Three items in Volen Siderov's office reflect his current image. The religious icons on the wall speak to his embrace of traditional Bulgarian values and to the agreement his party concluded with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in 2006. The antique sword hanging nearby stands in for his militancy. And the heavy boxing bag is part of his personal commitment to physical fitness as well as a willingness to engage in physical altercations.
Volen Siderov is the leader of Ataka, perhaps the most controversial political party in Bulgaria. Ataka -- or Attack -- came to prominence in 2005, when it placed fourth in the parliamentary elections. Siderov himself came in second in the presidential race the following year. The party's platform mixes a left-wing critique of globalization with a frankly nationalist approach to minority policy. He wants to replace Bulgaria's flat tax with a progressive tax, but he believes that all ethnic Turks are just Bulgarians forced to convert to Islam in centuries past. He is deeply suspicious of neo-liberalism, but he also blames Roma for crime and corruption and doesn't acknowledge attacks on the Roma community.
Siderov made the leap into politics from journalism. He was the editor of the opposition newspaper Democratsia back in 1990. He started a TV show called Ataka in 2003 that would serve as a platform for his political views. Ataka, I've been told, came very close in 2005 to seizing power during the political chaos that eventually produced a coalition government of King Simeon's party, the Socialists, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Although Ataka again came in fourth in the 2009 elections, with nearly 10 percent of the votes, the party has since faded. Siderov pulled in less than 4 percent of votes in the 2011 presidential elections, and the party's popularity dropped below 2 percent earlier this year. It has since climbed back to about 5 percent.
I interviewed Volen Siderov in his office in Sofia back in October. His press department arranged for two large cameras to record the interview, one trained on him and the other on me. My portable videocam looked like a toy in comparison. The camera crew looked more like Occupy protestors, with t-shirts and high-tops, than the followers of a far-right party. The modern, well-secure office was buzzing with activity, which was in stark contrast with the dusty and nearly empty office of the Social Democratic Party that I'd recently visited.
Most of the interview was taken up with Siderov's response to my initial question about 1989, which provided the Ataka perspective on recent Bulgarian history. It was more of a lecture than a Q and A. He spoke very calmly, prompting my interviewer to remark afterward on the sharp contrast with his appearances in parliament and on TV.
On economic matters, Siderov indeed sounded like a left-wing critic. "I started to realize that the process of globalization might be good for some people but not at all for others," he told me. "Several years later, the works of Joseph Stiglitz from the World Bank were published in Bulgaria, and I read my thoughts in his articles. He, and others from the World Bank and the IMF, argued that the goal of these financial institutions was to colonize poor developing countries. Instead of strengthening these countries, which is the purpose of these institutions, they were actually marginalizing them, converting them into large masses of poor people without their own industry or a much-needed public sector. In addition, there was the dominating presence of transnational companies in these countries, which sucked up all the profits."
But when the conversation turned to social matters, he popped up on the other side of the political spectrum. He denied the reports of attacks on Roma that had taken place in Bulgaria. It was the opposite, he insisted.
"The struggle of our party is to make the Bulgarian nationality a category of prestige, so that the inhabitant of a ghetto would be proud to call himself Bulgarian," he told me. "My concern is that a number of international organizations instill the thought in these people that they are different and should act differently. But, anthropologically, they are not much different. They are not colored. We do not have the difference between blacks and whites here. Racism was never an issue in Bulgaria. However, when crime rates rise, and all this crime originates in these ethnic groups, people start having negative sentiments. So there is not a single village in Bulgaria that has not been robbed by the Gypsy groups."
Those who believe that Ataka is a party of the past should not write off Siderov so quickly. He is politically adept, able to craft his message for different audiences, and clearly tapping into the considerable anger in the Bulgarian population about two decades and more of inequitable economic reform. Though inter-ethnic relations in Bulgaria are relatively good by Balkan standards, considerable tensions exist below the surface that a nationalist party can exploit. The next Bulgarian parliamentary elections will take place in May. Ataka won't win, but it could gain enough seats to play a role in determining the ultimate outcome.
You've talked about the negative effects of globalization. As you probably know, globalization also has had negative effects on the United States. Even though the United States benefits, we've lost manufacturing in the United States. A very similar kind of collapse of manufacturing happened as here in Bulgaria. But the question is, most people here in Bulgaria say, "Bulgaria has no choice." It's a small country, with 7.5 million people. How can Bulgaria find a place in the world without integration in Europe, and integration in the global economy?
There are countries that are not integrated in the EU. They are not larger than Bulgaria. They are not more numerous in population. They do not have oil. Switzerland, for instance. The party I founded and I myself have proposed a model for Bulgaria so that Bulgaria can be neutral and not participate in military blocs.
We should have a better policy, without leaving the European community. The EU, however, is built on the wrong foundation. It should be a set of countries that trade between each other on equal footing. That was de Gaulle's idea of Europe. And now the trend is to make it a new Roman Empire, something that we don't accept. And there is strong opposition coming from parties identical to ours.
Toward the EU, we should be cooperative, of course, but we should never forget that the world is larger than the EU. There are huge economies to the east: India, China, the former Soviet bloc countries. In the south, we used to have wonderful trade relations with the Arabs. All this was lost for us. We also need to remember our own deposits of gold and precious metals. We already have indications that in the seabed of the Black Sea there are huge deposits of gas, and even oil. If we are sensible, we would restore ownership of these assets to Bulgaria, so that we could utilize these natural resources. We used to be the energy exporter to the Balkans.
We should have a global policy, but we should also take care of our own sovereignty, so that we can have a better standard of living for the small number of people that live in this country. Bulgaria has the population of half a capital city in a large country. If Bulgarian statesmen are unable to provide a good standard of living for such a small country, why think about national policies? We should just give up and become the territory of whoever wishes to come and take us. This is the direction where we are heading.
This is why there is always a choice. Our choice is to place our interest at the top without being confrontational. I didn't want to confront the U.S. ambassador. I did it half-jokingly, because this was not a diplomatic event. I just wanted to say that there's no free lunch. Things cannot go on like that forever. It was not a confrontation; it was a defense of our interests. Unfortunately, Bulgarian politicians who take this position, they start thinking that a tap on the shoulder of the ambassador is more important than the standard of living of their fellow countrymen.
So, there is choice: to make Bulgaria a more sovereign country, with a strong economy, with well-developed technology and education, and with the highest standard of people. I'm convinced that this is possible.
To read the rest of the interview, click here.