FACE/OFF

by Mediapool, photography by BTA

"Putinisation!", warns a whistle-blowing Socialist MP

putin_parvanov.jpg

If Adam Smith were alive today, he wouldn't like Bulgaria at all. He would probably hate it. After all, the distinguished and much quoted political economist was a man for whom the worst kinds of government consisted of tyranny, oligarchy and anarchy. So what would he make of 21st Century Bulgaria, a country where political parties increasingly seem to serve the interests of the politicians, not the voters?

Ironically, it took an MP from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) - the largest party in the current tripartite coalition alongside the National Movement for Stability and Progress (NDSV) and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) - to voice a growing concern. "Our political life is witnessing the beginning of a process of "Putinisation", said Tatyana Doncheva, coincidentally Boyko Borisov's defeated opponent in Sofia's 2005 mayoral election.

Several Bulgarian political scientists, participants in a recent discussion organised by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation, took a similar view. According to Ognyan Minchev, for example, many of Bulgaria's leading political figures make policies without regard for the welfare of any social group. Instead, they merely defend the interests of the oligarchy's various factions. Who are the representatives of this new oligarchy? Most Bulgarian commentators have an answer but few voice it, either through lack of courage or because of insufficient evidence.

Doncheva, for instance, is the most outspoken critic of her own party's governing policies. Yet even in her most forceful and controversial speeches she has never directly named the man behind this Putinisation process. But there are no prizes for guessing the identity of the mysterious puppeteer. In Doncheva's words, he is someone who works for the establishment of oligarchy and "the steady implementation of Russia's political model with a centralised presidential system of government". Most suspicions go right to the top.

On winning his second mandate, President Georgi Parvanov declared that he had sufficient prerogatives to carry out his duties. But, tellingly, he said he "would insist that a future president had greater prerogatives". At the beginning of June, the Sega daily carried an interesting front-page story. It revealed that several leftwing intellectuals had formed a pressure group to lobby for the re-election of some of the most successful mayors in October's local elections. The founding committee included academic Anton Donchev, archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov, poet Ivan Granitski, actor Ventsislav Kisyov and sports coach Neshka Robeva. During the past few years the president had bestowed state awards on most of them. They were also members of his re-election campaign group. Ovcharov, known in Bulgaria for his excavations in Perperikon, even told the newspaper that the committee was formed with Parvanov's blessing.

Parvanov denied any connection to the new group. Perhaps this is not surprising because his involvement would have been incriminating on two counts. Firstly, as president, he is supposed to be non-partisan and above the political fray. Secondly, the party that had brought him to power, the BSP, was unfamiliar with the committee's aims and had not yet decided on its policy for the local elections.

So, unsurprisingly, the news was interpreted as Parvanov's reputed long-term objective of setting up his own left wing party. Such an act within the BSP, one of Bulgaria's best-organised political parties and the heir to the Bulgarian Communist Party, would once have been doomed to failure. But the BSP has been dogged by crisis recently, performing poorly in the European parliamentary elections. The recent political cover-up for those accused of draining funds from Sofia's Central Heating Company has been particularly damaging.

The saga, culminating in the release of the main culprit, Valentin Dimitrov, and the resignation of his alleged patron, Energy Minister Rumen Ovcharov, has reduced the party's popularity. Political analyst Zhivko Georgiev said that the BSP not only lost many voters, but that its supporters increasingly feel unrepresented. Political scientist Georgi Karasimeonov analysed the failure of the largest party in the coalition: "The BSP, which technically evolved into a modern pluralist entity has, in practice, failed to make the transition from a business company into a liberal democratic political party," he said.

Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev had also referred to the BSP as a "corporation". In a situation where social groups lack political representation, parties inevitably form around a charismatic personality. Simeon Saxe-Coburg's NDSV was the first, followed by Boyko Borisov's GERB and - perhaps next - Parvanov's proposed new political party. With them comes the opportunity for further oligarchy, which already appears to be a cancer in the body politic. According to Karasimeonov, corporate interests have succeeded in capturing the BSP's organisation and members.

He claims that the party's bitter internal conflicts arise from Bulgaria's mode of privatisation, which has given rise to a parasitic economic class. This group, protected by the state and the party, has now merged with criminal capital to become unassailable.

Rumen Ovcharov, the government's most vocal internal critic after Doncheva, maintains that at the crux of the malaise lie members of the former State Security (DS), who prospered illegally following the fall of Communism. And when acronyms like DS are bandied around, others inevitably spring to mind. One of them is SIK.

The Internet won't reveal much about SIK, even if you enter search words like silova grupirovka, or extortion group, - the official term describing its "security" and "insurance" activities at the onset of the Transition Period. But over the past 17 years its enmity towards its look-alike competitors of VIS has triggered many foreign news stories with headlines like "Bulgaria's Gangster War Reaps Further Toll".

The assassination of one of SIK's main figures, Milcho Bonev, also known as Bay Mile, shot together with his five bodyguards in broad daylight in a Sofia restaurant two years ago, catapulted the group into public attention. In May, Mladen "Madzho" Mihalev, another leading figure in SIK, testified in this case.

Not only was he driven to court in a police car but he was assigned special protection too. Traffic was also rerouted around the building so that he could enter more easily. However, Interior Minister Rumen Petkov declared that the police were not guarding Mihalev, but the magistrates. Deputy Justice Minister Dimitar Bongalov even said they were being protected from a terrorist threat, but nobody believed his explanation. Doncheva directly defined Mihalev's unprecedented security measures as infiltration of SIK in all political forces and institutions, "including the Council of Ministers and the Presidency".

Another case of the establishment backing one of its own to the hilt was illustrated in Vagabond No.7. There you can read about the reactions of Bulgaria's political elite to an article by journalist Jeff Stein in the American Congressional Quarterly magazine. Stein alleged that Sofia's mayor and unofficial leader of GERB, Boyko Borisov, had close links with organised crime in Bulgaria and with SIK in particular. The article was based on a report about organised crime commissioned by a foreign bank. But all levels of government, even those you would count as Borisov's political opponents, denounced the piece as a libellous character assassination. Soon afterwards, GERB won the European parliamentary elections. And now Borisov has a good chance of becoming Bulgaria's next president.

The situation looks shocking, but there is no sign of an improvement.

"Our country is in danger of degenerating into a Latin American style of government, even though we've just been accepted into the EU," Doncheva said. According to political analyst Antoniy Todorov, voter apathy at the recent European election reveals not only a widening gap between the establishment and the citizens but also the existence of an oligarchy. Karasimeonov concluded that the result had firmly established extremist parties and movements like GERB and Ataka.

"When populism gains the upper hand, the political process fluctuates between populists of the left and the right," he added. Ironically, it's now the populists, theoretically the standard bearers of the people, who are the oligarchy's representatives. Bulgaria seems to be suffering from a terminal dose of self-serving opportunism driven by personality politics. Adam Smith would be turning in his grave.

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