Fringe politician's beach party turns into anti-government protests
Things in Bulgaria are rarely what they seem to be, but of course there are exceptions. Look at Boyko Borisov's government and his most loyal GERB-ers. Look at the pictures of the prime minister sleeping across his bed, wads of 500-euro bills in his bedside drawer and a gun positioned by his head. Listen to the leaked phone conversations in which he refers to the speaker of parliament as a "stupid c*nt from Kardzhali" (a town in southern Bulgaria where Tsveta Karayancheva comes from), and tells his deputy prime minister, Tomislav Donchev, that President Rumen Radev is so hard-headed that he needs... a pizzle up his a*s.
You are right. Prime ministers, unless they belong to another place, another time and an entirely different culture, do not talk like that, not to their deputies, not even in private. The man who has run Bulgaria almost uninterruptedly for the past 11 years is what he seems to be: a burly, foul-mouthed putz, not at all a proper EU prime minister and the chief executive of a NATO member state. Under him, Bulgaria – a fairly optimistic place in the 2000s – has slipped to the rock bottom of almost all imaginable international statistics: from incomes to life expectancy, from corruption, nepotism and the rule of law to freedom of speech and Covid-19 risks. In Bulgaria, in 2020, outrages are being committed using perfectly legal means. Legitimate businesses are being destroyed because their owners refuse to cough up bribes. A chief prosecutor feeds the media with chunks of tapped private conversations between people whom he has accused of wrongdoing but who have not been convicted by any court of law. Boyko Borisov's Bulgaria has become a "captured state." His regime, put plainly, is rotten to the core.
Increasingly, many Bulgarians of various shades and hues have ceased believing that Boyko Borisov protects them from Communism, the main adage he resorts to whenever he feels the carpet is slipping under his feet. Consequently, they are taking to the streets to rebel against him and his regime. They are angry. They don't care if the European People's Party, of which Boyko Borisov's GERB is a member, or the American Embassy in Sofia support him. They think that Boyko Borisov has become what he is as a result, not in spite of, the various actions and cash injections by the West.
The devil, as it usually happens in the Balkans, is in the details. The current spate of protests blocking the streets of central Sofia started 300 miles out of the capital, at a lesser-visited stretch of the Black Sea coast that adjoins the port of LUKoil, the Russian oil giant that commands a near-total monopoly of this country's petrol market. Hristo Ivanov, a fringe politician leading a small, but very vocal grouping calling itself Yes Bulgaria, arrived by boat at a rocky piece of coast next to a villa thought to belong to Ahmed Dogan, the honorary chairman of the Turkish-dominated DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms. His beach sketch was well thoughtover and carefully orchestrated. The Yes Bulgaria activists had to be seen being repressed. They were. Security guards promptly pushed them back into the water, but not before they could unfurl a Bulgarian flag – which was tossed aside by one of the brutish guards. As Bulgarian citizens we just wanted to go to the beach, Hristo Ivanov exclaimed. We just wanted to put up the Bulgarian "tricolour" on a piece of Bulgarian soil. In such cases Bulgarians do not see three colours. They see red.
Under current legislation, the whole of this country's coastline is considered exclusive state property and anyone must have right-of-way. Not the case in Otmanli, where Ahmed Dogan spends his summers...
The kick-off took place at the beach. It emerged that some of the security guards pushing Hristo Ivanov back into the water were in fact government employees in the National Protection Service, which is supposed to guard senior state dignitaries. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov was quick to vilify his archenemy, President Rumen Radev – because the president is the one to appoint the head of that service. President Rumen Radev responded that his role was mainly ceremonial: it was the prime minister who had responsibility for the service's day-to-day operations.
A few hundred followers of Hristo Ivanov organised a collective beach-going do at Ahmed Dogan's cottage. Ahmed Dogan promptly called in a few hundred of his supporters who were invited inside the compound. In the meantime, in Sofia, Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev sent in heavily-armed police to ransack some of the offices of President Rumen Radev claiming two of his senior advisers jeopardised national security. In the street in front three men – Velislav Minekov, a sculptor, Nikolay Hadzhigenov, a human rights lawyer, and Arman Babikyan, a publicity expert – started the protests. Collectively, they are known as the "Poisonous Trio," owing to their harsh, sometimes vitriolic criticism of Boyko Borisov and his regime.
Things snowballed. The numbers swallowed. The Poisonous Trio was joined by an assemblage of groupings and individuals who under normal circumstances would rarely speak with, let alone walk alongside, each other. There were the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, the biggest opposition party in the National Assembly. There were various splinter groups from the BSP. Some human rights activists joined in. Individuals harbouring extremist views were quick to follow. The protestors demanded immediate resignations of Boyko Borisov and his chief prosecutor, Ivan Geshev. They chanted Down with the Mutri and No More Mafia! They demanded constitutional amendments.
The person who really galvanised the protests was none lesser than President Rumen Radev himself. Radev, a NATO general and a former Air Force commander, walked into the square in front of his office and encouraged the protestors. This government and the chief prosecutor must go, he said. There is no other way to preserve Bulgaria's democracy. Radev said all must unite in the face of evil. Political differences should be forgotten when the pith of Bulgaria's fragile democracy is at stake. The people in the square seemed to take that in. Since then all street rallies in central Sofia have started at the Office of the President, indicating support for him.
But who are the rebels? Can they peacefully and democratically dismantle what Bulgaria has become 30 years after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact? Importantly, what do they have to offer in its place?
One of the most prominent figures is Hristo Ivanov, the leader of the Yes Bulgaria party. Ivanov has a degree in law but was disqualified from the bar over unpaid membership fees. In 2014 Boyko Borisov appointed him his justice minister. Within a year Ivanov left as he failed to set in motion the much needed judiciary reforms. Apparently disgruntled with his former boss, Ivanov gradually turned into his foe. He set up Yes Bulgaria party ahead of the 2017 general election, attracting (or stealing) the voters of Democratic Bulgaria, the older and much more popular centre-right party led by Radan Kanev. The result of this was that neither Yes Bulgaria nor Democratic Bulgaria could garner enough support to enter parliament.
Hristo Ivanov is supported mainly by people who have a footing in the massive street protests that paralysed much of Sofia in 2013. At that time the angry people of Sofia rallied against the government of Plamen Oresharski – not because of Plamen Oresharski but because a relatively obscure but then presumably fabulously rich and influential MP for the DPS, Delyan Peevski, was proposed to head the Interior Ministry's Office for Investigations. In the short term the protests succeeded – Plamen Oresharski did step down. In the longer term, however, the main achievement of the 2013 protesters turned out to be the re-installation of Boyko Borisov as prime minister – a post he has held since then. The participants in those protests came to be known as the Smart and the Beautiful, a description they did not dislike because they thought of themselves as being young, well-educated and espousing Western values such as hipster culture and craft beer. Whoever opposed them then – as well as now – did not belong.
Hristo Ivanov likes to nurture Yes Bulgaria's perceived idea of superiority and exclusiveness. When he lost the 2017 general election he explained his failure with the fact that his party had a small number of supporters because... they were "well-educated and intelligent" urban dwellers. Not too many Bulgarians qualify.
The Poisonous Trio consists of three unrelated individuals who make a regular appearance on a TV show moderated by Sasho Dikov, a former sports journalist and a Boyko Borisov outspoken critic. The trio now favours an all-out onslaught against Borisov. In a truly Jacobin fashion Minekov, Hadzhigenov and Babikyan propound all that matters now is to get rid of Borisov. The rest will be taken care of later.
The main parliamentary force that supports the protests is the BSP, currently led by Kornelia Ninova. The BSP, which is the heir to the now obsolete Bulgarian Communist Party, is plagued by infighting and power struggles. Yet, probably because of its totalitarian background, it is non-confrontational and open to dialogue with anyone who would care to talk – in sharp contrast to Yes Bulgaria's intransigent refusal to speak with anyone whom it does not consider "smart and beautiful." Like everyone else out in the streets blocking Sofia's traffic the BSP wants immediate resignations and snap elections. Unlike Yes Bulgaria, the BSP has a more or less coherent agenda focusing on social issues.
In fact what Hristo Ivanov proposes can be broadly divided into three categories: the realistic, practical and attainable; the wishful thinking; and the plainly populist. Ivanov wants legislative changes that make sense and will not be too difficult to implement. Because he thinks that many smart and beautiful Bulgarians live abroad, where they have presumably become even smarter and more beautiful, they will cast their ballots for him. But navigating the antiquated Bulgarian voting system is a hurdle for them. Therefore, Ivanov wants online voting. The pros and cons of online voting have been discussed numerous times in various countries. Some have online voting, others don't. Whether online voting is good or bad is beside the point. What matters here and now is that this is wishful thinking. Anyone who has had any real-life altercation with Bulgarian digital bureaucracy will instantly know.
Hristo Ivanov also favours what he calls "comprehensive lustration." Depending on when the person you are talking with at the moment was born "lustration" may mean some novel beauty parlour procedure possibly involving Botox. Or it may mean lining up in front of the National Assembly anyone who has been within five feet of a real or imaginary Communist since 1923 – and calling in the firing squad. Lustration was one of those events that took place in most of the former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe, including East Germany, which was aimed to prevent officials of or collaborators with the Communist regime from holding public office for a period of time. Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary all implemented lustration at various times, using various means and attaining various degrees of success. Bulgaria never did. In the late 1990s a Lustration Bill designed to prevent Communist Party officials and secret police collaborators from holding public office for five years was tabled in the National Assembly, but the Constitutional Court declared it discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional. Since then the lack of lustration in Bulgaria has been seen by various groups as perhaps the single explanation for everything that has gone wrong in this country's transition to democracy. Ivanov just capitalises on the "enemy within" topic once more because obviously this kind of lustration, 31 years after the fall of Communism, will have to be carried out mainly at Sofia's Central Cemetery.
Apparently, not many Bulgarians, especially outside Sofia and some of the bigger cities, sympathise with Hristo Ivanov, the Poisonous Trio and their protestors. Some are just citizens unhappy for not being able to drive through Eagles Bridge in Sofia because it is being blocked by protestors. Some are diehard GERB supporters. In all likelihood, they will happily turn coat the moment Boyko Borisov steps down – or is pushed aside. Others are leaders of professional organisations. Dimitar Manolov, the president of Podkrepa, the biggest trade union in Bulgaria, billed the protests "infantile." He said the organisation he headed could not bother with the protestors as none of them related to any labour issue.
Probably the biggest slap in the face of Yes Bulgaria and their protesting pals came from someone they used to swear by and trust unconditionally: former President Rosen Plevneliev. Plevneliev was elected president in 2011 as Boyko Borisov's personal nominee. On election night Borisov explained Plevneliev's success in his inimitable style: "Whoever I had put forward would have won." There were no smart and beautiful people then, but as soon as they emerged they saw in Plevneliev a chance to get their message across as they thought he would emancipate himself from his former boss. Plevneliev, who will probably go down in history as post-Communist Bulgaria's most spineless president, is now uninvolved in politics. In sharp contrast with Western protocol by which former dignitaries never speak out about incumbents, he spends most of his time giving interviews to castigate his successor, Rumen Radev, whom he accuses of anything from breaching the Constitution to high treason.
Plevneliev has now turned virulently against his former fans. The man, who once said in his "previous life" he must have been "an Irish shepherdess," now calls for an immediate cessation of the protests and letting Boyko Borisov's government continue until the next general election scheduled for 2021.
Against the background of all of the above, President Rumen Radev stands as probably the only unifying figure of the discontent Bulgarians. Hristo Ivanov may have set the protests in motion with his Otmanli beach party but had it not been for President Radev appearing in the crowd in front of his office, his fist raised in the air, calling for unity and immediate dismissals, the beach party would have remained just that.
Of course Radev has sworn enemies as well. Boyko Borisov cannot stand him because he seems to be the only public figure of significance who has the guts to stand up to GERB's steamroller. But Radev's main critics are to the right. Some Bulgarians who identify themselves as anti-Communists propound he is a "Russian puppet" out to sell Bulgaria's national interests to Putin. Of course there is no evidence to any such claims, but the "rightwingers" are "convinced." They base their opinions mainly on some interviews given by a retired KGB operative, one Leonid Reshetnikov, who speaks favourably of Radev, and on some reports circulating in the Russian media. Sadly, those who say they espouse democracy in Bulgaria in 2020 tend to feed their anti-Communism almost exclusively on Communist-era secret police files and obscure Russian Internet sites.
A political scientist, Professor (Oxon) Evgeniy Daynov, had this to say to President Radev's critics: "President Radev appears to be an honest man. He doesn't lie, he does not use threats, he doesn't steal and he voices no slurs. I see no GERB face with even a trace of honesty. If this is a protest about civilisation – of the honest against the thieving barbarians – I have nothing against Radev lining up with the honest. The opposite hypothesis, widely circulated on Facebook, looks like a dark ideology, a classic example of Stalinism, because it is a blatant example of moral relativism – GERB may be thieves, but they are rightwing and protect us from Communism."
The Yes Bulgaria leader, Hristo Ivanov, will get a career boost regardless of the outcome of the current protests. However, he must realise that in order to succeed he will need to convince a few other people who may not be as smart and beautiful as his current fans. In this way he will provide sufficient guarantees that one form of autocracy, as epitomised by Boyko Borisov's thugs and errand boys, will not be replaced with another, that of the "smart and beautiful," who in many respects are as intolerant to criticism and as impervious to ideas outside their own comfort zone as the Boyko Borisovs and the Delyan Peevskis they so ardently seek to remove.