VERY PATRIOTIC GAMES

by Yavor Dachkov; photography by BTA

Bulgaria's top leaders deflect the attention of the masses with a new kind of kitschy nationalism

Parvanov's cake wins the political kitsch award

If nationalism is, as they say, the last refuge of scoundrels, then Bulgaria's establishment must be becoming fully fledged rotters. You may think it flippant - ungallant even - to suggest this but let's take President Georgi Parvanov.

During his first term he showed a degree of patriotism befitting his background as a historian. But, since the onset of his second term, he has become so nationalistic that you don't have to broach the extremism of Ataka to find evidence of a jingoistic resurgence, the president and government seem to be doing Volen Siderov's job for him.

When guests tucked into a kitschy cake at the presidential reception commemorating the 3 March national holiday, the picture captured the new mood perfectly. The cake, depicting the battle between Bulgarian insurgents and the Turkish Army for the Shipka Pass, was a clear sign that presidential patriotism was veering towards the absurd.

Subsequent events confirmed that if we continue like this, Bulgaria's leaders will soon be coming to work wearing the white, green and red of the national flag!

In April, President Georgi Parvanov, Minister of Culture Stefan Danailov and National History Museum Director, Bozhidar Dimitrov, attended the ceremonial re-burial of the remains of Bulgarian King Kaloyan in Veliko Tarnovo's St 40 Martyrs Church. For Bulgarians, the few discovered remains of their sovereigns are significant. But historians are not even sure whether the skeleton unearthed in grave number 39 was really that of King Kaloyan, who defeated the army of Latin Emperor Baldwin I near Adrianople in 1205. Nevertheless, the ceremony was grandiose, accompanied by a National Guards corps, an armoured vehicle with gun carriage in tow and a PhotoShop-contrived portrait of Kaloyan himself.

A month later the president and the high clergy marked the church holiday of Prince Boris I, who adopted Christianity as Bulgaria's official religion. It wasn't particularly noteworthy but Parvanov decided to make it such by celebrating it ostentatiously with a frenzy of media publicity.

Bury a mediaeval king with state honours

Bury a mediaeval king with state honours

Then came the Batak scandal. The events surrounding it are so brainless that it's hard to relay them. Dr Ulf Brunnbauer and Martina Baleva from the Institute of Eastern European Studies at Berlin's Free University announced a forthcoming conference about the massacre of the Bulgarians in Batak during the suppression of the 1876 April Uprising against the Ottoman Empire. The conference merely wanted to establish why the event had acquired such a hallowed - almost iconic - status in Bulgaria. It seemed perfectly legitimate to raise such a question. But the media, whether intentionally or not, reported that the two were attempting to cast doubt on the tragedy's historical authenticity. Brunnbauer and Baleva denied this but the conference was cancelled as the controversy raged on. Parvanov, Vice President Angel Marin, and Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev as well as the culture minister all condemned the planned event, siding with enraged patriots.

This seemed amusing at first. But Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev's programme for his Moscow visit showed that the new mood was no mere flirtation. During his trip he confirmed old as well as new energy agreements - all of them beneficial to Russia but not to Bulgaria. (see the article on the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline in No. 8).

Part of Stanishev's agenda had nothing to do with energy. The prime minister, whose schedule was probably prepared by the Russians, met Russian Patriarch Alexis II. The Bulgarian premier assured him that his countrymen would never treat the Russian soldiers' monuments as the Estonians had "mistreated" theirs. Alexis II also expressed his hope that, following Bulgaria's accession to the EU, Orthodox believers would acquire a stronger voice.

Why did the prime minister, coming from the traditionally atheist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), have to meet the Russian patriarch? In the time of Catherine the Great, Russia pursued its geo-strategic aims by disguising them as an attempt to restore the Orthodox Byzantium.

In the 19th Century it pretended it was caring for the Orthodox people in the Ottoman Empire. Even now in Russia, as in Serbia, religion is related to nationalism, providing a feeling of uniqueness. Moscow is not simply Orthodox - is claims to be the third Rome and the second
Constantinople.

Bulgaria is an EU and NATO member, but traditionally it likes to emulate Russia. For this reason, the ruling Socialist Party's leaders started attending church. Parvanov's victory at the 2001 presidential election boosted the institutionalisation of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in public life. At the beginning of his term he declared that he was not a religious believer, but soon afterwards he received a medal for services rendered to Orthodoxy by the Moscow-based International Orthodox Foundation. Only a few weeks ago there was an outcry in parliament when it was revealed that, according to Bulgarian secret services, the Foundation was a cover-up for Russian company Gazprom's economic interests.

Brothers in faith: Bulgaria's Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev (middle) and Russia's Patriarch Alexis II (second from left)

Brothers in faith: Bulgaria's Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev (middle) and Russia's Patriarch Alexis II (second from left)

Why did the Socialists in Bulgaria and Russia seek the assistance of organised religion and nationalism? The answer lies in the adjective "organised". Unlike the democrats, they realised that the "bright Communist future" had to be substituted by new common symbols, rituals and public perceptions. Britain has its Queen and France has its Revolution. For Bulgaria, this is its glorious state in the Middle Ages, to some extent its Orthodox Church, and, significantly, the Bulgarian ability to always withstand the evil forces coming from abroad.

This decision may seem excessive but it works. When, beginning his second term, Parvanov took the oath in the presence of Patriarch Maxim, most Bulgarians looked on unperturbed. This was understandable because the president had played the card of new Bulgarian nationalism perfectly in the election campaign. Facing radical Volen Siderov in the runoff (rightwing parties could not agree on a common vote-winning candidate), the electorate viewed him as a moderate nationalist, neither an extremist nor an apostate.

Parvanov's stance reaped dividends. The West acknowledged him as the legitimate face of democracy and the rightwing European People's Party (EPP) even drummed up support for him in the runoff.

But the president's nationalism has deeper roots. Georgi Parvanov's political career began in a nationalist organisation called the People's Committee for the Defence of National Interests (OKZNI), established in the early 1990s by the former state security services. Parvanov became its spokesperson and was first elected an MP as a member of this group. OKZNI targeted the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), attacking it as "poisonous". It even tried to justify the Communists' so-called Revival Process, the attempt to forcibly rename Bulgarian Turks in the mid-1980s. During the second half of the 1990s Georgi Parvanov accused the DPS of carrying out a Revival Process with the opposite aim. When he became the BSP's leader in the late 1990s he met Slobodan Milosevic?, wrote a letter in his defence and was in the vanguard of anti-NATO protests.

What does this have to do with the new Bulgarian jingoism? Quiz any nationalist and you'll find that he opposes his country's membership of NATO and particularly the projected deployment of US military bases.

National Museum of History Director Bozhidar Dimitrov is notorious for his views on Macedonia

National Museum of History Director Bozhidar Dimitrov is notorious for his views on Macedonia

He supports the Serbian struggle against the West and he considers the Turkish minority, "Ankara's puppets", as the single greatest threat to Bulgaria. In the first days after Batak, for example, Bozhidar Dimitrov declared that the event was provoked by Turkish interest groups.

However, the situation is not so absurd. During the transition period, when democratic ideas were compromised by economic crises, unemployment, emigration and corruption, nationalism was the sole consolation for many Bulgarians. This still seems to be the case judging by the resurgence of nationalist organisations. I'm referring not only to the crudity of Ataka but also the Bulgarian People's Union and Tangra's Warriors. And, on a cultural level, you only have to see the huge number of street posters advertising patriotic musicals and dances. Since the 1913 Balkan War, when the country had to fight alone against its former allies, Bulgarian nationalism has been of the "I, alone and weak, against the others, strong and bad" type. This is why, although they did not have their own party until the appearance of Ataka in 2005, the new Bulgarian nationalists got their mouthpiece in the guise of president.

But the political situation changed and the patriotic president had to make some concessions. DPS became a ruling party and Bulgaria a NATO and EU member. Nationalism remained and it still carries the marks of patriotism devised by Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.

It has a tendency to treat separate historical events out of context. The 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, for example, is presented as a noble desire by an Orthodox czar to liberate the Bulgarians, not a war over geo-strategic issues. Separate historical incidents acquire a holy and heroic aura that become non-negotiable, just like the Batak massacre. Parades and commemorations then mark the occasions with absurd reverence.

The new nationalism is extremely selective. It remembers the victims from Batak, but not those from the Communist labour camps. The new nationalism has even developed its own sound medium. It has folk music and pop-folk, also modified, but from Serbian, Greek and Turkish originals. I admit this sounds kitschy. But do look again at the 3 March cake. From a certain point on, kitsch may evolve into a powerful political force.

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