мита за популизма (Three Myths on Populism). Сега, 23.04.13.

Насилията над бежанци и мигранти (The Acts of Violence against Refugees and Immigrants). Обектив,140, 8 – 12.

Пехе, И. (2007) Новите демокрации заменят трудните (New Democracies Are Replacing the Hard Ones). Дневник, 20.06.07.

Попов, С. (2006) Популизъм и политически анализи (Populism and Political Analyses). Дневник, 63, 30.03.06.

Сидеров, В. (2013) Герб извади бухалката срещу мен (GERB Have Taken Out the Axe against Me). Преса, 17.01.13.

Смилов, Д. (2008) Фрустрация на демокрацията (The Frustrations of Democracy). Обектив, 159, 26 – 27.

Тодоров, А. (2008) Българският популистки Zeitgeist (The Bulgarian Populist Zeitgeist). Обектив, 156, 25.

Фъртунова, Д. (2009) Нетърпимост срещу многообразието (Intolerance of Diversity). Обектив, 63, 22.

Шопов, В. (2007) Популизъм в ризница (Populism in Armor). Личен блог на Владимир Шопов, видян на 10 април 2013.

Canovan, M. (1981) Populism. NewYork, Harcourt Brace Jovanovic.

Mudde, C. (2007) Популисткият Zeitgeist в днешна Европа (The Populist Zeitgeist in Today’s Europe) |. Critique and Humanism Journal, 23, 115 – 119.


Programs of Political Parties

Атака (2013) Планът Сидеров срещу колониалното робство (Siderov’s Plan against the Colonial Yoke). Управленска програма на партия Атака. 2013. Пълен вариант.

Атака (2013 a) Планът Сидеров. Нов път за България (The Siderov Plan. A New Route for Bulgaria). Резюме на програмата на партия Атака. 2013



Закон за защита от дискриминацията (Law on the Protection against Discrimination), (http://lex.bg/bg/laws/ldoc/2135472223),

[1]It should be noted that this is a common practice for politicians of all hues.

[2]When the party began to lose the voters’ confidence, its name was changed to National Movement for Stability and Success, but nothing could prevent its slide down the slippery slope.

[3]Between 2005 and 2009 Bulgaria was governed by the so called tripartite coalition – BSP, NMSS and MRF.

[4]                     He got a rebuke. “A Dondukov2 official punished for Mamgali.pdf”.- Pressa newspaper, 20.03.13.

[5]                     This is a quote from the invitation of the informal citizen group „No to Neo-Nazi Marches”.

[6]                     I would like to extend my gratitude to Valeria Ilareva and Diyana Daskalova – distinguished Bulgarian human rights lawyers – for their advice on legal matters. Valeria Ilareva offers a profound analysis of the right of married life for mixed-marriage couples in the light of European law, Bulgarian law, and migration policies (Ilareva 2012) .

[7]                     I would like to extend my gratitude to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee for kindly providing me with this example, as well as with other examples of the Bulgarian judiciary’s failure to penalize hate speech.


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