Mon, 06/01/2009 - 20:57

Knowing your Stambolov from your Stamboliyski will help you understand the difference between Batte Boyko and citizen Saxe-Coburg

The hot air of increasingly violent debate will leave most Bulgarians cold about the general election looming in Bulgaria. There seems little credible alternative to an ailing, sleaze-ridden government. In the EU's latest entrant, there are even calls for a military takeover.

Ask politicians why they went into politics and in all countries you'll get the same altruistic answer – something along the lines of improving the lot of one's fellow man. In the UK most still judge politicians on their competence rather than their venality. In the United States ideology is still a key criterion. Bulgarians are much more cynical and view all their politicians as pigs jostling at the trough.

Popular wisdom is that for the first 17 years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, snouts were guzzling state resources and, since 2007, the substantial subsidies provided by the EU.

Amid continual tales of routine corruption, ministerial links with organised crime and a voting system that bolsters patronage and ensures a disproportionate influence of minority parties over government, it is hardly surprising that many Bulgarians have lost faith in democracy and see politicians as irrelevant to their everyday lives.

Partly to blame is the Bulgarian system of proportional representation. This has resulted in elections where electors are faced with lists of unfamiliar names, rather than identifiable personalities. Once the election is over the horse-trading begins, party ideologies are forgotten and the most unlikely coalitions emerge. The egregious example is the latest triple coalition of Socialists, royalists and Turks.

The middle classes in Bulgaria struggle on in the hope that the unfairness of a corrupt system will not affect them too closely. They moan about the system, pay the bribes and get on with their lives. According to surveys, they have been, at least until recently, fairly confident about their individual futures in a country where the corollary of ineffective government is considerable tax evasion.
Do Bulgarians feel more comfortable with stupid politicians?

In the 130-odd years since Bulgaria emerged from Ottoman rule, it would be fair to say that democracy has largely been a charade. People forget that, immediately before the 45 years of Communism, there were periods of repressive rule. The list includes the rule of modernising liberal Stefan Stambolov (1887–1894), of agrarian Aleksandar Stamboliyski (1921–1923) and the purges and repression that followed the 1923 military coup. After another coup in 1934, King Boris banned all political parties and established his authoritarian rule, the end result of which was Bulgaria joining the Axis.

In the history of Bulgaria since 1878, there have been very few politicians who deserve the title of statesman, and all of these met violent ends. Ironically, these included Stambolov and Stamboliyski, and to some extent Nikola Petkov, a leader of the leftwing agrarians, whom the Communists executed in 1947 because of his avowed commitment to democracy. One of the few Communists who might claim the title is the first Communist dictator, Georgi Dimitrov, believed to have been murdered on the orders of Stalin.

In contrast, the model and benchmark for all aspiring Bulgarian politicians has to be Europe's longest serving Communist leader and national joke, Todor Zhivkov. Although admittedly supported by the state terror system constructed by his Stalinist predecessors, he was still the ideal politician for a time when every thinking person knew the truth but dared not speak it.
How much better to be reconciled to a dysfunctional system than to have as your leader someone you can at least laugh at? And with pseudo-democracy and the popularity of cheap satire this tradition continues.

Following Zhivkov's fall, Zhelyu Zhelev, the first democratically elected president, was ridiculed by some as a dwarf in a wrinkled suit. Former king, and prime minister from 2001 to 2005, Simeon Saxe-Coburg not only laboured under a difficult-to-pronounce name but was famous for his inability to fulfil his pledge to improve "significantly" the lives of Bulgarians in "800 days" – and for his refusal to give a concrete answer to even the most mundane question such as "What time is it, prime minister?" The current government leader, Socialist Sergey Stanishev, born and educated in Russia, used to wear a biker's leather jacket with the legend: "If you can read this, Elena has fallen off the back of the bike." This lame attempt at humour has not enhanced his recent denials that there was no crisis in Bulgaria, while everything else pointed in that direction.

An inescapable demographic is key to understanding the puzzling success of certain parties in elections since 1990. Bulgaria has an ageing population. The birth rate is high only among the distinct Turkish, Pomak and Gypsy communities. A large number of enterprising, highly qualified young people have emigrated.

A sufficiently significant proportion of older voters can be persuaded to look at the past through rose-coloured spectacles – to a time when they fell in love, brought up children, got their first Lada and danced to "Hotel California." They had secure, undemanding jobs, could call an ambulance every time they felt queasy and believed the crime rate was low because police could beat up criminals.

Since 1990 the factories have closed. The health system has crumbled. Pensions will not cover heating bills in the winter. Press freedom has brought scary crime stories. Looking for the certainties of their youth, most pensioners vote for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the name the old Communist party assumed in 1990.

If older voters don't vote BSP they are likely to vote for Ataka, the extreme nationalist party. Its leader, Volen Siderov, emulates Mussolini in his espousal of extra-parliamentary action. With his shock of white hair and set expression of outrage, he is often to be seen scrambling on top of a car, megaphone in hand, to address crowds of supporters. Ataka depends on the paranoia and wounded national pride of the majority of the population. Its supporters readily believe in a version of history where Bulgaria has been the victim of some monstrous conspiracy. Sinister anti-Semitism has, for the time being, been concealed by more popular attacks on Turkey and Europe.

Siderov's job of polarising the nation is made easier by the persistent presence of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms in governments of every colour. Led by Ahmed Dogan, the DPS has been effective in securing the votes not only of the Turkish speaking community, but also of the Turks who left Bulgaria in the late 1980s but still had guaranteed voting rights. Dogan is a great political survivor but he and his party have been accused of major abuses, particularly in the areas they control at a local level. With the polarisation caused by Ataka, there is little hope that moderate Turkish voters will see that their interests are not best represented by the DPS.

In the heady early months of 1990s democracy, the SDS, or Union of Democratic Forces, was formed as the main opposition to the BSP. There is now considerable evidence that this party was packed with former Communists and State Security agents, determined that whoever won the first elections, they would still be in control.

Be that as it may, despite a confident SDS campaign featuring pop and film stars and the music of The Beatles, the first election returned a Socialist government. Power then alternated until the disastrous Socialist rule of Zhan Videnov (1995–1997) saw banks fail, shops emptied of goods and serious unrest on the streets.

The SDS's chance came and the streets of Sofia filled with tight-suited American economic advisors. Ivan Kostov implemented Reaganite shock therapy but the people soon tired of it. In the next election they voted for the newly returned king. Kostov still lurks on the fringes of the right wing that seems now irreparably split. Ironically nick-named the Commander, because of his perceived arrogance, he probably still hopes to be recognised as a statesman, without suffering the normal statesman's fate.

The former king, Simeon II, returned surrounded by European educated Bulgarians – the children of former exiles – and his party promptly won the election on the promise of putting everything right in 800 days.

Part of Simeon's attraction was that he had not lived in Bulgaria since his childhood and therefore should not have been compromised by a shady Communist past. Unfortunately, his rule accelerated the creation of a new robber baron class. Miles of Black Sea coast fell into the possession of the brother of one of his ministers. A protégé became the new telecom magnate and arranged a meeting between that same minister and one of Bulgaria's most notorious entrepreneurs on his yacht in Monte Carlo. Inevitably, as Simeon recovered his royal estates, rumours circulated that he needed to pay off vast gambling debts.

Optimism springs eternal and the latest figure to take on the role of strong leader out of nowhere is the demagogue and former body guard, Boyko Borisov, with his patriotic party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, or GERB (literally "Coat of Arms"). As Mayor of Sofia, Borisov loses no photo opportunity to present himself as a fearless man of action, not afraid even to pick up a shovel and clear the snow from the street. He will travel far to deliver outspoken attacks on the current situation. Recently, talking to emigrants in Chicago, he described the Bulgarian electorate as "bad human material." Nevertheless, he is predicted to do well in the elections. Bulgarians clearly don't mind being insulted – Boyko is the unthinking man's Hristo Stoytchkov.

So we await the elections amid a plethora of accusations about vote buying. But, whatever the result, do not expect any Thailand-style middle-class revolt. Siderov will still be on the street shouting about Turkish genocide. Ahmed Dogan will be relaxing by his yacht on the Black Sea and some kind of coalition will again emerge to face the wrath of the EU commissioners. And ordinary people will continue to go about their lives in a dark glow of cynicism.

Issue 33

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