Instability is set to continue, so are plummeting living standards
The result is known: Boyko Borisov won the 26 March snap election which he himself had called in late in 2016, causing a political crisis, prolonged and acrimonious public debate, and increased expenditure for taxpayers. His party, GERB, garnered over 33 percent of the vote, thus becoming the largest party in parliament. Second is Borisov’s "arch enemy," the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party. Third and fourth are the so-called United Patriots, a loose alliance of extreme nationalist parties such as the Patriotic Front and Ataka!, and the Turkish-dominated DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms. The fifth party that succeeding in jumping over the 4 percent threshold was a complete newcomer. It is "owned" by Veselin Mareshki, a chemist’s store-chain boss who made himself popular by... opening petrol stations selling gas for about half the price of the competition.
This is bad news for Bulgaria’s fragile democracy.
The worse news is that Borisov, a populist, will have very limited options to form a viable government. He will probably have to rule with the extreme nationalists, with whom he had already done business for several years.
Even worse is that in the new parliament there will be no presence of a genuinely pro-democracy and pro-Western party at all. None of the contenders, including Radan Kanev’s New Republic and Hristo Ivanov’s Yes, Bulgaria! managed to get a seat. They are out, plain and simple.
So at least till the next (possibly early) general election Bulgaria will probably be governed by a coalition of unabashed populists, who have only simulated reform, and outspoken extreme nationalists.
The 26 March snap election was preceded by perhaps the least meaningful campaign since the collapse of Communism in 1989 – if one can bill it an election campaign at all.
None of the major political players voiced any coherent political agenda. Instead, all preferred to resort to truisms such as the need to reform the justice system and to fight corruption. Both of these have been on the table since at least the late 1990s and none of the politicians and their parties have done anything to tackle them when they were in or out of office.
Some parties, notably Boyko Borisov's GERB and the BSP, tried – at times successfully – to channel the energy of the public into foreign policy issues. Of course, these are important in an increasingly volatile and insecure Europe, but to speak of "geopolitical orientation" in a Bulgaria that has been a full NATO member since 2004 and a full member of the EU since 2007 is slightly beside the point. Interestingly, many people, including intellectuals, willingly fell into the "geopolitical orientation" trap and started arguing with each other whether Bulgaria should improve its relations with Putin's Russia or whether it should be pitched against it. The time and energy spent on those issues by far overshadowed much more important questions such as why the Bulgarian health care system is in shambles, why Bulgarian kids get substandard or indoctrinated education, why prices for basic foodstuffs in Bulgarian supermarkets are comparable to those in Germany (but are not of German quality), why thousands of younger Bulgarians continue to emigrate, why the Borisov government allowed paramilitary "militias" to roam the borders and "arrest" asylum-seekers, why Bulgarian villages rise as one to prevent legal refugees from settling down and why the police are doing nothing to stop what in other EU nations would have prompted criminal investigations resulting in convictions.
When the "geopolitical orientation" ploy was exhausted, the political players resorted to mudslinging, in an attempt to prove who is more rightwing, who is more leftwing, and first and foremost who is more "patriotic."
The peculiarities of Bulgarian extreme nationalism, which usually masquerades as "patriotism," have been discussed and analysed in many reports domestically, but it is never too late to remember that there are important differences between the Bulgarian and, say, German or Scottish nationalists. While elsewhere in Western Europe nationalists usually put their country and their nation (whatever that may mean) first, in Bulgaria the real fight is between West and East. As a rule, Bulgarian nationalists decry a wile West (read Western Europe and particularly America) which they say is trying to usurp Bulgaria's "traditional" culture and values. At the same time, they look East (read Putin's Russia), a friend of "many centuries," who – they intone – will come to the rescue whenever there is any real or imaginary need.
Of course, all of this is amply peppered with strong Balkan spices. One is the outpour of nationalist kitsch, usually in the erection of ugly monuments of past kings and revolutionaries. Another is the revamped interest in Bulgarian folk costumes – significantly, only the peasant not the townsfolk variety. A third is parents forcing their kids to bear arms in front of monuments to indicate their preparedness to go into battle over 19th century "ideals."
Obviously, all of those are at best silly, but the stratagem works remarkably well in Bulgaria of Boyko Borisov. As it no longer has anything to look forward to, the nation increasingly focuses on a real or contrived past. Remember: nationalism is an emotional not a rational phenomenon. You cannot use common sense arguments when you are confronted with what misrepresents itself as a legitimate love for one's country.
So, after almost 10 years of rule by Boyko Borisov and his lieutenants these are the five most obvious conclusions of whether Bulgaria in 2017 is a better place to live in than it was in 2008, when Borisov came to power.
Bulgaria continues to be the poorest nation in the EU and one of the poorest in Europe. Full stop.
It continues to be the most or nearly the most corrupt nation in the EU. According to Transparency International, it slid from No. 41 in 2012 to No. 71 in 2016 – behind Turkey and Macedonia but just ahead of Jamaica and El Salvador.
Freedom of speech has plummeted. In 2016 Reporters Without Frontiers put it at a dismal No. 113, behind Paraguay, the Central African Republic and Ecuador. This is rock bottom of the EU. It used to be No. 100 in 2014, No. 59 in 2008 and No. 36 in 2004.
Bulgaria lives in a state of hybrid warfare that is being conducted by everyone left, right and centre, and that is not limited only to the Internet. Many print and electronic media indulge in fake news, made-up stories and pure nonsense, making it difficult if not impossible for ordinary citizens to understand what is really going on.
The GERB government and Boyko Borisov himself have often been the generator of fake news. During his first term in office Borisov and his interior minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, used to employ cameramen to televise arrests of prominent "criminals" as "news" fodder for the public to see that something strong-handed and sensible was being done. Most of the victims of those arrests were later acquitted in court and some successfully sued Bulgaria in the International Court of Human Rights.
During the election campaign, Borisov accused one BSP candidate, journalist Elena Yoncheva, of being paid "millions" of state cash to do her documentary films. Yoncheva, who had been the partner of previous Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev, rejected the claims and threatened to sue.
The media and the general public were entertained by this kind of talk for about a week. No one actually made a formal inquiry into the Bulgarian National Television accounting office to verify whether the claims were indeed true.
The average life span of Bulgarians is the shortest in the EU. Sofia was recently declared the worst place to live in Europe. Bulgarians continue to be the unhappiest people in Europe.
The damage done to this country since it acceded to the EU in 2007 is great, some say irreversible. It will probably take many years for a number of governments to go back to where Bulgaria started – and they will probably know the place for the first time.
Yet, on 26 March 2017 the Bulgarian voters voted Boyko Borisov back in power.