A Bulgarian tale: Of Elin Pelin, the will of the people, fascism, the bogeyman and a small-town mayor

When Ivailo Simeonov was a candidate for election as mayor of the Bulgarian town of Elin Pelin in 2015, his campaign said that he believed that the townspeople had “strong character, rigid morality and fresh ideas”.

Now the fortysomething mayor, whose campaign said that the father-of-two associate professor at the Technical University Sofia had won first prize at the world competition NASA Space Apps Challenge 2015, has found himself on TV, being called a fascist.

In Bulgaria’s November 2015 elections, Simeonov ran on a joint ticket of the nationalist VMRO party and Nova Bulgaria, in a field of 10 candidates. At the first round, he got close to 19 per cent of the vote, running second behind the candidate of Boiko Borissov’s GERB party, who got almost 35 per cent.

At the second round, Simeonov – born in the town and of whom his campaign said that he “bears the irreconciliable spirit of one of the oldest families” – won a decisive victory, an almost 60 per cent share of the vote. After eight years, GERB was no longer at the helm of Elin Pelin.

So the former leading light of his university’s Taekwondo club, the author of scientific publications on IT, member of the board of directors of North American-Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and the Bulgarian-Kazakh Chamber of Commerce took his seat in the mayor’s office in the western Bulgarian town of 7000 or so. Outside the town limits, few paid attention.

Elin Pelin – a town that bears the name of one of Bulgaria’s most revered authors on themes of rural life – seldom makes headlines.

Though it did in January 2017 – but not as much as it would do a few weeks later. Simeonov, whose election CV had billed him as having “managed investments of 120 million leva”, was alleged by Sofia prosecutors to continue to be a partner in an active company. If true, this would be illegal, because Bulgarian law obliges mayors to withdraw from private companies within a month of their election.

The municipal election commission took up the matter. It examined a certificate from the Commercial Register recording Simeonov, as at January 18, as being a partner in the company. The commission was presented with another certificate, showing that as at January 26, he was not.

The commission, sitting at full strength in a meeting lasting three hours, voted six to five against removing Simeonov from his post as mayor. A January 27 report said that the commission would notify the Sofia Regional Prosecutor’s office of its decision.

Simeonov told the media after the decision that even before the November 2015 election, he had left the company and had no involvement with it. The goal of the episode, he said, had been to compromise him. He laid the blame at the door of unnamed political opponents.

Now again, in February 2017, Simeonov is in the headlines, after his municipality refused to accept the residence registration application of a family of Syrian refugees.

Fatima and Fahim Jaber, taking their children, fled the carnage in Aleppo. First, they headed to Turkey. Their journey brought them to Bulgaria, which has given them recognised official humanitarian status, and has brought them to Elin Pelin.

In Elin Pelin, they have met hostility. Reportedly, police have had to intervene as locals have verbally abused the family. The town’s residents, who have held protests against the acceptance of refugees, say that the Jabers – who had been a well-to-do family living peacefully in Syria until all hell broke loose under the Assad regime – will inevitably be followed by young and dangerous men.

The Bulgarian state has made it clear that refusal by the municipality to grant residence documentation and personal ID numbers to the Jabers family is a violation of the law, which treats humanitarian status as equivalent to permanent residence.

But Simeonov has insisted that he is “doing the will of the people”.

“They (the Jabers) have to find another place to live. I do not intend to allow anyone to disturb the peace of my fellow citizens,” Simeonov said.

On February 14, appearing on a bTV breakfast television discussion panel about the plight of the Jabers, Simeonov insisted: “We were made to look like fascists and people who have no humanity.

“In Elin Pelin, we have a lot of humanism, we are very humane, there is a lot of tolerance towards foreigners,” Simeonov said, using the word чужденците (chuzhdentsite), generally translated as foreigners, but which can also be used to mean strangers. Lately, Bulgarians commonly also have applied the word to refugees and migrants.

“What we are doing is following the will of the people of Elin Pelin,” Simeonov said. “This mess is not of our making. Neither in Europe nor in Bulgaria do people make a difference between refugees and usurpers.”

Those seeking accommodation in a small town, Simeonov said, could hardly adapt there, but they could in a large town.

“We have always helped people in need,” he said.

Another participant in the panel, Advocate Nikolai Hadzhigenov – a specialist in criminal law with a track record of working on human rights cases – said: “The actions of the mayor are illegal and a crime. This is pure fascism”.

“This, following the will of the people, that’s the dictatorship of the proletariat. What’s next – the EU returning all Bulgarians back here? Are we the North Korea of the Balkans, or what?” Hadzhigenov said.

Akram Nayuf, the representative of the Syrian family, told the panel discussion, “yesterday was a very sad day for Bulgarian democracy and the uplifting of European values. What happened yesterday is a shame and a disgrace, the decision taken is illegal”.

Simeonov said that there were more than 30 people living illegally in Elin Pelin.

“This worries people. These people (the Jabers) may not be that kind, but then another 1000 will come after them,” he said.

Fatima and Fahim Jaber.

Hadzhigenov, in turn, addressing Simeonov and a VMRO party official who also took part in the discussion: “The bogeyman could be living in your attic and that wouldn’t bother you, but these 1000 are going to come and impale you on stakes? Get serious”.

Politicians were nervous about these issues now, he said, because Bulgaria’s March 26 2017 early parliamentary elections were on their way.

“To be humane is the strong helping the weak. Is this the true Bulgarian?” Hadzhigenov said.




Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.