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US naming of first corrupt Bulgarian official is a joke

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Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the first ever designated Bulgarian official barred from entering the United States over corruption, under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act.

The newly implemented non-judicial mechanism to “fight corruption” in Bulgaria had many here in high hopes. Would the US really name names and help Bulgarian society clean up by pointing the finger and sanctioning the most corrupt and dangerous elements?

Well, don’t hold your breath.

The glaringly political and self-serving designation disappointed many here. The US government black-listed a Bulgarian judge and the only thing he is known for is that he allowed a pro-Russia society activist to visit Russia and receive an award from Russian President Putin, while the pro-Russian activist was under investigation over espionage charges.

The decision struck many here as something out of an outdated Cold War scenario. 

The US is not really fighting corruption with this move — it’s just settling old scores with a pro-Russian judge. Actually one does not even have to be pro-Russia to ask themselves if a decision we don’t like automatically becomes corruption. The US has not provided any evidence for corruption — whether the judge was paid, whether there were any shady dealings, etc.

The US has a long way to go if it wants to show that corruption rather than pro-Russian interests is what it is really after in Bulgaria. As this is just the first designation in a long list to come, the US Embassy in Sofia would do well to address actual corruption that Bulgarian citizens are sick of. That’s the way to win over Bulgarians.

Iveta Cherneva is an Amazon best-selling author, political commentator and human rights activist. Her latest book is “Trump, European security and Turkey”. Cherneva’s career includes Congress and the UN; she was a top finalist for UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of speech in 2020. Iveta’s opinions appear in Euronews, New York Times, Salon, The Guardian, Jurist, Washington Examiner, Modern Diplomacy, Emerging Europe, EurActiv, The Fletcher Forum, LSE, Daily Express. She comments on TV and radio for Euronews, DW, Voice of America and others.

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The Showman, the Democrat and the Cleaner: Bulgaria after the elections

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Introduction: The beginning of a new era

On March 26,‎the mandate of the Bulgarian 44th National Assembly expired. After having talked with all political parties, President Rumen Radev, announced new elections for 4 April, when the spirits should have calmed. The President has regretted not having the possibility to call citizen to the polls in September 2020. In effect, crowds of citizens came out against in summer 2020asking for that. Still, the government did not resign and regular elections went on

Still, demonstrators’ wish for the Prime Minister’s, Boyko Borisov, and the Chief Public Prosecutor’s, Ivan Geshev, demission influenced the electoral outcome. Nearly all political analyst upheld this view, albeit the Chief Public Prosecutor is not an elected post. In fact, Borisov’s party lost an impressive number of preferences both as a share of the total and in sheer numbers. In comparison to 1.1 million preferences (33.65%) in 2017, this year it got about 850,000 votes (26.18%). However, the ‘protest vote’ did not merge under a sole flag; on the contrary, it split in three. In part, it distributed to two newly-formed lists: Stand up! Bastards out (Izpravi ce! Mutri vŭn, ISMV) and There is such a people (Ima takŭv narod, ITN). Meanwhile, the coalition Democratic Bulgaria (Democratichna Bŭlgaria, DB) got a fair share of these votes in big other urban areas.

Some welcomed the outcomes as the birth of a “new Bulgaria in which Borisov can win the elections […], but he cannot grab hold of power”. After all, expectations for a new cabinet and, relatedly, for the whole society rests with of a group of novices. Hence, it is valuable to learn furtheron the parties that capitalised on the pre-elector protest.

The populist showman — Ima takŭv narod

‎Before the elections ‎‎various surveys reported over 20% support for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, and no more than 12% for ITN. Yet, the Socialists marked the worst debacle since the party’s establishment in 1991. Meanwhile, on election days, Slavi Trifonov’s, a folk-rock star and former showmen, formation beat all expectations. Winning 560,000 votes (ca. 17%), ITN became the second-largest party and Trifonov the country’s most powerful Bulgarian politician besides Borisov.

ITN is a “personal party” completely dependent on its founder-leader. Trifonov has gathered ample policymaking power. For several months, ITN did not hold conventions, but folk concerts. Its populist grandiloquence spellbound those residing in smaller towns and especially embittered young people. Still, Trifonov’s strategy is not unprecedented. He grasps the sort of demagogy that another comedian, Volodymyr Zelenski, employed to become President of Ukraine.

The urban Democrat — Democratichna Bŭlgaria

Lat years’ demonstrations started a few meteoritic careers. Nevertheless, a few of the personalities who emerged in July and August 2020 has kept rising ever since. And the 46-year-old Hristo Ivanov is the most notable amongst them. Raised in a middle-class family, Ivanov’s comes from one a dynasty of office-bearers by vocation. Both of his relatives participated pro-actively in the Bulgarian Communist ‎‎Party’s life. In the late 1980s, his mother took part in quite a few nonconforming currents within the Party until he was expelled from the organisation.

Figure 1 On the night of the election, Ivanov (in the photo above) declared: “‎We are not surprised by the result, we have managed to build a working coalition. This is an important part of the change we are seeing across the political landscape.

A born rhetor, Ivanov founded and chairs Da! Bŭlgaria, a list which won some seats in Sofia’s municipal council. He got nation-wide renown during last summer as he propagated dissatisfaction by unleashing the umptieth outrage against Borisov’s and the Chief Prosecutor’s corruption. In conjunction with other minor parties, Ivanov established DB, a coalition which gathered about that 10% of the vote. Scanning its programme, DB looksas a right-of-the-centre, liberal alliance focusing on the fight against corruption and judicial reform.

The ‘Cleaner’ who shocked the left

Similarly toIvanov for DB, most of ISMV’s accomplishment boils down to a single captivating character: former Ombudswoman Maya Manolova. However, her supremacy on the rank and file is in no way comparable to Trifonov’s on ITN. In effect, ISMV is not actually a ‘party’ with a proper structure and a hierarchical organisation. It seems much more to be a loose assembly of several civic movements and NGOs. ISMV has significant struggled to be the embodiment of the protests of Summer 2020. Still, some of the currents that flow in the streets of Bulgaria resisted these attempts.

Figure 3 Maya Manovola, leader of ISMV, declared that her deputies will never join any “overt or covert alliance with Borisov”

All in all, ISMV tilts quite towards the political left while displaying a strong Europhile orientation. It shares with ITN and DB the dedication to fend off corruption and reform the judiciary. Still, ISMV’s approach to these aims is fundamentally diverse from, for instance, DB’s — whereas ITN has advanced no concrete proposal.

Scenarios: A minority government or the Constituent Assembly?

Whether Bulgaria will have a new government depends on a couple of variables. First, GERB remains the largest parliamentary group. Hence, it will not be easy to form an anti-Borisov cabinet. Meanwhile, the Socialists have lost most of their relevance because of internal unmanageableness and a dawdling leadership. Uncertainty and instability loom at the horizon.

Figure 4 Summary of the characteristics of the risk associated to Bulgarian elections’ results.

The parties emerging from popular protests are very diverse. Thus, it is quite unlikely that the new cabinet – were there ever to be one – will start a new season of political reforms and deliver on its promises. However dreary the situation may seem, many seem motivated to improve Bulgaria’s institutions. Voters recompensed anti-corruption candidates and rejected the status quo. Accordingly, it could be the case for ITN, DB and ISMV to agree on a minority government with the Socialists’ external support.

Yet, such a government is not the only possibility. Sectors within these three parties may find and entente and accelerate “judicial reform”. Passing the 2020 draft of a new constitution would automatically trigger new elections for a constituent assembly. And, this time, protest parties are likely to consolidate their gains.

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Vaccine diplomacy in South Eastern Europe: How’s the race going on?

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The media dedicate increasing attention to the issue of vaccine distribution and how it affects the post-pandemic recovery. Some commentators and outlets have been focusing especially on the inequalities in the allocations of doses amongst different countries. As a matter of fact, a small number of highly developed countries have already booked an excessive number of doses. The UK, Israel and the US are likely to get enough shots to immunise their entire populaces more than once.

Meanwhile, most of the developing world is lagging behind. Lacking the financial resources and the political might to extoll bounding commitments from vaccine producers, they are losing the race. This is especially the case in Africa and Latin America, but Europe’s periphery is not in a much better position. However, few countries some South-Eastern Europe have managed to hit the headlines all around the globe for their amazing performances. One of them is Hungary, probably the most riotous EU member State. The other is Serbia, whose relations with the EU, Russia and China are equivocal at best.

Thus, it is worth having a look at the how vaccination programmes are progressing in the region. After all, the key to Budapest’s and Belgrade’s successes is no mystery: diplomacy.

A peak at the wider region: The EU’s vaccine diplomacy has failed

South Eastern Europe is a rather variegated area. It comprises 14 countries (Figure 1), half of which are members of the EU: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Romania, and Slovenia. Other two, Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia, are on the cusp of entering the Union. Whereas the remaining five have little to no concrete membership prospect: Bosnia, the territory of Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, and Serbia. In an effort to prove itself indispensable, the EU has committed to send out vaccine to some non-members. Through Sofia, it promised Skopje to deliver thousands of AstraZeneca shots, and Bucharest shipped several Pfizer batches to Chisinau. Whereas the Commission itself pledged even more doses of vaccines for both Sarajevo and Pristina.According to these plans, the EU should be ahead of its neighbours in rolling out the vaccine across the board. At the same time, friendly relations should allow a few non-members to reap the benefits and boost their performances. However, reality tells a rather different story.

Looking at the data on total vaccinations in the 14 South-Eastern European countries one can identify four groups. Having vaccinated more than 30% of their populations, Hungary and Serbia are the undisputed leaders. Following, a quite compact group comprising the other six EU member States posits between 15% and 25%. Despite their different sizes and approaches, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia, Greece, Romania, and Slovenia have reaped sensible benefits from EU membership. Still, they are far behind the two leaders. Third, between 5% and 10% there are only Albania(10.57%) and Montenegro (7.85%). Two quite diverse countries, both seem to have enjoyed some help from the EU — but not nearly enough. Finally, way below the 5%-threshold stand Bosnia, Kosovo, North Macedonia and MoldovaThese countries were relying almost entirely on the EU’s help to acquire enough shots, but Brussels let them down.

These data make up for a rather self-evident indictment of the EU’s vaccine diplomacy. The EU missed on the occasion to project influence in its neighbourhood while reinforcing its image as a “civilian power”.But, often diplomacy in this part of Europe is a zero-sum game where political sway is the ultimate prize. For every metaphorical centimetre an external actor loses, another foreign power seems to take hold. The EU’s missed chance has become Russia’s great opportunity to score a few points it what once was an area of strategic importance. Yet, taking a better look, one realises that this time around the focus should not be on third parties. In an increasingly multipolar, and even multiplex world, middle-sized states are experimenting with new ways to matter.

Hungary’s deals with two devils

Hungary has recently registered a substantial surge in the number of contagions and in a hospital for treatments. The government has also taken extremely strict measures to curb the spread of the various in early March. But the strongest endeavour to stop the various came on the vaccination side of the equation.

As a matter of fact, Hungary has approved more vaccines and administered more shots than any other European country. Having jabbed already over 2,000,000 doses, Hungary is driving the European vaccine race — by far. The latest data from the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), Pfizer produced about half of these vaccines. Of the remaining million, about 430,000 vials brought AstraZeneca’s or Moderna’s labels. This means that other sources accounted for about 570,000 doses, or over 25% of the total.

Hungary has taken a few risky bets in its paths toward group immunity. First, it ordered and injected about a quarter of a million of Russia’s Sputnik V in early February 2021. At the time, there were still many doubts on Sputnik V’s viability, efficacy and security. This came already in defiance of EU’s pressures for a centralised approval of new products. More recently, Hungary went on with the purchaseand speedy approvalof several Chinese vaccines. Apparently, Budapest has been paying $36 per shot to the Beijing — double the price of a Sputnik V dose.

Yet, for high the price may have been the bet seems to be paying back. So much, that Hungary has actually acquired newfound output-legitimacy for its unpredictable foreign policies.

Serbia’s show off — Playing both sides against the middle

At the beginning of the pandemic, Serbia was already better-positioned to benefit from Russia’s and China’s proactive vaccine diplomacies. Belgrade carries no legal responsibility vis-à-vis Brussels since it is not an EU member State. Moreover, it is less dependent on Germany and other EU countries when it comes to debt financing and trade (Figure 3). True, backtracking on the promise of future membership would have been a strong weapon in the EU’s arsenal. But this is not the case anymore. Serbia has no concrete path towards entering the EU and a long history of flirtations with Russia and China. Some have argued thatSerbia outpaced the EU thanks to China’s and Russia’s vaccines. Yet, the data are not clear and the process not transparent enough. If anything, it seems that the proportions of ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ vaccines should not be too different from Hungary’s.

Still, one thing is certain. Serbia has turned its extraordinary capability to buy vaccines from both the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ into a diplomatic stunt. In fact, the EU has miserably failed to provide Belgrade’s neighbours with shots. Meanwhile, Serbia has opened its borders to foreigners willing to get a jab. Moreover, Belgrade has made up for Sofia’s failure to send more vaccinesto Skopje — putting the EU in a hard spot.

Conclusion: Hands free

South-Eastern Europe’s vaccine diplomacy, the EU’ failure and regional powers’ successes speak volume about how the world is changing. As the US seem to inexorably withdraw from its past commitments, the EU is failing to come of age. Meanwhile, Russia is reasserting itself and has been punching above its weight in Europe and beyondfor a while now. Finally, its recovery from the pandemic-induced crisis signals that China has no intention to stop short of overtaking the US.

Against this fluid background, South-Eastern Europe is gaining renewed centrality. Hungary and Serbia are just two examples of what this implies — albeit the most successful ones. Nevertheless, their prowess it becoming an example for other small countriesto follow. Thus, it is opportune to keep following the events closely as new geopolitical alignments seem to emerge.

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Ммm is a new trend in the interaction between the EU and Turkey:”Silence is golden” or Musical chair?

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sofa gate erdogan

On April 6, a protocol collapse occurred during a meeting between President of Turkey R. Erdogan, President of the European Council S. Michel and head of the European Commission, Ur. von der Leyen. Let us remind you that during their meeting in the conference room she did not have enough chair, and she was forced to sit on the sofa opposite the Turkish Foreign Minister M. Çavuşoğlu, who, according to the diplomatic protocol, occupies a lower rank. This incident (a video showing the confusion of Ur. von der Leyen and her mmm sound, which was cleverly picked up by the media) quickly spread across the media and social networks. This incident provoked not only a number of high-profile comments, but also political and economic consequences for a number of countries.

This story is a double bottom box. On the one hand, there is a protocol error in the organization of the meeting between the EU and Turkey. On the other hand, there is a sharp statement by the Italian head of state about the Turkish president.

We propose to consider this case from two points of view: violation of the protocol and bilateral interaction between Italy and Turkey.

Let’s start with the protocol. Based on the general rules of the protocol, let’s honestly answer the following questions.

1) is it right for the head of state to give up a seat opposite the national flag (respect for the symbols of the state);

2) what is more important – position, diplomatic rank or gender;

3) Who should take the “EU chair” based on the political hierarchy of the Union – the head of the European Council or the European Commission?

Note that both sides – the EU and Turkey – blame each other’s protocol service. EU protocol chief Dominique Marro responded in a statement on Thursday that diplomats were not given access to the conference room in advance because, as they were told, “it was too close to Erdogan’s office.” Turkish officials have agreed to a separate request to add seating for von der Leyen during the reception, he said.

Turkey was accused of “protocol machism.” However, the officials of the protocol services of Turkey and the EU “met before the official visit of the heads, and their wishes were taken into account,” says Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu.

But the shifting of responsibility continues. Brussels insisted that staff were denied a final check of the press conference room. It was soon revealed that another sensational accident was threatened during the official dinner: the table was laid for 5 people on each side, and in front there were two honorary chairs, one for Michel and the other for Erdogan, while a smaller one was reserved for von der Leyen, to the right of Michel. Two diplomatic advisers accompanied Michel to the table, and von der Leyen was left alone.

Michel  was also criticized for not standing up for her. He first wrote an explanation on his Facebook page, in which he did not apologize, but presented his vision of the situation. But as things continued to escalate on Thursday, he went on to say on Belgian TV LN24: “I deeply regret the image created and the impression of a kind of disdain for the President of the European Commission and women in general.” “At that moment I was convinced that any reaction could seem paternalistic. Perhaps it was my mistake, ”he said. “In addition, there was substantial work to be done at the meeting, and I was convinced that the response would lead to a much more serious incident that would affect relations with Turkey.” An interesting commentary by J.K. Juncker, who wrote that he also often found himself on the couch (thereby making it clear that the situation was not critical). This situation could be resolved through diplomatic channels. But, unfortunately, it has received an unusual development.

Now let’s move on to a political analysis.

According to the head of the group of socialists in the European Parliament Garcia Perez Irace, the incident is related to discrimination against women in Turkey. A few weeks ago, on March 20, the president passed a decree authorizing Turkey’s withdrawal from the 2011 Istanbul Convention against Violence against Women, which obliges the governments that have joined it to pass legislation aimed at combating domestic violence. That is, the protocol error received a political color and took on a new light from the perspective of gender politics. However, one should not forget about the cultural and religious differences between the parties to the conflict. It is curious that if Michel gave up the chair to Ursula, he could be criticized from the point of view of gender equality and even, if hypertrophied, accused of sexism. It is also worth paying attention to the absence of harsh statements from the EU, which is interested in Turkey, which restrains the flow of migrants. . Yet the crisis in terms of maritime borders with Greece and Cyprus and the agreement between Israel, Greece, Egypt and Cyprus for the construction of the EastMed gas pipeline have become such important concerns for Turkish interests that in February 2020 Ankara has re-proposed the usual blackmail and once again opening the borders with Greece for Syrian migrants, provoking an immediate European reaction. Since last December, the European Commission has tried relentlessly to mend the tear, unlocking the last tranche of aid to Ankara, equal to 780 million euros of the 6 billion promised, and opening the dialogue for future billion-dollar agreements with Erdoğan in migration theme.

The behavior of M. Draghi seems even more inexplicable. The statement by the head of the Italian government M. Draghi, where he allowed himself to call Erdogan a dictator, cost the country 70 million euros of suspended contracts (the purchase of 10 helicopters from an Italian company Leonardo). In turn, Erdogan is waiting for an official apology from M. Draghi. Whatever the situation, from the point of view of etiquette and protocol, such statements by officials are perceived as inappropriate. There are now 48 large Italian private equity companies in Turkey, such as Unicredit, Generali, Mps, Fiat, Ansaldo Energia and others.On the other hand, according to representatives of Mediobanca Securities, it is unlikely that this diplomatic incident will lead to the cancellation of the contract with Turkey. Moreover, the investment bank added: “This is a relatively small contract for Leonardo: it represents 0.5% of the group’s planned ordering for 2021”, which amounts to approximately 14 billion euros.

This is not the first crisis in Italian-Turkish relations. In ’98 the Ocalan crisis, during the D’Alema government produced violent reactions and a boycott of Italian products in Turkey, however quickly overcome by the subsequent Amato government and even more so by the Berlusconi government starting from 2001. Those were the years of the great contracts for Salini Impregilo’s new bridges over the Bosphorus, for supplies by the Finmeccanica group and the purchase of local banks by Unicredit. But, between ups and downs, the history of economic relations between Rome and Ankara came from afar, from the 1960s when large Italian groups such as Fiat, Pirelli, Cementir had focused heavily on Turkey as the ideal platform to conquer new markets in the eastern Mediterranean.

In fact, the dispute between Turkey and Italy stems from tensions in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean over gas fields. And the European Union could play a key role in supporting Rome, but at the moment none of the EU representatives supported M. Draghi’s words, only Italian populist parties supported the head of state (which had also previously expressed the idea of leaving the EU).

Against the background of all the facts sounded, the behavior of the head of Italy remains the most interesting case. Non-fatal, in its essence, the protocol incident provoked a verbal dive by Draghi and Erdogan, which could cost Rome tens of millions of euros in direct economic losses. But it is not this separate fact that is interesting, but the fact that Italian politicians have recently taken a number of drastic steps and statements that have no reliable explanation. It is appropriate here to recall the spy scandal with Russian diplomats, which could be interpreted as a decrease in the level of interaction between Italy and its longtime trusted partner. Then many assumed that this was a manifestation of the “Atlanticist course” and the rapprochement with the United States of the new cabinet of ministers. But in the situation with the chair, we are talking about a conflict with one of the active members of NATO and a key ally of Washington in the region. And here Draghi’s position evokes the very remark of W. von der Leyen – “ummm” – bewilderment that runs like a red thread through the entire incident and its consequences. What is it? An attempt to show Draghi’s political subjectivity and consistency? A demonstrative rupture of the achievements and economic ties of predecessors in order to prove their independence? Agreements with Washington pending new contracts and cooperation programs and acting in line with these hopes? Or maybe just a misunderstanding of what the Italian people expect from the next prime minister and this is an attempt to find something that will cause an increase in the level of confidence on the part of the Italian political forces? In any case, there is concern that if Draghi continues in this vein, his reign may prove even more inglorious than that of many of his predecessors.

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