BOYKO DOESN'T LIE

text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Goatherd explains unflinching support for GERB

gerb fan 5.jpg
If you ever drive on one of Bulgaria's lesser but very picturesque roads connecting Gotse Delchev, formerly Nevrokop, with Satovcha in the Rhodope (this is all in the southwestern corner of Bulgaria, near the Greek border), you are bound to come across a strange structure by the side of the asphalt. A number of flagpoles with slightly tattered banners (of Bulgaria, the EU, Greece; and of GERB, the political party currently running Bulgaria) have been arranged around a self-styled natural "mosaic" made up of white stones lying in the grass.

The stones form letters, and the letters form a slogan: "GERB, the Road to Europe."

If you were around in the Balkans prior to the collapse of Communism you might be able to recollect that such "arrangements" on roadsides or hills were popular in the 1960s and 1970s, when those doing their military service were ordered to utilise their spare time in "beautifying" the environment in such a way. But this is 2012, and Boyko Borisov, a self-avowed rightwinger, is in power.

If you hang around long enough (make sure you park in a lay-by), you will be approached by a man wearing overalls. Looking at your camera, the man will ask: "Are you from the media?"

GERB art installation

GERB art installation

In my own experience as a journalist for many years, the last 10 of which spent in this country, I know that this is a tricky question when asked by a Bulgarian. Usually, if you say yes, you will at best receive a brushoff, regardless of whether you are on public or private property, and lengthy discussions about the virtues and pitfalls of the media in a democracy will ensue.

But for one reason or another, I decided to answer this man in the affirmative, though I was on a private trip, returning from a holiday in the Aegean.

His reaction was odd by Bulgarian standards, to say the least. He was, well, forthcoming...

"Oh, please come on in," the man said. "We've been waiting for you. We like speaking with TV people so much. Let me show you around."

As we walked up the path to his residence, I noted some other signs around the GERB stones. One of them stuck out: "Respect the cattle breeders, too!" it instructed me.

"I did all of those myself," the man said. "Completely my own initiative. I just love Boyko Borisov."

Initially, I thought this was some kind of a joke, but before I could ask the man why he loved Boyko Borisov, his wife appeared, and then I knew it was for real. The woman carried several framed photographs, all depicting my host being hugged by - you've guessed again! - Boyko Borisov and his deputy, Tsvetan Tsvetanov.

"Every 5 May, on the eve of St George's Day, I organise a big party here. I roast a goat and I invite Boyko and Tsvetanov and many reporters. They all come," the man explained. "I have more pictures. I will show you," and he started riffling through a stack of newspapers his wife had brought along. "Here I am, and here, and here."

Mehmed Yanuzov

This man is Mehmed Yanuzov, a goatherd from the nearby village of Dabnitsa. He owns about 200 goats and a farm. The GERB monument with its stones, flags and so on is actually on his property. Over the past several years Yanuzov has become a one-man propaganda machine for the GERB government in this region. He is always present at Borisov's meetings with local people, and usually uses his charm and powers of persuasion to deflect the heat away from any conversation in which a disgruntled farmer dares to voice any dissatisfaction with Boyko Borisov and his government.

Yanuzov has no formal education. He claims to be an ancestral goatherd, but he does know about international politics: "I spent 11 years in Greece. While living in Greece, I voted all the time, in all the elections. This is how I became savvy in politics," said Yanuzov, an ethnic Turk and a Bulgarian citizen. Before I could ask how he could vote in Greek elections since he was not Greek, Yanuzov was on to something else.

"This is how I understand Europe," Yanuzov exclaimed. "Motorways, roads, airports, railway stations..."

"Railway stations?" I inquired, pointing to the fact that the Boyko Borisov government was actually shutting down railway stations and the whole future of the Bulgarian State Railways hung in the balance owing to GERB's and their predecessors' policies towards rail transport. But Yanuzov did not seem to hear me.

"Yes, this is Europe. Boyko is showing us the way. He is a great man."

"You seem to be happy with the GERB government?"

"Very much so," Yanuzov said. "For us here, it is much better with Boyko. He poured EU subsidies over us farmers."

"But were the subsidies not here before GERB gained power?"

"Yes, but back then only the well connected received money. Now we all have it. I have Boyko's phone number, we chat every week."

"Has Boyko done any personal favours for you?" I asked.

"Yes, of course, we're friends, remember? He helped me to get subsidies and he promised to include me in some EU project. You know, my dream is to set up a dairy here," Yanuzov said.

"Will he deliver?"

"He always delivers, you know. He is the first leader we've had who always delivers. Come to the office!"

GERB goat pen

GERB goat pen

"Office?"

We approached Yanuzov's goat pen. A flea-bitten makeshift construction made of old wooden planks and pieces of metal, it had several signs hand-painted on it: "GERB Goat Pen," one of them said. "GERB Office" led into Yanuzov's living room.

It had no electricity and I had to adjust my eyes to the dark, but what I noticed was a bed in the corner, decorated with more portraits of Boyko Borisov, Tsvetan Tsvetanov and other GERB memorabilia.

"Boyko is trying to create a modern Bulgaria from scratch, you see." Yanuzov told me as he lay on his bed posing for a photograph with the pictures of his leaders.

"Do you have any troubles?" I asked.

"The health inspectors. They say I cannot sell meat in the market. They say it does not meet the hygiene standards," Yanuzov said grudgingly. "What do they know, those dumbheads."

"This is reform," Yanuzov continued. "It hurts but it is necessary. You need a strong man to do that."

I was left wondering what kind of reforms Yanuzov referred to.

"Does Boyko Borisov have any faults at all?"

"His only fault is that he needs five more terms to finish his important tasks. I have told him this several times. I hope he will listen."

Mehmet Yanuzov's office

Mehmed Yanuzov's office

Mehmed Yanuzov looked around. "Do you know what Boyko's most important achievement is? He took fear away from us. Now we can speak openly."

"But you should not have to fear supporting the people who are in government at the moment," I said. "Usually it works the other way round. You should have no fear of criticising those who are in power."

"I will keep voting for him in the next five general elections!" Yanuzov went on.

We said our farewells, and on the way back to Sofia I couldn't help thinking that the GERB Recruitment Manual can do wonders in the Bulgaria of Mehmed Yanuzov. GERB, I thought, needn't commit to six-figure contracts to set up Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for itself. It just needs more people like Mehmed Yanuzov. Low-tech can work a lot better in Bulgaria of 2012.

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