Bulgaria Monthly Digest: Borissov Visits Ukraine and a Bulgarian Journalist Is Found Murdered8 min read

 In Eastern Europe, News, Politics

After a long hot summer in the Balkans, it was about time for politics in Sofia to get heated in September. Expectedly, government, parliament and the presidency all engaged in polemics; however, this was mostly of personal nature rather than a matter of policy. Nonetheless, the main news coming from Bulgaria in the last weeks were related not so much to what politicians publically said or did, but rather to what they didn’t do.

On September 13th, two journalists, the Bulgarian Dimitar Stoyanov (Bivol) and the Romanian Attila Biro (RISE Project), were detained near Pernik, a small town on the outskirts of Sofia. The police apprehended the journalists while they were trying to film how the subjects of their investigation burned documents, allegedly related to fraud involving European funds.

As Bivol reports, they received information about massive amounts of documents being taken out of the offices of the GP Group – one of the few companies executing EU-funded infrastructure projects in Bulgaria. Stoyanov and Biro followed the cars transferring the papers to an open field in the countryside, where the material were to be destroyed. When the police arrived, they handcuffed the journalists, who were taken to the local police station and only released a few hours later, following pressure from media as well as from the Romanian diplomatic service in Sofia.

When the police arrived, they immediately handcuffed the journalists. Only two hours later new officers arrived to inspect the scene, followed by firefighters who extinguished the fire. The journalists were released from the local police station a few hours later following pressure from media as well as from the Romanian diplomatic service in Sofia.

The police stated that they were conducting an “operation” targeting the destruction of the material, which at the time led to the detaining of the journalists (as they where found on the spot). Why the fire was not been immediately put out is a question that remains unanswered. Regarding the alleged claim about corruption, “an investigation has been opened,” the press center of Ministry of Interior explains. Bulgaria ranks 111th, the lowest ranking of all EU countries, in Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov with Hungarian Prime Minster Viktor Orbán and the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during the Bratislava EU Summit in September 2016. Image source

– One of the few prominent exceptions in the last month when politicians “made” news in Bulgaria came as a result of the meeting of the Council of Ministers on September 19th.  The Government unanimously decided to back Victor Orban if and when the voting in the European Council for sanctions against Hungary happens. The suggestion for a “common position” of the government came from the vice prime ministers Karakachanov and Simenonov, both from United Patriots, a junior coalition partner in the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB)-dominated cabinet.

On the day after, the leader of GERB and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, during the informal meeting of the heads of governments in the EU in Salzburg, told journalists that the “decision” has “moral” rather than “legal” value.

“The defense of Hungary” sparked unprecedented consensus among the otherwise opposing forces in Bulgarian politics. The leader of the Socialists (BSP), Kornelia Ninova, said in an interview that the real reasons why Hungary is targeted by the EU are not related to freedom of speech or corruption because Hungary is not “the worst in that respect.” The true motive behind such a measure, the head of the main opposition party believes, is essentially a “punishment” for Hungary’s “national position against gender ideology and migration.”

Sergey Stanishev, a former leader of BSP, former prime minister and the current president of the Party of the European Socialists (PES) voted for triggering Article 7 against Hungary in the European Parliament. The MEPs from GERB and United Patriots voted against it.

The President (backed by the Socialist party in the 2016 elections) also vocalized his support for the Hungarian government and criticized Borissov for his “ambivalent position.” “Shutting the mouth [of someone] is not a European principle,” he said when asked to comment on Bulgaria’s position on the case.

On September 20th, the Head of the Anti-Corruption Agency (Commission for Countering Corruption and Confiscation of Illegally Acquired Property) advocated before the Parliamentary Anti-Corruption Commission for a new approach in combating corruption. “With the mayor of Pernik,” he pointed out, “we discussed an introduction of pilot anti-corruption education in the kindergartens – probably employing songs, games and methods alike.” A meeting with the Minister of Education regarding the anti-corruption education in high schools has already been held, Plamen Georgiev reported to the MPs. Civic education in Bulgaria is virtually missing, whereas “patriotic education” is one of the accents of the government’s program for the mandate. Bulgaria ranks 71st in the Corruption Perceptions Index for 2017, the lowest in the EU.

– A quarter of working age Bulgarians are considering permanent or temporary labor abroad. Those are the results of a Friedrich Ebert Stiftung-funded survey published in September. The main rationale behind eventual departure, for 95% of those surveyed, are low wages in Bulgaria. The average income per capita in Bulgaria amounts to about 50% of that of the European Union, and the Bulgarian society is among the most unequal in the EU.

– The rapper Ivan Glavchev, aka Vanko 1, who was convicted of trafficking multiple women and a child into prostitution, has announced his sudden departure from Bulgaria’s Celebrity Big Brother TV show on September 25th, following protests from women’s rights campaigners, the Guardian reports. The official reason for leaving the show that Vanko 1 declared was, however, “health issues.”

– Russian investments in real estate in Bulgaria exceed 3 billion USD, the Russian ambassador said in an interview for a local radio station on September 29th. In addition, he pointed out that the Russian state is still interested in cooperation with Bulgaria on a new nuclear power plant in Belene, an abandoned communist-era project that was repeatedly revived in public discussion (including by the BSP-initiated national referendum in 2013).

Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed out Bulgaria’s “weakness” in international energy affairs during a join press conference with the Austrian Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz held on October 4th in Moscow. The reason for this claim is the failure of the South Stream project a few years ago and the construction of North Stream 2 – a project still challenged by many in the EU.

“Bulgaria, under pressure from outside, abandoned this project, now they regret it, now they are talking about getting our gas through the Turkish Stream. I really would not like all of Europe to look like Bulgaria, show such weakness and inability to protect its national interests,” Putin said.

Bulgarian Prime Minster Boyko Borissov met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on October 5th. Image source

– The Head of the Bulgarian government, Boyko Borissov, visited Ukraine on October 5th and, together with President Petro Poroshenko, commemorated the 160th anniversary of the Bolhrad Gymnasium in Odessa Oblast. Founded in 1858 at the request of the Bessarabian Bulgarian population living in the region, the Bolhrad Gymnasium is regarded as the oldest high school of the “Bulgarian National Revival”.

The Prime Minister, known for his liking of infrastructure construction, also inspected a renovated segment of the international E87 road. Borissov’s interest in the condition of this particular highway, BNT reports, is related with the “long standing requests [for betterment of the infrastructure] of the Bulgarian community in Ukraine.” The citizens of Ukraine who identify as Bulgarians in the 2001 Census are more than 200,000.

– The minister of Environment and Water, Neno Dimov (United Patriots), said in an interview for BNT on October 6th that “natural disasters caused less damage than the eco-activists.” Dimov explained that an analysis done by the ministry has concluded that for the past 11 years, the “lost benefits from canceled or delayed infrastructure projects” is 2.7 billion levs (~1.35 billion euros) and the “damage done by natural disasters for the same period amounts for 1.8 billion levs (~ 0.9 billion euros).”

On October 6th, the 30 year-old journalist Victoria Marinova was found dead in a park in the city of Ruse. Marinova was raped and murdered, the Interior Minister announced later that day. The accent in foreign media coverage of the case fell on the journalist’s recent focus – uncovering corruption in Bulgaria. In her last show, Marinova had taked about the investigative journalists who had been detained in September. The initial coverage of the news on Bulgaria tended to omit these circumstances. The Prime Minister held a meeting with foreign ambassadors briefing them about the ongoing investigation, discarding any links made with corruption.

Earlier this year, Bulgaria’s government refused to ratify the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Prevention and Combating Domestic Violence. In August, the Bulgarian Supreme Court found the Convention unconstitutional. Part of the motives for that decision were based on alleged connection between the document and a “gender ideology.”

On October 10th, a 21-year old Bulgarian citizen, suspected to have murdered Marinova was detained by local authorities in Germany, after a request from the Bulgarian police. The Interior Minister announced that DNA analysis had provided proof for the disclosure of the case. As a result, there has been rising tensions along ethnic lines in the neighborhood that the arrested comes from.

Main sources: Balkan Insight (EN), BNT (EN), Dnevnik (BG) , The Guardian (EN)

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