Sofia enters local elections contest on one sole issue: the past
In 2013, when the Inland Revenue agency started a probe into alleged wrongdoing by then President Rosen Plevneliev, he famously excused himself: I am not a Martian. Plevneliev had been a minister for Boyko Borisov. The latter personally handpicked his nomination for president – explaining, in his inimitable style, that if he had put forward a "donkey," it would have been elected. Fast forward a few months and Plevneliev, whose softspoken-ness his critics likened to spinelessness, was quick to turn into a darling for his rightwing fans belonging to the DSB, or Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, and later for the DB, or Yes Bulgaria!, their spinoff. They saw in him someone who would emancipate himself from his former boss, and at the same time a man sufficiently rightwing to be to their liking. Plevneliev has not been in office since 2017, but whenever he gets the chance he goes on using airtime to shout out from the sidelines, mainly to slam his successor.
The tax probe back in 2013 did not reveal any misconduct, but the term "Martian" kind of stuck – and will probably remain one of the few things Rosen Plevneliev will go down in history for as an early 21st century Bulgarian politician.
Imagine now the bemusement of a real Martian coming down to the Bulgarian capital in the hot days of the summer of 2023 only to find a bunch of earthlings vying to outperform themselves in their rightwing-ness and discussing the fate of a 1950s Red Army monument in the middle of their town rather than the quality of the pavements, the rubbish collection, the local taxes, the pigeons pollution and all the other things politicians contesting local elections elsewhere usually do.
Our imaginary Martian will probably first ask what "rightwing" means in the EU's poorest country where corruption is endemic, the cost of supermarket foods is higher than in Germany and the streets are littered with dog poop. No. Rightwing here does not mean lower taxes and fewer regulations. It does not even mean trying to make the trains run on time. In Sofia, and in Bulgaria, rightwing means battling over the past.
Take the uneasy alliance – the "smart and beautiful" or the "ragtag rightwing", as they are being called depending on who does the talking – currently in government. The PP, or Changes Continued, led by Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev; the DSB, or Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, of General Atanas Atanasov; and the DB, or Democratic Bulgaria, of Hristo Ivanov, usually identify themselves as being pro-Western intellectuals who more often than not are misunderstood by the ordinary Bulgarians who do the actual job of going to the ballots. For years the DSB and the DB have taken a resolute stance to "de-Communise" Bulgaria. Our Martian will probably wonder why a country where Communism ceased to exist in 1989 (almost 35 years ago) needs to be additionally de-Communised. The DB and the DSB will instantly have their answer: because the secret services of the Bulgarian Communist Party, or DS-State Security (which was disbanded in 1991), continue to pull the strings of modern Bulgarian society. Many of the "Red capitalists" of the 21st century, the DSB-DB will argue, are but former secret agents, or their sons and daughters, who successfully managed to transform their political power in 1944-1989 into economic might. General Atanasov will evoke the real or imaginary "suitcases full of cash" changing hands in the early years of the transition to democracy. And his acolytes from the DB will resort to one of their loudest war cries: Lustration!
At this stage our Martian will try to look around in an attempt to find a real live DS agent – or a real live Communist for that matter. The Martian will be hardpressed. Logically, he will probably start the search in the lines of the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, the heir to the 1944-1989 Communists. Alas. The BSP of 2023 harbours few "leftwing" ideas. Its main preoccupation is... the Istanbul Convention for the Protection of Rights of Women and Children, which Kornelia Ninova, the BSP leader, adamantly opposes because she thinks it sponsors what she calls "genderism."
The Martian might even look to Vazrazhdane, or Revival, of maverick Kostadin "Kostya Kopeykin" Kostadinov. No, no, no – the DSB and and the DB will vehemently interject. Those are the fascists. We are protecting you from them!
And if the Martian dares to seek a further explanation, a straightforward if not very logical narrative, which the DB and DSB have pushed down the throats of their voters for years, will be on offer. It is a catalogue of... badness. Former members of the BKP, or Bulgarian Communist Party, were bad. Some were worse than others. Former members of the Komsomol, the youth wing of the BKP, were less bad. But the State Security guys were the worst.
But why, the Martian might wonder, pointing out the DS fulfilled orders issued by the BKP. How can a reluctant doctor or engineer, who was pressed into the DS to inform on his colleagues in order not to jeopardise his career, be "worse" than an enthusiastic if semi-literate Communist Party or Komsomol secretary who complied dossiers of co-workers and friends – and was paid for doing that? Can you hold the executioners responsible whilst absolving their paymasters?
This is the point where the debate, if it is a debate at all, will get bogged down in the Balkan morass. Earthlings of various hues and colours, the Martian will realise, will start producing all kinds of arguments, facts, semi-facts, lies and semi-lies to a point where the truth of what happened in 1944-1989 and how it has influenced life in 1989-2013 will cease to matter. The poor extraterrestrial will certainly be outtalked.
Taking in a breath of fresh air (figuratively speaking because we are still in the Bulgarian capital) our Martian will try to meet some of the real players in the upcoming local elections. Enter Vasil Terziev, the nominee of the anti-Communist, rightwing and intellectual PP-DSB-DB. Terziev is a software mogul. Along with some associates, he founded a successful software engineering business called Telerik. He developed it and then sold it to an US company for a record $262.5 million, in 2014. A millionaire, Terziev has an impeccable record. He speaks English, is savvy about business, his visions of what to do with Sofia post Boyko Borisov's Yordanka Fandakova make sense. The Martian will be impressed.
But of course the first impression will quickly turn out to be fallacious. Vasil Terziev has a major, insurmountable impediment: his grandfather. It is a black spot that cannot be erased. For good.
As soon as the PP-DSB-DB put forward the name of Terziev the other rightwingers in Sofia, those of Boyko Borisov's GERB, cried foul. Vasil Terziev's grandfather (who died in 1993) had been an operative of State Security, and so was his father! An activist for the dossiers commission, which was set up in 2008 theoretically to declassify whatever remained of the DS archives, wrote an eulogy "proving" Terziev could not have accomplished what he has without the "active" assistance of State Security. Previously, that activist had been a darling of the DSB-DB, who valiantly defend that commission on the basis of whose "findings" they want their lustration.
There many ironies in this, the Martian will think. On the one hand there is the Communist Party secretaries demanding of children to denounce their "enemy" parents and grandparents – which did happen in Bulgaria in 1944-1956. On the other, significantly, will come the realisation that Vasil Terziev as such must not be held responsible for what his grandfather made his salary from. Children are not responsible for the deeds of their parents or grandparents, the Martian will surmise. How can this be an issue at all?
The answer, sadly, will bounce back to the people who nominated Terziev in the first place. For years they have been propagating their theory of the DS penetrating all areas of public life in Bulgaria. For years they have been demanding purges of real and imaginary DS agents and operatives. For years the dossiers commission, which was supposed to have a rotating membership, has remained unchanged and the DSB-DB (the PP did not exist at the time) very much "liked" its "findings" and took them to be the gospel truth. In actual fact, the commission is legally banned from making comments. It is only supposed to tick boxes – at great expense for the taxpayers – for existing or non-existing papers in the archives. It is not even supposed to verify whatever the pieces of paper allege is true... For almost a generation the DSB-DB worked hard to create an atmosphere of fear and repulsion to anything remotely related to the DS. It worked. But General Atanasov's "anti-Communism" now backfires with what critics say is its hypocrisy.
Logically, the Martian will think, there should be an option, an alternative to Vasil Terziev's dubious lineage.
Sofia's "voodoo doll," the Red Army Monument, or MOCHA
Here goes Vili Lilkov, a professor at the Sofia Institute of Mining, who represents himself as a "genuine" anti-Communist. Unlike Terziev, Lilkov does have a record in politics in general and in the Sofia City Council in particular. Lilkov, who is now a GERB man, was put forward by the DSB of General Atanasov, to stand against Yordanka Fandakova, in 2019. He garnered dismal support of just 10,000 votes, but swiftly turned coat and in the runoff gave his blessing to Fandakova, whom he described as a politician who "evolves." What especially endears Vili Lilkov to those disgusted by the grandfather of Vasil Terziev is his recent attempts to write books to slam Communism, the Communists and their State Security. Interestingly, Lilkov advertises himself as being neither a historian nor a journalist. His is an audience for books on historical and highly polemic issues written by a non-historian and non-journalist, the Martian will look up in amazement.
Both Vasil Terziev and Vili Lilkov pinpoint the removal of the Soviet Army monument in central Sofia as being a mainstay of their agendas.
There is an irony in this as well. A Sofia City Council decision to ditch the monument was promulgated as early as the 1990s. Since then, nothing has happened. Officials of various hues, colours, shapes and sizes have quoted a thesaurus of reasons why the monument cannot be removed, fostering the sentiment that the thing, a Stalinist monstrosity pejoratively referred to as the MOCHA, will never be removed as it is a very convenient voodoo doll, a bogeyman to let off some steam at and focus on a pile of stones rather than on Sofia's sidewalks or air quality.
What about the bigger picture, the Martian, being an outsider to the earthlings' affairs, will surely ask. That's where things get really complicated. Vasil Terziev and Vili Lilkov may be fighting to prove their rightwing-ness to their respective fans, but their bosses – General Atanasov, Hristo Ivanov and Boyko Borisov – are not. They are in fact allies in the current government. They are supposed to keep up their fragile rightwing setup viable so that... President Rumen Radev, who propelled Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev to the forefront in one of his caretaker governments but who is an alleged leftwinger, does not have too big a say in things.
Interesting, right? No. The Martian – unless he or she wants to sizzle in the increasingly solipsistic rightwing morass – will throw up their hands in despair. Probably he will retreat to the house in Greece, which his alter ego owns, and deal with a lot pleasanter things than trying to out-rightwing the Bulgarian rightwingers ahead of the 2023 local elections. To put it in another way, he or she will again prefer to vote with the feet.