Bulgaria’s ‘Bibi-out moment’ part 2

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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
Fabio A. Telarico
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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