BULGARIA'S RESPONSE TO COVID-19

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Health emergency enables rulers to reenact good-cop-bad-cop antics

Since 13 March 2020 Bulgaria has been run by three generals and a sheriff.

First and foremost comes General Ventsislav Mutafchiyski. A surgeon installed to manage the Military Medical Academy in Sofia, Mutafchiyski rose to prominence when he was appointed the head of the emergency National Operative Headquarters. Neither a virologist, nor a psychologist he is seen at daily news briefings where he utilises his military schooling to give out what is in essence increasingly restrictive commands to ban citizens from moving about and gathering together. Strictly speaking, this is not true. Legally, his National Operative Headquarters is but a consultative body to advise the health minister on the progress status of the coronavirus pandemic.

The numbers of infections and deaths the general quotes have been questioned. Mutafchiyski insists he does not to create a sense of panic, yet his is the notorious statement that a pandemic of "unprecedented rage and fury" is about to sweep Bulgaria.

The general is at best brusque to the media. He likes to call unscheduled press conferences, frequently around midnight. One of them was an almost literal replay of the pilots sketch in Monty Python's How To Irritate People. A stern-faced Mutafchiyski in formal military dress told anxious TV viewers that... there was no danger to their food as a result of the fires around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Fires? What fires? The fires in Ukraine had long been put out and there never was any radioactive contamination. In fact, no rumour that fires had caused radioactive contamination in Bulgaria had been put into circulation at all. Yet, the National Operative Headquarters' boss thought it was his duty to inform the general public, at an emergency news briefing around midnight, that... there was nothing to worry about. Mutafchiyski is the bad cop.

In terms of media coverage, he seems to outshine even this country's supreme leader, Boyko Borisov, who made a career change from a protection business boss in the 1990s to a police general in the 2000s. Thankfully, Borisov has so far desisted from giving out medical advice to citizens. He has not recommended drinking detergent to fight the coronavirus, but he likes to stress he gets the continued support of the West in general and the United States in particular. The coronavirus emergency hurled Borisov, unexpectedly, into his most beloved role, that of a saviour and ultimate adjudicator. When he is not busy being videoed driving around his private jeep with members of his cabinet to inspect some unfinished asphalt roads, he emphatically warns of the imminent disasters Bulgarians are faced with. The coronavirus is one of them. A return of the "Reds," or the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Borisov's chief political opponent, is another. His previous disregard for Bulgaria's pensioners, whom he had described as "greedy," and his refusal, just ahead of the coronavirus emergency, to ensure better working conditions for hospital nurses and other medical personnel have been forgotten. Borisov continues to "save" this country from Communism. He is, predictably, the good cop because he sometimes hints he will "ask" the National Operative Headquarters to ease the restrictions.

Prior to the state of emergency a relative newcomer gained notoriety. That man is Ivan Geshev, Bulgaria's newly-appointed chief prosecutor. Geshev, whose degree in law comes from the... police school in Sofia, presents himself as a no-nonsense man out to catch real or imaginary criminals. He seized the moment when the courts were on furlough because of the emergency to impound the bank accounts of the publisher of Kapital newspaper, one of the few media outlets critical of Boyko Borisov's establishment, over alleged misdeeds years ago of which the newspaper publisher had been fully cleared by several courts of law. Then he used the emergency legislation to accuse Professor Asena Stoimenova, the head of the Bulgarian Pharmaceutical Association, of spreading "false rumours" about the coronavirus. Stoimenova was indicted under a statute usually used for people who make anonymous phone calls and threaten terrorist attacks, but was released on a 20,000-leva (10,000 euros) bail. Her crime? Speaking on TV, she urged citizens not to panic-buy prescription medicines to prevent any future shortages. For his methods, Geshev has been dubbed this country's "chief sheriff." Interestingly, Geshev, who recently described himself as a "tool in the hands of God," would never touch Gen Mutafchiyski over his alarmist rhetoric or, God forbid, Boyko Borisov for his We-Will-Go-Through-Hell-Over-Easter antic.

Against the background of the above trio, the third general running the country appears as a level-headed moderate whose chief aim is to unite the nation in difficult times rather than terrify it into submission. President Rumen Radev, a former Air Force general, has made several public pronouncement criticising the ways and means of Boyko Borisov's regime during the medical emergency. Under the current Constitution, the president has limited powers to influence the day-to-day running of Bulgaria, but he did use them to delay proposed legislation to enable the police to tap citizens' phones without any judicial checks and balances. While urging observance of the emergency measures until they are repealed on the basis of scientific evidence and expertise, Radev has become the only politician to stand up to the regime and pose uneasy questions of what Borisov's government will do to support the crumbling economy and how it intends to handle the impeding social disaster, a direct result of the state of emergency.

Boyko Borisov cannot stand Radev because he sees him as the only realistic threat to himself. Radev's chief critics are the usual assemblage of new anti-Communists who propound the president is a "Russian agent." The new anti-Communists, who are also critical of the government, stir up their supporters by claiming they will protect Bulgarians from Communism better than Boyko Borisov.

Preoccupied with the uneasy task of survival the general public turns to the tried-and-tested methods of the past: simulate compliance while seeking ways and means to avoid or evade the rules and regulations. It also becomes increasingly cynical. Obviously, many people are worried not just about the health situation but about the sorry state years of neglect have put the Bulgarian health care system into. Many are also worried about what their lives will look like once the restrictions get lifted. The mood can be summed up with the old and characteristically politically incorrect adage: "Why do you keep me locked up? You know I am faithful," says the wife. "You are faithful because I keep you locked up," retorts the husband.

If the bad cops fails, the good cop will inevitably put the blame on him. If he doesn't, the good cop will take the credit by claiming Bulgaria has remained probably the least coronavirus-stricken country in Europe, with one of the lowest death rates, because the wife's room was locked at the right time. However, when, how and indeed whether the unlocking will come is yet to be seen.

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