Bulgarians have become used to being exposed to leaked phone conversations and clandestine snapshots of senior state officials, and the ensuing mudslinging and attempts at whitewashing.
Yet few expected something as dramatic as that: iPhone snaps of a half-naked prime minister sleeping across his bed, a bedside cupboard full of wads of 500-euro bills. Plus several gold ingots. Plus his favourite gun positioned on top. The images, anonymously sent to several media and subsequently widely circulated to the general public, might have befitted an underworld boss after an orgy of booze, sex and gambling rather than the prime minister of an EU member state. But photos do not lie. Welcome to the bedroom of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
At around the time of the snapshots' release a phone conversation between someone who remarkably sounded like the prime minister and an unidentified party was also leaked. In the conversation the "prime minister" referred to the speaker of the National Assembly, Tsveta Karayancheva, as a "stupid c*nt from Kardzhali" (a town in southeastern Bulgaria whence Mrs Karayancheva, Boyko Borisov's handpicked nominee for the position, originated from). The person alleged to be Prime Minister Boyko Borisov went on to explain how he "f*cked" several foreign dignitaries, presumably EU prime ministers, and then how they came back to him, when they realised they had been screwed, to seek an explanation. Because I don't speak good English, the "prime minister" says.
For a few days the public was enthralled, and started asking questions. Was this really the prime minister? If so, why would he need to keep wads of euros, estimatedly about half a million, in his bedside drawer? Why does he sleep with a gun next to his head? Who the hell took those pictures? Who the hell recorded the phone conversation?
Several news organisation put the photos through analysis and established they were genuine with just minor post, most significantly regarding the metadata containing the exposure date and time. The phone talk also appeared to be real.
What were the heavily armed guards of the Bulgarian prime minister doing while someone took snaps of the sleeping man in his bedroom? Was that a serious breach of security or did the the prime minister know there was someone else around, someone who had not just entered with an iPhone but had been invited?
Initially, Boyko Borisov brushed aside the scandal, purporting that was the deed of the opposition who was getting increasingly nervous ahead of the general election scheduled for next year. The speaker of parliament, Tsveta Karayancheva – the "stupid c*nt from Kardzhali" in the phone conversation – refrained from any comment.
That was not enough to appease the public who wanted answers. So, the embattled prime minister appeared at an unusually long and unusually timed press conference. Surrounded by his most loyal lieutenants, including ministers and Mrs Karayancheva herself, Boyko Borisov put it as bluntly as he usually does: President Radev, Boyko Borisov's neighbour in Boyana, a tony neighbourhood in southern Sofia, used... a drone to spy on him. He [President Radev] sets a drone in motion, Boyko Borisov said. The drone comes within a metre of me. My security then tells his security, and he withdraws the drone. To ram the message home, Borisov indicated his respect for Karayancheva by grabbing the stunned woman and giving her a kiss on the head.
Rumen Radev, an Air Force general and this country's president since 2017, was quick to respond. Indeed, he said, I am such a good drone pilot that my drone can enter bedrooms, open drawers and stack wads of euro bills in them.
Speaking on the general situation in Bulgaria, President Radev asserted: "This is a state of mutri (the difficult-to-translate Bulgarian word for mobsters). Who would be mad enough to invest in Bulgaria where the law is being trampled upon? Thousands of citizens have emigrated, now businesses will start departing as well." According to Radev, this country's national security has been compromised by no one lesser than the prime minister himself.
This is not the first time Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who has been getting himself elected since 2009 on his chief promise to protect this country from Communism, has been caught on tape in, to put it mildly, less than decorous situations. In 2011 some tapes were put into circulation. Boyko Borisov ordered the then chief of customs, Vanyo Tanov, to terminate a tax investigation against Mihail "Beer Misho" Mihov, because he had made a commitment... not to touch him. The chief of customs complied, but the scandal went on. Beer Misho was soon discovered dead in a hotel room owned by Valentin Zlatev, the CEO of the Russian company LUKoil, almost a monopoly in the oil trade in Bulgaria. Beer Misho's wife died the following year. The Beer Misho scandal is periodically brought back to life in some media to describe how organised crime has reached the highest government levels in this country.
Against the background of the Beer Misho affair, the current "stupid c*nt from Kardzhali" episode pales. Will the Bulgarians be moved for longer than a couple of days by the most recent developments surrounding the prime minister?
The most likely answer is a no. Many Bulgarians actually think that the prime minister is right. It was someone from the opposition who taped him while he was making the "c*nt" comment. He had just called a spade a spade, as the saying goes – and most Bulgarians do like a spade being called a spade.
When they have to vote, Bulgarians usually do so with their feet. And the sort of liberal democracy that they so enthusiastically embraced after the fall of Communism 30 years ago means less and less to the impoverished nation in 2020. In fact, fewer and fewer Bulgarians consider liberal democracy a viable governance system at all. According to a poll by the Bratislava-based GLOBSEC institute, as few as 35 percent of the Bulgarians favour holding elections an asset to their society. This is the lowest in all of Eastern Europe – in Hungary the percentage is 81. As many as 45 percent of the Bulgarians would rather have a strong-handed leader with little regard for freedom of speech and civil liberties. Again, this is the highest in all of Eastern Europe: just 17 percent of the Estonians, 24 percent of the Czechs and 34 percent of the Romanians do that. According to the same poll, public satisfaction with democracy is a negative 46 points, and as many as 59 percent of those polled harbour the opinion that nothing will change no matter who is in power. And as many as 54 percent say they are prepared to sacrifice rights and freedoms to defend "traditional values" – though the poll fails to name any "traditional" value. Significantly, 31 percent of the Bulgarians think the EU endangers their traditional values while as many as 43 percent identify as the main threat... the United States.
Against the background of all of this, Boyko Borisov and his ilk will likely remain in power for a long time to come. Boyko Borisov stands living proof that this country can be run like a syndicate. And he is likely to continue to do that in the foreseeable future. So far, only President Radev who, unlike Borisov, was popularly elected in a first-past-the-post ballot, seems courageous enough to stand up to Borisov, with words if not with deeds. It remains to be seen how far he will be prepared to go.