An Outsider’s guide to Bulgarian politics

A politician is an arse upon which everybody has sat except a man

e.e. cummings

With parliamentary elections looming in Bulgaria, the hot air of increasingly violent debate will leave most Bulgarians cold. 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 one’s fellow man. In the UK most still judge politicians on their competence rather than their venality. In the US 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 seventeen years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, snouts were guzzling state resources and since 2007 the substantial subsidies provided by the EU.

Amid continuous tales of routine corruption, ministerial links with organized 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 hundred and thirty odd years since Bulgaria emerged from Turkish rule, it would be fair to say that democracy has been largely a charade. People can forget that immediately before the forty five years of communism, there were long periods of repressive Tsarist rule – most notably from 1926 when a military coup resulted in the murders of 5000 people, suppression of popular parties and an eventual alliance with Hitler.

In the history of Bulgaria since 1878, there have been very few politicians who deserve the title of statesman – all of these met violent ends. Stambolov,  Stamboliski and Nikola Petkov are good examples. The few communists who might still claim Georgi Dimitrov as a statesman believe he was 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. Admittedly supported by the state terror system constructed by his Stalinist predecessors, he was still the ideal politician for the time when every thinking person knew the truth but dared not speak it.

How much better to be reconciled to a shitty system than to have as your leader someone you could at least laugh at? And with pseudo democracy and the popularity of cheap satire this tradition continues.

Following Zhivkov’s fall the first democratic president was a dwarf in a wrinkled suit with very dubious claims to having been a dissident.  Former king and more recently Prime Minister Simeon Saksokoborgotski not only laboured under a stupid name but was famous for his inability to tell the time or date – especially following his promise to put Bulgaria right in eight hundred days. The current Prime Minister Socialist Sergei 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 the figure he cuts at international conferences where he hovers like the guest invited by mistake.

Nostalgia and Nationalism – key levers in popular vote

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 speaking 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 thieves.

Since 1990 the factories closed. The Health System crumbled. Pensions will not cover heating bills in the winter. Press freedom brought scary crime stories. Looking for the certitudes of their youth, most pensioners vote for the BSP – the party formed by the Communists in 1990.

If older voters don’t vote BSP they are likely to vote for Ataka, the extreme nationalist party.  Its leader, Volen Ziderov follows 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 to the top of a car, megaphone in hand, to address large crowds of supporters.  Ataka depends on the paranoia  and hurt national pride of the majority 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.

Ziderov’s job of polarising the nation is made easier by the persistent presence of the Turkish party 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 80s but still have 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 polarization caused by Ataka, there is little hope that moderate Turkish voters will see that their interests are not best represented by the DPS.

 The curious failure of the Right

In the heady months of 1990s democracy the CDC (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, determined that whoever won the first elections, they would still be in control.

Be that as it may, despite a confident CDC campaign featuring pop and film stars and the music of the Beatles, the first election returned a socialist government. Power then alternated till the disastrous Socialist regime of Jan Videnov saw shops emptied of goods, banks fail and serious unrest in the streets.

The CDC’s chance came and the streets of Sofia filled with tight suited American economic advisors.  Ivan Kostov implemented Reaganite shock therapy but the people were not ready for it. In the next election they voted for the newly returned Tsar. Kostov still lurks on the fringes of the right wing that seems now irreparably split.

Ironically nick-named the Commander, because of perceived arrogance he probably still hopes to be recognised as a statesman without suffering the normal statesman’s fate.

Won’t somebody help?

Many Bulgarians still seem prepared to believe in the dramatic newcomer – especially if they seem strong and are without compromising past.

The former Tsar Simeon II returned to Bulgaria surrounded by European educated Bulgarian “businessmen” – the children of former exiles – and his party promptly won the election on the promise of putting everything right in 800 days. They formed a coalition with the DPS. 

Part of Simeon’s attraction was that he had not lived in Bulgaria 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 one of his ministers.  A protégé became the new telecom magnate and arranged a meeting between the same minister and Bulgaria’s then most notorious gangster on his yacht in Monte Carlo.  Inevitably as Simeon recovered his royal estates rumours began 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 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 spade and clear the snow from the street. He will travel far to deliver outspoken attacks on the current situation.  Most 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 Christo Stoichkov.

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. Ziderov will be still on the street shouting about Turkish genocide.  Ahmed Dogan will be relaxing by his yacht in Otmanlie 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.