IN GERB'S STRANGLEHOLD

IN GERB'S STRANGLEHOLD

Mon, 01/04/2016 - 14:50

Borisov's rule hurdles state into increasingly deeper crisis

When in a society everyone wants to have full power, it indicates that its members are ready for either tyranny or anarchy, the two opposites of freedom, said Professor Lyubomir Miletich, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Miletich, who was born in Stip, in what is now the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia in 1863 and died in Sofia in 1937, did not live long enough to see what his compatriots, many decades on, would be doing with tyranny, anarchy and freedom.

Sadly, having undergone authoritarianism (in the 1930s), Communism (in 1944-1989), and 27 years of botched democracy thereafter, Bulgaria under GERB is heading in the direction Miletich predicted a century earlier.

How come? Isn't Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria's popularly elected current ruler, a darling? Isn't his charisma coupled with his inimitable outspokenness enough to persuade that there is no one else capable of running the country? Isn't he a pro-Western democrat that says he is set to finally dismantle the remnants of Communism that Bulgarians have had to live with post-1989?

From the standpoint of a Western diplomat in Sofia, Boyko Borisov is probably a very good man to do business with. He would never refuse anything the West might require in the areas the West considers top priority at the moment: security, combatting organised crime, migration and so on. Boyko Borisov is very cooperative when it comes to those. He is a lot more inclined to toe the line than his peers in other former East bloc countries – say, Hungary – are. Importantly, Boyko Borisov is seen as bringing stability and predictability – two tags he is only too happy to keep under his belt – and produce whenever a situation warrants. He may be a little comical, a Western diplomat in Sofia might surmise, especially when it comes to his penchant for boasting to David Cameron how many popes have touched him on the head, but being comical in the uncouth Balkan way is not generally an issue in international relations as long as the man delivers in the much more important areas of counterterrorism and crosssborder crime.

However, seen through the eyes of an ordinary Bulgarian the picture of Boyko Borisov and his retinue is entirely different.

Let's start with the economy. The world economic crisis of 2008 may be a thing of the past elsewhere in Europe, but in Bulgaria it is still raging on. Its beginning coincided with the ascent of Boyko Borisov's GERB in Bulgaria. GERB never really did anything to boost the local economy except for introducing austerity and belt-tightening. Significantly, austerity and belt-tightening in Bulgaria does not mean curtailing the civil service or cutting down on the privileges of politicians, MPs and their circles of friends. Not buying new cars for the MPs, for example, has not been on the agenda. Buying what new cars has. The main characteristic of GERB's way of trying to overcome the economic crisis has been making life a lot more difficult for business, especially small and medium-sized business, by bringing on newer and newer rules and regulations, and increasing the administrative burden on entrepreneurs. Bulgaria's inchoate middle class, which got a breath of fresh air in the 2000s, has born the brunt of this, with the most obvious consequence being that the country now lives in a state of crony capitalism reminiscent, increasingly, of Russia – in dimensions proportionate to Bulgaria's size of course. The result, sadly, is that Bulgaria has slid behind all other EU member states, including Romania, in terms of poverty and destitution. It now lags behind even Bosnia and Serbia.

Boyko Borisov's much lauded infrastructure projects, which he never misses the chance of being televised while inaugurating, happen primarily with EU money. The same goes for much of Bulgaria's economy at the moment – to an extent that it would be safe to assume that were it not for EU's cash injections this country's economy would grind to a standstill.

Then there is the issue of the quality of Bulgarian democracy. On the surface, it looks not too bad for a post-Communist country. Bulgarians hold acceptably free and fair elections and vote for whoever they think will make their lives better. If you look below the surface, however, the picture is different. Boyko Borisov's GERB spectacularly failed to introduce the much needed judiciary reforms, in direct violation of Western recommendations. Bulgarian justice is nowhere near anywhere else in Europe, and it is likely to remain there as long as the ruling party makes no serious effort to change it. GERB's failure to vote in a package of sensible legal amendments last December led to the resignation of this country's justice minister and to some unprecedented street rallies by senior judges who themselves demanded change. Boyko Borisov's reaction was pretty predictable. He appointed a relatively unknown new justice minister with little or no experience whose chief virtue may be measured in terms of loyalty rather than any professional accomplishment. Judiciary reforms are yet to begin in Bulgaria, and the likelihood is that the genuine change will come later rather than sooner.

The lack of a sound judiciary system has a direct impact on fighting state-level corruption and organised crime. During Boyko Borisov's first term as prime minister (2009-2013), his chief lieutenant, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, served as interior minister. His handling of this country's serious corruption and organised crime problems could at best be described as make-believe. Tsvetanov employed TV crews to film police arrests, and then gladly released the footage to TV stations to convince the public that his was a strong hand. Most of the time the individuals arrested in this way were released by the courts owing to insufficient evidence or were outright acquitted. What stuck in the minds of Bulgaria's TV viewers, however, was the senior GERB figure of the interior minister: he was not a man you would like to confront yourself with. Tsvetanov's handling of crime became synonymous with arbitrary action, especially when it came to eavesdropping and phone-tapping, and unnecessary force, and Tsvetanov himself used every chance to brand completely innocent people as murderers while convicted criminals, like a duo from Dupnitsa known as the Galevi Brothers, safely left the country and have not been heard of since. Tsvetanov found himself at the receiving end of Bulgarian justice as he was charged with abuse of power and found guilty by a series of courts. The supreme court, however, dropped the charges, in 2015 when GERB was again safely in office.

Despite these significant failures, Bulgarians continue to vote for Boyko Borisov and his GERB, as manifested at the local elections held in October. How come?

One of the obvious reasons is the sorry state of the Bulgarian media at the moment. Media freedoms have been plummeting since GERB's ascend to power in 2008 and now they are rock bottom in the EU. The job of many media in Bulgaria is not to inform or educate, but to promote and sometimes create a parallel reality in which no one except the most incisive media experts can find their way. In addition to the classic methods of imposing censorship and otherwise controlling the media, what Bulgarians have been seeing in the past several years is the proliferation of completely anonymous Internet sites purporting to be "media," but in reality disseminating the usual mixture of half-truths and half-lies in pursuance of their own agendas. Typically, they would broadcast conspiracy theories and unfounded allegations, often designed to smear certain public figures. Facebook in Bulgarian is full of trolls and false profiles that relay exponentially what the new Internet "media" claim.
The media situation in Bulgaria is so complicated that not even a major scandal, like the tapped conversations between the two female Sofia judges previously on friendly terms with GERB, can live for very long – or be taken seriously.

To ascertain what is true and what isn't in these media is a daunting task, and many Bulgarians opt to believe what they think sounds plausible. Boyko Borisov, with his outpourings of unvarnished nativism, looks like a stable figure against this background.

The media can and do accomplish many political ends in Bulgaria, but there is an even more important factor for Boyko Borisov's and GERB's continuing popularity. It is fear. Except for a relatively short spell in the salad days of Bulgarian democracy, in the 1990s, Bulgarians have learned the hard way that power attracts power, and that more often than not, in order to get by as citizens, they have to depend on their own personal connections which in turn depend on personal likes and dislikes rather than on a set of established and transparent rules. Obviously, this is a leftover from the days of Communism that Bulgaria has been unable to shake itself free of during the past quarter century.

Importantly, all of this is happening behind the paravan of democracy. Nominally, there are the agencies of the state that are supposed to make decisions for the public good. In reality, the important decisions are made "backstage" and usually benefit mainly those who have access to power. Nominally, there is a vibrant non-governmental sector that is supposed to act as a corrective to state power. In reality, Bulgaria is the European state where NGOs have the least impact on the state decisionmaking process. Nominally, there is an independent academic community that is supposed to produce intellectual added value. In reality, some members of the academic community create and promote unabashed nationalism designed to keep the public in fear and capitalise on the notion that Bulgarians have always been victims. Nominally, there is the judiciary which is supposed to administer justice. In reality, the regime ensures the "right" decisions for itself by using its channels of political influence and its huge civil service machine.

The West has a role to play in all of this, some Bulgarians think, as it should actively promote freedom and democracy instead of giving international legitimacy to political groupings such as GERB. However, the West is by far and wide too much preoccupied with its own problems. This only enhances the feeling of isolation and deadends, with the result being an oddly inflated pro-Russian public sentiment.

Boyko Borisov and GERB will likely rule for a long time in Bulgaria. The established "backstage" model, against which thousands of Bulgarian protested in the streets of Sofia in the summer of 2013, is too difficult to dismantle for a society that has had a limited exposure to democracy and its mechanisms. The choice, it seems, is moral rather than political. It is between tyranny and anarchy. Freedom stands a small chance in this contest.

Issue 111-112

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