By Krassen Nikolov
The corruption scandal with the Austrian far-right Freedom Party attracts the attention of Europeans just before the forthcoming EU elections. Austria and Bulgaria have something in common: the coalition governments with the participation of pro-Russian nationalists are in power in both countries. Bulgaria was actually the first to create such type of coalition.
How Bulgarian nationalists imagine the country
An army with special police powers, voluntary military service for the civilians (they do not insist on making it obligatory only because the budget would not be enough for it, since the infrastructure was destroyed), repression of the Roma minority, allowing the use of firearms in self-defense, tightening the conditions for granting pensions for people with disabilities. These are just some of the ideas for reforms of the United Patriots – the junior coalition partner of Boyko Borissov’s GERB.
A week ago, the Bulgarian parliament rejected the idea of the deputy prime minister and minister of defence Krassimir Karakachanov (he is the leader of the nationalist party VMRO, one of the three forces of the United Patriots) for granting special police powers to the army. Before the elections GERB is trying to compete with the nationalists’ initiatives because in recent months the government is in a constant crisis due to the corruption scandals.
The minister’s proposals for legislative amendments were opening a wide door for the army to be used in various cases, including during civil protests. The idea was the army to help the police if there were “high threats” for the population. The problem was that the nationalists did not specify exactly what threats they have in mind. And that could lead to arbitrary use.
“The army will not participate in operations of the gendarmerie department,” said Konstantin Popov (GERB) who is the chairman of the parliamentary defense committee.
Karakachanov gave birth to the idea of police powers for the army a year and a half ago. At that time the army illegally joined a special police operation in reaction to a domestic violence murder in thel town of Peshtera. Soldiers joined the search for a killer near Sofia too. And Karakachanov announced his proposal in the parliament – the army to be mobilised to help the police in such cases.
There are fears that the army can be used in the minister’s visits to Roma ghettos. In the past year, Karakachanov has initiated the destruction of dozens of Roma houses as a state response to criminal incidents.
In 2016, GERB allowed the army to guard the state border because of the migratory pressure on the border with Turkey and Greece. Legislative changes then allowed the use of force by the army in a very limited number of cases and only in self-defense. Therefore, they are not recognised as a risk to democracy in a country.
GERB tries to balance
Borissov’s party is constantly trying to soften the nationalist ideas, but this is not always possible. Two weeks ago, at first reading in Parliament GERB supported an idea of the United Patriots which aims at allowing the use of firearms in self-defense. The proposed law changes are so vague that they allow the use of weapons in virtually every street strife at night. The second reading of the amendments has been postponed after the EU elections.
According to unofficial information, GERB has given in temporarily so as not to worsen their relations with the nationalists before the elections. But after that, all the amendments are expected to be rejected.
At the beginning of the year, Karakachanov announced he is ready to resign and go into opposition if his Roma integration strategy is not accepted. The strategy of the nationalists plans undemocratic punishments such as forced labor, abortion promotion, and “limiting the birth rate of women from marginal communities” under certain conditions. The Roma integration strategy has not yet been adopted, and Karakachanov has not resigned either. Now he expects GERB to accept his idea of restoring the voluntary military service to civilians.
Karakachanov’s activism brings VMRO political gains. At the beginning of the year, it became clear that the three nationalist parties of the United Patriots coalition would not run together in the European elections. The first forecasts were that none of the three parties stood the chance to elect MEPs. However with its activism, VMRO seems to stand the chance to have at least one MEP in the next European parliament. The party’s slogan for the elections is in tune with its ideas and is openly militaristic – “We defend Bulgaria”.