Elections: Bulgaria

Bulgaria has a Presidential election this weekend. There’s no question who’s going to win, but there’s still some nail-biting suspense.

Why? Well, the current President is former Socialist Georgi Parvanov. (“Former” Socialist because the Bulgarian President must not be affiliated with any political party.) He seems to be a decent enough fellow. The Bulgarian Presidency doesn’t have a lot of power, but Parvanov looks good, says all the right things, and has generally acted Presidential. Earlier this year, he acknowledged that he’d “cooperated” with the State Security Service back in the days of Communism; perhaps because he was quick to admit it, nobody seems to hold it much against him.

Parvanov is reasonably popular. He’s not considered brilliant, but he’s energetic, peripatetic, and constantly in the public eye. (There’s a joke that if you want to see him, build a doghouse, and he’ll show up to cut the ribbon.) So, he will almost certainly win the election this Tuesday.

But. Under Bulgaria’s election law, Presidential elections go to a second round if (1) nobody wins 50% of the votes cast, or (2) 50% of eligible voters don’t turn out. Parvanov will probably get well past 50%, but low turnout seems likely — in the last national election, only 42% of the voters showed up. So there will probably be a second round.

This raises the interesting question of who’ll come in second.

The Clean Judge, the Clever Old Man, and the Asshole

Although eight candidates are running, four of them are no-hopers. Realistically, only three people have any chance of making it into the second round to challenge Parvanov.

First, there’s Georgi Markov. A judge in Bulgaria’s constitutional court, he was a major figure in the early ’90s, but has since been marginalized. Markov is standing as the clean, untainted candidate who is above party politics. Currently his poll numbers are in single digits, and he probably has little chance unless some other candidates drop out.

Second, there’s Nedelcho Beronov. A conservative, he’s smooth, polished, and articulate; there’s general agreement that he’s one of the smartest men in Bulgarian politics. Unfortunately, he’s 78 years old. His poll numbers are hovering around 10-15%.

Third, there’s Volen Siderov. Siderov is the leader of “Ataka”, the obnoxious xenophobe populist nationalist party. Almost every country in Eastern Europe has such a party. In Bulgaria it took a while to emerge — “Ataka” (the name means “Attack”) only appeared in 2004. But then it gained 8% of the vote and 21 seats in Parliament.

Siderov is pretty much what you’d expect. He got started in politics hosting an “in-your-face” cable TV show. His trademark is a black leather jacket. His speeches are long, spittle-flecked rants. A homophobe and a xenophobe, he blames Bulgaria’s economic problems on Turks and Gypsies; he’s currently under indictment for encouraging violence against minorities. In sum, he’s an asshole.

He’s polling over 20%, about as much as the next two candidates combined.

Depressing? A little; but then, France sent Jean-Marie Le Pen to the runoff a few years back. And then, Bulgaria’s neighbor Romania had a runoff between Ion Iliescu and populist-nationalist sleazebag Vadim Tudor in 2001. So it’s not exactly unheard of. The two-round system of Presidential elections encourages everyone and his dog to run, making it possible to win second place with just 20% or so of the vote. If it’s reasonably well organized, and has a half presentable leader, it’s just not that hard for an obnoxious populist nationalist party to get 20%.

The key issue is not whether Siderov will make it to the runoff — he probably will — but how well he’ll do once he gets there. If he gets more than a third of the vote in the runoff election, there’s a problem. If not, shrug and move on — Bulgaria joins the EU on January 1, and will have other fish to fry.

14 thoughts on “Elections: Bulgaria

  1. [sfx: crickets]

    Well, if anyone is interested, it went about exactly as predicted. Parvanov won well over 60%, but turnout wasn’t high enough, so there will be a runoff. Old Beronov did about as expected, with around 11%. Markov the Honest Judge disappeared, with about 3%.

    The second place went to — surprise, surprise — Siderov the nationalist xenophobe, with 22%.

    Siderov isn’t too pleased by this. He’d been hoping for more like 25%, with Parvanov under 50%. That would have given him some faint hope, if not of victory, at least of coming close enough to claim a mandate. (It’s an article of faith among Attack members that the current elite are all elected with Turk and Gypsy votes.) Winning less than a quarter of the votes from less than 40% of all voters isn’t exactly the dramatic breakthrough they were hoping for.

    Attack is already claiming fraud (and Turkish votes, etc.), but this one is pretty much over. The only question now is whether enough Bulgarians will bother turning up for the second round to give Parvanov a crushing victory as opposed to a solid one.

    Anyone else interested in this? Thoughts?

    Doug M.

  2. Yes, they do. So if three people turn out, and two vote for Parvanov, he gets it.

    You know, this is not really a depressing outcome. 22% for the populist xenophobe: that’s not much more than Le Pen got in the first round. And Bulgaria is a much poorer country than France, with a much younger and more fragile democracy, and with no tradition of welcoming immigrants.

    So, maybe not so bad.

    Doug M.

  3. There are immigrants in Bulgaria?

    Turks etc. are minorities but can hardly be called immigrants. They lived there when there wasn’t a Bulgaria

  4. There are sort-of immigrants: ethnic Turks who were expelled in the 1980s, then trickled back in the 1990s after Communism fell.

    Doug M.

  5. Idiots like Charlie and Doug M should read history. Bulgaria was established in 681 and the Turks invaded it and occupied in the mid 14th centuru through unheard of massacres. They have never lived when there in the Balkans when there wasn’t Bulgaria. The Turks started to immigrate to Turkey in the 90’s – nobody pushed them – just the borders were open – so they went and came back because the Turks in Turkey did not want them. Talking to morons is dificult especially ones that are not clear on the facts.

  6. “The Turks started to immigrate to Turkey in the 90’s – nobody pushed them – just the borders were open -”

    Well, no. The Communist government started pushing Bulgaria’s Turks out in 1988. By 1990 over 300,000 had been expelled.

    (That’s in addition to the expulsions in 1949 and 1951, which pushed out about 150,000.)

    The 1988-90 expulsions were the culmination of a program of forced assimilation, starting in 1984; the Zhivkov government closed Turkish schools, forced Turks to change their names, etc., etc.

    It’s not like this is exactly a secret.

    Doug M.

  7. Dear Doug,
    The “obnoxious xenophobe populist nationalist party” appeared not in 2004, but in 2005. An sadly, but the fact is that for the majority of the polpulation, ALL the parties in Bulgaria seem equally “obnoxious” – for various reasons…

    The “expulsions” of 1989 were not exactly an official policy by the government of Bulgaria – the greater part of the cited 300,000 left the country because their own local leaders pressed them to leave “en masse”, hoping the whole crisis will lead to the downfall of the communist government at that time. The long-time communist leader of Bulgaria – Todor Zhivkov – in fact was removed from power, but this happened in november 1989 in an in-party re-shuffle, made possible not only due to the crisis wth the turk minority, but also because of other domestic and international developments.

  8. Never ever Siderov or any of the Ataka members blamed economic crisis on Turks and Gypsies! This is a lie! Siderov always blamed the goverments! It appears to me that you’ve never heard Siderov yourself or read any of his books. You’ve only read the official propaganda of the goverment. This is not a wise thing to do because for obvious reasons they can’t be objective and try to portray Siderov as the Satan himself.

    Siderov never attacked the ordinary muslims or Turks, he talks about the leader of the ethnic turkish party ( which should be forbidden by the court because in Bulgaria the ethnic parties are forbidden ) Ahmed Dogan who is a criminal! Siderov claims Dogan is using the votes of the ordinary Turks to gain power and to make himself rich, which is an absolute truth. The party of Dogan is also constantly abusing the Turks and makes them vote for him with threats and terror! If you don’t vote for Dogan – tomorrow you may not have a job or your family might get hurt! You have no idea what is going on in Bulgaria in those regions. It’s feudalism there! Part of the Turks despite the censorship and the propaganda of the goverment and despite the fear of the party of Ahmed Dogan voted for Siderov. Same with the Gypsies, 8% of the gypsies who voted on the elections actually voted for Siderov, because they went to hear what Siderov himself says and not what others say he says. It’s still a small percent but that’s because the major medias portray Siderov as a mix betweeen Hitler, Stalin and Pinochet. But unfortunately for the goverment, more and more people will realize they have been lied. On the last elections 300 000 voted for Siderov and Ataka. Now they are 600 000.

  9. “The “expulsions” of 1989 were not exactly an official policy by the government of Bulgaria”

    Er, yes they were.

    Here’s Todor Zhivkov in June 1989: “It is absolutely necessary for the People’s Republic of Bulgaria to expatriate 200,000, and if possible even 300,000 persons from that [(Turkish)] population. […] If we do not get rid of 200-300 thousands people from that population, in 15 years Bulgaria would not exist. [Because that population increases] with about 15,000 persons per year… Can you imagine what will happen in 20 years?”

    Classic Balkan nationalism, and also very typical of late-period Communism. (Across the Danube, Ceausescu was forcing his Hungarians out in much the same way.)

    The Ministry of Internal Affairs was ordered to organise the expulsion of all “extremists and fanatics” among the Turkish Muslims, and to “stimulate” the emigration of the rest. The “stimulation” — which include beatings, expulsions, and terror — was so successful that over 300,000 people fled the country in four months.

    “the greater part of the cited 300,000 left the country because their own local leaders pressed them to leave “en masse”, hoping the whole crisis will lead to the downfall of the communist government at that time.”

    No offense, Person, but this is simply not true. Some local leaders did encourage flight, but that’s because the Zhivkov regime was making the Turks’ lives a living hell.

    Bringing down Communism… hah, that gets interesting. It’s completely false, of course. The Turks were fleeing misery and oppression, not trying to bring down Communism. Remember, the exodus started in late 1988. Communism still seemed as strong as ever; the Berlin wall wouldn’t fall until November.

    But later — years later — this myth about “we fled to destabilize the government” appeared, and it’s been picked up by both sides. Why? Well, for the Turks it lets them appear heroic, and for the Bulgarians it lets them distance themselves from the actions of the wicked Communists. (Actions which, I should add, had broad popular support at the time.)

    Now, modern Bulgaria has actually dealt with its minorities pretty well by Balkan standards. Being a Turk in Bulgaria is still not wonderful — which is why more than 100,000 of them never came back from Turkey — but it’s not that bad, either; Turks have their own schools and universities, their party often holds the balance of power in Parliament, and there’s a mosque in downtown Sofia.

    Well and good; but Bulgaria’s been able to do this in part by half-forgetting, half-misremembering the unpleasant events of the 1980s.

    Maybe I shouldn’t argue with this, but, come on. Facts are facts. And 300,000 people don’t usually decide to become refugees without some pretty compelling reasons.

    Doug M.

  10. “The “expulsions” of 1989 were not exactly an official policy by the government of Bulgaria”

    Er, yes they were.

    Here’s Todor Zhivkov in June 1989: “It is absolutely necessary for the People’s Republic of Bulgaria to expatriate 200,000, and if possible even 300,000 persons from that [(Turkish)] population. […] If we do not get rid of 200-300 thousands people from that population, in 15 years Bulgaria would not exist. [Because that population increases] with about 15,000 persons per year… Can you imagine what will happen in 20 years?”

    Classic Balkan nationalism, and also very typical of late-period Communism. (Across the Danube, Ceausescu was forcing his Hungarians out in much the same way.)

    The Ministry of Internal Affairs was ordered to organise the expulsion of all “extremists and fanatics” among the Turkish Muslims, and to “stimulate” the emigration of the rest. The “stimulation” — which include beatings, expulsions, and terror — was so successful that over 300,000 people fled the country in four months.

    “the greater part of the cited 300,000 left the country because their own local leaders pressed them to leave “en masse”, hoping the whole crisis will lead to the downfall of the communist government at that time.”

    No offense, Person, but this is simply not true. Some local leaders did encourage flight, but that’s because the Zhivkov regime was making the Turks’ lives a living hell.

    Bringing down Communism… hah, that gets interesting. It’s completely false, of course. The Turks were fleeing misery and oppression, not trying to bring down Communism. Remember, the exodus started in late 1988. Communism still seemed as strong as ever; the Berlin wall wouldn’t fall until November.

    But later — years later — this myth about “we fled to destabilize the government” appeared, and it’s been picked up by both sides. Why? Well, for the Turks it lets them appear heroic, and for the Bulgarians it lets them distance themselves from the actions of the wicked Communists. (Actions which, I should add, had broad popular support at the time.)

    Now, modern Bulgaria has actually dealt with its minorities pretty well by Balkan standards. Being a Turk in Bulgaria is still not wonderful — which is why more than 100,000 of them never came back from Turkey — but it’s not that bad, either. Turks have their own schools and universities, their party often holds the balance of power in Parliament, and there’s a mosque in downtown Sofia.

    Well and good; but Bulgaria’s been able to do this in part by half-forgetting, half-misremembering the unpleasant events of the 1980s.

    Maybe I shouldn’t argue with this… but, come on. Facts are facts. And 300,000 people don’t usually decide to become refugees without some pretty compelling reasons.

    Doug M.

  11. Dear Doug,

    Your interpretation of these dramatic events is commendable and not too diverging from mine. As a Bulgarian I feel it is in my country’s best interest to encourage people like you to continue searching for the truth in these matters, which is not always an easy task.

    Yet I need to clarify (as much as I can from my personal experience) some points:

    1. “Todor Zhivkov in June 1989” may have said what you cited above, but only behind closed doors in a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party or in Politburo, and not in public. At the time (June 1989 – October 1989) I was watching every day news broadcasts by the Bulgarian National Television (the only TV channel at the time) and the whole propaganda was exactly in the opposite direction: “we encourage our citizens to remain calm and not to take speedy decisions based on rumours… your life in Turkey will not be what you expect… it will be hard for you to find housing and jobs there… think about your children, they will have to go to not-so-good schools in Turkey” or something of this sort (and like any propaganda, it was at least partly true). Yes, more than 300 000 did cross the border out of Bulgaria, but the return of nearly 200 000 of them in less than tree months (or that was my impression at the time) was touted by the official propaganda in Sofia as a success of the Government, illustrating “the advantages of Socialism [in Bulgaira] over Capitalism [in Turkey]”. That said, I must acknowledge that I cite here my own personal impressions based on what I saw on official TV at the time – I cannot be sure what exactly did happen to the 200 000 who returned, why they returned and why they did leave the country in the first place, were they all Turks or perhaps many of them were Roma people who took the opportunity to travel abroad – I don’t know.

    2. The “expulsions in 1949 and 1951, which pushed out about 150,000” as far as I know, were of a very different type and were not “expulsions” at all: the governments of Bulgaria and Turkey signed at the time an official agreement to that effect, stating precise numerical limits (in thousands of people) for these movements of population. The events of 1989 were not based on such an intergovernmental agreement, and that’s why at some point in late summer of 1989 (I don’t remember the exact date) the Government of Turkey effectively closed the border with Bulgaria, allowing no more “refugees” to enter its territory (this was when their number passed the 300 000 or 320 000 mark, I think). This fact is also little known and rarely cited today (due to the “half-forgetting, half-misremembering” so common today among many of us).

  12. Hi Person,

    Interesting stuff. Thank you for the background!

    A few points:

    1) The exodus began as a trickle in late 1988 and became a flood in June 1989. The number of emigrants peaked in October 1989. After that the flow began to reverse and the Turks started coming back. Most of the returns took place between November 1989 and the spring of 1990, though people were still coming back years later.

    2) The Turkish government never closed the border — they felt a moral responsibility to their fellow Turks — but they did become increasingly unhappy about the exodus. There were top-level talks between the Turkish and Bulgarian governments all through the autumn of 1989.

    I believe the Turks /did/ close the border to non-Turks (mainly Roma). There were also a few Pomaks, but not many, because the government considered Pomaks to be Bulgarian and did not want them to leave.

    3) By autumn 1989 the Bulgarian government was under heavy diplomatic pressure from all sides. The Bush administration was openly criticizing them, Gorbachev had made his disapproval clear, and the Turks were threatening to cut commercial ties. (Which was no small thing — the Turks purchased over $50 million of electricity from Bulgaria every year, and were the country’s major source of hard currency.) The exodus had become a major diplomatic disaster. Meanwhile, of course, the legitimacy of Communism was collapsing, just as everywhere else in eastern Europe. It was these things, not Turkey closing the borders, that caused the government to change its policy.

    4) I’m not aware of any intergovernmental agreement between Bulgaria and Turkey relating to the 1949 wave of expulsions. My understanding is that the two countries couldn’t agree — Turkey didn’t want so many refugees. But I am not a scholar in this field, and I might be missing something. If you have a link, I’d love to see it!

    5) Final point: as an outsider who has lived for years in the Balkans, I think Bulgaria deserves a lot of credit. The country has come a very long way since 1989. Yes, there are still big problems. But if I were Bulgarian, I’d be proud.

    Doug M.

  13. Dear Doug M.,

    I found an interesting source online, available at:
    http://www.ceeol.com/aspx/getdocument.aspx?logid=5&id=5947CD8E-A24E-427A-8532-73422C8EC09E

    It’s an article by Ömer E.Lütem (a turkish scholar, I presume) published (as cited in other sources) in
    1999 ‘The Past and Present State of the Turkish—Bulgarian Relations’ The
    Foreign Policy Quarterly, Volume 23, Turkish Foreign Policy Institute, 14 March 2001

    Here are 2 exerpts, related to the issues we discussed here (and which appear to be rather complicated!)

    about the 1951 events:
    “”””””””””””””””

    Soon however, the Communist regime under the influence of the cold war began to treat the Turkish minority with distrust. In December 1947 Dimitrov warned the Turks to look towards Sofia instead of Istanbul and Ankara and asked them not to act as agents of the enemies of Bulgaria. (i.e. Turkey, United States, Great Britain etc..) In 1949 agricultural lands were expropriated. Turks who practically were all farmers were affected severely by this measure. The already long queues in front of the Turkish Embassy and consulates formed by those hoping to obtain emigration visa for Turkey become even longer. The economic situation of Turkey was not apt to receive a large number of emigrants. Nevertheless Turkey, until August 1950 gave more than 26.000 visa. The unrest among the Turkish population did not diminish; the queues in front of the Turkish Missions became longer still.
    With a note dated l0th of March 1951 the Bulgarian Government accused Turkey of instigating the Turkish minority to emigrate but at the same time not issuing enough visas. The note stated that the Bulgarian Government was ready to give to 250.000 people passports and according to the 1925 settlement agreement asked Turkey not to place any obstacle before the emigration of these persons. Moving 250.000 persons in three months time was more a form of deportation than emigration. This haste could be explained by the fact that Bulgarians were probably acting on behalf of the Soviets who wished to “punish” Turkey for its participation in the Korean War. Seeing this reality and taking into consideration the economic difficulties that this kind of mass emigration was sure to create, Turkey did not accept the Bulgarian proposal but did increased the number of visas issued. On this basis the emigration continued. Turkey stopped the emigration twice because Bulgaria was sending gypsies instead of Turks. On 30th November 1951 emigration was definitively ended by the Bulgarian Government. Up to that date 154.393 persons had immigrated to Turkey.

    “”””””””””””””””””””””

    About the 1989 events:

    “”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””

    In 1989 Bulgarian Parliament, to be in conformity with the CSCE’s principles adopted a new passport law liberalizing foreign travel to a certain extend. At the same time some “undesirable” Turks were expelled to Yugoslavia and Austria. On the 20th of May in a village named Todor Ikonomovo (Turkish name Mahmuzlu) mainly inhabited by the Turks of northern Bulgaria some Turks argued with policemen about the new passport law. Policemen lost control of the situation and fired and killed some of the villagers. The next day there were some manifestations in the neighbouring villages. Again police forces intervened. According to official figures a total of seven persons died.
    President Zhivkov, in a television speech delivered on the 29th of May, after praising the communist regime for what it did for the welfare of the Bulgaria’s Muslims, asked Turkey in a challenging tone to open its frontiers for the Bulgarians who wished to go there. Prime Minister Özal replied that the Turkish borders were open and had never been closed and invited the Bulgarian Government to negotiate a comprehensive emigration agreement. Bulgarian Government began to deport some Turks to Turkey. On the other hand thousands of Turks benefiting from the new passport law asked to go to Turkey. They were not obstructed. Thus the biggest exodus in Europe in the period of detente began.
    Bulgarian Government which in 1985 and in the following years had refused The Turkish proposal for an emigration agreement in fact started the emigration in 1989. That contradiction could be explained by the fact that President Zhivkov did not understand the true nature of the events of May 20 and 21. He most probably believed that these pacifistic manifestations were some kind of a riot and that if he gave the Turks what they wanted, i.e. the chance to immigrate to Turkey, the crisis would come to an end. By doing so he surely over-looked the damage that the emigration of the Turks was to cause to the Bulgarian economy. On the other hand as the settlement of the immigrants would create huge problems for Turkey, the decision to let the Turks emigrate aimed most probably also to “punishing” the receiving country.
    Immigrants came to Turkish border gates in big numbers. Although they were permitted to enter rapidly there were queues for kilometers. People came in old lorries and cars with all their belongings, children and elderly peoples suffering from the heat and malnutrition as well as dehydration. When they entered Turkey although well received, most of them did not know what to do. Some took refuge with their relatives. Others were obliged to go to the tents of the Turkish Red Crescent where they could sleep and found food. Few jobs were available immediately. Soon annoyance and despair spread. Some returned to Bulgaria but most of them persevered.
    In mid-August the number of the immigrants reached 300.000. At that pace it was expected that one million immigrants would arrive by the end of the year. It seemed that all the Turks of Bulgaria wished to emigrate. The Turkish Government who used at that date all its capacity of accommodation halted on the 2lst of August the free emigration and declared that up to 1.000 emigration visa would be granted each day. This should have been a victory for President Zhivkov but Bulgaria had other problems at that time and the Turkish decision was hardly criticized.

    “””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””

    Sorry for the long post, but I think these exerpts give some useful details on the situation in 1951 and in 1989 which are not readily found elsewhere.

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