by Anthony Georgieff

GERB wants Constitutional amendments to penalise privatisation deals

What has been in the offing ever since Boyko Borisov's GERB's ascend to power in 2009 is now beginning to assume sinister proportions more befitting the years just after the Second World War, when the Bulgarian Communist Party consolidated its hold to power, than an EU member state in 2017.

According to Prof (Oxon) Evgeniy Daynov, a political scientist, the central issue no longer is the replay of the means and methods of "Mature Socialism," with its stagnated economy and police state. It is when GERB will turn their almost 10-year rule into an open, full-fledged dictatorship.

Ahead of Bulgaria's scheduled presidency of the EU, this country's establishment decided to hit whatever remains of the independent media. The Commission for Seizure of Illegal Assets, which is empowered to block, without a court order, bank accounts and confiscate properties thought to have been illegally acquired, targeted the publisher of Kapital and Dnevnik, Ivo Prokopiev. The commission threatened it would block Prokopiev's bank accounts which would inevitably lead to a serious disruption if not the termination of his media operations. Kapital and Dnevnik are seen as being some of the last vestiges of free and independent media in a country where media freedoms under Borisov have hit rock bottom in the EU.

The Commission for Seizure of Illegal Assets was set up a few years ago following numerous requests by Western ambassadors who thought that such a body in Bulgaria would function the way it did in the UK, Germany and elsewhere. None of them heeded critics that in Bulgaria agencies like that might also be used for extorting private businesses and coshing political opponents.

In a climate infamously characterised by the lack of checks and balances, just that is happening.

The GERB went a lot further than that. It proposed, and started pushing for, a Constitutional amendment to lift the statutes of limitations regarding the deals concluded under this country's privatisation programme in the 1990s.

"Privatisation" in Bulgaria followed 45 years of hardline Communism when private property had been banned, the government ran everything from rubber hose factories to barber shops, and private initiative was illegal. It was something different from privatisation in, say, the UK where Margaret Thatcher privatised the railways. It came rather late in comparison to other former East bloc countries such as Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It was implemented mainly, but not exclusively, by the rightwing government of Ivan Kostov (1997-2001). Very obviously, it was very far from perfect as it was imbued with corrupt practices, took place against the background of a major banking crisis that had spawned hyperinflation and so on. Many people and private businesses took part in the privatisation process. Some were legitimate, others were questionable. Popular sentiment now, however, generally sees it as a "crime" rather than a necessary step in Bulgaria's democratisation, transition to market economy and its attempt to join the EU.

Boyko Borisov has an unparalleled feel for the public sentiment and has proved he can unscrupulously manipulate it. At a time when nostalgia for the "happy" days of Communism grows and when all the ills of this country tend to be attributed to the democrats of the 1990s rather than the Communists previously a Constitutional move like that, to penalise the "thieves" of post-Communism, will be hugely popular. Whether applying such legislation retroactively can or should be able to hold water in court is an entirely different matter.

Even if it is not enacted, it will achieve at least three aims. According to Prof Evgeniy Daynov, it will show beyond any reasonable doubt who the real master in the Bulgaria of the 2010s is. It is the state. It is the government of Boyko Borisov, not any parliamentary democracy kept under scrutiny by the independent media. Whenever the rulers decide to seize property, any property, they can. And they will.

Second, the move will annihilate the democratic opposition in Bulgaria as most of what remains of it was involved in the mass privatisation in the 1990s. Now these people will be stashed away for good.

And third, GERB will reaffirm its newest propaganda tenet: wherever belongs to the state is good, and whatever does not is bad. This is an almost verbatim repetition of the policies of the BKP, or Bulgarian Communist Party, of which Boyko Borisov was a member in the period 1979-1990 and which his current GERB increasingly resembles, according to Daynov.

Through the years Borisov has been generally liked by the West mainly because he was seen as being willing to offer police cooperation and counterterrorism exercises, and because sometimes he liked to say he was pro-Western. But the West must realise that unless he is kept in check, his policies, especially in his current alliance with extreme nationalists, will sooner or later get out of control. Sooner rather than later.


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