interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Analyst Lyuboslava Ruseva dissects Bulgaria's politics as Boyko's GERB prepare to return to power

Lyuboslava Ruseva.jpg

Against the background of Bulgaria's economic crisis and political instability, it has become a matter of course for journalists, analysts and pollsters to "switch sides" depending on who happens to be the best bidder or the most ominous bully, rather than in keeping with a set of moral and professional principles that the media in the West try to adhere to. Occurrences of ardent critics of, say, GERB turning coat overnight and becoming equally ardent supporters of Boyko Borisov are something few would really give a thought to any longer. The situation is exacerbated by lack of regulation, particularly on the Internet, by the still nebulous ownership of the media, by the hundreds of reportedly paid "trolls" setting in motion the character assassination machine, by the general lack of interest of ordinary Bulgarian voters not only in elections as such but also in the concept of democracy as being an uneasy process of checks, balances and compromises.

There are exceptions, however. Lyuboslava Ruseva (b. 1970) is by any measure one of them. Having been a political observer in Dnevnik daily and the deputy editor of Tema weekly magazine, she is now a columnist for Glasove and a variety of other media outlets that do not belong to the mainstream Bulgarian media.

Lyuboslava's critical stance towards GERB and its leader, Boyko Borisov, is well known, and as we sit down for a chat I am not thinking about GERB. I am rather thinking about the hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians that actually cast their ballots for GERB. What is their motivation?

Many Bulgarians who have grown up in the current chalga environment like him in earnest. They like his macho style, they like the way he walks and the way he talks. This is about charisma the way a large chunk of the Bulgarian voters see it, not about political agendas.
Boyko Borisov is a typical populist, not unlike Italy's Berlusconi. As the Bulgarian psychiatrist, Dr Nikolay Mihaylov, once put it, "Borisov is a nimble teller of political fairy tales, a cunning yet unintelligent Balkan actor. The disenfranchised population perceives him as a last-instance magician." Borisov knows how to manipulate his voters. He tells them, "you are simple and I am simple – that's why we understand each other." This seems to do the trick at home.

Internationally, he makes promises of police cooperation and consequently the Euro-Atlantic world accepts him. He may be a son of a bitch, but at least he is our son of a bitch.

Obviously, these are just promises as Borisov is not very famous for delivering with consistency. His mood can change within five minutes, his decisions are more often than not self-contradictory, and they are never final. What he says in the morning is immaterial because over lunch he will say something different, and that will have changed several times over by dinner time. There is no way for a politician like that to solve this country's problems because he is one of them.

It is sad that many hopes are being pinned on Borisov both domestically and internationally.

What is GERB?

GERB is not a standard political party, but a clientelist grouping whose members are united not by ideology but by the access they can get to public resources when they are in power. GERB is the personal political project of Boyko Borisov to capitalise on his own public image to get the power. Such an organisation can only exist if it is in power, which explains why it started to disintegrate after the 12 May 2013 election. When in opposition, GERB did nothing at all except call for no-confidence votes when in parliament and push for street protests outside parliament. If it hadn't been for the street rallies, Borisov's party would have probably ended up on the dustbin of history, just like the Simeon II National Movement did.

The street protests gripped Sofia for half a year in 2013, but now they are a thing of the past. What's is your view of them?

GERB managed to streamline the rallies and use them to facilitate its political comeback. Initially, what appeared like a genuine manifestation of civil society soon plunged into unenlightened buffoonery. Borisov snatched the opportunity and presented it as the voice of the morally discontent with the government – and then as an alternative to the BSP-DPS model.

Borisov could have hardly done anything different because he had left the country in a total mess when he resigned in early 2013. The fiscal reserve was in tatters, 1.5 billion leva had disappeared from the National Health Service coffers, hundreds of small- and medium-sized enterprises had gone bust. Business could hardly breathe not only because the government paid back its VAT instalments with huge delays, but because it had been exposed to an unprecedented racquet by the GERB-dominated incompetent and ravenous civil service. Borisov resigned when a dozen people had committed awful acts of self-conflagration – out of despondency and hopelessness. Bozhidar Danev, the chairman of the Bulgarian Industrial Association, described the situation as an economic, political and moral national catastrophe, the third since 1989.

Against this backdrop it doesn't seem possible that GERB will return to power at the 5 October general election.

Boyko Borisov's popularity has plummeted compared to 2009 when he became prime minister. Attitudes to him are severely polarised. The truth is that many Bulgarians go on liking him owing to his macho ways, but Borisov seems to know that his GERB can hardly replay the success of 2009. This is why he is now coming to power through the backdoor, with the assistance of his protege, President Rosen Plevneliev. Remember: when Plevneliev won the presidential election, which incidentally was one of the most heavily rigged in Bulgaria post-1989, Boyko Borisov boasted: "Whoever I had put forward would have been elected."

What is the caretaker government, appointed by President Plevneliev, doing at the moment?

It conducts purges of senior state officials, appointing back severely compromised GERB folk. In doing this, it obviously violates the Constitution which stipulates that a caretaker's government only task is to organise and ensure a free and fair general election.

In reality, what the caretaker government acts as a cover for GERB, paving the way for Borisov's promised vengeance. Even if it fails to form a government of its own, GERB will go to bed happy as its loyal clients will have already been given the key jobs.

I can hardly believe that the state does plan to spend 26 million leva for the new election, provided GERB has already won it through the caretaker government.

In 2014, Bulgaria – a member of the EU – is talking about its inability to hold a free and fair election?

The caretaker Prime Minister, Georgi Bliznashki, is an university professor who spearheaded a petition for a referendum on the Election Code. Of the 560,000 signatories of that petition, ostensibly gathered by a civic committee but in reality ensured by illegal delving into personal data by the GERB local structures, 100,000 turned out to be fake. Can you believe a man like that will organise a free and fair election?

There are ways to manipulate voters ahead of elections as well. When he appointed the caretaker government, the president pledged a full investigation of the activities of the previous government – not that of GERB. The caretaker government is legally obliged to be neutral. But how can it be neutral when it is bombarding the media with "facts" about the bad legacies, in this way underwriting Borisov's campaign?

Here I should mention Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the former interior minister, who now manages the GERB election campaign. He is an odious figure, Boyko Borisov's right-hand man. His term in office went down in history with the most unscrupulous pressure on the judicial system, with massive illegal tappings, with spectacular arrests of innocent people, with the passing of "sentences" to whole professional branches. He is the architect of the 2011 election, the most heavily manipulated in Bulgaria's recent history. At that election, MPs for GERB were filmed to be taking out sackfulls of election ballots, and many of the polling stations were gripped by well-organised chaos.

However, Tsvetanov built GERB. He knows its activists personally and is privy to the sentiments of its local structures. His police pals are already being re-appointed to the top police jobs in the provinces. Tsvetanov, who has received a four-year jail term, now has immunity as a candidate MP.

If not GERB, then who?

I am not an optimist. The only good thing that can happen is if the nationalists fail to enter parliament. Hopefully, the most ridiculous product of Bulgaria's politicking, former TV journalist Nikolay Barekov's Bulgaria Without Censorship, will have the same fate.

On 5 October 2014 Bulgarians will again have to choose the lesser evil. In plain language this means they will have to choose between oligarchy alone and oligarchy plus organised crime. Bulgaria's politics is fraught with compromised leaders, the traditional concepts of right wing and left wing are totally meaningless, democracy has been reduced to infighting between personalities or between clientelist clans. I see no way for this end, provided there is a severe lack of new ideas and attempts to change. The situation will probably get worse before it starts getting better. It would be helpful for the political establishment to remember that the winter is coming. Then the wrath of the brutally impoverished Bulgarians, gripped by the sense of hopelessness, is unlikely to be malleable for pageantry and the pompous talk of a "new" morality.


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