An interview about the Bulgarian election campaign on the eve of the 4th April 2021 parliamentary elections: what parties will enter parliament, what happens to the left and the populists, what is the secret of Borisov’s longevity in politics and what are the worst scandals in election times
Vladimir Mitev is the editor of Barricade Romania. He has been dealing with international journalism since 2008. In the last 5-6 years he writes constantly in Romanian. Articles and interviews with him have appeared in Decât o Revistă, Critic Atac, Q Magazine, Magazine 22 and some cultural media in Romania.
This interview was given to the Barricade Romania on 26 March 2021.
Welcome to a new live interview of the Barricade. Today we have Vladimir Mitev with us. Welcome, Vladimir!
Bulgaria’s parliamentary elections are approaching. On 4th April 2021, citizens of the neighboring country are invited to elect their 240 representatives. We decided to have a discussion about what was going on. An in-depth discussion. This should happen very often in Romania, because Bulgaria is a neighbouring country. It is better to look at what is happening around us before we look at what is happening far away, namely across the ocean in the United States. But there is a tendency for the press to look at what is happening in the bright area of Washington, and to observe less what is going on in Sofia. These elections are taking place in a rather tense context, with Bulgaria being the scene of protests that have been long and serious. I would like to ask you, first of all, to tell us which are the main competitors. Who is competing in short?
I’ll try to tell you briefly. There are at least five parties that will enter the next parliament. There are two more parties about to enter parliament.
The first force remains GERB – the party of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov.
How does this translate to Romanian, GERB?
It means Citizens for the European development of Bulgaria. GERB is also a heraldic symbol that belongs to the state (coat of arms). It is an allusion to the state and security apparatus, because when GERB was established, it had former police officers in its ranks. Obviously, the name of GERB is an allusion to the idea of state and security.
Okay, I’m trying to describe the parties, okay?
GERB has been in power since 2009, with short breaks. During the GERB period, we got used to the figure of Boiko Borisov. He created a regime of government that can be called a stabilocracy. So, things have been happening very slowly for a long time. There used to be austerity under GERB. A policy was made that supported certain business circles. Attempts to protest were often met with financial gestures which quelled them.
In 2020, large-scale protests erupted that somehow breathed life into Bulgarian politics. And they put the question if we would still have Boiko Borisov in power. So, at present, GERB is somewhere between 28-29%. It comes first. Obviously, there is support for this party.
The second place is for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which, in a well-known tradition in Romania, turned to left-wing conservatism. It opposed the Istanbul Convention. It came out in support of the traditional family. But on the other hand, the Bulgarian Socialist Party has announced an intention to abolish the flat tax. So in these elections it proposes a return to progressive taxation.
There is another new party called “There is such a people.” It is a party that has strengthened especially after the protests. It is considered a populist party. Alludes to freedoms under coronavirus conditions. If we have to compare him with a party in Romania, it is somewhat similar to AUR’s voters. But on the other hand it has some experts with serious biographies. It is considered to have an influence in the emigrant circles of Bulgaria.
Is it as conservative as our AUR politicians are?
I can’t comment on that right now. Almost all parties in Bulgaria support the traditional family. If you say you are pro-LGBT you will not get many votes. On the other hand, the leader of this party – Slavi Trifonov, is a showman and singer. He made his career singing songs on the one hand traditional, on the other hand modern based on folk music. So in his career as a musician there are these references to tradition. Even his television is called ⅞ which is an irregular rhythm in Bulgarian folklore. ⅞ is the rhythm that is found in Macedonia. This party is expected to take somewhere around 12-13% of the vote.
Around this result will be the result of the ethnic Turkish party, which is called the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. It is a party that is pro-business and is the most loyal defender of the single quota. On the other hand, it is the party from which the oligarch Peevski comes. He has been the target of several protests in recent years. This party is also expected to have good results.
Democratic Bulgaria is in fifth place. It’s an alliance similar to Save Romania Union (USR)-Plus. Yes Bulgaria – an element of this alliance is focused on anti-corruption, just like USR. There are also the Greens and a party of older elites, who ruled with Prime Minister Ivan Kostov in the late 1990s. If I contemplate a little with imagination – in USR they are young, and Plus are a little older, but both are united in these conditions – similarly to Democratic Bulgaria.
And there are two more parties that have a chance to enter, but it’s still not certain. One of them has a name that is difficult to translate. It appeared after the protests. It’s called “Get up! Mobsters, out! ”
Rather anti-Borisov party at present.
And there is another party that is now in government. The VMRO party. The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization. That’s how its name translates. It is a nationalist party. It opposes the Istanbul Convention and Soros. That’s much of their rhetoric.
They ruled with GERB during the time Trump was in power. VMRO is expected to collaborate with GERB if it enters parliament.
Of all the parties you mentioned, there are no leftist forces, as far as I can see.
The Bulgarian Socialist Party is expected to take part in the left-wing vote. If you want the Demos or Romanian Socialist Party type of left, there are some small parties that will participate. They are rather nostalgic parties in a sense. They belong to older generations. They’re more Russophiles if you will. But they do not have a significant influence on society. Participate on the Olympic principle. They have the right to participate and participate.
I understand. It’s so sad. However, this socialist party, I understand that from a cultural point of view it is very conservative, but from an economic point of view it would have some leftist measures. Does it maintain a progressive agenda at least economically?
They have not been in power for a long time. The last time they came to power was in the time of Oresharski, which was considered a government of the oligarchy. Protests against the business mogul Peevski broke out then – in 2013. Prior to that, the Bulgarian Socialist Party was in power through Stanishev’s government (2005-2009). Then the flat tax was introduced.
Has the Socialist Party introduced the flat tax?
Yes, exactly. Experts on the left have been criticizing the measure for many years. But this stain fell on the clothes of the socialist party.
Only a singer’s party came out of the protests against Borisov. I’d really like you to tell me more about him. What are the results of the protests? I understood that this singer, who made his party, is a very colorful character. Tell me more about him! Was he a politician or is he a newcomer to the political scene?
I think both because he’s been around politics for a long time. He had a prime time show on national private television, BTV, for almost 20 years. It was a show of political satire, but also several political projects were launched in his show. Several developments have taken place over the years. It was known that at one point he was friends with Boiko Borisov. Then it looks like they broke up. I don’t know what the connection is now. I remember that a presidential candidate – Meglena Kuneva, started her campaign on his show. So he was not out of politics, but more time allowed the dissatisfaction to be aired through his show. When something bad happened, he and the writers of his show made comments, satire, etc., and somehow an image emerged that he was out of politics and an alternative.
He also launched a referendum a few years ago. I do not remember all the demands of the referendum, but obviously the idea was to hit the political class. Parliamentary parties were considered to receive very large state subsidies. It was considered that there were many deputies in parliament. So, the referendum proposed populist ideas. Even if I’m not mistaken, the idea was that the referendum would allow the election of local police chiefs. One criticism of the referendum was that it would further strengthen the oligarchy. That was then – a few years ago. The current strategy of this party is not to appear often in the media and they do not participate in the debates on television. They have their own television. If they have something to say, they say it there. And so they show that they are different in their absence. All parties talk and are just as bad, while this party is not talking – it is supposed to know what to do and will do.
So they are on the right agenda, pro-business and very conservative, from what I understand.
Indeed, as far as I know, this party has in its program to provide support for the business environment. I honestly hasn’t studied their level of conservatism. I can say something but I might be wrong. It’s not a pro-LGBT party, from what I gather. That is not what the people want today. Rather, they have anti-vaccination or anti-mask tendencies, and so on.
I understand. And what score will they get if they are new to politics?
A pretty serious score.
And tell me about the parties on the left, are there some more important voices or are they just a few small, irrelevant parties …
Look. I would expect the left to mean change. And that is how I would measure if in some elections there are chances of something new – if there is a left party – with vision, with leaders, and so on. I don’t see that in this election. What is considered left are older people and people who are somehow more Russophiles than others. They are small parties and have little influence.
The Bulgarian Socialist Party will probably unite the vote of those who are considered to be on the left, even if they may not agree with all the ideas of the current leader. The leader of the Socialists, Cornelia Ninova, eliminated some groups from the party leadership. And that’s a stake if you will – if in these conditions the old figures have been eliminated and the new people have reached the top, if there will be enough support for this party. Some of the old elites will be alienated.
I do not expect miracles from the left in these elections and there are not many new ideas. That’s what I want to say.
What are the stakes of these elections? Don’t we see the same show repeating itself? However, there have been months of protests in Bulgaria. It all ended with a grotesque image – Prime Minister Borisov photographed sleeping and on the nightstand were piles of hundreds of euros and a pistol. It was like a scene from a movie about the Italian mafia. I understand there have been a lot of scandals. Recordings appeared in the press, he speaking in a suburban language with other colleagues in parliament. Why do you think Borisov is still popular?
There are several answers. One is, of course, that Borisov is something that exists in the subconscious of Bulgarians. It shows deep features of the people. Intellectuals usually hate Borisov. But the common man may resonate in many ways with him.
We know that Borisov was Todor Zhivkov’s bodyguard after Zhivkov fell from power. He also grew up under the wing of King Simeon Saxe Coburg Gotsky. Borisov began his political career in the king’s government at the interior ministry.
There are many answers and I assume that part of the explanation is also international.
There has been much talk that Borisov is a good friend of Erdogan. It is important because Bulgaria has a Turkish minority. Turkey is also a very important country for Bulgaria in many ways. On the other hand, Borisov is always considered a close friend of Angela Merkel. This is how it is discussed that his party was founded with the support of some German political foundations. And more, and more.
He got stronger because he was in power for 11 years. This in itself means that he has a great weight in society and that his power has reached many places in the country. He can’t be eliminated so easily after an 11-year drive that has been so personalized.
It seems to me that the stakes are whether we will have more Borisov or not. If we can change the model. But not in terms of quality (because no body is proposing new concepts of governance – note of the translator), but in the sense of eliminating this over-personalization that we have today.
Several measures related to vaccination or coronavirus were taken in an opportunistic or improvised way by Borisov. They were not taken on the basis of principles. Several decisions were made which were then withdrawn. They were taken and soon withdrawn.
He made these decisions to receive the support of several categories, especially before the elections. But this is not the rule of law.
Now, at the end, tell us a little more about this espionage scandal. Unfortunately, Bulgarian politics has reserved some grotesque moments for you. Tell us about the espionage scandal and then what was the worst event of this election campaign.
The espionage scandal came during the election period, so it seems clear to me that it has an election stake. It must be seen in the context in which the Bulgarian government is being criticized for some time for corruption, including recently two high-ranking US senators criticized the government for corruption and inaction against it. In October 2020, the European Parliament also came out with a resolution criticizing Bulgaria on these points.
There was an impression that Borisov had lost some of his support in the West. This support is obviously very important for his survival in Bulgarian politics. And now that this scandal is being covered so strongly, voices of support from Germany, Great Britain, the USA, NATO, and so on immediately came. We will see if this scandal will lead to victory and if Borisov will succeed in governing.
If it’s the worst event, I won’t focus on a dirty scandal. It is the fact that Bulgaria ranks last in the EU vaccination. The decision to temporarily stop vaccination with Astra Zeneca was wrong. These things show that we will continue to move slowly with vaccination.
Suspicion has been raised about the Astra Zeneca. Now people are afraid of vaccination. People think it’s worse to get vaccinated than not to get vaccinated. These improvised decisions, taken to show that he is worried, but also to satisfy opposing categories of people, these decisions are scandalous. They are the base event.
Thank you very much. If you have something to add at the end, which I didn’t think of, but do you think is important?
I think that Bulgaria should be interesting for Romanians, first of all because it is an easier country to understand. Even if we write in Cyrillic, even if we are Slavic, which is supposed to differ from Romanian’s Latinity we can be understood easily. After I studied Romanian society, discovered several notions and realities that help me understand Bulgaria.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss Bulgaria. I hope that this section will be followed and continued.
Thank you too, Vladimir. From time to time, we talk about Bulgaria here on Baricada live. Thank you very much to those who follow us. Let’s hope that at least in the next elections we will discuss substantial changes. Thanks for participating!
Photo: Vladimir Mitev (source: The Bridge of Friendship)
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