Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Tolerating the “Intolerable Partner:” Once Shunned, Bulgaria’s United Patriots Joins the Governing Coalition
Tolerating the “Intolerable Partner:” Once Shunned, Bulgaria’s United Patriots Joins the Governing Coalition

Tolerating the “Intolerable Partner:” Once Shunned, Bulgaria’s United Patriots Joins the Governing Coalition


Want to bet exactly which Euro-
Atlantic powers are whispering
denunciations in Daul’s ear
about the Patriotic Front?
-Ognyan Minchev[1]


Several weeks after winning a plurality in Bulgaria’s late March parliamentary election, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov did something unprecedented: he brought the nationalist United Patriots (Obedineni Patrioti) into his coalition government. The United Patriots is an electoral alliance of three parties, the IMRO[2]-Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO-Bulgarsko Natsionalno Dvizhenie), the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (Natzionalen Front za Spasenie na Bulgaria), and Attack (Attaka). Their inclusion in the coalition government has given rise to concern among Bulgaria’s NATO allies (and many Bulgarian themselves) about what the Bulgarian Socialist Party’s Korneliya Ninova called Mr. Borissov’s “floating majority, his unprincipled alliance”[3] (plavashti mnozinstva, bezprintsipni sŭyuzi).

That concern is well placed for several reasons. Only a few years ago, even the nationalist IMRO-BND and NFSB excluded the radical Ataka[4] from their electoral alliance dubbed the “Patriotic Front” (Patriotichen front) because of Ataka’s positions on Russia and NATO. Even then, however, the Patriotic Front’s “nationalist profile” (natsionalisticheskiyat profil) was so far to Bulgaria’s political right to cause Mr. Borissov to exclude the Patriotic Front from his coalition government. He did so with the active encouragement of his center-right European People’s Party allies across the European Union. “Nothing against the PF, but unfortunately the things Valeri Simeonov [a PF leader, more about whom anon] proposes do not correspond to our Euro-Atlantic orientation,” said Mr. Borissov at the time.[5]

Ataka’s well-earned pariah status among pro-NATO, pro-EU political parties reflects its stridently pro-Russia—even the Patriotic Front’s Mr. Simeonov once said Ataka “must abandon its Russophilia” as a precondition to alliance—and virulently anti-Muslim stance. Given this, one might think aligning with Ataka now would drive the Popular Front even farther from Mr. Borissov.

And yet on 3 May, Mr. Borissov announced that the United Patriots—which won 27 National Assembly seats (out of 240) in the late March parliamentary election, finishing third with about nine percent (9.07%) of votes cast—would join his coalition government. The United Patriots now controls two of four deputy prime minister posts along with portfolios for the internal security, defense, environment, and economy ministries. Mr. Borissov’s deal with United Patriots allowed him to cement his governing coalition with a 133-100 vote in the National Assembly. It remains to be seen what this will cost Mr. Borissov at home and among Bulgaria’s allies.

(l-r) Deputy PM Valeri Simeonov, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, and Deputy PM Krassimir Karakachanov (Credit: The Sofia Globe)

He named Krassimir Karakachanov Deputy Prime Minister in charge of internal security and national defense. Mr. Karakachanov has been a fixture of Bulgarian politics for some three decades. He served in the National Assembly from 1997-2001 and again from 2005-2009; and as IMRO-BND’s presidential candidate in 2011, when he won less than one percent (0.99%) of the popular vote. According to one published report, he was recruited while a student by Bulgaria’s Communist-era state security service. Some parliamentary members from Mr. Borissov’s own party (GER[6]) insisted Mr. Karakachanov was inappropriate for the internal security and defense portfolios “because he will have trouble getting access to classified information from NATO because of his past in the DS.”[7]

Deputy PM Krassimir Karakachanov (Credit:

Mr. Borissov named Valeri Simeonov Deputy Prime Minister in charge of economic and demographic policy. First elected to public office as an Ataka candidate in 2007, Mr. Simeonov chaired the Burgas[8] municipal council until January 2009, when he resigned to protest its approval of a permit to construct a new mosque.[9] In November 2009, Mr. Simeonov resigned from Ataka and in May 2011 cofounded the NFSB with two colleagues.

Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov (Credit: 24chasa.bu)

“The future of Boyko Borisov is tied to the future of Valeri Simeonov,” he declared.[10]

Some suggest Mr. Borissov will quickly regret ceding these important portfolios to the United Patriots, with at least one commentator going so far as to say that Mr. Simeonov would most likely use his position for political blackmail. The 27 April coalition agreement signed by Mr. Borissov and the three United Patriots leaders established a six-person political council that includes the three United Patriot co-chairs, the IMRO-BND’s Mr. Karakachanov, the NFSB’s Mr. Simeonev, and Ataka’s Volen Siderov.[11]

Cover of “10 Priorities of the United Patriots – ATAKA, NFFS & IMRO” (10 prioriteta na Obedinenite patrioti- ATAKA, NFSB i VMRO) (Source:

What role Ataka will play in Mr. Borissov’s government is unclear although the party’s ambitions are not. “We are now really an unbeatable force in politics,”[12] declared Ataka deputy chair Yavor Notev.

The United Patriots indulged in unabashedly nationalist and racial appeals to Bulgarian voters. Mr. Karakachanov had this to say in a mid-March address to IMRO-BND supporters in Dobrich:

It’s important in this election that the Bulgarian people come out en masse and vote, because that’s the only way to stop the Gypsy vote that is bought and paid for, to stop those who voice is controlled by others, and to stop those from Turkey [note: the reference is to Bulgarian Muslims] whom the Turkish government uses to interfere directly in Bulgaria’s internal affairs. Don’t expect people from somewhere else to solve your problems, bet on local people from the United Patriots. We have no rulers in Brussels, Washington, or Moscow. Our boss is the Bulgarian people.[13]

The United Patriots’ ten-point electoral platform is unambiguous vis-à-vis Bulgaria’s ethnic communities [read: Roma and Bulgarian Muslims] and the country’s relationship with its NATO ally, Turkey. In case the platform’s plain language proved insufficient, Ataka paired each of the ten United Patriots planks with a graphic to drive home the message. Consider this crude racial image that Ataka paired with the seventh plank, “Attitude toward ethnic communities” (otnoshenie kŭm etnosite).

(Source: Ataka website[14])

Or this one paired with the tenth plank on “External Policy” (Vŭnshna Politika) with the tagline “NO: Against Turkey in the EC.”

(Source: Ataka website [15])

The language of the respective planks disabuses any suggestion that the accompanying graphics are somehow misrepresentative. Consider the seventh plank “Attitude toward ethnic communities:”

We call for a national strategy for the integration of ethnic communities in compliance with the law. This includes the removal of illegal structures, prohibiting marriage between minors, linking eligibility for social benefits with real work, and children’s education. Bulgarian law must be modified such that the right to vote is limited to those with at least a primary education and fluency in Bulgarian.[16]

These nationalist dog-whistles are preconditions set by the United Patriots’ constituent parties to support Mr. Borissov. Their language about “removing illegal structures” is code for prohibiting the construction of mosques, and in some well-known instances, to demolish mosques built after local officials refused approval or withdrew it retroactively under political pressure. So, too, the language about marriage between minors, a seemingly a mainstream view—Bulgarian media closely reported how the contentious question was handled within German political circles after that country’s recent immigrant influx—but one invariably that is linked in Bulgarian nationalist circles to Bulgarian Muslims and the Turkish government.

The United Patriots’ animadversion for Bulgarian Muslims carries into its next plank, “State and Religion” (Dŭrzhava i Veroizpovedaniya). It calls for the Bulgarian government to require all religious services to be conducted solely in the Bulgarian language, and to further require that the Bulgarian national flag appear in front of all religious buildings. Ominously, it calls on the government “to stop the sounds of terror coming from minarets.” That is hardly a case in which Ataka forced words on its IMRO-BND and NFSB coalition partners. In November 2014, Ataka’s Mr. Sideov angrily accused the IMRO-BND’s Mr. Karakachanov of expropriating his line about “stopping sounds of terror coming from minarets.” Mr. Karakachanov was challenged at the same time from the political center by the Bulgarian MEP Chetin Kazak, who asked:

What is all this about stopping the sound of terror from the minarets, banning circumcision, banning the DPS,[17]stopping aid for families with more than three children. Is this the partner with which you shook hands?[18]

The United Patriots’ social policy planks carefully omit the virulently anti-LBGQT language it otherwise employs on a daily basis. Consider this from the head of its Sofia chapter, who in June 2016 demanded the city’s mayor ban a planned “Pride Day” parade. Condemning it as “a political rally, the demands of which are an assault on traditional Bulgarian values, morality and good manners, and a provocation against families,” he continued:

I consider it abnormal and foreign to Bulgarian traditions, spirit and culture, and not for anything else, because these people want to impose a way of thinking and acting that’s alien to our society.[19]

The United Patriots’ tenth platform plank extends the anti-Turkish diatribe into the realm of foreign policy:

Bulgaria’s foreign policy must be subordinate to and serve the national interest. We are opposed to foreign military bases on our territory and against Turkey’s EU accession. We support the creation of a cabinet-level department responsible for demographics and the interests of Bulgarians abroad.[20]

“Demographics” is another racial code word, one used to suggest Orthodox Bulgarians risk being overwhelmed by the combined effect of Muslim immigration and a high birth rate among Bulgarian Muslims. Many Bulgarians are baffled that United Patriots leader Mr. Simeonov, was given control of something as contentious as “demographic policy” notwithstanding how it might serve as a political exegesis in forming Mr. Borissov’s governing coalition.

Difficult times may lie ahead for Bulgarian Muslims. So predicts a senior Bulgarian political figure, Osman Oktay,[21] in a mid-March essay he penned in Glasŭt Na Mladite Khora (“The Voice of Youth”):

Bulgarian Muslims will be an easy target for exploitation by Erdogan and company. They will be forced into a corner between dictatorial rule in Ankara and near-fascist rule in Bulgaria.[22]

What influence the United Patriots can ultimately exert over government policy remains to be seen, but Bulgaria’s neighbors and NATO allies have reason for concern, especially given the United Patriots’ control of the internal security, defense and “demographic” portfolios. Its platform unambiguously calls for “the removal of all Bulgarian troops from foreign countries” (izvezhdane na vsichki bŭlgarski voĭski ot chuzhdi dŭrzhavi) and as mentioned earlier, is opposed to “foreign military bases on our territory.” The platform is largely silent on Russia, save one plank that calls for “construction of two new units at the Kozloduy NPP,” a reference to Bulgaria’s sole nuclear power plant, which covers more than one-third of the country’s total annual electricity generation. Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy enterprise Rosatom is closely tied to the Kozloduy NPP, where it is working to upgrade two units.

Observers question whether—and if so, to what extent—the United Patriots “tail” will wag the Borissov government “dog.” Despite obtaining control of important ministerial portfolios, United Patriots candidates were supported in the March parliamentary election by fewer than one-in-ten Bulgarians. Turkish observers are particularly keen to see whether, and if so, how quickly and how far Mr. Borissov distances himself from their abjectly anti-Turkey rhetoric. This widely quoted Turkish media report captures the cautious optimism of some that Mr. Borissov will succeed in marginalizing his United Patriots coalition partners.

[W]ith GERB’s coalition partner, the racist and extreme nationalist United Patriots, supporting the government . . . Mr. Borisov, who is serving for the third time as Prime Minister, denied allegations that his government is ultra-nationalist and discriminatory, adding “There is no nationalism and discrimination in our party, we have tens of thousands of Muslim members. Ethnic peace and tranquility is essential for us, and there is no reason to worry about these peoples’ rights and freedoms.”[23]

Mr. Borissov’s newfound tolerance of the formerly intolerable partner,[24] the United Patriots, is a function of political necessity, in this instance to form a coalition government capable of commanding a parliamentary majority. Whether Bulgaria’s NATO partners will take a comparably tolerant view of the United Patriots control of Bulgaria’s defense and internal security portfolios remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether the United Patriots—especially its Ataka component—will long tolerate the dilution of its radical electoral platform by Mr. Borissov’s centrist policies.

The defense portfolio inherited by Mr. Karakachanov brings with it some formidable near-term challenges. The Bulgarian armed forces are woefully undermanned—good estimates are by at least 20%, or 5000 troops—and inadequately equipped. To remedy the former, the United Patriots propose to reinstate conscription. Bulgaria has a rising problem with recruits that do not have adequate language competency (in Bulgarian) and that cannot meet the requisite physical and health standards. As to the latter, Mr. Karakachanov is pushing a three-point rearmament program—a new fighter jet for the air force; new patrol craft for the navy; and new fighting vehicles for the army. Chronic underfunding of maintenance and repair has mpaired the Bulgarian armed forces’ readiness. Naval tactical exercises have been cancelled because vessels were not seaworthy, and tactical air exercises have been cancelled because too many aircraft were grounded for maintenance.

Mr. Borissov shrank Bulgaria’s defense budgets during his first administration, derailing modernization. The defense minister during his second administration, Nikolay Nenchev, spent much energy in a protracted public dispute with the country’s air force commander, Rumen Radev, about Bulgaria’s fighter aviation force—“the Bulgarian armed forces have as many aircraft as needed,”[25] Mr. Nenchev steadfastly insisted—and over joint policing of the country’s air space with Bulgaria’s NATO partners. Major General Radev is now President Radev; he won the November 2016 election as an independent candidate supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (Bulgarska sotsialisticheska partiya) with nearly sixty percent (59.7%) of votes cast.

Former Bulgarian Air Force Commander Major General Rumen Radev, now Bulgaria’s President (Credit: Novinte)

If the United Patriots leaderships’ reaction to President Radev’s inaugural address to the National Assembly is any indication, the relationship is unlikely to improve during Mr. Borissov’s third administration. Mr. Karakachanov suggested much of what Mr. Radev said merely echoed United Patriots themes on curbing illegal immigration, border security, and what he called “a balanced foreign policy.”[26] His United Patriots co-leader, Mr. Simeonov, was less diplomatic, calling Mr. Radov’s remarks “ridiculous.” “We haven’t heard what’s most important—what are the President’s priorities?” he said, “Instead, we heard fairy tales.”[27]

It appears that Mr. Borissov’s intends to contain Mr. Karakachanov by putting deputy defense ministers in place from his own GERB party, so it is unclear yet whether the United Patriots have actually captured the defense portfolio as definitively as some think. Another factor is that now President Radev is closely tied to the armed forces, whereas his predecessor, Mr. Plevneliev, was largely disengaged on defense matters.

Two matters seem likely to remain contentious and to test how far the United Patriots can exercise real political power in the areas of defense and internal security. The first is the United Patriots platform plank to remove Bulgarian armed forces from foreign countries in which they are now deployed. While Bulgaria has only about 140 troops stationed abroad, mostly on in NATO operations in Afghanistan, Mr. Borissov has positioned it as a test of Bulgaria’s commitment to full and active NATO membership, which he supports. The second is more problematic and concerns the United Patriots’ call to re-open missile bases in southern Bulgaria to, in Mr. Simeonov’s words, defend Bulgaria against an unstable Turkey.

We cannot exclude a Turkish invasion of Bulgaria. Being a NATO member does not protect us and does not reduce the danger to our country. So it is a good thing to have tactical missile bases in southern Bulgaria.[28]

The United Patriots appear resolute on the questions of reinstating conscription—a subject closely connected to its interests in the “demographic question,” a euphemism for marginalizing Bulgarian Roma and Muslims, and creating a powerful ethnic center of gravity—and reopening missile bases in southern Bulgaria targeting Turkey. A key element of the United Patriots’ approach to conscription is to require proportional distribution of different regions of the country in the ranks, a categorically anti-Roma, anti-Muslim policy. While Bulgaria is highly unlikely to target missiles at Turkey—in truth, much more a United Patriots slogan than a real plan—the issue nonetheless sharpens the United Patriots’ anti-Turkey rhetoric without incurring the risk of actually doing anything.

The implication of all of this for Bulgaria’s standing within NATO remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: the once-unthinkable possibility of a hot conflict between NATO member-states is put at risk—along with his country’s standing within the Alliance and the EU—by Bulgarian President Borissov deciding to tolerate the once intolerable United Patriots.

The translation of all source material is by the author unless noted otherwise.

[1] Ognyan Minchev is a Bulgarian political scientist and frequent commentator. According to his biography on the German Marshall Fund (GMF) website, Dr. Minchev “is a non-resident fellow with GMF’s Balkan Trust for Democracy and the executive director of the Institute for Regional and International Studies, an independent think tank, providing policy analyses on regional and international security and cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe. Minchev is also Chair of the Board of Transparency International-Bulgaria, an anti-corruption organization. He is a professor of political science at the University of Sofia-Bulgaria.” See: Last accessed 5 May 2017.
Dnevnik, op. cit. (14 October 2014).

[2] IMRO is an acronym of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (Vatreshna Makedonska Revolyutsionna Organizatsiya or “VMRO”), a late 19th century anti-Ottoman national liberation movement. “[T]he political use of IMRO symbols emerged in the post-Communist period” writes . “Several political parties adopted the legacy of IMRO; a number went so far as to name themselves after the movement” including in Bulgaria, IMRO–BNM. See: James Frusetta (2004). “Common Heroes, Divided Claims: IMRO Between Macedonia and Bulgaria.” In Ideologies and National Identities: The Case of Twentieth-Century Southeastern Europe, John Lampe and Mark Mazower, eds. (Budapest: CEU Press) 118.

[3] “Ninova: Tova e pravitelstvo na podmyanata.” [published online in Bulgarian 4 May 2017]. Last accessed 7 May 2017.

[4] For s detailed discussion of Ataka’s politics, see the author’s August 2016 essay, “The Suffocating Symbiosis: Russia Seeks Trojan Horses Inside Fractious Bulgaria’s Political Corral.”

[5] “Borissov: Pravya cabinet sam, ako reformatorite ne shtat.” 19’ [published online in Bulgarian 30 October 2014] 3. Last accessed 5 May 2017.

[6] GERB is an acronym of Grazhdani za evropeĭsko razvitie na Bŭlgariya or “Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria”. Its literal meaning is “coat of arms,” an intended patriotic reference to the Bulgarian coat of arms (Gerb na Bŭlgariya).

[7] “Noviyat ministŭr na otbranata Krasimir Karakachanov – patriot, istorik, agent ot DS.” Dnevnik.bu [published online in Bulgarian 3 May 2017]. Last accessed 4 May 2017. The acronym DS stands for Darzhavna sigurnost (“State Security”), a popular truncation of Komitet za dǎržavna sigurnost. (“Committee for State Security”).

[8] Burgas is on the Black Sea coast and Bulgaria’s fourth largest city.

[9] In March 2009, the Burgas municipal council revoked its December 2008 approval to construct a new mosque in the city’s Meden Rudnik (“Copper Mine”) district.

[10] “Valeri Simeonov obyasni zashto stana vitsepremier i razkri za edno taĭno sŭbranie na Patriotite Sofiya, Bŭlgariya.” Blitz.bu [published online in Bulgarian 4 May 2017]. Last accessed 4 May 2017.

[11] “GERB i “Obedineni patrioti” podpisakha koalitsionno sporazumenie.” Dnevnik [published online in Bulgarian 27 April 2017]. Last accessed 5 May 2017.

[12]явор-нотев-зам-председател-на-нс-от-ат-2/. Last accessed 5 May 2017.

[13] “Liderŭt na VMRO Krasimir Karakachanov v Dobrich.” Dobrudzhanska tribuna [published online in Bulgarian 15 March 2017]. Last accessed 6 May 2017.

[14] Last accessed 7 May 2017.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. The original text reads as follows: “Natsionalna strategiya za priobshtavane na etnosite pri spazvane na zakonite. Premakhvane na nezakonnite postroĭki, brakovete mezhdu maloletni, obvŭrzvane na sotsialnite pomoshti s realno polagan trud i obrazovanieto na detsata. Zakon za bŭlgarskiya ezik – pravo na glas da imat samo zavŭrshilite osnovno obrazovanie i vladeeshti bŭlgarski ezik.”

[17] See fn(20).

[18] Novini [published online in Bulgarian 7 November 2014].каракачанов-и-сидеров-в-челен-удар-наричахте-националистите-мръсни-потни-хора-(видео).html. Last accessed 7 May 2017.

[19] “Obshtinarite ot VMRO i “Ataka” prizovakha Fandŭkova da zabrani “sborishteto “Sofiya praĭd”. Dnevnik [published online in Bulgarian 9 June 2016]. Last accessed 7 May 2017.

[20] Ibid. The original text reads as follows: “Vŭnshnata politika na Bŭlgariya da bŭde podchinena na polezniya za Rodinata balans v polza na natsionalniya interes. Nie sme protiv chuzhdi voenni bazi na nasha teritoriya, kakto i protiv priemaneto na Turtsiya v ES. Sŭzdavane na Ministerstvo na demografiyata i bŭlgarite v chuzhbina.”

[21] Osman Ahmed Oktay was the deputy chair of Bulgaria’s Movement for Rights and Freedoms until December 2003, when he and a number of party leaders broke with the party leadership to form the Democratic Wing Movement. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms is known by the acronyms DPS [Bulgarian: Dvizhenie za prava i svobodi] and HÖH [Turkish: Hak ve Özgürlükler Hareketi].

[22] “Osman Oktaĭ: Dnes e tŭzhen den za demokratsiyata v Bŭlgariya.” Glasŭt Na Mladite Khora (“The Voice of Youth”) The text reads as follows in the original Bulgarian: “Bŭlgarskite myusyulmani shte bŭdat lesna mishena za upotreba ot Erdogan i kompaniya. Myusyulmanite shte bŭdat natikani v ŭgŭla mezhdu Ankara – diktatorsko upravlenie i pochti fashistko upravlenie v Bŭlgariya.”

[23] “Bulgaristan’da yeni hükümet göreve başladı.” Anadolu Ajansı [published online in Turkish 4 May 2017]. Last accessed 8 May 2017.

[24] Joseph Daul is a Member of the European Parliament where he leads the center-right European People’s Party. In October 2014, he described the Bulgarian two-party nationalist electoral coalition known as the Patriotic Front (Patriotichen front) as “an intolerable partner” (nedopustim partn’or) from a “Euro-Atlantic” perspective. See: “Bez Fronta v pravitelstvo – triumfalno zavrŭshtane na Saraya.” Dnevnik [published online in Bulgarian 29 October 2014]. Last accessed 4 May 2017]. In advance of the country’s 2017 parliamentary elections, the Patriotic Front formed a tripartite “United Patriots” (Obedineni Patrioti) electoral coalition with the far right Attack (Ataka) party, which the Patriotic Front had previously shunned.

[25] “Nenchev: Vŭorŭzheni sili imat tolkova samoleti, kolkoto sa neobkhodimi.” Novinte [published online in Bulgarian 2 August 2016]. Last accessed 9 May 2017.

[26] “ Karakachanov kharesa rechta na Radev, Valeri Simeonov – ne.” Actualno [published online in Bulgarian 19 January 2017]. Last accessed 12 May 2017.

[27] “Politicheski reaktsii sled slovoto na Rumen Radev.” btv Novinte [published online in Bulgarian 19 January 2017]. Last accessed 12 May 2017.

[28] “Valeri Simeonov: Bŭlgariya tryabva da ima raketni bazi, nasocheni sreshtu Turtsiya.” Faktor [published online in Bulgarian 13 March 2017]. Last accessed 12 May 2017.