WHERE TO FROM NOW ON?

by Anthony Georgieff

Bickering, mudslinging rather than political debate dominate general election campaign

The month of June, officially the election campaign month ahead of the early ballot scheduled for 11 July, has been extraordinary even in the standard of Bulgarian politics. Hardly a day has passed without some major or minor scandal bursting out into the open. Mostly, these were caused by the revelations by the President Rumen Radev-appointed caretaker government of gross misdeeds committed by Boyko Borisov's GERB officials or by Boyko Borisov, this country strongman prime minister in 2009-2021, himself.

In fact, just to enumerate the alleged misconducts of Boyko Borisov and his associates whilst in office would take a lot more than an article in a monthly magazine. The avalanche of scandals was set off by a commission in Bulgaria's short-lived parliament (15 April-16 May) whose main purpose was to investigate what really happened during Borisov's rule. One memorable event was the appearance in parliament of a farming entrepreneur who disclosed he had been exposed to threats and extortion by another farming entrepreneur, who reportedly had acted at the behest of then Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. The allegations were so outrageous that GERB's MPs in parliament tried to disrupt the commission's sessions, prompting action by parliament's security.

Then came the nauseating trade in human organs allegations at Sofia's Lozenets Hospital, still popularly referred to as Government Hospital because for many years during Communism and up until 2019 it was the place for treatment of senior state officials. It was reported that the hospital consistently broke the law by selling human organs belonging to living individuals originating in Moldova, Ukraine and so on to customers in Israel, Japan, Oman and Germany. The kidneys and livers changed hands (or, more precisely, bodies) in breach of the laws. In addition, it was alleged the hospital sucked the state-run National Health Insurance Agency by filing in invoices for bogus treatment of non-existing patients.

Some of the charges against Boyko Borisov are nothing new, but had been conveniently shelved by the the Bulgarian justice system Borisov had so skilfully subjugated. Perhaps the most flagrant example dates back to 2009 and concerns an entrepreneur called Mihail "Beer Misho" Mihov. Then Prime Minister Boyko Borisov was caught on tape ordering Vanyo Tanov, the chief of customs, to terminate a tax probe into Mihov's dealings because "he had made a promise." Tanov complied. Several audio verification labs confirmed the recordings were genuine, but nothing happened. Shortly thereafter Beer Misho was found dead in a hotel room under circumstances Bulgarian law enforcement did not consider suspicious. His wife died a year later. Tanov also died.

Perhaps the grandest slam against Boyko Borisov's methods of running Bulgaria came not from Bulgarian law enforcement but from the United States. In June the US Justice Department announced it would impose sanctions on six Bulgarian individuals under the Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act. One of those was Vasil "The Skull" Bozhkov, a megarich entrepreneur whose main area of business was gambling. Bozhkov, thought of by many Bulgarians to be untouchable as he had been on good terms with every government since the 1989 collapse of Communism, managed to flee the country and settled in Dubai. But his business empire, including his priceless collection of archaeological artefacts, was busted. Bulgarian TV viewers can still remember how law enforcement officials raided his offices in central Sofia and carried archaeological items thought to cost millions of dollars in... plastic rubbish sacks. Under the Magnitsky Act, Bozhkov, who set up his own political party while in Dubai and stood in the 4 April general election, will not only be banned from the United States but will also have most of his banking assets frozen internationally.

Another Bulgarian to feel the brunt of US justice was Delyan Peevski, the notorious MP for the DPS, the Turkish-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and former media mogul. Since 2013, when Peevski was nominated to head the Bulgarian security services, he has been increasingly turned into a scarecrow, a symbol of how permeating corruption in Bulgaria has become.

The Bulgarian caretaker government was quick to issue a list of companies with varying degrees of relation to Bozhkov and Peevski, ordering banks to stop dealing with them. Both Bozhkov and Peevski started legal suits in the Bulgarian courts demanding to see evidence of the allegations against them.

While many Bulgarians tired of having to deal with corruption and nepotism on a daily basis and in all spheres of public and business life cheered, some were not so happy. Among them were the many sports clubs both Bozhkov and Peevski generously supported. It is now thought that some of Bulgaria's most popular sporting associations may lose up to 50 percent of their revenue.

The election campaign ahead of the 11 July ballot takes place against the background outlined above. But what does Boyko Borisov, the political leader who stands accused of all those crimes and misdeeds, say and do? Borisov continues with his three main mantras. First, he says he protects this country from Communism. Second, he considers himself to be the greatest leader this country has ever had because he says he is on good terms with most other European leaders all the way from Silvio Berlusconi and David Cameron to Emanuel Macron and Angela Merkel (especially Angela Merkel). Third, he explains any probe by the caretaker government and its law enforcement as an "election ploy" by President Rumen Radev, who himself stands for possible reelection this coming autumn. Some people both inside and outside his GERB actually believe him.

Outside of the scandals, the bickering and the mudslinging the 23 political parties registered to stand in the general election do little if anything to engage in any meaningful political debate. Slavi Trifonov's There Is Such a People grouping, which emerged as the biggest winner in the previous general election, keeps oddly reticent. Trifonov, who is reportedly in bad health, rarely speaks out but sometimes posts statuses on Facebook. He did confirm he will not stand for MP, adding, minaciously, that he will be observing the going-ons of the state from "another position." Some observers explain the popularity of There Is Such a People not so much with Trifonov's crude populism, nor with his chalga music hits. They surmise voters support him because they see in him a realistic tool to get rid of Boyko Borisov with, a tool Borisov's other opponents lack because they fail to garner such massive following.

The BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, a big loser in the previous election, seems to be still trying to find its own feet. The rightwing DB, or Democratic Bulgaria alliance, has no new messages to its voters except that they will maintain this country's pro-Western stance better than Boyko Borisov. One interesting development is the reemergence from oblivion of Zhan Videnov, a leftist who was prime minister in the 1990s. Curiously, he does have some following amongst Bulgarians though he was responsible for the greatest post-Communist crisis in this country with severe food shortages and hyperinflation. Yet a number of Bulgarians seem persuaded to vote for him because of his perceived virtue of being an "idealist," which in Bulgaria means he did not steal too much when he was in power.

So, what will happen after 11 July?

In recent years polling agencies have produced opinion polls of varying accuracy and, generally, are not to be trusted without an ample pinch of salt because most of them are usually associated with their paying clients – in this case, the political parties. Some agencies predict a huge success for Slavi Trifonov's There Is Such a People, which they say may even beat Borisov's GERB into the second place. Whether Trifonov's tactics of not disclosing anything at all about his plans will work in his favour or against him remains to be seen. The rightist DB, most of whose leaders in the past shared a footing with Boyko Borisov but fell out with him, are mobilising themselves and will probably do well. If opinion polls are to be trusted, the extreme nationalists ominously named National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria and Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, will fail to go over the 4 percent threshold.

To put it plainly, the upcoming general election will probably produce results similar to the previous one. There will be two ways ahead for Bulgaria's leaders from that point on. They will either have to sit down, talk and set up a functioning government (a strenuous task given the many fundamental differences between them) or prompt yet another general election, possibly in the autumn. This will spell out further delays to the sort of reforms, especially in justice and health care, this country badly needs – especially in a world made even less predictable by the continuing Covid-19 emergency.

Some analysts say that Bulgaria now is slowly waking up from the Boyko Borisov wet dream – and mornings after are usually painful following wet dreams. Things will probably get even worse before they start getting any better, but Bulgaria's politicians, embattled in bickering and mudslinging, seem to yet again stubbornly fail to face up to the realities of the day. 

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