Who is Slavi Trifonov — the ascending politician in Bulgaria?
Bulgaria held inconclusive general elections on April 4, 2021. The hitherto center-right ruling party GERB won them but with a result preventing it from forming a government. A nascent anti-GERB coalition is shaping up in Parliament, led by “There is such a people”: a new formation headed by a famous Bulgarian TV host. However, in the absence of real differences between the leading parties along the left-right axis, the dividing line became one between “protest/anti-system” and “status quo/system” parties. But how new are the “new” players on the political scene? A recreation of an earlier political model from the 1990s is taking place in Bulgaria.
If we look at the programmes of the parties which are the main contenders for forming the Bulgarian government after the 2021 elections, it is obvious that the new cabinet will inevitably be positioned on the right. Ivaylo Dinev and Stanislav Dodov published a study showing how the lack of left-right division (because everyone has right-wing programmes) has shifted the main political rift to opposition along the lines of “protest/anti-systemic” parties versus “systemic/status quo” parties. The “protest” parties are “There is such a people” (ITN), “Stand up! Thugs out!” (IMV) and Democratic Bulgaria — Union (DBO). They draw their main legitimacy from the 2020 anti-corruption protests and from a visceral rejection of the GERB. An important consequence of such opposition is the reluctance of “anti-system players” to enter into coalitions or to cooperate with the so-called “Transition parties” that are perceived as being tarnished by interacting with or having been in power (GERB, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and the Bulgarian Socialist Party fall into this category).
Thus the political opposition becomes generational and temporal (“new and young” against “old and worn out”). Having taken part in the 2020 anti-government protests lends the new parties the image of being “uncorrupted” by power in the past; a veritable “new generation” of politicians of the future. Actually, talking about political opposition as conflicts between old and young is far from new. In the 1990s, slogans such as “giving way to the young” were typical of the anti-communist right, which opposed the Bulgarian Socialist Party. Today, however, that “past” they are recoiling from is the Transition itself.
This article outlines some points of “tension” in the faultline thus described, and in particular the extent to which those presenting themselves as the bearers of the new are, so to speak, the old young. The desire to break away from the tired politics of the Transition is understandable. But are the so-called anti-systemic, new formations able to deliver? Now that the composition of the new parliament has become clear, let’s focus on the biographical trajectory of some of the so-called anti-systemic players.
We will limit ourselves to ITN, the party considered the real winner in this election, despite its second place. Today, everyone is looking at it with the expectation that it will form a government. Even GERB (the main ruling party since 2009) expects it to do so.
There are many points where the ITN programme repeats the worn-out clichés of the Transition, showing how, at least at the level of its political programme and requests, the ITN cannot bring the much-desired break with the past. But let’s look beyond the content of the programmes, to the trajectory of some iconic faces. We will also find continuity with the Transition there. However this exercise should not be understood as an attempt to pre-delegitimize a possible ITN government. The aim is rather to urge them not to fixate so much on the generational rift, because the messianic expectation of the arrival of a “truly spotless” politician seems to move the urgent goal of isolating GERB to a very distant (and utopian) future.
Slavi Trifonov: the original populist
Slavi Trifonov is a famous political talk-show host. His ITN party (established 2019) fits into a long series of patriotic formations that originated from controlling a TV media channel 1. The right-wing Ataka party also began as a TV show, and caused turmoil in politics when it won 9% of the vote in the 2005 parliamentary election and set in motion the unfading concerns of political scientists with so-called “populism.” GERB’s success, by the way, cannot be separated from the role its leader Borisov, who was Secretary General of the Ministry of Interior during the government of the party of the former Bulgarian monarch, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. He was a kind of PR face of the then government’s fight against corruption and organized crime. Then he moved on to found his own party in 2006. (In the beginning, political scientists and experts also treated GERB as “populist”, but later rechristened it as a “moderate” and “systemic party” of stability.)
ITN seems to be the latest and most recent example of the tradition of turning media visibility into electoral support. However, this belies the long history from the very early years of the transition, of the political party which the satirical TV show Ku-Ku (from which Trifonov’s career started) tried to create back in 1994. The name of the party would have sounded quite “populist” today: Ku-Ku People’s Movement. As a result of the joint efforts of the nascent “blue-red establishment,” it was nipped in the bud by the Supreme Court. However, the people around the show (which had already turned into the Canaletto political satire TV show) continued their attempts and in 1997 founded the St. George’s Day Movement (Gergiovden Movement) party. This is a direct consequence of the mass protests against the BSP in 1997, when pressure on screenwriters and showmen to form a political party was growing. As Lyuben Dilov Jr., the founder of the St. George’s Day Movement, writes:
At first glance, the task of the St. George’s Day Movement is clear – to capitalize on the accumulated political dividend from Canaletto’s participation in the January events [ed: the ‘January Revolution’ of 1997, when the BSP government of Jean Videnov was brought down and neoliberal reforms ensued], turning it into a real political power. Sociologists are more than in favour of such participation — they believe that without much effort St. George’s Day, clearly identifying with Canaletto, will get between 9 and 11% of the election results, which will guarantee them at least 30 MPs in the future parliament.
The party withdrew from the 1997 parliamentary elections and decided to start in the local elections two years later. Meanwhile, it existed in a semi-conspiratorial form as a union of clubs operating alongside the Civil Society Against Corruption Association. In 1999, Slavi Trifonov announced the “restart” of the party with a turgid article in which he spoke about the sacrifice of the Lamb for Easter and the spring renewal (of politics). St. George’s Day drew liberally on folklore and the mythology of Bulgarian emigrants in Romania before 1878 (who were called Hashove — the name of Trifonov’s next show after Canaletto). Along with its historical references, St. George’s Day also identified as a youth movement and at the same time, clearly positioned itself as a representative of big business: on 3 March 1999, Canaletto gathered the representatives of the largest employers in Varna at a conference to draw up a strategy for a more definite representation of business in parliament and the executive. Although unsuccessful, these steps made it a forerunner of modern “national-populist” parties such as the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), with which, in addition to their media backgrounds, it shares unflinching right-wing, pro-business values and political orientation.
St. George’s Day is also a (failed) pioneer of the post-political change of direction in Bulgarian politics, which we associate with the destruction of the bipolar model caused by the return of the exiled Czar Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 2001. From the very beginning St. George’s Day has positioned itself as an opponent of the “reds” (the “socialists,” a.k.a former “communists”) and the “blues” (the anti-communists of the 90s) and the bearer of a new “pragmatic” beginning, stemming from both the people and big business2. For example, one of the things the party complained about in 1999, when attempts to mobilize big business failed, was “the inability of people to shake off their ideological prejudices, the communism-anti-communism confrontation that has not solved any important public issue in recent years.”
Unlike other similar politicians who made the transition from the entertainment industry to politics, Trifonov has always been a politically engaged showman, which in part led to the split in the satirical show, Canaletto (the successor of Ku-Ku). An important detail is that Canaletto‘s production company was the first to conclude a contract with Bulgarian National Television for external production, marking the trajectory and orientation of the public television towards public-private partnerships. It is the dominant way of making television today.
As stated above, Canaletto played a key role in the so-called January Revolution of 1997. The album Hashove was quickly adopted by the crowds as a protest repertoire, while Slavi Trifonov did one of his most memorable shows with the “No left turn” sign, symbolizing the end of the attempts to postpone shock therapy under the then-leadership of the BSP. In 1998, Canaletto split up, partly because the people around the show’s other star anchor, Kamen Vodenicharov, wanted a less politicized strategy for the show. That same year Slavi Trifonov founded the Hashove show, which broadcast only one episode on national television due to mounting tensions between Trifonov’s team and the government over the sponsorship of the show by a gas oligarch at war with the PM Ivan Kostov (then the leader of the anti-communist opposition).The relentless attacks on the right-wing ruling party by the combined group of Ku-Ku-St. George’s Day-Hashove, did not prevent the ITN from recruiting Ivan Radulov as a candidate MP. Radulov was the secretary of the Interior Ministry in Ivan Kostov’s government (and has since resigned). A curious paradox of history is that Lyuben Dilov Jr., who is now a GERB candidate, was the first to comment on the result of Borisov’s party the evening after the elections.
ITN has a very convincing bet on “novelty”, as among the membership criteria there is a tight filter for people who have participated in the so-called “systemic parties” or were otherwise associated with the political class of the Transition. However, the filter is not devoid of some permeability, which is why there are still places for people with long political biographies such as Ilko Stoyanov (the lawyer for Yordan Dinov, the gambling businessman shot dead in 2012) and Ivan Hinkovski (who allegedly lobbied for Chevron and shale gas fracking in Bulgaria).
In view of the political trajectories outlined here, some of which have been unfolding for nearly three decades, we can ask how is it, that some parties have managed to reinvent themselves as a “new generation”, as if they have had nothing to do with the status quo, while others have failed? For example, the BSP also supported the 2020 protests and their television station was constantly broadcasting from the squares, but this did not help them shed the image of a compromised party from the past, even though they have been in opposition to GERB for more than a decade.
In conclusion, Slavi Trifonov’s party does not embody a new generation, but is the engine of one of the earliest processes of “tv-fication” of politics which has been ongoing since the beginning of the transition. Although under a new name, registration and composition, it is not a novelty, but marks the return to the first generation of TV parties, which mix pragmatism and patriotism, bragging about popular resistance (Hashove-style) and entrepreneurial zeal. But other protest parties that have successfully reinvented themselves as a “new generation” are also papering over a shortage of novelty. None of the so-called protest parties are innocent in terms of association with the Transition. Today, ardent defenders of the people against the thugs from the transition times such as Maya Manolova and Tatyana Doncheva (from the “Stand up! Thugs out!” party) made their careers as introducers of lobbying amendments in the interest of private judicial executioners and pimps. Or the DBO, which includes both former ministers of Borisov (and the proposed prime minister of GERB) and a lot of fragments of the Union of Democratic Forces (the anti-communist opposition of the 90s) in its various permutations, even when the UDF itself is in coalition with GERB today.
Let this text not be read as an attempt at total delegitimization of the opposition parties. It highlights the limitations of the desire for “renewal” when the absence of political difference is made up for with aesthetic and generational content. Rather, we want to convince “the new parties” that they will err if they continue to insist on the generation gap, which, as we have shown here, is untenable. More important than the competition to be the real symbol of “politics untainted by the Transition” is isolating Borisov’s GERB for as long as possible until the necessary reforms are carried out to start an effective investigation and prosecution of that party. Only by successfully triggering such an endeavour will all the opposition parties (whether they have been in power in the past or not) prove that they are ready to break with the status quo.
Because of the fragmentation of the current parliament the GERB wants to rule, but cannot. The opposition must govern, but they do not want to. Slavi Trifonov bounced into this environment, at once frozen and gushing with possibilities. People wanted Slavi to enter politics, but in reality he never left. As the political scientist Boris Popivanov says, he is ”both the most familiar and the most unknown thing in Bulgarian politics right now”, managing to embody both the desire for change and the fear of a radical change. He is the familiar new political reality, which has not left our homes for over two decades.
The article was originally published on 19 April 2021 at the Bulgarian portal baricada.org. It was translated into English by Vladimir Mitev.
Photo: Slavi Trifonov (source: The Barricade)
Jana Tsoneva is a sociologist, a member of the Collective for Social Interventions (koibooks.novilevi.org). She works at BAS, author of publications in Jacobin, Al Jazeera, Bilten / Left East and others.
Georgi Medarov is a sociologist from the Collective for Social Interventions
- Despite the subsequent comparisons with TV parties such as ATAKA and NFSB, here we agree with the thesis of Ivaylo Dinev that ITN is a bearer of “soft patriotism”. For example, there are no explicit messages in the party’s programmes against ethnic minorities, and the party does not mobilize support with the help of more xenophobic anti-Gypsy nationalism, as the IMRO does, for example. We can speculate that this is an effect of the aesthetic form of the activity of the main party functionaries; as the Balkan music par excellence, the genre of chalga which Trifonov and his team deal in, is both a gypsy and a Turkish genre; it is equally popular among “ethnic Bulgarians” as well as among Turks and Roma. In a sense, the party’s chalga format allows it to express an “inclusive” patriotism, even when the Revival folk songs which Trifonov “repackaged” into popular rock versions, contain anti-Ottoman sentiments and exploit the memory of the so-called “Turkish slavery.”
- As St. George’s Day writes, “the ideological genealogy of the St. George’s Day Movement is based entirely on respect for economic initiative, private property, anti-conformism and non-slavery to the powerful of the day.” Apart from an entrepreneurial party, it also styled itself as a party of civil society and direct democracy.