by Christopher Buxton; photography by BTA

Approval ratings are still high but a corrupt legal system and massive debt will test Boyko Borisov's popularity Bulgaria

boyko borisov_3.jpg

The news that the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov receives three times as many letters as his predecessor Sergey Stanishev should surprise no one. A populist politician from his weightlifter’s shoulders to his tub thumping toes, he should expect that Bulgarian people, so long the victims of extraordinary situations, would temporarily forget their cynicism and believe that, like some superhero, he will ride to their rescue.

Politics was easy in Bulgaria until Boyko appeared on the scene as the founder, but not the formal leader of GERB, at the end of 2006. Those people who did vote, voted from inertia, or according to old loyalties, without much hope that anything would change. Bulgarian politicians played the roles the Bulgarian people expected. They held high level meetings with criminals, bought up desirable tracts of land at knock-down prices and lined their pockets. This was nothing new. You only have to read the satirical play Golemanov by St. L. Kostov, hopefully still taught in Bulgarians schools, to realise that things were exactly the same in the 1920s.

Still, something extraordinary happened in last summer’s general election. World weary Bulgarian friends, who had sworn that they would never vote, went out to elect GERB and Boyko was returned with nearly 40 percent of the vote. Batte, or Big Brother, Boyko conducted the campaign in his most-popular-bloke-in-the-pub style. And just in case you were wondering if this down-to-earth character was going to be too simple, he was flanked by the balding, worried-looking figure of Tsvetan Tsvetanov, GERB's formal leader and prospective interior minister, and the bespectacled, keen and lean Simeon Dyankov, who was willing to swap his position as chief economist of the Finance and Private Sector Vice Presidency in the World Bank for that of a prospective Bulgarian finance minister. The fact that Boyko, who has a PhD in firefighting from the erstwhile militia academy in Simeonovo, lacked a respectable education – usually so important to Bulgarians in clinching any argument – was ignored.

And on the face of it, things seem to be taking a turn for the better. One of the first of the new government's acts was to abolish the aptly named Ministry of Extraordinary Situations, which had been invented by the previous government, obviously for the sole purpose of satisfying the DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and tickling the sensitivities of voters.

Every day there are new arrests of allegedly corrupt judges and magistrates. "Operation Octopus," which, highly unusually, was praised by the American ambassador and all of the EU ambassadors, resulted in the investigation of the heads of internal security, the customs and immigration services, along with their links to organised kidnapping, highway robbery, the transportation of drugs and car theft gangs. Criminals with unlikely nick-names are either under arrest or being sought. "The Hamster" is singing like a Chicago canary. The "Big" and "Little" Margins are implicated in one the latest street murders. "The Crocodile" and "The Geyser" had their alibis blown apart when a border policeman confessed to accepting a substantial bribe to state that they were out of the country when they were, in fact, tying a hapless Turkish driver to a tree.

All this hectic activity must be seen in the context of EU demands that the Bulgarian government must do something about the problem of corruption if it is to receive the subsidies it so badly needs. As Boyko Borisov basks in the apparent glow of their approval, however, the slow, corruptible legal system is letting him down. Once, when Borisov was the Interior Ministry's chief secretary in the government of dethroned King Simeon Saxe- Coburg (2001-2005), he famously articulated his frustration with the legal system: "We (the police) arrest them; they (the legal system) let them go." He was, of course, referring to the bandits.


But things have not changed completely. High-level criminals with smart lawyers, money and connections still know that they can thwart the judicial system. Powerful corporations in league with town halls can steamroll ordinary citizens. Roman Romanov, head of Zekom, a company that has fraudulently occupied property bought by UK citizens in Bansko, was quoted in the Daily Mail. In a forthright letter to the unfortunate Britons he wrote: "All issues are to be resolved under Bulgarian law. This means only one thing – God Help You."

In Burgas, relatives of an innocent couple killed in a drink-driving incident 10 years ago on the Sozopol road are still to see justice done on the perpetrator. This year, in the latest twist of this typically protracted case, the presiding magistrate suffered a mysterious illness, thus preventing her from reaching the expected conclusion and sentencing. The whole affair now has to start again from the beginning – allowing yet more opportunities for bribery and intimidation of witnesses.

Without a proper legal system, you can have no democracy. There is little protection for the ordinary citizen when their interests collide with criminal, corporate or local government interests. At least, after 10 years of legal twists and turns, a Veliko Tarnovo court finally put some highly connected murderers behind bars.

As a long-haul Bulgarophile I need to share the pain and helplessness of ordinary people – and also some of their naïvety. Having attended a reception for Boyko Borisov in the London Embassy, where hundreds of Bulgarian emigrants jostled to have their photograph taken with the great man’s arm around their shoulders, we felt inclined to believe that Mr B. was indeed getting more letters than his predecessor.

So there we have it. Whatever media effort the new government is making to be seen to catch the "evil ones," it is becoming increasingly apparent that perhaps nothing will change. New GERB-controlled town halls are getting on with their business of making money аnd the judicial system continues to crawl on to no satisfactory conclusion, while witnesses die or disappear.

Meanwhile, without the help of the Ministry of Extraordinary Situations, Boyko Borisov is finding it difficult to achieve six impossible things before breakfast.

The problem with populist politicians is that when one morning they wake up and realise they are not so popular any more they tend to become petulant. During the eighth month of his stint as prime minister, when a drop in his popularity became evident as his government failed to introduce the much-needed measures to counter the economic crisis, Boyko Borisov threatened that he has a letter of resignation, ready in his pocket. Striking doctors and disgruntled farmers had better not push him too far!

Any high-school teacher or a fledging publicist will tell you about the inadvisability of such lame threats. "Quiet! Shut up! Listen to me! If anyone else farts or throws another paper aeroplane, I'm walking out! Yes! That's right! I'll just walk out that door and never come back!" Cue loud farts and a cascade of flying paper to rival the Battle of Britain.

But will Boyko Borisov be able to keep his resignation where it is now if Bulgaria follows Greece’s example and goes on strike?


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