In the first of a number of interviews with European political leaders who hope to gain seats in next year’s European Parliament, Janice Atkinson MEP, talks with Volya and its enigmatic leader, Veselin Mareshki.
Volya (means “Will”), is headed by Veselin Mareshki, sometimes labelled the ‘Bulgarian Trump’, because of his business interests and campaign style.
He owns a chain of petrol stations and pharmacies and brings a degree of philanthropy to Bulgaria in selling fuel and medicines at prices well below the competition.
Volya’s politics are patriotic centre right. It was originally launched in 2007 under the name of the Liberal Alliance and renamed Volya in 2016. They gained twelve MPs and hope to win seats in the European Parliament.
Written off by the polling companies and side-lined in Parliament by the opposition, Volya is one to watch for next year’s EU elections.
They are firm friends and members of the Movement for a Europe Nations and Freedom, the pan European party of MEPs in the Europe of Nations and Freedom group, including Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini and Austria’s FPO.
Why did you create a new conservative political party, what was the need in Bulgaria?
As you know, Bulgaria began its radical change in November 1989. Since then, there have always been two political parties in parliament – those of the former Communists, now socialists, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), mainly supported by the Turkish ethnic group.
At different times, both were ruling. The Socialist Party stands in the left-wing political area, the MRF in the center. Several political parties and coalitions appeared and disappeared to the right.
The last one to rule the country for nearly 10 years is GERB, but there are members who have been in other political parties before it was founded. I.e. they change the same people, but under different political hats. I will give you a concrete example – the leader of the Socialists has held leading positions in the right-wing government and has been pushing for a right policy.
Here, such facts blurred the political outlook of the political parties in Bulgaria. They all together built up a status quo that no longer voters like. The Left and the Right constantly complain about the more damage the state has suffered during its rule.
Voters have the feeling that they all are the same and simply are actors in a play in front of the people. And the director is usually some circles outside Bulgaria or circles in Bulgaria, but they are not in the spotlight.
It has been nearly 30 years since the democratic changes, and our country is still considered the poorest and most corrupt in the EU. It turns out that there is no result of the actions of the previous political formations.
That’s why I created the VOLYA political party /it means WILL in Bulgarian/ – as an alternative not to a particular party but to the whole status quo.
We want the state to be transparent, honestly governed, with care first for the people, to defend national interests with dignity, to have more investment and open new work places, to strengthen patriotism and the family values.
But in the first place – to raise the standard of living of every Bulgarian citizen. One way of doing this is an uncompromising battle against cartels and corruption. This is VOLYA’s business card.
Tell me about you and your most prominent members and their backgrounds?
I have graduated from a Mathematical High School. I’m an engineer in education – I studied in Moscow first, then I finished my studies in Bulgaria.
Approximately 25 years ago, I started to open pharmacies where drugs are available at normal prices. My idea was to make a profit from turnover, not from a mark-up. We quickly won the trust of millions of customers who still prefer to buy products from our pharmacies.
I started this business with the belief I share now, that I must help people with my work. With this motive, I set up a chain of gas stations, where I also maintain lower prices – as a response to the fuel cartel that rob the Bulgarian people with hundreds of millions each year. In many sectors in our country there are artificially inflated prices, which are impossible for most people. Nothing is done to protect their interests.
I saw that only as a businessman would I hardly break the wall. That’s why I went into politics. Some have called me Robin Hood, and the New York Times has defined me as the Bulgarian Trump. I accept these comparisons in view of the fact that I am an anti-systemic politician and represent the real alternative to the rule in Bulgaria.
Together with me in politics came pragmatists, real-life personalities with a clear idea what should be done in the government of the state. In our party are members who have succeeded in their sphere of work who have developed a reputation for professionals and good people.
We have lawyers, economists, engineers, financiers, scholars from all sectors. It unites us that we want Bulgaria to prosper and we know how to do it if people give us such an opportunity. We have not entered parliament to build our own career.
We have already proven what we can and now we want to help our country, to give our children a better future in Bulgaria, not to turn them into emigrants.
You achieved 12 MPs in a very short time, how is it working for you in your parliament?
We would probably have been more than 12 MPs if the political status quo did not flood with fake news about me and VOLYA during the election campaign. This obviously affected some voters.
But even 12, we have our weight in the parliament. At first all of us were underestimated. They thought we were naïve and inexperienced because we were new to this institution. But only a few months after the start of the first session, colleagues saw that the VOLYA group was different from all the others that had so far been in the National Assembly.
We do not participate in backstage arrangements, we work actively in committees, we highlight any irregularities – for example, lobbying texts in the law, we are also developing an active foreign policy.
I will give an example – thanks to our membership in the Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom, we have restored Bulgarian-Austrian parliamentary relations. For some reason, the two parliaments did not have any joint initiatives and meetings for eight years!
What have you achieved?
What I think of is that our parliamentary group first responded to the appeal of protesters mothers of disabled children who have held rallies for years in parliament demanding specific legislative changes.
Politicians of the status quo have promised and did nothing. And we immediately undertook the appropriate parliamentary procedures so that their proposals could finally be discussed in the relevant committees.
This is just one example. In general, however, we have achieved this – to show the voters that there may be other politicians, not those that have been accustomed to for 30 years.
Politicians who are honest and who work fast and efficiently for whom there is no doubt about backstage, corrupt deals, regulated public procurement – In which other political parties constantly convict each other. This is the most important – we have shown a new morality.
What has been the reaction from your opponents, do you work with some of them?
We have clearly stated that we support every good initiative in parliament that is a step towards improving people’s well-being or supporting small and medium-sized businesses, teachers, doctors, pensioners, police… We are not jealous even when some are stealing our ideas and submit them for their own.
It is important for us to develop, things to happen in shorter terms and people to see results. In this sense, we work with all groups. Here, for example, when I sent a letter to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to support him, in view of the European Parliament’s decisions against his country, one of the political parties in parliament, and a ruling party, joined our initiative to oblige the Bulgarian prime minister to vote against sanctions against Hungary in the Council of Europe.
For us from VOLYA, a strong European Union can only exist when every Member State is strong. Membership is not a matter of subordination, it is an equal partnership.
There are also cases when we face all parliamentary groups. This is the topic with the decision to buy military aircraft for several billion euros. Our thesis is that we must first solve the problems in key areas for all Bulgarians – healthcare, education, security, pensions… And only then can we afford “luxurious expensive toys”, as I call them.
But the lobbies are extremely active, and they are not interested in the fact that these billions can do very useful things for people. We made our online consultation and the result confirmed our thesis.
Most: 51% of the respondents said they would give these funds primarily to improve the education system and to develop the economy. Others – for healthcare. Only 3% of Bulgarian citizens approve the billions spent on armaments.
For us this is unacceptable because our country can not afford this luxury at this stage! The Socialists were against, but after a meeting of their leader with the US Ambassador voted “for”. Government ministers before the election were firmly “against’, but when they entered the cabinet, they changed their minds for hours.
These are the things that VOLYA rebellious us, and that is why we are fighting this double standard in politics.
Voters mainly judge a party by policies on tax, family, health and employment – tell me about your policies.
You are right. I would add our understanding to VOLYA – we think that the success of each government is measured in the pocket of every citizen, ie. in his welfare.
In Bulgaria, all sectors need serious reform. For years, the political parties to the left and to the right have convinced us that they are making reforms. There were hundreds of millions flowing – for example in healthcare. No result. That is why we are talking about tightening anti-corruption and taking measures for it at all levels. This is the key to successful policies across sectors.
Small and medium businesses are also in our focus. We want less bureaucracy, more opportunities for development, more investment and job creation. There must be strong support from the state, not limitations. Bulgaria has not yet built its stable middle class. We are still at the stage of few rich people and millions of poor. This is not the structure of a democratic country.
We have a specific program for young families, and for raising birth rates – I hope to realise them as rulers one day.
What is your current vote share and what do you want to increase it to for the European elections in May 19?
It is very difficult at the moment to tell you exactly what is the rating of VOLYA. My personal rating is the 4th in the country.
But in terms of the political party there is a drastic discrepancy between what I see as I travel around the country – the enthusiastic support of the people, and what the sociological agencies are publishing. Most of them, unfortunately, serve one or other political party of the status quo and are financially supported by it. This also determines the results.
I will give you such an example – in the autumn of 2016 I participated in the presidential election as an independent candidate. Sociologists gave me negligible percentages. And it turned out that I got a result that has not been achieved so far in Bulgaria as a majority vote, for a single person, without an army of party structures, political scientists, the media, and sociologists behind my back. In practice, there is no objective sociological agency in Bulgaria.
For me, a high rating does not mean spending the political party’s financial resources to give us one or two percent on top. Who will we lie like that?! The high rating is achieved with real work and actions for the benefit of the people. And they see who we are, who are against us and how they try to pressure us. It is not easy for us because we are alone against the status quo. And it will not surrender without biting to the last.
Where is your main support coming from – conservatives/other and where geographically?
If you consider what voters support us, I will say that the palette is very varied. Most are the people in the prime of their power at the age at which they achieve their goals.
But we have supporters that are retirees who for years have been lied that the state will do something for them to live their old age worthily. On the other hand, my personal admirers are young people aged 25-35, who obviously see a role model in me, they want to have a great success in their lives.
I have started from nothing, from a taxi driver, and at the moment I am giving bread to 5000 families because that many are the employees in our family businesses. Apart from that, we have millions of grateful customers. I am glad that young people see in me a successful person they want to follow. They tell me that during my meetings with them.
I can summarise that our sympathisers are mostly people who are tired of the same politicians to alternate in government and their lives not to improve. It is time for a general system change.
What is wrong with the EU’s direction?
My analysis of the EU’s problems starts with weak leadership. As a result of this, a series of mistakes have been made to bring the Union to this day weak and humiliated.
I think that in recent years the ideas and policies in Brussels are very different from the original vision of this unique unification. A political cliché acts to destroy conservative European values, to put the nations on their knees, to allow European citizens to feel threatened in their own home.
That can not go on any longer. I am convinced that there will be enormous changes in the structure of the European Parliament in the May elections. We see what is happening in Italy, Austria, Germany, France… We have to unite to save our countries from the madness of current euro-leaders.
Do you support a Bulgarian exit from the EU, like the UK and to seek a looser arrangement of a Europe of Nations and Freedom?
EU entry has been a major national goal for Bulgaria for many years. This membership has given us a lot – free movement in Europe, an opportunity for young people to study wherever they want. After decades behind the Iron Curtain, people can travel and get to know the “forbidden” until recently world.
These are great achievements and benefits for us from the EU. So I would hardly talk about going out. Rather, we are for radical changes in Brussels that will allow the Union to continue to exist and develop, but on a completely different basis. We at VOLYA think that partnership with more developed countries is an incentive for Bulgaria.
Who do you see as your allies in Europe? You have joined the ENF’s sister movement, the MENL, why, what is it about these people and their politics that attracted you?
We joined the Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom for several reasons. First, the invitation came from the leaders of the Movement.
This for me personally, and for my colleagues, was a sign that outside Bulgaria they recognised VOLYA as the true patriotic party. At present there is a so-called “a small coalition in government” that has been called patriotic, but in practice, its leaders show right the opposite – that they are not particularly concerned with people’s concerns, but rather with their personal ratings and lobbying laws. Therefore, the entry of VOLYA in the Movement was a very strong sign for the Bulgarian voters.
On the other hand, we have become acquainted with the positions of the Movement and I can say that I agree with most of them. Like the EU’s migration policy. I congratulate all MENF friends who, like Matteo Salvini in Italy, are protecting their country with an adequate policy and winning more and more supporters.
MENF must be the new leader in the future euro-parliament! We, from VOLYA, share the opinion of the Movement partners that the EU needs a huge change – both at the leadership level and as a policy and as a position towards the member states. This brings us together in MENF.
The current EU has failed its citizens and they are terrified of a new EU led by the Salvini, Orbans, PiS and Marine Le Pen, what do you think the EU Parliament will look like post May 19 elections?
I totally agree with you that the old leaders are petrified by the fear that the future EU will be dominated by people like us from the Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom.
They have reason. For every status quo is difficult to let go, as I told you about the situation in Bulgaria. But see, I have a firm opinion on this – you are born a leader, they do not appoint you as such. Currently, the EU is run by high-priced for the taxpayers bureaucrats rather than by leaders. And this has become a huge problem for the whole idea of United Europe.
I will be very pleased if, in the May elections, people from all over the world throw these “leaders” overboard and give the true patriots in Europe the chance to repair the damage and work for the prosperity of our union.
How many MEPs do you think you will get elected?
I would not be able to predict exactly how many deputy seats in the Euro-Parliament we will be able to win. It is important for us to enter this institution.
Still, we are a political party since one year and a half. For VOLYA, this will be the first appearance on such elections. We will make every effort to do well with this challenge and, of course, rely on the experience and support of our MENF partners.