For the majority partners in Bulgaria’s ruling axis, the Bulgarian Socialist Party and Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the Varna Airport debacle in which Ataka leader Volen Siderov and some of his MPs were involved continues the trajectory of Siderov turning from a necessary evil to a worsening embarrassment.
For now, however, it appears that the BSP and MRF are hoping that time will heal all wounds – or at least allow the damage to fade sufficiently with the passage of time as Bulgaria inevitably moves on to whatever its next scandal may turn out to be.
On the face of it, Siderov and his cohorts are not quite as necessary as they used to be when the current government was formed on the basis of the mandate handed to the BSP, which ran second in the May 2013 elections but got the chance to form an administration when the largest party, GERB, could not.
Siderov provided the vital vote to form a quorum in the National Assembly to vote the government into office. For months after that, in paraphrase of his own verbiage, Siderov was a precious plant, needing care and cultivation as the beleaguered BSP government sought to throw down roots.
No stranger to controversy – all the rows in which Siderov has been involved since his party won seats in Parliament in 2005 would be too tedious to enumerate – the Ataka leader has lived up to his turbulent track record in recent months, particularly when photographs emerged showing that the self-styled man of the people has somewhat of a taste for the luxury life, and apparently somehow the means to support one.
At the outset, the fact that it was Siderov’s Ataka holding in place the party that supposedly is his bete noire – the MRF, led and supported in the main by Bulgarians of ethnic Turkish origin – seemed to have damaged him.
A range of opinion polls by various Bulgarian polling agencies, from the more reliable to the occasionally amusing, showed Siderov as having no chance of returning to the next National Assembly.
This is not just a matter of a loss of credibility on the part of Siderov because of his effective alliance with the MRF, but also because the ultra-nationalist ground is contested by a party headed by a former ally, Valeri Simeonov and his National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria.
Of course, in the unique view of Siderov, everything from the appearance of Simeonov and his party, through to hostile media coverage and on to the January 6 Varna Airport incident, is all part of a vast conspiracy to bring him down, and thus in turn complete the handover of Bulgaria to sinister foreign interests.
Varna Airport, however, is not a matter of striking photographs turning up online, as per those of Siderov holidaying in luxury destinations, but a matter of alleged crimes.
Few commentators critical of the current ruling axis in Bulgaria have failed to highlight the silence of the top leaders of the BSP and MRF, who normally are content to prattle on about even the most trivial matters or to present their wash-and-spin messages about the performance of the government they uphold, one that in the gentlest of terms may be described as monumentally underachieving.
But those in Parliament, which is due to resume its sittings on January 15, will have to face the fact that the Prosecutor-General has submitted a request for the lifting Siderov’s immunity as an MP from prosecution.
Current rules give Siderov up to 14 days from the date of submission of the Prosecutor-General’s request to voluntarily relinquish that immunity. Should, as it seems he will, Siderov refuse to do so, it will become a matter for a vote in the House.
Opposition GERB, predictably (perhaps also relieved to have headlines driven away from its own troubles, including MPs shed and with more – so it is claimed – poised to leave), has indicated it would back a vote to lift Siderov’s immunity.
There could indeed be a package, with Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov indicating that other members of Ataka could also be subject to similar applications for the lifting of their immunity.
While Tsatsarov said that it was up to the continuing investigation to show precisely what had happened in the contretemps at Varna Airport in which two people, one a police officer, were assaulted, the Prosecutor-General also already has responded to Siderov’s allegations that he was assaulted by the Interior Ministry official and not vice versa.
“He (the policeman) has definitely been hit. In fact I put it mildly: he was hit and kicked at, he was hit and kicked at by members of the Bulgarian parliament,” the Prosecutor-General said on January 9, notably using the plural.
However, it also has emerged from reports in the Bulgarian-language media on January 10 that Parliament’s ethics committee will “turn a blind eye” (in the phrase used in daily Trud) to the Ataka incident at Varna Airport and, according to BSP member Plamen Savov, will not initiate an investigation to consider Siderov’s conduct.
For left-wing political commentator Andrei Raichev, speaking to 24 Chassa, the damage would be to Ataka while Raichev said that he expected that Siderov would be stripped of his immunity to face court.
“There is not a power to make a party not to vote in favour of the proposal for stripping the Ataka leader of his immunity. On the other hand, as someone has aptly remarked, Siderov is like a cat, he has nine lives,” Raichev was quoted as saying.
All of this is taking place ahead of Bulgaria voting in European Parliament elections on May 25.
The outcome of these elections could have a bearing on whether Bulgaria goes to early national parliamentary elections. The BSP is divided on the question, with some arguing that should the party muster a strong showing in the European vote, it should draw on the momentum to seek to elect a new National Assembly in which it would have a credible claim on victory.
Clearly, if it agrees to early elections, the BSP would want these to be at a time of its choosing, another reason to deal carefully with Siderov – although he in turn could hardly want new elections that could finally see his ultra-nationalists denied a further return to Parliament.
In the days since the Varna Airport incident, Siderov has again cranked up the rhetoric for the benefit of those few dozens of supporters who rallied to back him this week.
And on January 10, Ataka supporters returned to an issue that they have sought to raise before, protesting outside the United States embassy in Sofia against a monument commemorating the deaths of US military personnel who died during the World War 2 bombing campaign against the Bulgarian capital that began in earnest on January 10 1944.
In World War 2, Bulgaria was allied to Hitler’s Germany and eventually found its capital targeted by devastating bombing campaign by US, British and Commonwealth airmen.
In recent years, a commemorative plaque was erected at the US embassy, while officers representing Nato ally Bulgaria also take part in annual November Remembrance Day ceremonies honouring the dead – military and civilian, on all sides – in the wars of the 20th Century.
Siderov’s party, however, stays out of kilter with this. At the January 10 2014 event, protesters from Ataka carried posters reading, among other things, “USA terrorist number one”.
Such events are, leaving aside the calculated insult to military personnel who served honorably, a populist grab for votes for Ataka in future elections. Without the connection between Ataka and the current ruling axis, they would be just another distasteful stunt of the kind initiated by far-right parties throughout Europe.
Should Bulgaria’s current ruling axis seek to string out the process of the lifting of Siderov’s immunity, decide to exempt him from examination by the ethics committee, and should the process of potential trial also drag on, so too the political embarassment of the Siderov saga also would be prolonged.
(Photo, of Siderov in Sofia at a rally on March 3 2013: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)