Tue, 05/28/2013 - 07:13

Borisov and his cohorts leave behind a bigger mess than anyone thought possible

politics bulgaria.jpg

Seen from London, Washington and Berlin, Boyko Borisov was a good man. He was autocratic, true - but Bulgaria did need a bit of a strong hand after the perceived licentiousness of the Three-Party Coalition which ruled the country in 2005-2009. With his blunt style and rash manners, Borisov beguiled the West which, gripped in its own economic and political troubles, cared less and less about what happened in an unimportant corner of the Balkans that had neither oil, nor home-grown terrorism, nor nuclear weapons - and where an imminent war was not to be expected.

Significantly, unlike other former Communist countries with strong-handed leaders (notably Hungary and Belarus), Borisov's rhetoric was markedly pro-Western. He would never offend Angela Merkel or David Cameron the way Hungary's Victor Orban did, nor would he crack down on political opposition like Alexander Lukashenko. Borisov gained the trust of the West with his promises of cooperation in police matters - which he largely delivered on. Borisov also gulled the West into believing that he was "rightwing," and he did back up his protestations by some real action - for example ridding the Bulgarian foreign service of former agents of the Communist-era secret police and forcing his MPs to adopt the controversial Forfeiture of Illegal Assets Act.

With the obsequiousness he manifested when he visited Brussels and with the ostensible determination that he would convert Bulgaria into a country where law and order ruled and organised crime was kept in check, Borisov did seem like a man the West could do business with.

Seen from inside Bulgaria, however, Boyko Borisov was a completely different affair.

If one sits back and tries to think about a single characteristic of Boyko Borisov, the one thing that he will likely go down in history with, an unpleasant word will sooner or later pop up: hypocrisy.

Evidence of this can be found in any single act committed by Bulgaria's former prime minister and his chief lieutenants.

Here are just a few examples of the huge abyss between what Borisov said and what he actually did.

Boyko Borisov insisted he was a pro-Western democrat. The truth is that his party, GERB, has never been a political party in the Western sense as it never held any congress or convention, it never listened to the opinions of its members and it was directed exclusively by one man, its leader. GERB's presence in parliament was largely one of a rubberstamp. The main task of all of GERB's senior figures was simple: to legitimise what their leader had decided to do sometimes on the spur of the moment, sometimes because of vague promises he had made to former business associates or other political figures.

Borisov's propaganda machine promulgated the Council of Ministers conducted the affairs of the state in an open and transparent manner. In fact, in terms of the lack of transparency and accountability Borisov's regime has no parallels in Bulgaria's post-Communist history. Borisov interfered in private and state business affairs the way no other politician had dared to. He made phone calls to the chief of customs, ordering him to terminate an ongoing investigation against an alleged illicit alcohol producer, and less than a month later that man was found dead in a hotel room. Nothing happened. His chief cohort, former Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, spread unfounded accusations, sometimes speaking in parliament, against citizens - doctors, judges and entrepreneurs - and then the courts he controlled did nothing to indemnify the victims. In order to justify his impotence in fighting crime and to find an excuse why he was unable or unwilling to come up with real rather than trumped-up evidence to indict alleged criminals, Tsvetanov employed cinematographers to film the "conquests" committed by his police. The overwhelming majority of people spectacularly arrested "on film" were later acquitted in court for lack of evidence.

Probably Borisov's most dramatic failure was in the economy. Make no mistake: the withdrawal of foreign investors, the decreased number of expats in Bulgaria, the collapsed property market, the impoverishment of the majority of Bulgarians who under Borisov were rendered unable to pay their electricity bills, and the destruction of many small- and medium-sized enterprises are not the result of the world economic downturn, a favourite excuse of Borisov's. They are the direct consequence of his economic policies at home, whose chief aim was not to boost the country's inchoate middle class, create jobs and ensure a functioning safety net for the poor, but to make life easier for Bulgaria's "oligarchs" - the monopolies in power engineering, electricity distribution and telecommunications.

The figures being produced by the former Bulgarian government about the situation in the state coffers do look good, in European terms. But these figures need to be checked and rechecked independently to verify their accuracy. Even if it turns out they are correct, they will be of little consolation to the millions of Bulgarians unable to buy food for themselves and their families.

In politics, Boyko Borisov was a cunning beast. He set up a new system of dependencies and interdependencies very similar to that in existence in Bulgaria's erstwhile Big Brother, Russia. It will not take a lot of imagination to identify who is Bulgaria's strongman and who is his figurehead protege, the main job of the latter being to endorse what the real boss wants. Similarly, it is not very difficult to see how Borisov was preparing himself to rule for many, many years ahead by interchanging the two positions, the one of prime minister and of president, when circumstances so warranted.

To understand this in its complexity it would be helpful to remember the main question being asked in Bulgaria when Rosen Plevneliev was elected president with the support of Boyko Borisov's GERB in 2011: when and to what extent will he be able to emancipate himself from his former boss? That question, in 2013, remains not fully and unequivocally answered.

Borisov's style in politics was lifted not from the great liberal tradition of postwar Europe, but from his favourite movie, the 1973 Francis Ford Coppola's classic The Godfather. Borisov ran the country as Don Corleone managed his family. To his partners he made offers they couldn't refuse, and those who would not accept them or were deemed too dangerous he stashed away in jail and/or without access to the mainstream media. The media?

Under Borisov, Bulgaria plummeted in all international press freedoms indices and is now at the rock bottom in the EU. The reasons are many and complex, but they come down to a simple thing. When he did not call or text executive editors to tell them what to do, Borisov carefully channeled funds, often EU taxpayers' money, into media he considered sufficiently servile and innocuous. In this way he made sure the media would continue to be friendly.

Censorship in 2013 is not what it used to be pre-1989. It is a lot more subtle and a lot more dangerous compared to the times when Communist party apparatchiks just picked up the phone and cancelled broadcasts and newspaper articles. Notwithstanding the fact that some media were reduced to being mere mouthpieces of the Borisov regime, censorship in 2013 is more about the "correct" executive appointments, the "correct" running order of national TV newscasts, the "correct" interpretation of events. All of this Borisov and his publicists doctored in a manner designed to convince viewers that Borisov had the best of intentions for the good of the nation but evil forces always stood in the way and prevented him from accomplishing his noble aims. To put it in another way, someone else was always responsible for the failures but Borisov always took the credit for the accomplishments.

Anyone in the media refusing to toe the line was either sacked or vilified as being on the payroll of "organised crime."

Notwithstanding the general mess Borisov and his GERB are leaving the country in, his greatest crime will probably remain the almost complete subjugation of Bulgaria's civil society. Civil societies, as Bulgaria's new partners in the EU have experienced in the postwar years, are very fragile. They need institutions, which Bulgaria lacks; well-functioning non-governmental organisations, which in Bulgaria are underfunded and largely ignored by the state especially in the instances their opinion is at variance with the official line; and above all independence of the judiciary. Borisov and Tsvetanov did what they could to destroy all of that.

To establish control over the judiciary, Tsvetanov appointed some of his pals in senior legal positions - in a manner unseen in Bulgaria since the fall of Todor Zhivkov. The former interior minister's direct and indirect interference in the affairs of the judiciary led to a situation in which laws are not only being administered selectively, but are sometimes being spectacularly violated by top GERB functionaries.

The result is depressing. Bulgaria does not experience the sort of nostalgia the East Germans were gripped by when their country was absorbed by the bigger and richer West Germany. Few Bulgarians have any yearning for the pickled gherkins or mustard produced in Socialist state-owned plants. But many Bulgarians in 2013 have grown extremely sensitive if not hostile to any political idea that would entail a democratic process of decisionmaking. Better have a Borisov who is taking care of everything rather than a bunch of hungry crooks who will only cheat and steal, this type of thinking goes.

Against this background it is hard for Westerners to imagine that Borisov may return to power any time in the future. But in Bulgaria, as recent events have shown, anything is possible: the rumours about Borisov's political death are still largely exaggerated.

One of the features of Bulgaria's former prime minister no one can deny is his populist instinct. Borisov is an excellent communicator, able to speak the language of the common people especially outside Sofia; a master of hat-trick politics who can, with a snap of his fingers, hold a captivated audience to listen to the tales about his conquests rather than consider the facts of his failures.

So in February, in the face of street protests that did not voice any clear political demand except their participants' refusal to pay their electricity bills, Borisov appeared on TV and announced his resignation - just a few months before a scheduled general election.

Bulgaria was stunned. Could the tyrant go just like that?

The short answer is no. Borisov's resignation was one of his riskiest yet most carefully premeditated attempts to show himself as a victim rather than a villain, to get some time to realign his troops, and to let the steam off the increasingly desperate Bulgarians.

A victim he became instantly. He was admitted into hospital for increased blood pressure where he was photographed kissing the hand of the newly-elected head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church: an ailing hero "ousted" by ungrateful citizens. The mess he had left behind would now have to be tackled by someone else.

After the dust settled down following Borisov's self-inflicted wound, it became increasingly clear that his resignation had been in fact the first step towards his triumphant comeback. Had he stayed in power, GERB's popularity would have plummeted, the reasoning goes. But now he has stepped aside the burden of his legacy will have to borne by someone else, a caretaker government that has no authority to do anything of substance except pave the way for a "free and fair" general election scheduled for May.

Whether the election can be "free" under the circumstances warrants a separate analysis. But it looks almost certain that it will not be "fair." Why?

The caretaker government headed by Marin Raykov, Bulgaria's former ambassador to France, has made it clear it will not "revise" or alter the policies of Borisov's GERB. To put it in another way, ahead of the May election it will be reluctant to divulge information about the workings of the Borisov regime - not information about Borisov's nebulous past as a bodyguard and the chief of a protection agency in the 1990s, not about the ill-fated beer-brewer Misho "The Beer," but about the real state of the country's finances, the plight of the Bulgarian economy, the many political appointments in all regions and at all levels of the civil service and the administration of the state, the number of failed rather than extolled police operations - in short, about what Bulgaria really looks like after almost four years under Borisov. Unless the voters get precise information about all of that, any election cannot possibly be fair.

Borisov's sunset days and his resignation make it clear that his GERB plunged Bulgaria into a long period of political instability that an early general election may be unable to settle. Early opinion polls indicate that GERB has lost some of its popularity, but it is still going strong - stronger than its chief rival, the BSP or Bulgarian Socialist Party. What the street turmoil in February and March produced was a clear-cut radicalisation, both left- and rightwing. While some protestors have been voicing demands about nationalisation of private enterprises and the establishment of a people's court similar to the one installed in Stalinist Bulgaria after the Second World War, Ataka, the extremist party of Volen Siderov has increased its popularity almost four-fold. This is yet another direct result of the actions of Borisov, one of whose chief virtues was perceived by the West as his ability to contain extremism with his meeker populism.

The big losers from Borisov's manoeuvres are the smaller centre-right parties that in fact look best positioned to handle Bulgaria's predicament. Meglena Kuneva's Bulgaria for the Citizens has lost, and so has the Union of Democratic Forces despite its constant name-changings and reorganisations.

The possibility of a Greek scenario looks increasingly realistic. The election may produce a stalemate, a hung parliament unable to appoint a government. In keeping with the Constitution, a new general election will have to be called, probably at the end of the summer. Until then the caretaker government will have to continue ruling the country with its limited powers. In the interregnum, many morbid symptoms may appear.

Issue 78

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