text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Borisov's Bulgaria sleepwalks into increasingly undemocratic future

Political scientist Professor (Oxon) Evgeniy Daynov put it succinctly: "This is a government of thugs, of brokers of organised crime… of pronounced Kremlin agents, of Nazis and of clerks with gangster-Nazi inclinations."

The new government of Boyko Borisov, which some hacks have dubbed Borisov 3.0, is now a reality. GERB's top brass claim it will be stable and brace up for a full four-year term ahead. GERB's partner, a loose alliance of  extreme nationalist groupings bearing self-explanatory names such as NFSB, or National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, Ataka and VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, intone. The NFSB leader, Valeri Simeonov, is now deputy prime minister. The head of the VMRO, Krasimir  Karakachanov, is minister of defence. Their parties were legitimately elected into Bulgaria's parliament and it is on them that Boyko Borisov, whose GERB failed to win a majority at the latest snap election, now has to rely for support. He is more than willing to do it. And they are more than willing to give it.

Bulgaria in 2017, with its general depression, rock bottom standing in almost anything from income levels, life expectancy and press freedoms, has little to do with the relatively optimistic Bulgaria of the late 1990s and 2000s, when the values of Western liberal democracy were universally aspired for, when the economy was booming (in relative terms), when income levels were rising and when things such as the membership of NATO and the EU were seen as a blessing rather than a "threat" to "national identity."

How come? How is it possible for a nation that has suffered for decades under Communist tyranny be returning to a form of totalitarianism? How come ordinary and educated folk reject in earnest the values of liberal democracy because they think it has failed to deliver, and instead slide into the abysses of Balkan nationalism, xenophobia and right- or leftwing populism? Is it only Borisov's fault?

Analysts of all shades and hues have tried, with varying success, to explain how such a heavily compromised figure has managed to stay in power for so long. Analyses, however, are sometimes superfluous as they attempt to over-intellectualise what is essentially a rather simple thing. Notwithstanding the notorious Bulgarian propensity for backstage dealings, subterfuge and conspiracy theories, Borisov has made a great name for himself owing to his uncouth nativism, arrogant grandstanding and first and foremost his ability to emerge without consequence from even the most outrageous situations he has created.  Unlike so many other things in Bulgaria, he is just what he appears be. He is popular - not only with the "simple," as he calls them, workers, but also with many "intellectuals" who have fallen easy prey to his threats that the "Communists" might be returning.

From the standpoint of the West, Borisov has been good, at least when he first ascended to power in the 2000s. He was pronouncedly pro-Western and he was more than willing to cooperate, sometimes obsequiously, in the areas the West considers top priorities: counterterrorism and police cooperation. His readiness to oblige David Cameron (anyone remember him?) and Angela Merkel was valued in London and Berlin. Berlusconi was a pal. Borisov was looked at in moderate consternation in Brussels while he was shooting out text messages surrounded by EU officials whose language he did not speak. He kowtowed. In exchange, he was given a free hand to do whatever he wanted at home.

The result of almost a decade of (almost) uninterrupted rule by Borisov is quite evident. With the exception of the taxman and Sofia's infamous car towers, nothing in the civil service seems to work. Corruption is where it has always been – at both the top and the bottom of society. The justice system seems to be subservient to, rather in check of, those in power, and so are the police.

But this is just the surface. Borisov's "contribution" to the development of the EU's poorest member is a lot more far-reaching than can be seen in the damning EU reports and the various indices. For one, Borisov successfully reinstalled fear in Bulgarian society. Bulgarians have traditionally got along by going along. Consequently, they have understood, sometimes the hard way, that failure to toe the line is rarely excused or forgotten by autocratic leaders. Neither is criticism. Borisov has become notorious for keeping a close eye on the media, sometimes erratically and unpredictably picking up the phone and making live calls into TV shows "to make a point." Few sitting prime ministers anywhere have resorted to that. Reporters have to follow their editors' instructions, and their editors have to ensure the still nebulous media owners receive their revenues. Under Borisov, the government has become a major provider of advertising revenue to the media of its choice, often with EU funds.

Fear is by no means limited only to the media. It has gripped the whole of society in a way unseen since at least 1989. Entrepreneurs readily cough up "donations" for fear they may be ostracised from lucrative contracts. School teachers look the other way from wanton pupils with the "right" kind of parents.

Fear of this type goes hand in hand with hypocrisy. Borisov has become a master of that as well. The examples are many, varied and occur on an almost daily basis. Borisov had no issue with billing the former Air Force general who is now this country's president a Communist, provided the man had never been a member of the Communist Party. At the same time he promoted his own "anti-Communism," conveniently overlooking the fact that he himself belonged to that organisation and refused to leave it at the beginning of the 1990s when the Interior Ministry, where he worked," tried to depoliticise itself.

More recently Borisov condemned a couple of mid-level officials, all belonging to extreme nationalist parties, for making public pictures of themselves making a Nazi salute. Notwithstanding the moral implications of giving out Nazi salutes, there is no legislation in Bulgaria banning it. Nor is there any legislation in Bulgaria banning Communist-era salutes and symbols. The two officials were forced to resign. But their bosses remain in senior government positions. The episode looked like a B-movie in which some wayward students were being punished for stealing a penny by their headmaster, a convicted felon.

Significantly, the whole Nazi pictures affair was not about Nazi pictures at all. Borisov himself has in the past pointed out his admiration for Mao, Todor Zhivkov and so on. According to him, both Stalin and Hitler were "Number One" for their time. But the photos episode is not entirely about that either. It is a warning: Fear what sort of photos you post because sooner or later we will pick them up and you will regret it.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Borisov will be that he legitimised extreme nationalism. He has been ruling with extreme nationalists in various proportions since 2009. As of 2017 he rules exclusively with them. Unlike the developed democracies of Western Europe, where nationalist scum periodically resurfaces only to subside and disappear again owing to the numerous checks and balances and the functioning justice systems, in Bulgaria there are few checks and balances. Nationalism is here to stay, and it should not be underestimated. It is a much greater threat to this country's fragile democracy than any fear-mongering about a "return" of Communism. The West should take this very seriously.

Few experts on the Balkans think that a repeat of the 1990s wars in former Yugoslavia is likely any time soon. However, Dimitar Bechev, a University of North Carolina fellow, cautions that trouble could lie ahead in “the West’s growing disenchantment in the area, coupled with the region’s stagnation and democratic backsliding.” Such developments, if unchecked, may condemn the Balkan states to a marginalised existence outside the EU, prey to Russian influence and tempted into nationalist projects aimed at stirring up ethnic trouble and ultimately redrawing borders.


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