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  • Published in International

Dancho Medarov evaluates the political crisis and corruption in Bulgaria and the development and response of the anti-neoliberal movement

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov has stepped down after a week of protests against rising energy costs. At least 14 people were injured in clashes with the police in the capital Sofia last night, prompting Borisov to claim he could not “stand by looking at a bloody Eagle’s Bridge”, referring to Sofia’s major intersection. Parliament must now ratify his decision in a vote due on Thursday. With national elections, due in July, expected to see his GERB party fall from power, the country has been thrown into a deep political crisis.

The situation has been changing over the day with protests both in support of and opposing Borisov taking place. The Bulgarian Stock Exchange has been thrown in confusion, and political parties from across the spectrum are making confused claims to power.

The immediate reason for both the protests and the resignation was the 13 per cent increase in electricity prices, which hit ordinary Bulgarian’s heating bills hard. As with recent environmental protests that have seen thousands mobilised against fracking – now banned in Bulgaria – and the privatisation of forests, demonstrations across the country were organised at first through social networking sites. An initial call for demonstrations placed on Facebook last week attracted many thousands claiming they would attend. Protestors have called for the expulsion of foreign-owned producers and the renationalisation of Bulgarian power supplies alongside the reversal of price increases.

Despite the promise of tough action against the privatised electricity concerns by the administration, including the removal earlier in the week of Czech CEZ’s licence to operate, protests continued, moving to demand Borisov’s resignation in the last few days. Subsequent attempts by the main opposition parties, the Bulgarian Socialist Party and former EU Commissioner Meglena Kuneva’s Movement for Bulgarian Citizens, to claim leadership of the movement have been noisily rejected in the social media. Bulgaria’s relatively large trade unions have been largely absent from protests, although many of their estimated 500,000 members have attended.

However, it is clear that the heating bills are only the tip of the iceberg. The decline in living standards, reduced employment, and constantly rising costs of living have sent people onto the streets. Corruption and political clientelism have also been meeting with growing public outrage. A wide range of protests have been taking place since last year and the government’s and the Prime Minister’s personal popularity have been taking serious blows. The exact reasons for the Prime Minister’s decision to resign (after claiming 24 hours earlier that he did not even consider this option) remain highly unclear and in the realm of political calculations with regard to the upcoming elections.

If the Bulgarian Parliament accepts Borisov’s resignation on Thursday, as is expected, the constitution provides for the formation of an interim government. The Socialist Party has already ruled out participation in a caretaker administration, raising the possibility of early elections.

Corruption

Borisov has been put under growing political pressure over the last year. Although he retains considerable personal popularity, GERB, the “Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria”, formed largely around him in 2006, is lagging significantly in the polls. Non-euro member Bulgaria has mostly avoided the severe austerity tearing apart southern Europe, although sharp cuts to particular budgets have provoked disquiet. But the rising cost of living in the EU’s poorest country, have severely undermined his right-wing administration, and unemployment has now reached 11%.

Recent revelations about Borisov’s past and that of his close associates have added to the turmoil. A former karate instructor and bodyguard of claimant to the Bulgarian throne, Simeon Saxe-Coburg, Borisov rose to public prominence as a powerful official in the Interior Ministry after Saxe-Coburg’s election as Prime Minister in 2001. Borisov developed a reputation as a tough anti-corruption campaigner, successfully standing for mayor of Sofia in 2005 and using this as a base to launch GERB in 2006, as Saxe-Coburg’s political star waned.

Despite (or because of) the no-nonsense image, Borisov’s career has been dogged by persistent allegations of corruption and mafia connections. A confidential 2006 US Embassy report, leaked by Wikileaks in 2011, linked Borisov to “oil-siphoning scandals, illegal deals involving LUKoil and major traffic in methamphetamines,” using his position as head of Bulgarian law enforcement to provide a cover for himself and his close associates.

In 2007, the US Congressional Quarterly further claimed that a confidential Swiss bank investigation into Borisov produced evidence of 30 unsolved “assassinations and mob-style killings of persons identified with criminal groupings in Bulgaria” under his watch at the Interior Ministry, noting that “Many of the investigations reportedly led by Borisov have been closed without results or explanations.” Borisov’s private security company, Ipon, was further detailed in the “3-inch thick dossier” to be linked to Sofia-based mafia gang SIK.

And in February this year, an investigation by bivol.bg alleged that since at least the late 1990s, Borisov was “Agent Buddha” – a paid informant for anti-corruption police, exploiting his deep connections to the Bulgarian underworld.

US ally

Borisov and his party have dismissed all allegations as little more than smears. His international allies have remained staunchly in support of his government, crucially including the US. Borisov was the first foreign head of state to be received by President Obama following his 2012 re-election, Obama praising him as a “very effective leader” and describing Bulgaria as “one of our most outstanding NATO allies”. The EU has been less fulsome in its praise, but successive monitoring reports (enacted as a condition of EU membership) have noted Borisov’s efforts to clamp down on corruption.

The NATO connection is critical. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 prompted two decades of steady but persistent NATO expansion into former Warsaw Pact countries. Bulgaria’s own Communist Party fell from power in early 1990, recreating itself as the Bulgarian Socialist Party and managing to win elections of June that year. A process of transformation of political into economic power had begun with leading Party officials becoming leading businessmen. World Bank recommended “Shock therapy”, was begun in 1992, as the Union of Democratic Forces attempted to privatize much of Bulgarian industry and agriculture, provoking mass unemployment. These two processes allowed corruption and mafia-like structures to become a permanent fixture of Bulgarian political life. Nonetheless, the basic contours of post-Communist economic policy were fixed, the Socialist Party – whatever its rhetoric – rapidly abandoning serious attempts at reversing the neoliberal march.

Unpopularity with both main parties by the early 2000s cleared the way for the return of Saxe-Coburg, or “Simeon II”, to his native country after nearly six decades in exile. His National Movement of Simeon II (NDSV) won a landslide election victory in 2001, promising national renewal through a firmly pro-Western foreign policy allied to an extension of neoliberal economic management. NATO membership was granted in 2004, while – in coalition with the Socialist Party - EU membership was achieved (with some Brussels reservations) in 2007.

Support for the US war on terror from 2001 onwards undoubtedly helped smooth the route westwards, with Bulgaria deploying troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. NSDV signed the “Defence Co-operation Agreement” in 2006, allowing US troops use of Bulgarian military facilities for training. Bezmer airbase is now amongst the most important US foreign bases, with Foreign Policy magazine claiming that Bulgaria would be less likely to block its use for combat operations than “old Europe”. US cables released by Wikileaks confirm Bulgaria’s transformation into a key US ally over this period, the US prioritizing improving Bulgaria’s ability to “deploy and fight interoperably with US and NATO forces”. Bulgaria’s foreign minister, in 2011, offered the use of the country for the deployment of new US missile systems, should Turkey refuse permission for their siting.

However, the financial crisis of 2008-9 broke the back of the coalition government, allowing Borisov’s GERB to come to power in July that year. While the domestic pace of neoliberal reform may have lessened – plans for a 10% “flat tax”, raised by the previous government, being shelved, and the nationalization of pension funds being attempted – Bulgaria’s foreign positioning has remained unaltered, as Borisov’s warm US reception demonstrates. The bombing of a bus at the popular resort of Burgas in July, which killed five Israelis and the Bulgarian driver – immediately blamed by Israel on Hezbollah - has to be understood in this light. Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s defence minister discussed opening a permanent US base at Novo Selo in December last year, according to sources in the Bulgarian military.

Balancing acts

Bulgaria’s emergence, over the last decade, as a key link within the US’ European strategy, has not gone unnoticed in Moscow. But Russia holds critical strategic advantages. Bulgaria relies on Russia’s Gazprom for well over 90% of its gas, making it immediately vulnerable to shutdown – the country saw its supplies cut off during the January 2009 energy dispute between Russia and Ukraine. Russian-owned Lukoil refines 70% of the country’s oil. The US warned the country to reduce its dependence on Russian energy sources after its Parliament banned shale gas extraction through fracking. US companies were widely anticipated to win key shale gas contracts, and US oil company Chevron’s licence to explore for gas was revoked.

Despite fears raised in US policy circles at the end of the 1990s, Vladimir Putin’s administration has been largely content to allow NATO expansion in return, at least implicitly, for a free hand in what Russia sees as its own backyard in central Asia. Bulgaria’s long realignment towards the US leaves the country still in practice heavily dependent on Russia and the historic and commercial ties between the two countries are substantial. As long as Moscow’s hand is on the gas tap, its position will remain secure. On Tuesday morning, shortly prior to resigning, Borisov had a lengthy phone call with Vladimir Putin, to discuss – according to the Kremlin – issues of “mutual interest”.

Official politics in Bulgaria, as across the Balkans, is a delicate balancing act between mutually competing interests. These have been dominated by its international alignment for the last decade, as the drive to the west continued, but increasingly domestic concerns are coming to the fore. The promises of EU membership have not been fully fulfilled, significant areas of the country remain underdeveloped and employment outside of the major cities is lacking. Simultaneously, the combined effects of the global crisis and neoliberalism are forcing a serious squeeze on living standards. Official corruption remains widespread, whatever the claims of Borisov’s government. But successive protest movements since 2009 have been unable to create an alternative political leadership, leaving them vulnerable to political manipulation, or simple confusion.

The recent rounds of protests have fallen prey, in part, to both. The demonstrations were relatively large across the country, but the presence of the ultras – mixed gangs of football hooligans, neo-nazis, and mafia elements – was clear, and recognised by the Prime Minister himself. Open to paid manipulation, the ultras have become a recurring presence in the more shadowy parts of Bulgaria’s political life.

On the other side, leading figures within the protest movement have vowed that demonstrations will continue, with a national protest schedule for 24 February. The demand for an Iceland-style “Grand National Assembly” to provide changes to the Bulgarian constitution has been raised. However, with protest organisers themselves divided over their next steps – a public spat erupted earlier in the week over an alleged deal with Borisov – it is unclear as yet what the response will be.

The situation remains open and very dynamic. The main parties, and the factions they represent, will continue to jockey for position. But a powerful response from the streets and the workplaces can break open their balancing act. As in other former Communist countries, the years since the fall of the Stalinist regimes have seen a succession of failed promises. A brief period of economic and political stability in the mid-2000s was broken by the financial crisis; meanwhile, the EU itself no longer holds the promise of a clear route to prosperity. The development here of an independent, anti-neoliberal popular movement is critical if the grip of corrupt politicians and great power interests are to be broken.

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