FREEWHEELING BULGARIA

by Anthony Georgieff

Surprise moves by PM leave Bulgarians wondering where country is heading to

There are two ways to interpret Bulgaria's Boyko Borisov's out-of-the-blue announcements that he was terminating a series of public contracts because he had heard rumours that the contracts, concluded under the Public Works and Contracts Act, had not been sufficiently transparent. One is to believe the prime minister that he is serious about fighting corruption and the sort of nefarious practices Bulgaria has gained notoriety for in the EU. The other is to conclude that this country, increasingly, is being run by a mad despot who uses text messages and phone calls to order about the organs of the state, from the customs services to the judiciary; is obviously highly unpredictable, even by his closest associates and partners; and is prepared to go to any length, notwithstanding the law, in order to retain control over his fiefdom.

Let us consider the first possibility. To say that Bulgaria is plagued by corruption would be an understatement. Corruption has for a long time become a way of life in this country. Make no mistake – corruption is no longer the act of providing an envelope, Greek style, to an official, to "oil" the bureaucratic process. That would have been pretty innocuous. Corruption in Bulgaria is very often not about money at all. It is about the intricate web of interpersonal relations, on all levels of society and of the state administration, woven of personal likes and dislikes, of family relations, of knowing the right people and calling them at the right time, of sometimes completely illogical but often economically motivated links between individuals and their private interests. That web is what makes Bulgaria a country where, unless your have the right strings, you will be unable to tie your own shoes.

Significantly, Bulgarians do not have an unequivocal attitude to the system. Some of them are of course unhappy. They want to see a little Germany in Bulgaria: a place whose civil services are actually designed to serve citizens, where rules and regulations reign supreme, and where hospital staff smile and say please and I'm sorry.

However, many others cannot imagine life without the friends of their aunts and distant cousins. Providing favours and kickbacks in exchange for other favours and kickbacks has become deeply ingrained in the mentality of post-Communist Bulgaria. In this country, when you have to choose a bank for your cash or a school for your kids or a hospital for your in-laws, you wouldn't go to the bank offering the best interest rates or the school with the most innovative curriculum. You would go to one where your cousin knows someone that will hopefully give you advance information.

This has created a situation in which the overwhelming majority of citizens would immediately have second thoughts about any public event or contract in which money is involved. It can't be true, they surmise, no one can win a public contract unless he has the right connections or the procurement order has been written exclusively with him in mind.

Yet, Bulgaria is no longer the nepotistic society it used to be under Todor Zhivkov (though an increasing number of Bulgarians harbour a strong nostalgia for just that). It is not in the 1990s, when gangsters, to whom the current prime minister was allegedly related, ran the show but there was also a great deal of optimism in the air; or the 2000s when the economic boom, mainly in housing construction, paved the way to the economic bust of the 2010s. It is now a country in deep despondency. It is a country where an increasing number of citizens want blood and revenge – over real or imaginary enemies. These can be Turks, or just Muslims, or Communists, or liberals, or people who prefer to have a bondage to Europe rather than Russia.

It is the poorest EU member state, poorer than even Romania. It is rock bottom in the EU in terms of media freedoms. And to add insult to injury, it is the only one likely to remain under EU monitoring – apparently, because Romania has made huge strides ahead.

It is against this background that one has to consider the legitimate wish of the prime minister to tackle corruption. One of the tenets of Boyko Borisov, the man who has almost without a cessation managed this country since 2009, has been his pro-Western rhetoric. From this standpoint, the Brussels announcement that the EU would be lifting monitoring for Romania while Bulgaria would remain under a close watch was a major blow for him. Coupled with the ignominy he was unexpectedly exposed to at a meeting with Bulgarian immigrants – the folks in London dared ask straightforward questions and demand straightforward answers, unlike many professional journalists back home – he had to do something.

And what better place to start than a few companies allegedly associated with the publicly reviled figure of Delyan Peevski, an MP for the DPS, the Turkish-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms? Or with Valentin Zlatev, the boss of LUKoil-Bulgaria, the Russian oil giant that Bulgarian petrol stations depend on for their daily deliveries of gas which Bulgarians are buying at almost Western prices?

And he did – starting with a televised announcement a few days later in Prague, in which he described his enemies as villains, liars and vagabonds. He was singlehandedly cancelling public contracts legitimately concluded under the Public Contracts Act between the state and a number of companies thought to be indirectly associated with Peevski and Zlatev.

He gave no legal reason for his decision. He said the contracts would be cancelled because the government had ran out of cash.

Ran out of cash? But why, then, would a government that has run out of cash be calling public procurement procedures in the first place was a question that remained unanswered.

Yet, Borisov went further down the cancellation road. Reportedly, he ordered the mayors of a number of cities, including Burgas and Varna, to terminate contracts for public services they had already concluded. Famously, he stopped a contract by Sofia Airport with an outside maintenance cleaning company for the upkeep of the airport's corridors and toilets.

Again, he did not cite any legal grounds, stressing instead on his wish to help the staff cleaners at the airport to hold on to their jobs. Good for the cleaning ladies, but is it really that good for the airport and its customers?

This brings us to the second hypothesis, the one about the mad tyrant. Mad tyrants are usually known for two things: they are highly unpredictable because they act on whims and quirks rather than sound logic and they are intolerant to criticism or, even less so, being made fun of; and they typically rule by proxy – through behind-the-scenes orders and private phone calls.

The Bulgarian prime minister has a well-documented history of this kind of behaviour. To name a couple, there was a series of taped conversations in 2011, in which he was heard to order the chief of customs to terminate a tax investigation against a beer brewer known as "Beer" Misho; and the current scandal involving two former senior judges in Sofia taped discussing how the prime minister called the chief prosecutor and ordered him to "bang" one of them.

Boyko Borisov has so far managed to hold captive the imagination and emotions of a number of Bulgarians, mainly through his appearance as a no-nonsense strongman with a Balkan macho charisma, peppered with his uncouth nativism. He has even succeeded in keeping the public convinced that he is serious about fighting corruption even though most of the current woes originated while he was in power and had the full force of the the state behind him.

However, this time around things may be different. Despite his protestations that he will never "yield" to the "bastards," Boyko Borisov was seen on a number of occasions as losing his nerve – something that in the past was carefully cut off from the newscasts. His critics, including the anchor of a popular TV show, Slavi Trifonov, have become unusually vocal. Even in the case of a fresh general election, which the prime minister has so far rejected because he'd rather "give the millions of cash needed to organise the ballot to pensioners for Easter," there are few if any viable political parties to contest the GERB monolith.

In the meantime, Bulgaria will continue its freewheeling ride into unpredictability and increasing insecurity – despite the government's newest mantra that it is in fact promoting "stability." And Bulgarians will have to suffice with their decades-old tool for political opposition: jokes.

Like the one that is currently making the rounds in Sofia. A man calls the waiter: "What happened to my order?" Waiter answers: "Not coming today, Boyko Borisov cancelled everything."

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