by Anthony Georgieff

Covid-19 crisis overshadows everything else in Balkan country

Predictably, the coronavirus emergency has made all other events in what remains the EU's poorest and least free state look like insubstantial tidbits. With very few exceptions all media have focused exclusively on the alarmist press conferences of Gen Ventsislav Mutafchiyski, the military doctor who heads the emergency staff, and on the lifts Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has given to his ministers in his private jeep to inspect unfinished stretches of road. Social media, especially Facebook, have provided the outlet for the worries and frustrations of the two very distinct groups of Bulgarians in 2020: the "isolationists," who think Boyko Borisov has done wonders to protect the population and save lives, and the "libertarians," who would rather see the government measures as an attempt to kill a mosquito sitting on a bald man's head by hitting it with a hammer.

In the meantime, however, a number of other events have taken place in this country, many of which indicate how it has been run for the past 11 years with Boyko Borisov and his retinue at the helm.

Take the case of Ivo Prokopiev, the publisher of Kapital newspaper, and his wife, Galya Prokopieva, its CEO. The former chief prosecutor, Sotir Tsatsarov, who now heads the illegal assets confiscation commission known by its monstrous acronym, KPKONPI, has ordered the seizure of family properties amounting to about half a million leva (250,000 euros). This comes on top of previous seizures to the tune of 199 million leva (100 million euros). Tsatsarov has justified his order with a case dating back many years and concerning the privatisation of Kaolin, an industrial enterprise now owned by a German company. Prokopiev gained control of it 20 years ago and sold it in 2012. There have been numerous allegations, accusations and court cases surrounding the privatisation and subsequent sale of Kaolin, but several courts have cleared Prokopiev of all charges. Tsatsarov has asserted his current order has nothing to do with the newspaper the Prokopievs publish, but the Prokopievs themselves see it exclusively as yet another bout of political repression against a media that has often been critical of the rulers.

Speaking of political repression against the media, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, a watchdog evaluating the state of the media country by country, has placed Bulgaria at the 111th position, rockbottom in all of the EU – in fact in all of Europe outside Turkey. Mali and Angola are just ahead of Bulgaria while Nepal and Benin trail behind. The Reporters Without Borders chart made some news in Bulgaria, and some media that consider themselves progressive, pro-democracy and anti-Communist were quick to capitalise on it citing how bad the situation in Bulgaria under Boyko Borisov continues to be.

That Boyko Borisov's Bulgaria is a pretty dire place in many respects, including the media, is not very difficult to see for anyone with more than a passing interest in this territory. Yet, Reporters Without Borders's indices are not a holy scripture, either.

Most of the criticism voiced concerning its 2020 iteration dealt with Reporters's notorious protection of its sources. Reporters circulates questionnaires to people it trusts and then compiles its maps and indices on the basis of the answers provided. It never discloses the names of the actual participants in the polls. In all fairness, this is quite justifiable as people living under repressive regimes may have legitimate concerns about their safety and their lives.

While some pro-government media in Bulgaria dabbled in speculation who may have given Reporters Without Borders the basis for its current index, few media asked the much more relevant question concerning its methodology. What makes Norway and Finland freer than Denmark? In what particular ways does New Zealand fail compared to Switzerland? How can Bulgaria be worse off than Angola and in what specific ways does it outperform Benin?

In Bulgaria, thankfully, journalists do not get killed. None have been imprisoned for what they write, nor stashed away in psychiatric asylums. The worst that can happen to a journalist is to get fired – which is not a particularly Bulgarian phenomenon. Understandably, anyone sacked from a media, especially if it were a large TV station, would immediately represent their dismissal as a freedom-of-speech issue – and complain to an NGO or to a competing media. Being repressed in a country that is prone to repression is, well, sexy.

In the past Reporters Without Borders have committed major blunders in Bulgaria. Two years ago Reporters's director for Bulgaria, Pauline Adès-Mével, enthusiastically pitched the rape and murder of an young journalist in Ruse, in northern Bulgaria, as government repression. The Bulgarian police acted unusually fast and professionally on that occasion, and within a few days arrested a man who made a full confession and was promptly sentenced to 20 years in jail. There was no freedom-of-speech issue involved at all. It was just a heinous crime a delinquent had committed while heavily intoxicated by both alcohol and drugs. Yet, Mme Adès-Mével upheld the murder had something to do with Bivol, an Internet site that claims to deal in investigative journalism and is usually highly critical, vitriolic, of Boyko Borisov's establishment. Bivol is run by Asen Yordanov, a Burgas-based journalist, who Reporters Without Borders hails as an "information hero." Yordanov happens to be the half-brother of Nedyalko Nedyalkov, who runs PIK, Bivol's arch-enemy that is usually exceptionally laudatory of anything Boyko Borisov's establishment does. Wittingly or not, Reporters seems to have been caught in a local playoff of almost Freudian proportions.

Perhaps the most uncanny event that is unrelated to Covid-19 during the past month was the curious case of Vasil "The Skull" Bozhkov, one of this country's richest men and a top gambling boss. Bozhkov has fared well under all governments since the collapse of Communism, including Boyko Borisov's. He has created an empire of gambling halls and online betting enterprises. Additionally, he has amassed a significant collection of antiques that surpasses what is in the vaults of the National History Museum in Sofia. The government of Bulgaria displayed some of it at the European Parliament in Brussels when it acceded to the EU, in 2007.

No Bulgarian court of law has found Vasil "The Skull" Bozhkov guilty of anything illegal though many Bulgarians have little doubt about the nature of his activities, which in a way explains his nickname. In 2020, all of a sudden, the newly-appointed Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev raised charges against Bozhkov ranging from money laundering to contract killings. Bozhkov was quick to leave the country and settle in the United Arab Emirates. Uniformed policemen were sent to his offices and impounded his antiques collection. Some of them were seen on video using black plastic rubbish sacks to carry what in actual fact were priceless artefacts belonging to ancient civilisations and costing hundreds of thousands of euros.

Bozhkov is still in the Middle East. Using social networks, he regularly informs the general public about his intentions and releases bits of information that under different circumstances and in different climes would have caused a major political realignment. One example is the several text messages exchanged between Bozhkov and Vladislav Goranov, Boyko Borisov's finance minister. From those it becomes evident that Goranov in fact worked for Bozhkov in securing favourable legislation for his gambling operations. Both Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev commented they saw nothing wrong with the correspondence between a standing minister and an alleged underworld boss currently on the run.

The Bozhkov episode is oddly reminiscent of Tsvetan Vasilev, the former banker whose bank was favoured out of proportion by a series of Bulgarian governments, including Boyko Borisov's. All of a sudden his bank went bust and Vasilev left the country for Belgrade where he currently resides. The Serbian authorities refuse to extradite him. Borisov kept most of Bulgaria's funds at that bank. In Bulgaria, Vasilev has been charged with a number of offences including embezzlement and tax evasion.

The case of Vasil "The Skull" Bozhkov assumed characteristically Bulgarian dimensions when Bozhkov decided to give the shares in Levski, one of this country's top football clubs which he used to own, to... Boyko Borisov himself. A former sports journalist, Sasho Dikov, who now moderates one of the few TV shows that are openly critical of the government, was employed as a courier. Dikov was let into the Council of Ministers carrying a briefcase, but Boyko Borisov refused to take the shares.

Boyko Borisov, whose past as a protection boss in the tumultuous 1990s remains a matter of speculation, is an avid footballer. And an avid jeep driver. 


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