At the beginning of the 1990s, when Bulgarian Communism had collapsed and the nation was gripped with pro-democracy fervour, Todor Kolev, this country's perhaps best known comedian actor, put out a song that instantly became a major hit.
Loosely picking on the tune of The Beatles's Let It Be, Kolev set it to Bulgarian verse. Its refrain ran like this: "When will we catch up with the Americans?"
Concert venues and town squares cheered on when Todor Kolev made his appearance. Audiences jumped up and intoned: "When shall we catch up with the Americans?" "When? When? When?..."
Through the 1990s and even through the relative thaw and prosperity of the 2000s fewer and fewer people remembered "When will we catch up with the Americans" not only because it became increasingly clear that the answer was "never," but also because fewer and fewer people actually thought it was a good idea to try.
In the late 2000s any hope that Western-style liberal democracy would gain the upper hand once and for all in post-Communist Bulgaria evaporated. At first it did slowly but later, as the economic crisis and global insecurity progressed, perhaps irrevocably.
The local politicians, who had ascended to power in 2008, were willing accomplices in the process. Their promises coupled with their demagoguery, control over the media and uncouth, sometimes blatant arrogance, created the kind of kleptocracy Bulgarians have to live with at the present time. The result? To be a liberal democrat in Bulgaria, which the overwhelming majority of the nation craved in the wake of Todor Zhivkov's Communism, became less and less popular. In 2017 it is rather an oddity, certainly not a thing that would win an election.
Yet, it would be unfair to say that the Bulgarians failed completely. Now, when the Americans are just starting to learn words like Kompromat, fake news and alternative facts, it seems that in one way Bulgaria has actually not only caught up with them but has surpassed them. What follows is a breakdown of some aspects of life and politics in this country that Americans left, right and centre might actually learn something from.
Fake news, Kompromat, alternative facts
Open up the Bulgarian version of Facebook and you will be overwhelmed with the kind of stories people read, believe and share. Some of the sites are clearly subsidised by a foreign state though few clearly state it (no pun intended). But many aren't. They instinctively know what people who live in a country where even the mainstream media is substandard want to hear. People want disaster, rape, behind-the-scenes business dealings, conspiracy theories and gory details. They also want to hear that what they see as their national identity is being encroached upon by a vile West in general and America in particular. As easy as that.
They Are Taking Down Botev and Levski From the School Curriculum or They Say There Was Never a Turkish Yoke are favourite headlines that periodically surface on the Bulgarian Internet "news" sites. Tripe Soup Soon To Be Banned, The EU Makes Gay Marriages Compulsory and Brussels Outlaws Child Baptisms are others. The imagination of a voter with average intelligence and education is understandably limited to analyse critically all the stories that the hacks chuck out. It is a love-hate thing. People either switch off their TV sets and don't watch news at all or, conversely, get glued to them, trusting every incredible story that is being thrust down their throats.
This works remarkably well. Brainwashing in the age of digital communications may be more sophisticated compared to the days when people got their news from newspapers, but the bottomline is still the same. What the paymasters want is to instil insecurity, doubt and a general sense of confusion. They really want people to think that nothing is what it appears to be and that everyone is a crook. If anyone dissents – well, you can always thrust a Kompromat in their faces...
Give the appearance that something meaningful is being done
Start by making a promise. The more ridiculous it is, the better. Promise you will make the minimum salary 700 leva a month. You will amazed at how many people will believe you. Of course, some won't, but by the time you fail everyone will have forgotten.
The best promises, however, are the ones that you will be seen as delivering.
Take the GERB system for admission of sick Bulgarians into hospitals. GERB have been running a system that requires fingerprints for anyone to be admitted to state health care, the explanation being that many patients previously were given treatment without having paid their health care contributions to the National Health Fund. Bulgarians were fingerprinted in order to be admitted to state hospitals!
Of course, there was criticism, court cases and so on. GERB are temporarily out of power and the caretaker government was quick to ditch the fingerprinting system. What remains, however, is the fingerprinting equipment. Someone – you as a taxpayer – paid for it. The company, which had been contracted, got the cash. Clear as a Western novel of the kind of Karl Mai's Winnetou, which is the only book the former Bulgarian prime minister claims to have read.
Never, never, never admit a mistake. Always blame your opponents or predecessors for everything that has gone wrong
This is a crucial point and it is the signature of Boyko Borisov. He has never made any mistakes. Even the silliest things GERB have done had been masterminded, or undermined, by their enemies who are to be held responsible for the failures. The enemies are, obviously, everyone who is not with GERB. Everyone who is not with us is against us. Stalin said that.
However, some enemies are more useful than others. You need both a whipping boy and a scarecrow. The Bulgarian Socialist Party, the heir to the Bulgarian Communist Party, is always a good scarecrow. Blame everything on them. If it doesn't work, blame everything on the Communist-run labour camps in the 1940s and 1950s. Even if that doesn't work (it usually will), go further back in history. The notorious "Turkish Yoke" is surefire.
When you are done with the scarecrow, turn to the whipping boy. Your subordinates or coalition partners are the ideal targets because they are weaker than you and they cannot strike back. Fire them, mock them, crucify them. The public will applause because it wants to see blood. It wants a lynch.
A broad measure of hypocrisy is welcome. Take Bulgaria's recent presidential election. GERB's outspoken anti-Communist supporters charged that Ret Gen Rumen Radev, the US-educated former Air Force commander, was a Communist. The man had never been a member of the Communist Party. Tsetska Tsacheva, GERB's nominee, had been one, as late as the late 1980s. Her membership was excusable, she wanted to promote her career...
So is the membership of her boss, Boyko Borisov. He belonged to the Communist Party and refused to quit it when the Bulgarian police force, where he worked as a fireman, was being de-Communised in the early 1990s. He preferred to retain his loyalties and leave the service instead.
Prime Minister Borisov has on various occasions praised Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov as, among other things, a great builder whose achievements would take years to reach up to. Yet, whenever the situation warrants, he remembers: "The Communists killed my Granddad."
"King" Boyko Borisov: "Personal Cause, personal choice for humane new society"
Vilify the system, especially the courts
The system is very obviously bad and millions of disgruntled Bulgarians know that. When ad hominem slurs, the scarecrow and the whipping boy tricks fail, which is rare but may happen occasionally, you can always resort to slamming the system, especially the courts.
Courts in Bulgaria are far from perfect and one of the main and still unfulfilled requirements the EU has imposed on Bulgaria is to implement thorough and far-reaching reforms in the Bulgarian justice system. Bulgarians are generally unhappy with the courts. This makes the courts an easy victim. Boyko Borisov put it in his inimitable manner as early as the 2000s when he was still Bulgaria's top policeman: "We catch them [the criminals], but they [the courts] let them go free."
Nothing is what it seems to be. There is always some hidden agenda
The example of the fingerprinting hospital system is just that, an example. Look around and you will find hundreds if not thousands of similar things and events to ponder over. To great fanfare Bulgaria's former prime minister inaugurates yet another mile of an asphalt road. His usual retinue, including an Orthodox priest to say a blessing, is in attendance. The TV cameras are rolling. The asphalt road gets opened. It seems like a good asphalt road. It isn't. Shortly after the ribbon-cutting it gets closed again for repairs.
That sort of attitude is not necessarily characteristic of GERB as everyone else has been practicing it even under Communism, but GERB have elevated it to an art form.
Ribbon-cutting has become another signature of its leader. It makes little difference that some of things that get inaugurated in this way make little or no sense, for example the sports fields in villages whose seats outnumber the residents or the kids playgrounds installed in places where there are no children. Or the "reconstructed" Medieval forts and turrets built from scratch with cheapo plastic materials over important archaeological ruins. The main thing is to give the appearance that construction work is being done. Whether anyone dies in the process, like the lady who was killed by a falling light in the Echemishka Tunnel on Bulgaria's second motorway, will soon be forgotten.
You will be surprised how many things you can get away with, in addition to allowing the journos to touch your muscle and ordering the chief of customs to terminate a tax investigation against a beer brewer, as long as you keep giving the appearance you are building walls and fences.
Start building or say you are going to start building walls and/or fences
Walls and/or fences are good. They are the epitome of the kind of security the overwhelming majority of people, even those who have nothing to lose, want. Bulgaria under GERB has a significant experience in wall building. The hugely expensive barbed-wire fence being built along this country's border with Turkey is a case in point. The official purpose of it is to stop the anticipated "migrant influx" from the Middle East. It makes little difference that the number of migrants trying to enter Bulgaria is negligible compared to Turkey, Greece, Italy and even Macedonia. The important thing is to show that a wall impenetrable by human beings is being put in place.
The Bulgarian fence, whose construction started in 2013 under the Oresharski government, is... still being built. The plan envisages a fence stretching the whole 260-kilometre border. As of last summer, a little over 130 kilometres were in place. Private contractors are doing the work. A kilometre of barbed-wire fence now costs four times as much as it did when it started. Boyko Borisov said he would get someone else to pay for it: the EU.
Modern intellectuals are by definition liberal democrats, at least theoretically, though if you speak to latterday Bulgarian historians you may get a different picture. They sit in universities, they write books and articles. They speak out.
Stifle them. Well, you can't really stifle them, not unless you reinstate the secret police, but what you can do is actually show how ridiculous, incoherent and morally corrupt they are.
In plain reality to do this is a lot easier than might appear to the naked eye. You can pour hogwash in the form of Kompromat and fake news over them, but what really works is to pitch the ordinary, uncouth, uneducated people, who are scratching to make a living, against the intellectual "elite," the "guys with the spectacles," as Boyko Borisov calls them.
Always remember that if intellectuals vote at all their numbers are so minuscule that they cannot sway an election. Focus on the average people. Boyko Borisov has a word of advice on this. Speaking to a group of workers in Kardzhali who were angry because their wages had gone unpaid for months he told them: "You are simple people. And I am a simple man. That's why we understand each other."
Divide, divide, divide. Put people in boxes
Bulgaria at the moment is a lot more divided that it has ever been in its post-war history. Under Communism, which was supposedly classless, people were divided between those who had the privilege of a Communist Party membership and those who didn't; between those who supported CSKA at the football and those who supported Levski; between those who could shop at the Korekom dollar stores and those who couldn't.
In the 2010s the divisions are many more and a lot more complicated. The guiding principle is of course the age-proven Stalinist adage, whoever is not with us is against us.
In this context it is always helpful to put people in boxes. Make sure you tag them in a simple manner. One- to two-word tags work best because people have no time to read behind the headlines. Employ an army of useful idiots to promote your version of the facts, your "alternative facts." Works super.
The overwhelming majority of Bulgarians, even those who say they protest "Western values" are remarkably unified on this point. If you dare say anything positive about the Bulgarian Socialist Party you are instantly branded as a Communist. The moment you put in a good word for GERB you become a fascist at best or a member of organised crime at worst. Anything good about Meglena Kuneva crosses your mind and the diehard "anti-Communists" will stone you. Feel like criticising the extreme nationalists masquerading as "patriots"? They will instantly "prove" you are a Turkish or an Israeli agent.
Prey on people's fears
This is your trump card (no pun intended here either). For all of the reasons outlined above, the people are gripped by fear. Some fear the West will take their tripe soup from them, others fear Putin will invade the Black Sea coast. Some fear the intellectuals, others fear the people from the provinces. Some are scared for their property, others are scared for their wives. Almost everyone fears the asylum seekers. Those who don't fear the asylum seekers fear those who do. Fear may be the first sign a civilisation is disintegrating, but it is a potent tool to gain power.
Bulgaria's GERB is a master in the fear-mongering game. Their leader has repeatedly and incessantly threatened that unless he is in power everything in this country, from the condition of the asphalt roads to the EU funding, will go to the dogs.
They even put it in writing as their byline in the upcoming snap election scheduled for 26 March: "Let's make peoples' fears a hope for the nation!"
So, don't worry, America. Been there, seen that. Bulgaria has been going through the same doldrums, after free and fair elections, for the past at least 10 years. Brace yourself up and wait till the fat lady sings. It will be alright, sooner or later. Later rather than sooner.