My father’s faith in communism evaporated during a summer of backbreaking work at the docks on the Black Sea. Like all good young Bulgarian communists, he had to undertake a few months of hard labor during university holidays, unloading cargo before going back to his studies. He saw then the way the economy worked — or didn’t. It was all about gaming the system. The best jobs and most lucrative contracts went to party members and stooges. He began to work on his escape plan. Years later, he abdicated his legal counsel posting in a Middle East embassy and fled to the West.
I often wonder what would have happened if our family had stayed put, given that my native Bulgaria is now a member of the European Union. But it doesn’t take very long, reading its newspapers, to find out how little has changed. The conspiracy and paranoia remain, but this time they are aided and abetted by billions in EU funding. And for as long as those running the country make pro-EU noises, they don’t get trouble from Brussels. It’s a scandal. But few outside the failing state care.
Bulgaria has the dubious distinction of having the highest level of corruption in the EU, according to Transparency International. But only now are the shenanigans surrounding the current Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov — an ex-firefighter — finally getting some international attention. Pictures of Borisov sleeping in his bedroom with a Glock 9mm handgun and bundles of €500 notes stuffed in his drawer have been leaked and sent around the world, as have recordings of his phone conversations, peppered with profanities and plots. Borisov has tried to shrug off the photos, arguing (in effect) that everyone must know that the prime minister of the most corrupt member of the EU has to sleep with a gun. His detractors were out to get him, he said: ‘All that was missing was a little boy next to me.’
But even in a country hardened to corruption, all of this has raised questions. The focus of the ongoing anti-government protests is Borisov’s links to two men: Ahmed Dogan, who used to run Bulgaria’s ethnic Turkish party, and Delyan Peevski, who controls most of the newspapers. Protests erupted last month after it emerged that government security services had been protecting Dogan’s luxury Black Sea compound, cutting off access to the public beach nearby. Hristo Ivanov, a former justice minister who now heads the anti-corruption ‘Yes’ party, landed a dinghy on the beach, saying he wanted to plant a Bulgarian flag in the sand. He filmed the stunt on his mobile, released it on social media, and mayhem ensued. The main question people are asking: why is Borisov allowing taxpayers’ money to be used to provide security to a private billionaire?
It’s pretty indefensible, but Borisov has found allies in the transnational European People’s party, the biggest group in the European Parliament. Manfred Weber, group leader of the EPP, released a statement in support of the Bulgarian government’s ‘fight against corruption’. With protests still going on — and Bulgarian citizens chanting ‘Mafia’ outside their parliament — a defiant Borisov somehow secured a €29 billion package from the EU. One protestor held up a sign that asked: ‘EU, are you blind?’
The most likely answer is that the EU sees what it wants to see. Borisov positions himself as the only leader who can keep Bulgaria on a pro-EU trajectory, and that seems to be enough for Brussels. One Bulgarian source who has links to the EU tells me Borisov is seen as a conduit to Turkey: ‘It is well known in Brussels that if Merkel wants to get to Erdogan, she can go through Borisov. He is a political cab for hire: as long as he keeps saying yes, he will receive his golden shower of euros.’
This might be a short-term strategy. Bulgarians are now asking who else is in Borisov’s network and whether it might include forces outside parliament that are by no means friendly to European interests. EU-backed plans for a pipeline that would cut Bulgaria’s reliance on Russian gas have been repeatedly impeded by the Bulgarian state and — some say — Russian interests within the country.
Julian Popov, environment minister in a former Bulgarian caretaker government, said that his country offers easy strategic pickings for Moscow: ‘South-eastern Europe is the cheapest way for Russia to destabilize the EU. For the past 30 years there has been a vacuum, so it is very easy for corrupt forces to influence things.’
Borisov is now under pressure to resign, but it is far from certain that he will do so. No matter who ends up in charge, says Popov, ‘the EU must undertake a much more thorough examination into strategic corruption. Much of the money can be accounted for on paper — but the EU should be probing who is getting the contracts and how competent is the infrastructure that is being delivered. They are rewarding loyalty at the expense of the rule of law.’
Krassen Stanchev, an economics professor at Sofia University, argues that EU cash is being channeled to corrupt forces in Bulgaria in two ways. One is by directly distributing funds to businesses owned by Borisov cronies. Of €200 million recently given to rural guest-house owners, much of it ended up being channeled to friends and families of the government and political elite. The other channel is national infrastructure funding, which can be made to look entirely legitimate. A highway construction project will be divided up into 10 to 20 kilometer stretches, deterring international companies from tendering. ‘This makes the road more expensive to build,’ Stanchev says. ‘It costs three times more to build a kilometer of highway in Bulgaria than in Norway, despite the terrain and price of labor in Norway.’
And Brussels seems happy to look the other way. Ivanov suspects that the EU’s tolerance of Borisov as its Turkey whisperer points to a far deeper malaise. ‘An empire is at the point of eclipse when it allows its border policy to be handled by local warlords,’ he said recently. ‘Somebody in Berlin is making a cynical calculation — a billion more or less, who cares? As long as you buy the good favors of Borisov and you keep him stable…who cares about some “tips”?’
Along the way, the interests of ordinary Bulgarians have been forgotten. They are still living in a kleptocratic state — and all they can do is ask why so little has changed.