Bulgaria or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mafia

Article published on Aug. 16, 2013
Article published on Aug. 16, 2013

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Bulgaria enters its third month of the greatest social upheaval since the fall of communism in 1989. The protesters want 'the Mafia' out of the country's political system. But what is it exactly and where did it come from?

The ‘businessmen’ on the road to Greece

It was summer of 2012 when I came to visit Bulgaria for the second time. Being lucky enough to have a second-half who’s a born and bred Sofian, I had previously explored the country in a more direct way than many ‘casual’ tourists would. But even some of those casuals would agree that the real richness of this poorest EU member is its unspoilt nature – the mountain range of the Balkan, or the remote beaches at the Black Sea coast.

This time however, my Sofian hosts were not taking me to the Black Sea, but the closer Aegean near Khalkidhiki in Greece. On our way we had to cross many townships of the Blagoevgrad province or Pirin Macedonia. As soon as we left Sofia, my girlfriend’s father started telling me the stories of local ‘businessmen’ – owners of car saloons, hotels, gas stations, you name it. According to him, all those points of interest have some shady history behind them. Tax fraud, property law fraud, illegal constructions, money laundering or even commercially-motivated murders. I must admit it all sounded to me like urban legends, even though I am Polish and people say similar things in Poland. But he insisted – ‘what you see here is all Mafia’ he was saying, and what he meant was the shady oligarchy which every common Bulgarian believes to be a real power player on the Bulgarian political scene.

A much different Autumn of the Nations

I was, perhaps naively, basing my disbelief on the ‘Mafia story’ of my home country, where visible organised crime is a subject of retro-crime movies of the 1990s. Sure, there is corruption in Poland, but these days it is getting close to being an ‘as elsewhere’ phenomenon. Corruption scandals, smuggling, or armed assaults linked to gangs such as the infamous Pruszków Group used to make daily headlines in the immediate years after the transformation. They were also often implicated in politics more than we would want too. Now almost 10 years after Poland joined the EU and almost 25 years after the Round Table Talks, I guess everyone would agree that it is much better than it used to be.

So, knowing that Bulgaria had a similar recent history, I believed that even though things might be a bit behind, all those Mafia talks are surely exaggerated. Especially that, while I was enjoying my holidays, the Narodno Sybranie (National Assembly) of Bulgaria was in the hands of GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) and prime minister Boyko Borisov. This centre-right party, a member of the EPP, seemed like a typical soft-core ruling society of the CEE region, very similar to Civic Platform in Poland.

Future events were to show that I should have paid more attention to my reading of Bulgarian history. Many Bulgarians believe that all parties of the parliamentary political system are part of ‘the deal’. ‘The deal’ was the very unusual experience Bulgaria had during the 1989 changes in the Warsaw Pact countries. Todor Zhivkov, the long standing communist ruler of Bulgaria was booted out by his own political formation, which in turn rebranded as Bulgarian Socialist Party and allowed ‘the democrats’ to join the political process. Without any Lech Wałęsa or Vaclav Havel, Bulgaria became a democracy. This atmosphere of ambiguity and subsequent strong socialist governments of Zhan Videnov and Sergei Stanishev led people to believe that something was not quite right with Bulgaria’s transition. For the past 24 years BSP remained a major political force despite all the wrong doings attributed to them, while ‘the democrats’ of 1989 keep jumping parties. Some heroes of that time are nowhere to be seen. Borisov formed GERB in 2006 and won support over dissatisfaction with Stanishev’s rule, but he was no angel either. As an experienced man of the interior police he was once Zhivkov’s personal bodyguard, an occurrence which became an internet joke.

Perhaps the true irony in all this is that it was Stanishev, who oversaw Bulgaria’s entry into the EU in 2007. This event was in itself supposed to curb indigenously corrupt political system in the country, but instead the European Commission keeps blocking funds misused on the ground. Bulgaria’s Schengen accession is also indefinitely delayed since 2011 as a form of punishment for not reforming promptly.

La Liberté guidant le peuple

GERB was failing to deliver on promises of a definite end to corruption or meeting EU demands. There was a growing sentiment against the party as being… of course part of ‘the Mafia’. One day in February my girlfriend came back home and started watching reports on the evolving situation in Sofia. Borisov was forced to resign amidst protests against rising electricity charges. Soon after in May we went to the polling station at the small Dublin’s embassy in order for her to take part in early legislative elections. To her dismay, the government was formed by BSP and the Turkish minority party DPS, many members of which have communist past. As I go back to that pleasant car trip throughout Pirin Macedonia I cannot believe how much the result of the 2013 elections changed my view on the ‘Mafia’ subject in Bulgaria.

By June tens of thousands of people were protesting every day against being governed by shady oligarchs and in defence of their fundamental rights as EU citizens. A young woman became a symbol of the protests, after she stripped her right breast bare and, waving both Bulgaria’s and EU flags, enacted Liberty Leading the People, a famous painting by Eugene Delacroix. A long late social upheaval lacking from 1989 had come true, with the protests continuing into their third month.

All the sins of BSP

What sparked off the protests and what leaves me to agree about ‘the Mafia’ stems from just several weeks of BSP’s rule. The party, even though it is still run by Stanishev, chose Plamen Oresharski for the post of prime minister. The former was viewed as ‘tainted’ with reputation of his previous government. Still, Oresharski is far from being ‘clean’, as he served as Finance Minister under Stanishev. Whatever positive image BSP tried to achieve with this appointment, it was quickly disproved by the legislative developments. The coalition went on a blitzkrieg of fund-grab, stealing and preserving privileges.

First they used the weak personality of President Rosen Plevneliev (elected 2012 as GERB’s candidate) to remove some of his prerogatives as a decision maker on National Security Council affairs. Plevneliev did not oppose in order to preserve his non-partisan outlook. He made a mistake, because once this happened, the coalition swiftly appointed Delan Peevski as head of that body. Peevski was considered by the public to be a ‘Mafioso’, with lots of connections and an ambiguous business past. Truth is he did not have any qualifications to hold the office granted to him by the parliament. As a result of this appointment the mass protests started on June 14.

The protests quickly erupted as the biggest since the fall of communism and even though Peevski resigned out of his own initiative, they continue to call for a fundamental constitutional redraft of Bulgaria’s political system. Oresharski’s government proved that it has complete disregard to its citizens’ demands. Notwithstanding the gravity of the problem, it continued to press for controversial, even damaging reforms. On 16th of July Oresharski appointed Boyan Chukov as his security and foreign affairs aide. This appointment is scandalous, both because Chukov is a former communist diplomat and because he openly supports the Kremlin-inspired Eurasian Union. Such people are incapable of steering Bulgaria into any form of progress. Last but not least, the government presses for a budget deficit amendment which is projected to destroy the delicate financial stability achieved by Bulgaria and unprecedented in the region. All this to meet populist demands on wage increases, which would be unreal in the context of Bulgaria’s economy. This move has finally been vetoed by Plevneliev, but the veto is expected to be lifted with the help of votes from the ultra-nationalist party ATAKA.

The Ballad of the EU and its Dud Guns

In many ways this Bulgarian Summer of Discontent is one of the most important chapters in the European socio-political crisis. People are forced to defend their rights and they do so under the EU flag. They have the right to be concerned. Rumours persist that those who do not share socialist views are fired from civil service. And with individuals like Chukov getting their grips on state affairs, the redrafting of Bulgaria’s foreign policy towards Moscow is not impossible. Already, steps are made to attract Russian oligarch’s capital and relaunching a dead atomic power plant programme based on Soviet technology.

All this has received remarkably low international attention. The EU’s Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding went to Sofia and vocally supported the protesters. Some ambassadors of the EU states did the same. The EU ‘guns’ remained ‘dud’ however, while the European media are more focused on the Middle Eastern developments, than what is happening on their own territory. What if the situation was to turn really bad for rule of law and democracy in Bulgaria? An authoritarian backlash there is precisely possible because of indecisive action of other European states.

Oresharski’s government showed that it is capable of brutal suppression. On the 24th of July protesters clashed with the riot police as it was evacuating MPs from the parliament building. People say that the clash was provoked by mobsters paid by BSP to throw rocks at the police. At the same time the government expects the protests to disperse every day, while it is holiday season. Currently MPs are enjoying their time off.

The EU’s position on Bulgaria’s events is that of benevolent acceptance. Unfortunately, Stanishev happens to be the leader of the Socialists faction in the European Parliament so any real leverage the EU politicians could have on his part is limited. For now BSP did not cross the alarming line just yet, but if it was to capitalise on the overall political chaos in Europe, definite steps and sanctions should be taken. Otherwise we will all stop worrying and love the Mafia next door.