Where’s the hope in Bulgaria?

The hosts of Cross-border Talks (source: The Cross-border Talks, YouTube)

Bulgarians are caught in a game of mutual domination between the interests of oligarchs and the agendas of Biden-ists and Trump-ists

The Cross-border Talks

This is the transcript of the first segment of the fourth episode of the Cross-border Talks podcast. The Cross-border Talks is a podcast on international relations, hosted by the Polish journalist Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat and her Bulgarian colleague Vladimir Mitev in cooperation with Strajk, The Barricade and Foundation Naprzod.

In this segment Małgorzata and Vladimir speak about current affairs in Bulgarian politics in the context of the forthcoming 14 November 2021 presidential and parliamentary elections. They discuss the protests of 2020, the issue of social change, the influence of internal and international lobbies in Bulgarian politics and what could be territory of hope in it. 

The segment on Bulgarian politics and society was streamed on 18 September 2021 at the Cross-border Talks YouTube channel

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Hello, everybody, and welcome to another issue of Cross-border talks. We are going to explore the political map of Bulgaria, having a closer look at possible external influences in the country and how the divisions on political scene reflect divisions in much bigger and stronger allies of Bulgaria. And we are also going to search for legacy of the huge mass protests that happened in Bulgaria not so long ago (in 2020). But our guest Vladimir is going to argue, there is absolutely nothing left from them. Well, why does it happen so and why this country, in a beautiful part of the world, cannot find a way to prosperity. These are the questions that we are going to try to answer in this issue of Cross-border Talks.

And Vladimir, perhaps we will start with the legacy of the protests. Let me just remind that the protests in Bulgaria were perhaps not that popular in international mass-media as the protests in Belarus which were running more or less in the same time. Nevertheless, there was a huge, huge surprise in Bulgaria, a country which seemed to be completely well deprived of any hopes for a better future and yet in 2020, Bulgaria had thousands people in the streets, and not only in the capital city, in your city of Rose as well. So what did the protest leave behind?

Vladimir Mitev: Hello to everyone. It’s a huge issue on one hand, because these protests really grabbed the attention of not only Bulgarians but also the world in a way, even though the Belorussian protests were going on at the same tie as you said. We need to remember that there was a resolution of the European Parliament in October 2020 which probably for the first time recognized openly that there is a problem with rule of law in Bulgaria. Also following the change of power in Bulgaria, the fall of Borisov government and coming in power of a caretaker government appointed by the President, Roman Radev, the US have imposed sanctions upon two important oligarchs in Bulgaria who were somehow believed to be close or used to have been close to the previous regime, what we had under Borisov. So there were developments on one hand.

But on the other hand I have written for Open democracy and in other media as well: these protests didn’t quite produce an agenda for change. They didn’t have a clear vision, in my view, beyond some general statements about the anti-corruption fight. I guess a lot of people have been asking why, if the Prosecutor General, Ivan Geshev, attacks certain large-scale business men, why the anti-corruption protests are against this chief prosecutor. So there are various things that need to be explained, but in short, I guess Bulgaria is not an exception to a number of countries of the region where certain oligarchy is formed after the transition from socialism, and we also, when we look at the developments, we need to see that and understand that there is fight not only between international powers such as, for example, Biden versus Trump or Biden-ists versus Trump-ists, but also between our local oligarchs, who sometimes side with one party or with one leader and sometimes with another.

And I guess the interest of those people who, Bulgaria or the political allies, if I may say or the economical elite, I guess their interest is maybe to reflect the changes in the world, to be prepared for what is happening around the world and Bulgaria to have certain set up so that it could sail in those waters that are changing after the fall of Trump. But on the other hand their interest is also for this agenda of change, not to be encouraged too much, and for people to behave well, I guess, for the elite. That means that people should be somehow unaware of important processes or tendencies and just attack one or the other structure when necessary. I don’t know if I’m not too general, but maybe we could expand any of those issues further into the discussion.

It is me to ask who are the people who rule Bulgaria. Because you used this expression and a little bit earlier you said that one of the important developments after the protest was the fall of Borisov’s government which honestly seemed to be lasting forever in Bulgaria. And now with a caretaker government, with a series of elections that did not give a decisive result and yet with a series of so-called anti systemic parties that appear to reappear in Bulgarian political scene… who are those who actually have the upper hand?

It’s a large claim to make, if you expect me to name those people. I guess, probably, as in most countries they are not so much on the news. But one way to understand what happens is to look at the media and to look at political fights that have been going on in the last ten or more years. If we do so, we may notice that a large number of political talks or developments have been circled around the contradiction between Peevski and Prokopiev, who are to large scale businessmen and who are said to have influenced various powers, including judicial or media power. But of course they’re not the only ones who are on the scene and I guess we have reached… If we look at the media space, basically it looks like you have to be either a party or an oligarchy in order to own a media. So if, if some media wants to have stability, financial stability and to have certain consistencies in view, maybe I don’t know, it has to have an important power, political or economic power aligned to it. And certainly if we look at television or newspapers or whatever, we’ll notice that basically a lot of businessmen (some people use the term oligarchs), fight their games or power fights through media and in politics.

It has to be said that Bulgaria is not an island in the world and there are also international interests. Bulgaria is known for having a heterogeneous society. We are not so uniform as maybe some other societies appear to be. If you ask some strategic foreign policy question, such as macedonian question or Russia or the EU, the UK, the attitudes are different, you don’t have a uniform attitude towards them. There are always conflicting opinions. Maybe that is the charm of Bulgaria if you wish. If you can somehow live safely in that environment, maybe you can learn a lot about the world. But once again I reach the issue that in my view at least our elites are not so interested in getting to the core of certain issues, political, economic et cetera. Maybe they are more interested in us dominating one another in society but not somehow forming a common understanding or certain union or development together. So that’s about those people who rule Bulgaria.

So I am wondering what are their ambitions in external politics, as this broadcast is devoted mainly to international affairs? What are the plans of the elites of Bulgaria, for Bulgaria, and how do the bulgarian allies look at these plans? Bulgaria is, after all, a member of a few important international organizations, and it is also strategically located at the Black Sea. So it is impossible just to sleep calmly and to discuss different matters. So, even though your political elites are heterogeneous, there must be some final idea emerging from that.

It is once again an enigma, in my view, what Bulgaria wants. I guess it’s an enigma, but of course there are some hints at what could be taking place. And let me just remind our readers that we are discussing the forthcoming third elections in one year, third parliamentary elections and together with them presidential elections in November. The Bulgarian parliament has just been disbanded for the second time this year. So we also have the appearance on the horizon of a new, as they say, political project, although they don’t use the term party. In fact it’s a political project formed by two popular ministers from the government which was appointed by Rumen Radev as some kind of caretaker government that should rule until parliament manages to form a government with its majority. But this didn’t happen.

So eventually this caretaker government, with some changes, continues. And well, in this context, What are the hints? I guess one hint is easy to spot, especially if you look at the media in Bulgaria. So the internal plot probably is related to the legacy of Borisov. President Radev is growing his power. And possibly we need to see whether those forces who are allied with Borisov and are now in a position, whether they will gradually lose their influence or they will manage to somehow preserve it. But also we have the international context where we know that Biden came to power in the USA in the beginning of this year. Even though Biden was elected with many votes, many votes also were given to Donald Trump, and I guess this division is can be seen all over our region between, if I simplify them, Biden-ists and Trump-ists. There are people who are somehow more open to the current American administration and people who are more open to the previous one. You can see certain clashes between them. Of course everyone is right and of course the other one is always wrong. But maybe there are also other contradictions or hints which go a little bit unreported.

For example, I remember seeing a few months ago a statement by the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, the caretaker one which used the term strategic autonomy when addressing certain group of businessmen. So one guesses that those tendencies which are characteristic for the EU, which involve certain clashes between those classical euro atlanticist countries or lobbies and those who are a little bit closer to open strategic autonomy… this maybe happens also in Bulgaria. However, it is not quite articulated. You may hear some foreign policy experts speak in general about strategic autonomy or to speak about it, addressing the EU, but they don’t discuss it in Bulgarian context.

On one hand, things are not quite articulated in Bulgaria. You know, you don’t get those concepts or stories that explain really what is going on, but on the other hand I have the feeling that Bulgarians, or at least those people who are involved in politics, economy, know well what is going on. I mean they know who they are and they know who their opponents are. So that is one specific thing about Bulgaria. On one hand, nothing is told, everything is secret and on the other hand everything is known.

Sadly, one thing that is quite widely known about Bulgaria is also the fact that it is an extremely poor country.The economic transformation of the beginning of transition, on one hand gave the allowed the oligarchs to rise that you mentioned already, but on the other hand also threw millions of Bulgarians in very bad economical conditions, particularly outside of the cities. Sadly, this does not change with protests. With all these discussions that take place, Bulgaria is still near the very end of the list of the most prosperous countries of Europe. It is on the beginning of the list of the countries with huge inequalities, and I remember also our own talks in Rousse, in Bulgaria when we discuss the general atmosphere of the country, the inequalities and lack of chances for people who do not belong to any of those influential groups, who do not have contacts, etcetera. I guess that the pandemic only worsened the situation.

There is always hope and there must be hope that time does not stand still. That is why I am also looking positively at what has been attempted in Bulgaria in the last year. That is why I also tried to reflect on the protests which were one year ago. We still don’t have quite clear articulation of the legacy of Borisov. I mean when he ruled we were aware of corruption, a lot of things were being said about the mafia. But still, I guess, until the person who is chief prosecutor is not changed, I guess there will be no significant dismantling of what was constructed before. And the hope, well, I would be happy if people generally get empowered by politics, but at least I guess beyond Sofia things are not quite happening in this way. And you mentioned coronavirus, Bulgaria is in first place, I think, internationally, in two rankings which are not positive at all. On one hand, the death rate of the corona crisis is very high in Bulgaria and on the other hand the level of vaccination is the lowest in the EU. I don’t want to go much into analysis on that. There are a lot of sensitivities on these issues and a lot of people who are convinced in their positions on any side of the debate. But basically maybe I could make this conclusion in relation also to what you said about Rousse when we were here together.

There is a certain conservatism in people, especially out of Sofia. I guess this conservatism is not obligatory or only in the sense of sticking to traditions, dancing, popular dances or, I don’t know, going to church. Bulgarians, I think, are less religious than other people in the region. But it is certain conservatism, I guess, in the way of thinking. So people are somehow careful of what they perceive as coming from the outside, at least outside of their circles. And I should say that maybe that is not unique to Bulgaria as well. Basically, even through my work in Bulgarian and Romanian space, I realize that usually when something new happens there is a certain suspicion that it is organized or orchestrated somehow from the outside. And maybe that explains the certain level of conservatism and the fact that the EU has vaccinated more than 70% of its population, while Bulgaria and Romania, are the two least vaccinated countries against coronavirus right now.

And it is a little bit surprising what you say, because on one hand, people, you say that people are conservative and so anxious of change and anxious of trying new solutions, as I may assume. On the other hand, what was taking place in Bulgaria over the last two decades was absolutely depressing, and you can say a lot of things about Borisov regime, but not that it assured prosperity, not that it assured decent standard of living for most Bulgarians. And if so, I’m wondering if you’re if people are conservative and anxious of change, then what must happen in your country so that it finally leaves this vicious circle, lending the power to the same people again and again, making new political projects that are in fact the the same people under new logos and majority still fighting to survive.

You are asking grand questions and I have been looking for some answers, at least for me, for me, as I have said, also in one program which I recorded, together with my colleagues, among which also were you for the Paul Jay’s broadcast, The analysis, at least in my view, certain internationalization can be the hope. There are different standards beyond Bulgaria. And if we are answering those international standards, then maybe we can be a little bit more sure that we do also something meaningful in Bulgarian context. 

I really fear this tendency, which I sometimes compare with quarter thinking. You know, thinking from the quarter of a certain city, that we have certain in-group and we reproduce only what we have in our in-group. It is a kind of mafia approach to society. And I guess that’s one reason I’m not so tempted to vote for one party or oligarch, even if it is a good oligarch or is a good party against the other, ”evil ones”. I would be more interested if somebody outlined certain vision for changing the deeper social structures and of course that may be impossible. That is very utopian. Of course he may be isolated if he’s so sincere about what he does. But I guess without a certain approach to this problem no change really takes place. We just reproduce the same thinking which we have been having in transition times or maybe beyond that, and we have just one life. So maybe some people think they are immortal, maybe they have a certain belief in the immortality of certain ideas like Bulgarian nation or I don’t know what idea and ideology. But in reality we have a certain limited time and I just hope that our elites which, I guess undergo certain, replacement. I just hope that the coming elites will be more aware of all those issues. Maybe they will have learned something while studying in the West. Maybe they have new ideas. Maybe I am naive to think it’s really something new coming. But in any case we must always have hope.

It is a very strong message actually, and I think we could finish at this moment. Just for the end. I will ask you no more, not a grand question anymore, just I will ask you for a big political prediction: will Bulgaria have a stable government this year or well, perhaps perhaps in the beginning of the next year. Or how long will this time of instability last?

I remember that some time ago, maybe even before the first election these years, which were on 4th April, I gave an interview to the Iranian Labor News Agency where they asked me what will happen in our region now that Biden is coming to the US, and they also asked me about relations with Russia, etcetera, and I remember answering something like: these contradictions, those mutual accusations et cetera will continue, I guess, until the right people come to power. At least that’s a very Bulgarian way of putting things maybe. But I really feel that we shall be summoned to vote as many times as necessary in order to form this stable, possibly pro-Biden majority in parliament or in government.

Well, that is the spirit of times. There are a lot of attempts to resist change. But that is the spirit of time. I’m not sure whether the new parliament which will be formed after November, will also have this new balance of forces which will allow for stable majority. But we have two months more. In any case, I am certain that if, if it is unable to form a new government, Rumen Radev is in power, possibly it is expected that he will be reelected. That will be maybe the biggest intrigue if he will get reelection without the votes of the party which has the support of the Turkish minority. In any case we are no longer no man’s land. So whatever happens in the USA, in the Western Europe, is reflected in our country.

Perhaps in the end, the best I can say is to wish you and all the Bulgarians that some prosperity finally comes to your country, and but this never-ending voting finally leads to election of people who want to change something and people who have vision that you mentioned, and we are going to follow-up what is going on in Bulgaria, what is going on in the region? Because our region, as you said, very often reflects things that happen somewhere else, is often influenced by things that happen far-away from Eastern and Central Europe, and all these developments influence our everyday lives. So thank you very much for being with us, don’t stay for the second part of the program as well and don’t forget to subscribe to the YouTube channel Cross-border Talks. Thank you very much.

Photo: “Let’s break the mafia state!”, says a banner at the 2020 summer and autumn protests in Sofia, which were a prelude to the fall of Borissov’s government in April 2021 (source: Wikipedia Commons)

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