The pith of the crisis
Associate Professor Georgi Lozanov, who has for many years headed the Bulgarian Electronic Media Council, is possibly this country's most important intellectual. A man of many interests and inclinations, Lozanov has observed what has been going on in post-Communist Bulgaria with the keen eye of a journalist yet with the mindframe of a philosopher: always considering the details but striving to go beyond the whims and quirks of the everyday in order to take in the bigger picture of life in Bulgaria.
In this country, Georgi Lozanov is known mainly as a media critic. However, as the plight of Bulgaria's media in 2013 is but a piece in the larger jigsaw puzzle, in this interview we will be focusing on life beyond the media.
What are the main reasons for the situation that led to the mass protests in February and March that eventually brought down the government of Boyko Borisov and prompted an early general election?
Seen on the surface, they are identical to the reasons that brought half of Europe to the edge of bankruptcy and spawned the need to reassess the liberal-consumerist model of "developed capitalism." However, I am unsure Bulgaria ever lived in "developed capitalism," so we must seek the real reasons elsewhere. I think they are in the unwritten contract between the state and the people that has remained unchanged since Communism. At that time, in spite of the Communist Party decrees and the despotism of the state, the social model counted on personal networks of contacts, relatives, friends and partners to hand out welfare. To a lesser or greater extent, they managed to entangle everyone – from "anti-fascist" veterans who could place their grandchildren in universities without entrance exams to lorry drivers who could steal half a tank of diesel. This is the explanation how people got meagre salaries but could still live in relative comfort, which even today is a reason for nostalgia.
After 1989 interpersonal relations and parallel social networks continued to usurp the role of the public system, profaning the modern democracy that Bulgaria was supposed to be building. It was again necessary to know your doctor personally to be able to get good treatment, or to be friends with the local mayor so you would be allowed to open a shop on the high street. The Communist-era forms of under-the-table dealings with the state lost their "innocence" and started getting referred to as corruption, mafia, oligarchs...
This type of a "social contract" did not fall from the sky, however. It was the product of the unspoken consent between the two sides – the ruling elites and the anonymous "ruled," where many of the ruled would hope, each in their own personal way, to become a part of the elite or at least get into the same network. Whether they can still do that is dubious, especially as the cash generated from the mass privatisation has disappeared, and then there is the economic crisis. Furthermore, there are groups of people that are per se excluded on the basis of age or ethnicity. From time to time their dissatisfaction gets vocal, and then the elites have to foot the bill. The political dimensions of this are the least important, but they explain the fact why since the collapse of Communism Bulgaria has not had a single government to be elected for a second term in office.
In 2013, just like in 1997, that price hit the roof. Consequently, the people decided to leave the anonymity of their part of the contract and take to the streets, ready to administer justice with their own hands. They broke the contract unilaterally, wanting both sacrifice and revenge.
Though towards the end of March the street protests had already subsided, they did produce a different standpoint.
In the beginning, it looked as though Borisov would have to pay the bill for everyone else, and most other current political leaders, including Kostov, Stanishev and Siderov, gladly pushed him into the hands of the rebellious crowd. This is the risk of "popular love." The "group identification," which Borisov perhaps intuitively had mastered to perfection, can backfire at the first serious tremor, and then the carriage will quickly turn into a pumpkin. Yet Borisov jumped from it at the twelfth hour. Handing in his resignation, he also broke the social contract: what you did, I will do too; what you want, I want too.
Is there any chance that Boyko Borisov and his people may return to power at the early general election scheduled for 12 May?
Yes. It is possible that instead of thwarting the popularity of GERB, the people's wrath has in fact enhanced it. The reason for it has been widely commented: it is the closeness of Borisov to the masses that sparked the protests in the first place. It is in the feeling that his reactions, his language, his conduct is identical to theirs. Stepping down, he created the impression that the people had protested against themselves, or at least did not know whom to protest against.
Any trouble Borisov has is with the urban elites. "Ordinary" Bulgarians, as long as they can pay their electricity bills, tend to feel psychologically if not politically represented by Borisov. The cultural threshold between the establishment and the people was torn down under Borisov, at least as far as public communication goes. Following the 2001 election, Ivan Kostov kept quiet and withdrew into aloofness, demonstrating his being "different." Now Borisov kept quiet for a while, but the reason was completely different: he was just surprised that the folks in the street could bear a grudge against him as long as he was one of them
Significantly, the agenda of the street protestors, which is clearly directed against the partisan and corporate elites, is the same which brought Borisov to power in 2009. No matter whether he managed to keep his promises, there is no other political entity in Bulgaria at the present time to be able to capitalise on the huge resource of public discontent.
If we were to have this chat in 2033 rather than now, what would have Borisov gone down in history with?
To be able to speculate in "political futurology" we need to identify the general tendencies outside the everyday battles and frustrations. This is why I think that one of the remarkable things about Borisov's GERB was that he managed to mask as rightwing policy what were essentially leftwing popular' sentiments and expectations. And he managed to do that with the support of the European People's Party!
Second, even if Borisov does get to win a second term in office, the end of the "politics of charisma" is irreversible. Borisov, though a master, will be the last politician of this type for a long time to come. The protests and the ensuing debates about the caretaker government clearly showed that "being liked" will no longer be enough. Political strongmen before Borisov, including Lukanov, Kostov and the king, counted in their own ways on their charisma. A politician in Bulgaria could be elected by a fan club rather than an informed electorate. But I think that the effigy of a "hero" like that burned down with the self-immolations in Bulgaria's streets.
As far as I can see, Borisov's ascent to power marked the first instance of a sportsman getting out of his dressing-room and reaching the highest levels of the state structures to command an important role in business and politics. Borisov created his image accordingly. He considered politics as a kind of a sports race, as being able to gain the upper hand in wrestling, as being exhilarated by victory in the pitch. Even his job as prime minister failed to detract him from taking part in football matches.
I am unsure whether 2033 is a realistic date, but I think that for a long time to come Bulgarian politics will have to conducted in the opposite direction: interaction, self-restraint, compromise, broad coalitions and expert governments; stepping on tiptoes not to cause any public anger of the sort seen in February and March at Eagles Bridge in Sofia.
Are there any fast remedies?
No. A "fast remedy" is synonymous with working miracles. The mass protests, as much as the people voiced their dissatisfaction through them, indicate beyond any doubt that any hat trick now will be impossible to stomach. The people are fed up with saviours, regardless of whether they come flying on a bird's wing (like Kostov in 1997), or from the outside (like the king in 2001), or from within (like Borisov in 2009). The people have turned against the political class as such. The truth is that the rulers must never again be left to rule alone because they will steal the people's trust. The key is not in rabble-rousing campaigns but in persistence: politics plus citizens' control.
This does not necessarily mean chance appointments of street heroes. It does mean citizens tearing up that "social contract" – even though in the short term it might bring them benefits – because in the course of the past 20 years it has emerged that it inevitably carries a hefty price. If not you, your children or your parents will have to pay it. To be able to rid yourself of the political miracle illusion, you have to be able to rid yourself of the illusion about your personal life: that it can change overnight. You should not behave as if you are at a reality show casting.
Under Borisov, Bulgaria's standing plummeted to the rock bottom in terms of freedom-of-speech and media freedoms if international surveys are anything to go by. Is Borisov the only reason? If Borisov is removed permanently from politics, will the media landscape improve? If affirmative – when? If negative – why?
The issue has two aspects. One has to do with the attitude of the mainstream media to the Borisov government especially in the early stages of its term in office, and with their repeatedly asserted refusal to be critical. It will make no sense to calculate who gained from this and how much, because in the final analysis the answer is no one did.
The impression that the media were economical in their critical attitudes was one of the reasons why people took to the streets and became a "live" media themselves. This toppled the government.
That impression was not entirely objective, however. Some media were conformist, others were more or less balanced and yet others were openly opposed. This did not work, because in the case of the latter the people could see between the lines ideas that were anti-government, but were not their own because they smacked of interests outside those of the audience. In the long run, it is only the audience that can guarantee freedom of speech.
The deeper reason for the plummeting media freedoms in Bulgaria dates back a few years before the ascent of Borisov. It is related to the departure of the big foreign investors in the media sector and the arrival of domestic investors, usually funded by cash accumulated during Bulgaria's murky transition. The new investors often used the media to settle their own accounts. Exacerbated by the crisis, these battles were referred to as "media wars," but in reality they had little do with the media as such. They turned many journalists into stuntmen taking part in someone else's movie.
One of the main problems in the Bulgarian media is ownership. Ownership has a direct impact on journalistic content. It defines its main virtue: independence. Without independence, journalism disappears; it becomes another profession.
Newspapers are most affected by this because they are out of the reach of any kind of regulation. The state-owned national TV and radio were the least. It is a paradox: the state has emerged as the better owner than the private businesses.
The solution is not fast and easy. It must entail some kind of legislative changes to guarantee journalistic independence from media owners. If anything like this happens, it will probably do so at the beginning of a parliamentary term, which will be in May. Such legislative changes may be encouraged by the billowing public wave for a "restart" of the whole social system. Such a restart will be impossible without the media.