BULGARIAN POLITICS

by Anthony Georgieff

Police brutality and... Canada gets involved

police brutality bulgaria 2020

What many Bulgarians have known all along ever since the collapse of Communism – that the police force, formerly known as People's Militia has hardly reformed itself during the past 30 years – became painfully obvious with the broadcast, in the house of parliament, of a surveillance camera video. It showed beyond any reasonable doubt that Boyko Borisov's police could be – and were – a bunch of sadistic thugs, similar to or actually worse than Todor Zhivkov's militia, rather than the law enforcement agency of an EU country they were supposed to be.

The video was discovered by human rights lawyer Nikolay Hadzhigenov, one of the leaders of the 2020 street protests in Sofia and now an MP for the Stand Up.BG! We Are Coming! political party. Hadzhigenov was appointed to head a parliamentary committee to probe allegations of police brutality during the protest rallies.

police brutality bulgaria summer 2020

The setting of the video would be instantly known to anyone who has passed through central Sofia. We are inside the colonnade in front of the Council of Ministers, literally a few yards under the windows of the office of Boyko Borisov. The video was shot with CCTV camera No. 3, the standard equipment used by the Bulgarian authorities for security monitoring of passers-by. A bunch of Bulgarian cops are seen dragging and beating several young men. They are thrown on the pavement and repeatedly kicked. Then they are chained with handcuffs behind their backs, but the beating and kicking continues. Some cops lift the young men and throw them to the ground again.

The scene is reminiscent of Abu Ghraib, only these are not enemy combatants or suspected terrorists but young Bulgarians who for one reason or another joined a political rally demanding the resignation of Boyko Borisov. The scene becomes really spooky when the cops drag a young woman, her blouse torn in the melee. She is also chained but is not thrown on her stomach. She is made to sit leaning on a column. A sturdy policeman stands in front her for most of the duration of the video. He has his cell phone out and... keeps videoing the woman.

A policewoman with a telltale peroxided pony tail appears on the scene for a few seconds. She just joins in the kicking and then disappears again.

The video ends as a police van arrives and the protestors are being herded into it.

police brutality bulgaria summer 2020

According to Caretaker Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov, who was summoned to give an explanation at an extraordinary session of parliament, the video – alongside many other similar videos shot with security cameras – was discovered in a drawer inside the building of the Sofia Police Department building. It was a "copy of a copy." The National Protection Service had requested evidence of the alleged police brutality a week after the actual event (July 2020). There was an internal probe. The probe concluded with the imposition of  disciplinary action against one of the cops, who apparently gave orders. A Sofia PD chief inspector, he was sanctioned with a two-year ban on career promotion. He was later appointed in the witness protection service under the chief prosecutor, seen by the protestors as one of Boyko Borisov's principal henchmen.

The majority of people who saw the video – made freely available on YouTube – were enraged. They could not believe that Bulgarian cops could be so sadistic in handling a bunch of chained street protestors. Some security experts were more reserved as they pointed out that kind of treatment was nothing new for the Bulgarian police as many football fans were exposed to the same procedure after a Levski match, but of course such opinions were quickly swept under the carpet. At that time Democratic Bulgaria, now Boyko Borisov's most vocal opponent, was actually friends with him because he kept telling them he was anti-Communist.

Predictably, the issue was immediately politicised. Hristo Ivanov, the outspoken leader of the Yes, Bulgaria! political party asserted the Council of Ministers colonnade beating was a part of the larger policy conducted by Former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Ivan Geshev, his chief prosecutor, to deprive Bulgarian citizens of their basic rights.

Significantly, the trouble of Boyko Borisov's Bulgaria is that nothing is exactly black and nothing is exactly white. After 12 years of his authoritarian rule many Bulgarians, including many of the newly elected MPs, have lost their sense of judgment. What is right and what is wrong hardly matters as long as it serves some personal or political purpose.

There can be no excuse for cops hitting and kicking – not to mention taking "fun" pictures of – helpless people in handcuffs. There is no doubt that justice must be served, not just to the cops but to their superiors who apparently made a coverup that lasted for over a year. But the larger picture of the street protests in the summer of 2020 must also be taken into account.

antigovernment protests Bulgaria 2020

Lawyer Nikolay Hadzhigenov, now an MP, throws stones at the Council оf Ministers while the police are looking on

The street rallies, billed by their organisers "peaceful," blocked the streets of central Sofia for several months, much to the irritation of non-protesting residents, motorists and pedestrians. Sometimes the protestors went around changing their course with no notice – and the police could be seen actually protecting them and halting the traffic to ensure their safe passage. Many protestors were not exactly polite to the police. There are many recorded instances of protestors shouting abuse at the cops, throwing eggs and tomatoes at them. Nikolay Hadzhigenov, the human rights lawyer, was photographed pouring tear gas over a cop who just stood by. At one point the cops lined up in front of the Council of Ministers had tons of rotten fish tossed at their feet. In another stacks of hay were arranged in front of the police lines and... set on fire. It is difficult to imagine anything of the sort happening at a street rally in Paris, London or Berlin. It is difficult to imagine anything like this happening in Athens, Belgrade or Bucharest.

Against this background, as everyone was appalled at the video recordings no one asked the uneasy questions. If Hristo Ivanov and Nikolay Hadzhigenov are right that the violence was a part of a predetermined policy of terror and intimidation why would the cops hide themselves behind the Council of Ministers colonnade (where no one could see them)? Why would they not show what they were  capable of to the larger audience (seen in the video in the far distance)? Was the policy of harassment and intimidation valid on this day only (10 July 2020), and not on most other days when protestors were seen verbally harassing the police and throwing objects at them?

antigovernment protests Bulgaria 2020

Protestors pile fish in front of lined-up police

As it usually happens in situations where everyone gets increasingly erratic (remember Wag the Dog?)... Canada got involved, presumably rather inadvertently. Slavi Trifonov's There Is Such a People party demanded the resignation of Kiril Petkov, the caretaker economy minister, who allegedly was appointed in breach of the Constitution. Petkov, a Harvard graduate, is seen as one of the most successful ministers this country has ever had. Soft-spoken and well-mannered he is nonetheless resolute in cleaning up much of the mess left over by Boyko Borisov in anything from the management of this country's water reservoirs and the State Consolidation Company to the arms manufacturing enterprise in Sopot. So why was he, according to the ITN, "illegitimate"?

The answer is that the Bulgarian Constitution mandates that a government minister must be a Bulgarian citizen and not have any dual citizenship at the time of his or her appointment. Petkov was a naturalised Canadian citizen. He was quick to explain that he had filed a notarised renunciation of his Canadian citizenship ahead of his appointment as a Bulgarian government minister.

The issue, predictably, was immediately politicised beyond proportion. Those who like Petkov, including his supporters in the rightwing Democratic Bulgaria, immediately started to shift the issue from the purely formal to the more general "but isn't Petkov a very good minister?!" Everyone, including people who have graduated law and would otherwise be quite level-headed in legal matters, instantly became experts in... Canadian immigration and naturalisation. They point out, time and again, that as long as Petkov has filed in a bona fide notarised "renunciation" he should no longer be considered a Canadian citizen. The situation became absurd prompting jokes that following this kind of logic anyone may be able to remarry the day they file in a divorce application.

Kiril Petkov's case, Slavi Trifonov intoned, is indicative of the duplicity and hypocrisy of those who claim they want a Bulgaria  where no one is beyond and above the law. Referring mainly to Democratic Bulgaria, Trifonov added they can be quick to dismiss a constitutional requirement as a "tiny detail" as long as the affected person is to their liking, but they are adamant in applying any rule and regulation to the letter against people who do not go along with them.

Sadly, in this instance Slavi Trifonov is right.

It is now up to the Constitutional Court to determine whether Kiril Petkov was appointed minister in breach of this country's basic law. In the meantime, Bulgaria continues to have no regular government and the prospect of yet another general election, the third in 2021, becomes increasingly likely. 

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