Bulgaria has been the country hardest hit by COVID-19 in the EU, but the Vazrazhdane party, or Revival, believes it's all a lie.
The far-right party also wants Bulgaria out of NATO and the EU and is sympathetic to the Kremlin, which is accused of backing such parties in former Soviet satellite states and elsewhere in Europe.
Its leader, Kostadin Kostadinov, long active on Bulgaria's political fringes, once called for "Russophobic garbage" to be "exterminated like pests," and was arrested years ago after allegedly leading a gang of skinheads in a bloody attack on a Romany community.
He's also been accused of pilfering state money meant for his party to buy himself real estate and a luxury car. Kostadinov, who made a failed run in Bulgaria's November 14 presidential election, denies the charges or that he's a shill for the Kremlin.
Now, Revival and Kostadinov are about to get a bigger soapbox after the party won seats in parliament in Bulgaria's concurrent parliamentary poll on November 14.
The elections were the third this year amid political gridlock after the southeast European nation of nearly 7 million was rocked by nationwide protests last year sparked by public anger over years of corruption, resulting in the end of rule for the country's longtime leader, Boyko Borisov, and his center-right GERB party.
Revival was at the forefront of those sometimes violent protests, rising in prominence as a result. Its election is not a first in Bulgaria, where far-right, pro-Kremlin parties and politicians may not thrive but do attract support.
Revival has been compared to Ataka, another far-right party whose message resonated in the past to win seats in the 240-seat National Assembly. Not represented anymore, in the past Ataka elevated its voice and impact by taking part in various governing coalitions, as did at other times the far-right Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO).
Revival's chances of any role in a coalition appear minimal as the parties likely to lead it have ruled out cooperating with them. However, given how Ataka and IMRO did it in the past, such a scenario can't be ruled out, explained Alexey Pamporov, a political scientist at the Bulgarian Academy of Science.
"We saw how much damage the IMRO did when it entered the government with GERB. While such parties do not have access to power, they have their niche. The problem comes when they are brought to power," Pamporov told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.
Looking To A Future Without NATO, EU
We Continue The Change (PP), part of a wave of new, anti-graft parties to emerge in the wake of last year's protests, was the winner of the November 14 parliamentary elections. PP was formed in September by two Bulgarian entrepreneurs and graduates of Harvard University, who had won acclaim for their anti-graft efforts as interim ministers earlier this year.
Although Revival is not expected to figure in any coalition talks, that didn't stop Kostadinov, 42, from spelling out the party's criteria for joining any future government, including opposition to Bulgaria adopting the euro, now tentatively scheduled for 2024.
He also said the party remained adamantly opposed to maintaining or adopting further COVID-19 social-distancing measures.
"We will fight the people who support these restrictions, because this is a criminal policy," Kostadinov said on November 16, which coincided with the release of fresh EU data showing that Bulgaria had the highest excess mortality in the EU in September.
Bulgaria also has the EU's lowest vaccination rate and one of the highest COVID-19 death rates per capita in the world.
Since September, the pandemic has further worsened in Eastern Europe, with Bulgaria hitting record numbers of daily coronavirus deaths in recent weeks.
Besides waging a COVID-19 disinformation campaign, Kostadinov said the party would work to discredit NATO and the EU in the eyes of Bulgarians, with the ultimate goal of Bulgaria's exit from the two Western institutions.
"We are aware that these are issues that cannot be resolved immediately. We have work to do on this topic. Now we will start informing the public about the negatives of these organizations and then we will organize a referendum on Bulgaria's exit [from NATO and the EU]," Kostadinov told RFE/RL on November 16.
The United States is another of Revival's perennial targets. As far as Bulgarian politics go, Kostadinov has often said "everything is determined by Kozyak," the street in Sofia where the U.S. Embassy is located.
His own run for the largely ceremonial post for president ended poorly, with Kostadinov securing only 3.93 percent of the vote on November 14.
During the campaign, his running mate, Elena Guncheva, a lawyer from Plovdiv, a city in southern Bulgaria, was accused of making anti-Semitic remarks, including saying Jewish candidates in the presidential campaign were "only guests" in the country, declaring "this is the land of Bulgarians."
Kostadinov entered far-right politics in the late 1990s with the IMRO. In 2011, he was arrested after leading a group of skinheads in an attack on the Romany community of Katunitsa, near Varna, the Black Sea resort town.
Disputes with IMRO chief Krassimir Karakachanov led Kostadinov to part ways with the far-right party in 2013, switching over to the far-right National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), led by Valery Simeonov. That proved unfruitful as well, prompting Kostadinov to establish Revival in 2014.
In its first foray into electoral politics, Revival scored just over 1 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in 2017. While far from overwhelming, that vote percentage qualified the far-right party to receive a government subsidy of 1.6 million lev (then about $950,000) each year for the next four years to fund party activities.
Kostadinov first declared the party would shun the state money, only to later say it would donate the cash after accepting it.
Instead of funding the party, at least some of that state subsidy may have gone into Kostadinov's pocket, Bulgaria's Nova TV reported. According to the TV channel, the Vazrazhdane party chief bought a beach home for 200,000 lev and a car for 40,000 lev with the funds, while his wife reportedly acquired a new apartment in Varna for 100,000 lev.
The investigation by Nova TV also cited data from the country's National Audit Office showing that of 1 million lev in government subsidies the party had received, 250,000 of that had been donated to charities, 60,000 remained on the books, and the rest -- just under 700,000 lev -- was unaccounted for.
Kostadinov denied any wrongdoing, saying that savings and bank loans had covered the purchases.
Kostadinov also found himself in hot water in March 2020 when the Sofia prosecutor's office opened a criminal probe against him for spreading cororanvirus disinformation.
Anti-epidemic measures "are not introduced for the greater public good" and are "propaganda to divert attention," Kostadinov said in televised comments. In early 2020, members of Revival violated Bulgaria's coronavirus lockdown to mount a protest against the emergency regime and the government, including an attempt to storm the parliament. Bulgarian police detained eight people, one of whom was seized with a knife, another, marijuana, and the third was subject to an arrest warrant for criminal offenses.
In 2019, Revival uploaded a video just days ahead of European Parliamentary elections containing a short segment from The Servant Of The People, a popular Ukrainian TV series. In the clip, the leading actor, now Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, shoots at lawmakers with two automatic weapons.
"Vazrazhdane -- Only we can," reads the text at the end of the video.
While such past actions may now raise concerns, with only 13 seats in the National Assembly, Revival will find itself isolated, said political scientist Pamporov.
"The idea of hate politics always loses," Pamporov said. "If we get a positive government that is taking confident steps in the right direction, then the fact there is some small hateful group in parliament won't matter."