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Bulgaria’s ‘Bibi-out moment’ part 2

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Boyko Borisov was a rising entrepreneur with shady relations with organised crime in the 1990s. Photo source: Kapital.bg

The Bulgarian populist who charmed Europe

Boyko in a nutshell

One of the least surprise aspects in the comparative politics of Bulgaria and Israel lies in the many stark differences. Actually, this divergence starts from the two leaders’ own biographies. Unlike Bibi, Borisov did not have the chance to study abroad, nor did he attend university. Instead, he followed the course Fire Prevention at the academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Apparently, Borisov had applied for the State Security course, but high cadres in the Communist Party manipulated admission tests’ results. However, many historians doubt this reconstruction and some even label it as Borisov’s attempt to distance himself from the Party.

Eventually, he graduated in Fire Engineering and Safety and obtained the rank of lieutenant in 1982. Coherently, after a short while Borisov began working at the Central Fire Department in Sofia. Subsequently, in 1989 she became commander of a battalion engaged in the protection of agricultural facilities in North-East Bulgaria. Hence, given his appointment’s timing, Borisov was not involved in the mass evictions of Turkish and other Muslim residents. Later on, he completed his education at the Higher Institute of Officer Training and Research obtaining a PhD in Psychology.

From entrepreneur to politician

At the end of communism, Borisov explored the road of entrepreneurship. In 1991, he founded the company Ipon-1 LLC. His job was granting protection to prominent personalities like the former Communist leader Todor Zhivkov, the former Tsar Simeon Sakskoburgotsky and the president of the International Olympic Committee Juan Antonio Samaranch. Thanks to Ipon-1’s success, Borisov created and took part in several other companies in the years up to 2001. In Georgy Stoev’s words, Borisov was a “silovak”; for the press he was a “mutra”, a criminal. According to the website Vibul, Borisov was an informant of the Central Directorate for Combating Organized Crime (CSBOP). The CSBOP believe he was in contact with “operatively interesting persons”. To date, the site has published dossiers and other documents showing Borisov’s signature and detailing this cooperation. Nevertheless, Borisov denies any links with organised crime or dubious business circles.

In 2001, following an opaque  selection process, Borisov became Chief Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Actually, he became quite popular thanks to several joint operations against people and drug trafficking with foreign policy commands. Thus, he easily won a seat in the lists of the former Tsar Simeon Sakskoburgotsky’s party during the 2005 elections. Still, Borisov failed to accept the seat as he preferred to keep his administrative post at the Ministry. However, due to personal and political incompatibilities with the new Interior Minister, Borisov left the job.

A few months later, Borisov won Sofia’s mayoral runoff elections as an independent candidate with a vast majority (68.5%). In December 2006, Borisov capitalised on his popularity by establishing the GERB party, of which he was in practice the “unofficial leader”. Thenceforth, success started chasing Borisov and his party. Eventually, in 2009, GERB won 39,72% of the national vote and Borisov became Prime Minister in a coalition government.

The Borisov era

As with Netanyahu’s first electoral victory, no one expected Borisov to become a fixture in Bulgaria’s political landscape. But, for better or worse, the country’s electors have kept confirming their trust – or substantial acquiescence – with his policies. And the reasons are quite a mystery for almost everyone. If anything, some have hypothesised that Borisov and GERB’s electoral successes are mostly due to electoral fraud at all scales. Meanwhile, the health status of the media environment has greatly worsened, with prosecutorial threats making journalism in Bulgaria “dangerous”.

In effect, Bulgarians have endured indecent living standards to stabilise their economy after the galloping hyperinflation of 1996–1997. Eventually, the country entered the EU in 2007, but its success was far from granted. As it often happens, Borisov came to power promising wealth, stability, rising living standards and Euro-Atlanticism. And, indeed, during Borisov’s tenure, Bulgaria has been remarkably stable both economically and politically. Nevertheless, it remains amongst the European countries with the largest share of poor people: around 24%. In addition, contrarily to Borisov’s promises foreign direct investments have kept declining after their peak in 2009. Meanwhile, the country has yet to join the visa-free Schengen Area due to endemic corruption

Why it all ended (has it?)

Despite allegations of systemic corruption and entrenching despotism, it took the opposition ‘only’ two electoral rounds to defeat Borisov. Mostly this success is due to the rise of three parties — only one of which before last summer’s protest. After having celebrated regular elections in April, the country went to snap elections on July 11 due to a hung parliament. The three new forces, the liberal Democratic Bulgaria (DB), the lefty Stand Up! We go (ISNI) and the populist There Is such a People (ITN), managed to achieve a symbolic result: GERB is no more the largest party in parliament.

True, it is early to say whether this will be enough to keep Borisov out of power. Thanks to the workings of a caretaker government, part of the ‘Borisov system’ is already out of order. Yet, the situation is far from stable. Currently, ITN is trying to form an autonomous minority government with the external support of DB, ISNI and the BSP. But they have failed to agree on a new cabinet. may lead to an unexpected collapse and subsequent snap elections. Meanwhile, GERB is again leading the polls — which is not unsurprising given its opponents’ inability to form a working coalition.

Conclusion

Bibi and Boyko: How and why

The biographies of Boyko Borisov and Benjamin Netanyahu could hardly be more different. Yet, there are some similarities in the ways in which the two started their political careers. For example, both served in the security apparatuses of their respective countries. Officially, Borisov served in the Ministry of Interior as a fireman, despite some hypotheses he was in the political police. Meanwhile, Netanyahu fought with distinction in an Israeli elite force. Undoubtedly, only the former developed a habit to exercise power already while serving. However, while serving both gained a useful network of personal connections that paved their way towards politics.

But more importantly, both men incarnated the Zeitgeist or spirit of the time of the era they lived. On the one hand, in the 1990s Borisov recycled himself as a multiform businessman. By the early 2000s, he was a wealthy posterchild of the transition, well connected with political and criminal environments alike. On the other, Netanyahu offered an answer to those who lost hopes of peace after Yitzhak Rabin’s murder. Whilst the establishment chased the botched dream of the killed premier’s peace deal, Netanyahu called for action and showed resolve.

Some democracies simply stay in a limbo

Borisov and Netanyahu’s ascendence speaks volume about how Western democracies can go astray when put under immense external pressure. Moreover, the two possessed a peculiar sort of charisma command and projected a distinctive aura of firmness and dependability. Hence, their successes also tell a story about the most intimate desires of most voters: certainty and stability.

Despite some analysts’ Pindaric flights, their (apparent) demise does not suggest significant changes in democracy’s functioning or people’s political instincts. If anything, those who are trying to replace Boyko and Bibi look and sound almost exactly like them. In Bulgaria, Slavi Trifonov is equally populist and as authoritarian, if not possibly more, as Borisov. As he repeatedly proved, Trifonov imposes his will and decisions on ITN by the sheer might of his personal popularity. Meanwhile, in Israel, Naftali Bennett is a product of Netanyahu’s Likud who served several times on his cabinets. Moreover, his stated views of the Palestinian issue, religious values and the economy march Netanyahu’s perfectly.

In a word, Bulgarians and Israelis are asking for more of the same without even noticing. In times of crisis, the masses look up for a leader, but perhaps Boyko and Bibi have already outlived their terms. Hence, the jury is out on who will lead the two countries in the next decade. But there are little only a few chances that the liberal soul of these democracies will start kicking any time soon.

Fabio A. Telarico was born in Naples, Southern Italy. Since 2018 he has been publishing on websites and magazines about the culture, society and politics of South Eastern Europe and the former USSR in Italian, English, Bulgarian and French. As of 2021, he has edited two volumes and is the author of contributions in collective works. He combines his activity as author and researcher with that of regular participant to international conferences on Europe’s periphery, Russia and everything in between. For more information, visit the Author’s website (in English and Bulgarian).

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Europe tells Biden “no way” to Cold War with China

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Amidst the first big transatlantic tensions for the Biden Administration, a new poll shows that the majority of Europeans see a new Cold War happening between the United States and China, but they don’t see themselves as a part of it.

Overwhelmingly, 62% of Europeans believe that the US is engaged in a new Cold War against China, a new poll just released by the European Council on Foreign Relations found. Just yesterday US President Joe Biden claimed before the UN General Assembly that there is no such thing and the US is not engaging in a new Cold War. So, Europeans see Biden’s bluff and call him on it.

The study was released on Wednesday by Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev at the European Council on Foreign Relations and found that Europeans don’t see themselves as direct participants in the US-China Cold War. This viewpoint is most pronounced in Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Portugal and Italy, according to the study. The prevailing view, in each of the 12 surveyed EU member states, is one of irrelevance – with respondents in Hungary (91%), Bulgaria (80%), Portugal (79%), and Austria (78%) saying that their country is not in a conflict with Beijing.

Only 15% of Europeans believe that the EU is engaged in a Cold War against China. The percentage is so low that one wonders if there should even be such a question. It is not only not a priority, it is not even a question on the agenda for Europeans. Even at the highest point of EU “hawkishness”, only 33% of Swedes hold the view that their country is currently in a Cold War with China.  Leonard and Krastev warn that if Washington and Brussels are preparing for an all-in generational struggle against China, this runs against the grain of opinion in Europe, and leaders in Washington and Brussels will quickly discover that they “do not have a societal consensus behind them”.

“The European public thinks there is a new cold war – but they don’t want to have anything to do with it. Our polling reveals that a “cold war” framing risks alienating European voters”, Mark Leonard said.

The EU doesn’t have the backing of its citizens to follow the US in its new Cold War pursuit. But unlike the views of the authors of the study, my view is that this is not a transatlantic rift that we actually have to be trying to fix. Biden’s China policy won’t be Europe’s China policy, and that’s that, despite US efforts to persuade Europe to follow, as I’ve argued months ago for the Brussels Report and in Modern Diplomacy.

In March this year, Gallup released a poll that showed that 45% of Americans see China as the greatest US enemy. The poll did not frame the question as Cold War but it can be argued that Joe Biden has some mandate derived from the opinion of American people. That is not the case for Europe at all, to the extent that most of us don’t see “China as an enemy” even as a relevant question.

The US’s China pursuit is already giving horrible for the US results in Europe, as French President Macron withdrew the French Ambassador to the US. The US made a deal already in June, as a part of the trilateral partnership with the UK and Australia, and stabbed France in the back months ago to Macron’s last-minute surprise last week. Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations argues that it is Macron that is actually arrogant to expect that commitments and deals should mean something: “Back in February, Macron rejected the idea of a U.S.-E.U. common front against China. Now he complains when America pursues its own strategy against China. What’s French for chutzpah?” What Boot does get right is that indeed, there won’t be a joint US-EU front on China, and European citizens also don’t want this, as the recent poll has made clear.

The US saying Europe should follow the US into a Cold War with China over human rights is the same thing as China saying that Europe should start a Cold War with the US over the bad US human rights record. It’s not going to happen. You have to understand that this is how ridiculous the proposition sounds to us, Europeans. Leonard and Krastev urge the EU leadership to “make the case for more assertive policies” towards China around European and national interests rather than a Cold War logic, so that they can sell a strong, united, and compelling case for the future of the Atlantic alliance to European citizens.

I am not sure that I agree, as “more assertive policies” and “cold war” is probably the same thing in the mind of most Europeans and I don’t think that the nuance helps here or matters at all. Leaders like Biden argue anyway that the US is not really pursuing a Cold War. The authors caution EU leaders against adopting a “cold war” framing. You say “framing”, I say “spin”. Should we be in engaging in spins at all to sell unnecessary conflict to EU citizens only to please the US?

Unlike during the first cold war, [Europeans] do not see an immediate, existential threat”, Leonard clarified. European politicians can no longer rely on tensions with China to convince the electorate of the value of transatlantic relations. “Instead, they need to make the case from European interests, showing how a rebalanced alliance can empower and restore sovereignty to European citizens in a dangerous world”, Mark Leonard added. The study shows that there is a growing “disconnect” between the policy ambitions of those in Brussels and how Europeans think. EU citizens should stick to their sentiments and not be convinced to look for conflict where it doesn’t exist, or change what they see and hear with their own eyes and ears in favor of elusive things like the transatlantic partnership, which the US itself doesn’t believe in anyways. And the last thing that should be done is to scare Europeans by convincing them they live in a “dangerous world” and China is the biggest threat or concern.

What the study makes clear is that a Cold War framing against China is likely to repel more EU voters than it attracts, and if there is one thing that politicians know it is that you have to listen to the polls in what your people are telling you instead of engaging in spins. Those that don’t listen in advance get the signs eventually. At the end of the day it’s not important what Biden wants.

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Germany and its Neo-imperial quest

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In January 2021, eight months ago, when rumours about the possibility of appointment of Christian Schmidt as the High Representative in Bosnia occurred for the first time, I published the text under the title ‘Has Germany Lost Its NATO Compass?’. In this text I announced that Schmidt was appointed to help Dragan Čović, the leader of the Croatian HDZ party, to disrupt the constitutional structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina and create precoditions for secession of the Serb- and Croatian-held territories in Bosnia and the country’s final dissolution. I can hardly add anything new to it, except for the fact that Schmidt’s recent statements at the conference of Deutsche Atlantische Gesellschaft have fully confirmed my claims that his role in Bosnia is to act as Čović’s ally in the latter’s attempts to carve up the Bosnian Constitution.

Schmidt is a person with a heavy burden, the burden of a man who has continuously been promoting Croatian interests, for which the Croatian state decorated him with the medal of “Ante Starčević”, which, in his own words, he “proudly wears” and shares with several Croatian convicted war criminals who participated in the 1992-1995 aggression on Bosnia, whom Schmidt obviously perceives as his ideological brethren. The question is, then, why Germany appointed him as the High Representative in Bosnia? 

Germany’s policy towards Bosnia, exercised mostly through the institutions of the European Union, has continuously been based on the concept of Bosnia’s ethnic partition. The phrases that we can occassionaly hear from the EU, on inviolability of state boundaries in the Balkans, is just a rhetoric adapted to the demands by the United States to keep these boundaries intact. So far, these boundaries have remained intact mainly due to the US efforts to preserve them. However, from the notorious Lisbon Conference in February 1992 to the present day, the European Union has always officially stood behind the idea that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be partitioned along ethnic lines. At the Lisbon Conference, Lord Carrington and Jose Cutileiro, the official representatives of the then European Community, which has in the meantime been rebranded as the European Union, drew the maps with lines of ethnic partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, along which the ethnic cleansing was committed, with 100.000 killed and 1,000.000 expelled, so as to make its territory compatible with their maps. Neither Germany nor the European Union have ever distanced themselves from the idea they promoted and imposed at the Lisbon Conference as ‘the only possible solution’ for Bosnia, despite the grave consequences that followed. Nor has this idea ever stopped being a must within their foreign policy circles, as it has recently been demonstrated by the so-called Janša Non-Paper, launched a couple of months ago, which also advocates the final partition and dissolution of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Such a plan is probably a product of the powerful right-wing circles in the European institutions, such as Schmidt’s CSU, rather than a homework of Janez Janša, the current Prime Minister of Slovenia, whose party is a part of these circles, albeit a minor one. To be sure, Germany is not the original author of the idea of Bosnia’s partition, this author is Great Britain, which launched it directly through Lord Carrington at the Lisbon Conference. Yet, Germany has never shown a will to distance itself from this idea, nor has it done the European Union. Moreover, the appointment of Schmidt, as a member of those political circles which promote ethnic partition as the only solution for multiethnic countries, testifies to the fact that Germany has decided to fully apply this idea and act as its chief promoter.

In this process, the neighbouring countries, Serbia and Croatia, with their extreme nationalist policies, can only act as the EU’s proxies, in charge for the physical implemenation of Bosnia’s pre-meditated disappearance. All the crimes that Serbia and Croatia committed on the Bosnian soil – from the military aggression, over war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide, up to the 30 year-long efforts to undermine Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – have always had a direct approval and absolute support of the leading EU countries. During the war and in its aftermath, Great Britain and France were the leaders of the initiatives to impose ethnic partition on the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and now Germany has taken up their role. In such a context, the increasing aggressiveness of Serbia and Croatia can only be interpreted as a consequence of the EU’s intention to finish with Bosnia for good, and Schmidt has arrived to Bosnia to facilitate that process. Therefore, it is high time for the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina to abandon any ilussions about the true intentions of the European Union and reject its Trojan Horse in the form of the current High Representative.  

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Should there be an age limit to be President?

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The presidential elections in Bulgaria are nearing in November 2021 and I would like to run for President of Bulgaria, but the issue is the age limit.

To run for President in Bulgaria a candidate needs to be at least 40 years old and I am 37. I am not the first to raise the question: should there be an age limit to run for President, and generally for office, and isn’t an age limit actually age discrimination?

Under the international human rights law standard, putting an age limit is allowed in the context of political participation under the right to vote and the right to run to be elected. Human Rights Committee General Comment No.25 interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that an age limit has to be based on objective and reasonable criteria, adding that it is reasonable to have a higher age requirement for certain offices. As it stands, the law says that having an age limit for president is not age discrimination, but is 40 actually a reasonable cut-off? National legislations can change. We need to lower the age limit and rethink what’s a reasonable age for President, and not do away with all age limits.

We have seen strong leaders emerge as heads of state and government who are below 40 years of age. Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, became Prime Minister at 34. Sebastrian Kurz, the Prime Minister of Austria, was elected at 31. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, assumed her position at 37. So perhaps it is time to rethink age limits for the highest offices.

The US has plenty of examples where elected Senators and Congressmen actually beat the age limit and made it despite the convention. The age limit for Senator in the US is 30 years old. Rush Holt was elected to the US Senate at 29. In South Carolina, two State Senators were elected at 24 years old and they were seated anyways. The age limit for US president is 35 years old.

In Argentina, the age cut-off is 30. In India, it is 35. In Pakistan, it is 45 years old. In Turkey, it is 40 years old. Iceland says 35 years old. In France, it is 18.

Generally, democracies set lower age limits. More conservative countries set the age limit higher in line with stereotypes rather than any real world evidence that a 45 year-old or 55 year-old person would be more effective and better suited to the job. Liberal countries tend to set lower age limits.

40 years old to be a President of Bulgaria seems to be an arbitrary line drawn. And while it is legal to have some age limits, 40 years old seems to be last century. Changing the age limit for president of Bulgaria could be a task for the next Bulgarian Parliament for which Bulgarians will also vote on the same date as they vote for President.

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