Campaigning Against Bulgarian Corruption: Europe's Poorest Country Heads for the Polls

By Walter Mayr

Boyko Borisov, a former bodyguard, is the frontrunner in Bulgaria's national elections on Sunday. He insists that his goal is to finally clean up corruption in the European Union's poorest member state.

They call her Bulgaria's "Iron Meggi." Meglena Plugchieva is the country's deputy prime minister, or Sofia's modern-day answer to Margaret Thatcher, complete with the requisite flawless hairdo, conservative wardrobe and formidable gaze.

Plugchieva's appearance matches her mission, which is to vouch for the proper use of EU funds in corruption-ridden Bulgaria. More than €1.8 billion ($2.52 billion) in subsidies have been pumped into the country in the last nine years. In July 2008, Brussels temporarily suspended €800 million ($1.12 billion) in payments in response to persistent allegations of corruption. Plugchieva, her country's ambassador in Berlin until a little over a year ago, has been trying to repair the damage ever since.

Sofia mayor Boyko Borisov: The image of a fearless decision-maker
DPA

Sofia mayor Boyko Borisov: The image of a fearless decision-maker

On this sweltering day in June, she is paying a brief visit to Russe, a port city on the Danube River that owes its nickname, Little Vienna, to the magnificent stucco buildings built in the Viennese Secession style and surrounding the city's Freedom Square. But "Iron Meggi" hardly even glances at Russe's opulent architecture as she makes her way to the town hall. Once again, she is arriving with bad news in tow.

Three city councilors were arrested on the previous evening, on charges of taking bribes. Two of them were caught red-handed, just as they were about to accept money in return for issuing a building permit.

Were the arrests an unfortunate coincidence, or part of an intrigue? Plugchieva is a candidate in the Russe election district for the parliamentary elections on Sunday, and she needs some good news to boost her prospects. Her "Coalition for Bulgaria," led by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which succeeded the Communist Party, threatens to lose its hold on power.

A Slowdown in Corruption-Fighting Efforts

The percentage of Bulgarians who name corruption as the country's biggest problem has more than doubled in the last four years, to 64.7 percent. A recently published report by the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia cites a "slowdown in efforts to fight corruption since the commencement of EU membership two years ago." The study concludes that Bulgarian society will pay an increasingly high price for corruption, as a result of dramatic declines in economic growth in 2009.

According to the study, the black economy is worth an estimated €5 billion ($7 billion) a year, and the authors cite more than 2 million cases of corruption in 2008. One of the causes, they write, is the unbroken power of organized crime. In addition to controlling parts of the executive branch, Bulgaria's oligarchs control "parliamentarians, the public administration and courts."

The man who promises to make a clean sweep of corruption in Bulgaria is Boyko Borisov. The burly mayor of Sofia combines his close-cropped haircut and sporty, well-dressed appearance with a curt way of speaking and the image of a fearless decision maker. The conservative party he founded two-and-a-half years ago, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), already emerged victorious in the European parliamentary elections.

Borisov has been, among other things, a karate champion, a bodyguard for Todor Zhivkov, the Bulgarian head of state and Communist Party chairman for many years, and the head of security for Simeon II, the former czar who returned in 2001 and was elected to the office of prime minister. The long, black leather coat Borisov often wore as he stood next to Simeon earned him the nickname "The King's Batman."

A Public Show of Virility

As in Sarkozy's France and Berlusconi's Italy, a public show of virility has also become a political factor in Sofia's media-driven democracy. One of the most common witticisms about the candidate for the country's highest office is that there are no lesbians in Bulgaria, "only women who haven't met Boyko Borisov yet."

EU investigators claim 150 contract killings have been conducted in Bulgaria since 2000.
REUTERS

EU investigators claim 150 contract killings have been conducted in Bulgaria since 2000.

His temperamental qualifications for the designation of clean politician, on the other hand, are debatable. In describing Borisov's years as the head of a private security firm and later as the government's top law enforcement official, a post in which he held the rank of general, the respected US weekly publication Congressional Quarterly quotes a 2005 dossier prepared by former top US law enforcement officials. Borisov, according to the dossier, was considered a "business partner and former associate of some the biggest mobsters in Bulgaria." During Borisov's tenure as top law enforcement official, the dossier reports, "his former business partners thrive, and their alleged competitors are systematically murdered."

According to a statistic European Union investigators published in May 2006, shortly before Bulgaria joined the EU, there had been "more than 150 contract killings related to organized crime and not a single conviction" since the year 2000 -- most of them during Borisov's tenure at the Interior Ministry. Borisov has repeatedly denied all accusations.

The "tragedy of Bulgarian society today," German journalist Jürgen Roth writes in his book "Die neuen Dämonen" ("The New Demons"), is rooted in the "uninterrupted rule of a network of political, economic and criminal circles." According to Roth, the network is controlled by intelligence agencies and tolerated by naïve European politicians.

Since its successful accession to the EU on Jan. 1, 2007, Bulgaria has become entitled to billions in subsidies from the EU Structural Fund. According to estimates by economic expert Stefan Nikolow, only about 10 percent of a possible $30 billion (€21 billion) in proceeds from a wave of privatizations in the 1990s ended up in the government's coffers, with the remainder landing in the pockets of clever bargain-hunters with good connections. The advantages secured through these deals, have built the capital needed to land EU-funded projects.

Keeping Corruption Covered Up

What is the government doing to prevent this from happening? It is attempting to position its own people at the feeding troughs, as in Pravets, the birthplace of long-time dictator Todor Zhivkov, who is still commemorated there in the form of a bronze bust. In Pravets, the former mayor from the Zhivkov era and his son, the general director of the Russian oil company Lukoil's Bulgarian operation, are in the process of building an empire for themselves at the expense of the remaining population. It includes a golf course, a hotel, luxury villas and hunting grounds on land the father-and-son duo managed to snap up at low prices.

Graphic: Bulgaria in Numbers
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Bulgaria in Numbers

It is difficult to convey the scope of the corruption to ordinary people, and current Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev doesn't even bother to try. Born on Soviet soil as the son of a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party politburo, and later educated in Moscow as a historian, the 43-year-old premier prefers to portray himself as the youthful champion of the legacy of the former apparatchik system. His performance in Vidin is a case in point.

The district in the country's far northwestern corner, with its eponymous capital, is one of Bulgaria's last socialist strongholds, as well as being the poorest region of the EU's poorest country. Today, only a few hundred people work behind the bleak walls of a chemical factory that once supported 10,000 people.

The campaign stop in Vidin ought to be child's play for the Socialist premier, but what does Stanishev do during his visit? He dances with pensioners, votes in an Internet poll to declare the Belogradchik Fortress the eighth wonder of the world, and, at the construction site of a new bridge across the Danube to Romania, planned since 1997 and paid for primarily with EU funds, puts a positive spin on the delayed project, telling his audience that he is not the least bit concerned about a possible "freezing of EU funds" because of the delays.

The prime minister won't meet with the mayor of Vidin, who could report to Stanishev on the corruption swirling around the €260 million ($364 million) project. That's because he is now a member of the wrong party, after having switched sides and joined the self-proclaimed anti-corruption campaigners at GERB.

As the day of the election draws near, reports emerging from the political undergrowth in EU member state Bulgaria are becoming increasingly bizarre. For instance, two bullnecked mobsters who had been imprisoned on charges of being leading members of organized crime were released when the election commission accepted their candidacies to run for seats in parliament. A deputy interior minister is being fired on allegations of official misconduct. When the government announced a national day of mourning for 17 victims of a deadly bus crash, the official spent the evening at the Continental Plaza, a luxury restaurant in Sofia, carousing with retired football stars, wealthy businesspeople and underlings at a party in honor of a handgun control official.

But the fired minister has already recovered from his eviction from the cabinet. He has since been named deputy head of a government department that investigates serious crime.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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