Bulgaria's prime minister increasingly looks set to step off Western course
One of the things that has clearly distinguished Bulgaria's Prime Minister of about 10 years, Boyko Borisov, from his obvious authoritarian ilk – Hungary's Orban and Poland's Kaczynski – is the fact that sometimes, usually at the right time (in the presence of Western leaders), he asserts that he is pro-Western. Because he has not openly defied the West, as Orban and Kaczynski have, Western attitudes to Borisov seem to indicate tolerance for whatever he wants to do at home as long as he displays his compliance with Western demands, does not violate human rights too drastically and, first of all, responds promptly to what interests the West most: police cooperation, counterterrorism, oil and nuclear weapons. Bulgaria lacks the latter two, but on the former Borisov has been ready to collaborate without prejudice.
What he has been doing at home has been of little import to Western audiences. That under Borisov Bulgaria's freedom of speech has plummeted, that life expectancy in this Balkan nation is the lowest in the EU, that young people continue to seek ways to emigrate for good, that Bulgaria remains both the most corrupt and the poorest state, and that his party, GERB, has manifested inability or unwillingness to implement much-needed reforms in the judiciary is of little consequence. As long as Borisov says he will fortify the EU's external borders and delivers in the area of police cooperation he will remain "our man" in the troubled Balkans.
Borisov has skilfully used the Western leaders' disposition for him in his propaganda machine at home, representing himself to voters as both a guarantor for Bulgaria's good standing in the EU and as a surety that the "Communists will never return to power." Whether any of those is true or not does not matter. The world as seen from Bulgaria is not what it is but what the TV stations GERB controls show it to be.
Whether the West's acceptance of Boyko Borisov is conducive of the public, including the Western, good or whether it is just yet another example of burying heads in the sand in an over-credulous expectation Bulgaria's inchoate democracy and still fledging civil society will slowly but surely outgrow the restraints and challenges GERB has exposed it remains un open question.
However, a number of recent events must be posing serious doubts on Borisov's credibility and reliability as a partner to the West.
One of the latest episodes involves Boyko Borisov's disbelief that Russia stands behind the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, at the beginning of March in Salisbury. Basing his statements on his well-known experience in the police, Borisov said rhetorically: "When there is a probability, there is another probability," adding that Putin had no reason "to do it."
Less than a day later, Bulgaria joined the EU in its agreement that the likely perpetrator of this crime was the government of the Russian Federation. However, Bulgaria refused to undertake any measures to manifest its solidarity with Britain, for example by expelling Russian diplomats.
Skripal's poisoning has been the latest in a long seriеs of murders and assaults thought to have been committed by the Russians or at least with their assistance. The list starts with the assassination of the Bulgarian dissident writer, Georgi Markov, in 1978 in London and includes the more recent cases of the poisoning of Alexandr Litvinenko and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko, the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and the assault against Alexey Navalni.
Notwithstanding the uncouth nativism that has become his trademark, Borisov is a skilful public speaker that can without fail detect the sentiments of his voters. Despite the various protestations to the contrary, the bulk of the Bulgarian nation remains at least pro-Russian – the result of the decades of Communist propaganda which has represented Russia as a liberator from the Turks and the Soviet Union as a liberator from the fascists. These are Borisov's voters – and as an experienced politician Borisov is prepared to go to great lengths not to alienate them.
The West may as well buy that. But will it – and the Bulgarian voters for that matter – also accept the profound short-sightedness? What if the Russians use one of their new poisons in Bulgaria, heavily populated with Russian expats especially along the Black Sea coast? Will Bulgaria then expect London to show any solidarity with it?