"The National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) protests against the participation of German MEP Keller in the nocturnal loitering in Sofia of political marginals under the guise of the call 'Save Pirin' whose real aim is to take power through lies".
This is just a paragraph from a statement, signed by Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov, calling for the expulsion from Bulgaria of German MEP and co-chair of the European Parliament's Green Party, Ska Keller. The document was released in February, just as Ms Keller visited to support the protests of Bulgarian environmentalists against plans to open for construction the Pirin National Park bordering the country's biggest ski resort of Bansko.
The statement went on to say the MEP should be declared "persona non grata", calling her "obviously inadequate", "impudent and self-assured".
It was not an isolated outburst.
Mr Simeonov, in charge of demographic policy in the coalition government, frequently uses boisterous language to get his point across, going way below the already low bar for political correctness in Bulgarian public discourse.
Mr Simeonov is leader of NFSB, one of three parties forming the United Patriots (UP) nationalist alliance, the junior coalition partner of centеr-right GERB party in the current Bulgarian government led by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. The so called "patriots" represent the uber-nationalists in Bulgaria, people who are proud of their racist rants and anti-liberal rhetoric. Frequently, they are viewed as an embarrassment to GERB who boast a firm pro-European stance. Yet, the coalition partners holding 122 of 240 seats in
parliament among themselves, live in a perfect symbiosis, with the racy language of United Patriots venting the nationalistic rage against the cabinet accumulated among the public.
Mr Simeonov himself has been playing an intriguing and complex game, striking at the liberal center (as in the case of Pirin protests), opposition Socialists in Parliament, the Russian Patriarch and even the other co-chairs of United Patriots. Last year, he declared war on noisy and drunk tourism, personally snatching away the music equipment of a DJ at a famous seaside club in Sunny Beach resort. This year, he opened a new front - against the advertising of games of chance.
How did he get here
Before bringing together the motley crew of several 'patriotic' parties and turning them into a power broker, Mr Simeonov has gone a long and winding path in politics. In the 1980s, the electrical engineer applied to join the Communist Party but got rejected and later joined the pro-democracy trade union movement. Mr Simeonov co-founded the local branch of the Union of Democratic Forces in Burgas in 1990, the first political force openly challenging the one-party rule of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
His most prominent business venture - a cable network called Skat, based in the coastal city of Burgas, would expand nationwide, bringing together a colorful mix of patriotic daily shows and programs run by conspiracy theorists. The most influential among them, Ataka with Volen Siderov as anchor, would grow into the notorious pro-Russian, anti-Islam and anti-Roma ultra-nationalist party of the same name that is now part of United Patriots.
In 2007, Mr Simeonov rose to the position of City Council President in Burgas from Ataka, but two years later left the party over a personal feud with Mr Siderov, accusing him of betraying the core principles of the party in parliament. He then founded NFSB as an alternative nationalist project in 2011 and joined forces with another nationalist structure, Krassimir Karakachanov's VMRO, to enter parliament as Patriotic Front in 2014 with 7.2% of the vote. The Patriotic Front, with 19 MPs, mostly backed the then governing GERB party (alongside left-wing ABV party), receiving their first low-level appointments in return.
More importantly, Mr Simeonov used his influence to push for completion of the border razor-wire fence with Turkey in order to prevent asylum seekers from crossing into Bulgaria, and backed increased police and military presence in its vicinity. Accidentally, this also helped his hotel business - Mr Simeonov's hotel in the area hosted many police officers doing their rounds of duty at the border. The media investigations of this suspected conflict of interests never resulted in any legal action against Mr Simeonov who said he had officially shed control of his business dealings after becoming an MP.
The refugee crisis and the fear of 'migrant invasion' boosted the Patriotic Front and in 2016 they were joined by the Ataka party, after Mr Simeonov and Mr Siderov agreed to put an end to their eight-year long feud. The Patriotic Front became United Patriots, a three-party alliance with Mr Karakachanov as president. The increased appeal of the nationalistic factions among voters became apparent in the 2016 election: after winning only 0.99% of the vote in 2011, Mr Karakachanov came third in the 2016 race, grabbing almost 15%. The United Patriots recorded a similar score in the 2017 snap poll, winning 27 seats in parliament and becoming the junior partner of GERB in the government coalition led by Mr Borissov.
With the higher election results came higher ambitions. The United Patriots nominated key cabinet members ministers, including the Minister of Economy Emil Karanikolov, Defense Minister Krassimir Karakachanov and the Environment Minister Neno Dimov. Mr Simeonov himself became a vice-PM, with demography portfolio.
At odds with everyone
Yet, the issues he got involved over the past year could hardly be associated with this narrow portfolio. First of all, he started a war against excessive noise in the Bulgarian seaside resorts, walking alongside police during inspection visits to music clubs, shutting down music raves and seizing sound equipment from the clubs in the middle of night.
At the beginning of Summer 2018 Mr Simeonov launched an offensive against tourism minister Nikolina Angelkova from GERB, accusing her of breaking the law by issuing construction permits for several music clubs in Sunny Beach frequented by tourists, including the Cacao Beach club famous for its night-long raves featuring world-class DJs like Tiesto. Mr Simeonov filed a complaint with the Chief Prosecutor's Office against Ms Angelkova, claiming that she had classified the beach club as a fast food place in order to circumvent the law banning the construction of permanent buildings on the sand. Strange as it may sound, a deputy prime minister is asking the prosecution to take action against a government minister...
But Ms Angelkova is just the latest one in a series of targets that have drawn heavy fire from Mr Simeonov. Recently, he launched an attack against commercials of lottery and betting games - a sector which generated 345 million levs (172 million euro) of revenue in 2017.
"Gambling has a demoralizing effect, altering the system of people's values, belittling hard work and telling them that everything can be earned just because they have bought a lottery ticket", Mr Simeonov told Capital Weekly.
The attack led to a heavy backlash from the lottery industry, largely owned by two companies - New Games and Eurobet, controlled by controversial businessman Vasil Bozhkov. Mr Simeonov was attacked from various sides, including from the yellow media, websites, famous actors and sportsmen, who said he is infringing on one of the main sources of financial support for Bulgarian sports. The debate on the regulation governing the advertisement of betting went largely unnoticed by the big private TV channels, as the lottery companies are their top advertisers. Despite of gaining the nominal support of all big parliamentary parties and even of the non-parliament opposition and civil society (whose more liberal part usually stands against Mr Simeonov because of his nationalistic and often insolent remarks), it is still unclear whether the restrictions sought by the NFSB leader would pass.
Mr Simeonov made even bigger headlines when he called the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, "a second-rate Soviet cop" and the "the cigarette Metroplitan of Russia" for allegedly smuggling excise duty goods using the cover of the church. The reason was the scolding of Bulgarian President Rumen Radev by Patriarch Kirill over Radev's speech recognizing the contribution of soldiers from other nations of 19th century Russian Empire, not only Russians, for the Bulgarian liberation from Ottoman rule in 1878. In this instance, Mr Simeonov went against one of United Patriots co-chairs, Volen Siderov, who is a militant Russophile, but again gained the acknowledgments of some centrist Bulgarian politicians and voters for taking a Bulgarian-centered stand against what was seen as Russian disrespect. The occasion also showed that despite of the Russophile-Russophobe division, the United Patriots can easily manage conflicts when the stability of the coalition cabinet and their stake in it is at risk.
Yet, Mr Simeonov remains a liability in international perspective - over 50 Roma organizations boycotted the EU Presidency meeting dedicated to Roma integration in May 2018, because the NFSB politician is also chairing the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues. He is also the first Bulgarian politician to be found liable by the district court in the city of Bourgas for his anti-Roma hate speech in 2017. His 'green jihadist' remarks vis-a-vis Ms Keller tarnished the image of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2018. For every progressive move he recommends, he makes a controversial one, like when he recommended abolition of the total ban on smoking in public places. Yet, he remains the only member of the cabinet, except Prime Minister Boyko Borrisov, who is taking a stand behind what he believes in, even when it sets him again the powers that be.
"I never attack someone first. I usually react when someone prevents me from doing my job. I am here in order to finish some business - my time in politics and in life is short - I am a person of age, you know. So I have little time to waste", Mr Simeonov told Capital Weekly in February - a strange statement for a politician who has only been winning during the past decade.