Rob Whitford in Sofia -
"Our party will have about 30,000-40,000 members by the time of the European elections," Nikolay Barekov tells bne. "For the time being, we have about 20,000 members." The party is Bulgaria Without Censorship (BWC), and 20,000 isn't bad going for one officially only founded in late January. At present BWC and its relatively young (41) leader Barekov are certainly conspicuous movers on Bulgaria's political scene. Whether they also prove to be shakers remains to be seen.
Obviously there's a prehistory. A successful TV presenter and chat show host, Barekov was head of the TV7 channel in February last year when its coverage of popular demonstrations against high electricity bills and the centre-right government of Boiko Borisov turned suddenly in favour of the demonstrators. That had the conspiracy theorists purring, since TV7 is judged part of the media empire of Irena Krasteva, widely presumed to be an ally of top Bulgarian banker Tsvetan Vassilev, boss of the Corporate Commercial Bank (KTB in Bulgarian).
With the government toppled, Barekov was also whistle-blower at alleged fraudulent overprinting of ballot papers by Borisov's party GERB in last May's parliamentary elections (though the allegations have since been dismissed by Bulgaria's judiciary). And he went into pre-politics thereafter, with BWC established later in the year as a "civic association", and Barekov himself developing an impressive line in shouty rhetoric about, well, pretty much whatever had bothered the February demonstrators: poverty, monopolies and elite corruption.
The former prime minister Borisov has been a favourite target. In March, Barekov published a list of 12 questions to Borisov: combining dramatic declamation with figures, these inquired about, inter alia: the alleged murky dealings of Borisov's banker ex-girlfriend Tsvetelina Borislavova, the property interests of henchman and former interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, and the financing of Borisov's second home in the Sofia suburb of Boyana (which Barekov delicately called the "Boyana Brothel").
Rosen Plevneliev, businessman-turned-minister-turned-president, is another bugbear. Barekov has talked of impeachment and, in February, demanded parliamentary inquiries into both Plevneliev's GERB-backed election in 2011 – massively fraudulent, he alleged – and his business affairs. And Barekov detects an oligarchic bogeyman behind the president, namely the "Capital circle" of Ivo Prokopiev, who owns the newspapers read by what Brits would call the "chattering classes"– Capital and Dnevnik.
Fair enough, perhaps, since Barekov is regularly accused of "oligarchic connections" of his own. There's not only the Krasteva-Vassilev connection – though it's worth noting Vassilev denies KTB finances Krasteva's media. There's also Krasteva's son Delyan Peevski, quite a bogeyman in his own right. An MP for the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) – junior partner to the now-ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) – it was Peevski whose attempted installation last June as chief of the State Agency for National Security that precipitated months of mass anti-government demonstrations. At end-February, protest leaders submitted allegations of all manner of naughtiness on the part of this group to the prosecution, including some involving BWC finances.
Barekov has his own answers. His connections with the Krasteva media group are "greatly exaggerated", he tells bne, and he's been financing BWC himself, to the tune of around €250,000 – all from legally attested incomes, he insists. And once formally registered as a party by end-March, BWC will rely on donations not exceeding €500 per person (and membership fees of €1/month).
Controversy hasn't obviously damaged Barekov yet. With European Parliament (EP) elections due May 25, and opinion polls usually showing even the leading forces – GERB and BSP – below 20%, newcomer BWC has been showing in the 5-7% range recently. Alfa Research – one of Bulgaria's least distrusted pollsters– showed BWC at just 2.6% in January, but 5.5% in a poll published at end-February. With BWC so far in a four-way electoral pact, alliances are helping, especially one with the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO), a venerably historic and pretty non-toxic Bulgarian nationalist party.
BWC is also showing a propensity to swallow other fledgling parties. Barekov tells bne that "all" the structures of a right-of-centre party led by former EU commissioner Meglena Kuneva have come over to BWC, as have "most" of those of another, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) – though he still wants alliance talks with the UDF. And BWC's organisational activity has been intense: Barekov claims "very strong structures" in the top provincial cities of Varna, Plovdiv and Burgas, and the prospect of structures by end-March in "all" districts of the capital Sofia and "all municipalities in the country". He also stresses his "listening tour" in many of Bulgaria's villages.
And the message? Well, an angry insistence that Bulgaria needs job-creation not divisive politics, experts not "criminals and politicians". As to specifics, for instance, Barekov tells bne that small businesses "find it difficult to compete with large international conglomerates," so need to be helped by cutting red tape, creating industrial parks to "stimulate key sectors where Bulgaria has a competitive edge, especially agriculture," and demand-boosting pension hikes of 20% a year. (Other social measures include a free tablet computer for each student up to the 12th grade to promote tech-savviness, while state support for the second child will rise from an "insulting" BGN35 a month to BGN350.)
The state also needs to act as "an investor in the revival of leading segments of our industry, especially agricultural processing and buying, and energy generation." In energy, BWC "strongly supports" the scheme for a 7th block with US Westinghouse technology at Bulgaria's sole nuke, at Kozloduy (no mention either way of the Russian-backed Belene NPP scheme, though he cautions generally against sole dependence on Russia in energy projects). Further, he says BWC "will fight to break up monopolies that exploit ordinary Bulgarians by charging exorbitant prices for electricity and water," though he doesn't specify in detail what "breaking up monopolies" meant in the utility sphere, nor by what margin prices are "exorbitant".
Governmental ideas, these, rather than specific to an EP campaign. And indeed it's government that Barekov says he's aiming for. Defining BWC as a "pro-European centrist formation" with a "patriotic trend" and "centre-right chances", he told bne that: "We want to be the leading political force and build a serious and stable coalition for the next government of the state, based on Centrism."
Well, to say the least, that's a step or two ahead. The current parliament, though shaky, has in theory more than three years to run. Barekov has a little leverage there: having acquired two MPs, one from the BSP and one from GERB. With the BSP-MRF alliance now having 119 out of 240 seats between them, that allows Barekov to ensure a parliamentary quorum without the government having to rely on the erratic extreme nationalists of Ataka. Until the EU elections Barekov tells bne that BWC will play a "positive role", "acting as a pressure for change and supporting the quorum to pass several important laws. Laws, that is, which it favours.
Already in March its two MPs tabled what's known for short as the "Clean Hands Bill". That would provide for a five-person committee, elected by a two-thirds vote of parliament, operating permanently and independently of the state, and legally empowered to secure documents from relevant state services on income, changes of income and property status for all serving politicians – who would have to give up their bank secrecy and agree to permanent checks on them and their families.
Then there's the potential Angel Investors Law. At present, Barekov says insecurity and a deteriorating economic environment mean Bulgarians prefer to save money in banks rather than invest it in businesses. This law would allow everyone to finance start-up businesses with a potential of up to €50,000. In the case of failed projects, the state would "help mitigate the loss". If a project succeeds, the investors could sell their share without paying corporate income tax.
Barekov also expects further recruits within parliament: "MPs know that if they are not corrupt, if they have not committed crimes, and if they are willing to get to work to help their country, they will be welcome in BWC," he tells bne. Well, indeed, and sense of which way the wind's blowing might influence some too.
And after the EP elections? Well, Barekov says he wants parliamentary elections early. "In October at the latest, best case scenario in July," he tells bne. He has argued that BWC success in the EP elections – not quite clearly defined – would give it the "moral right" to demand early parliamentary polls. And the current parliament would apparently be no loss, since he takes a dim view of just about all of it.
The BSP-MRF government? "Firmly against," he tells bne. Of parties, he has most distaste for Ataka ("pro-nationalistic and anti-European") and the MRF ("an ethnic party"), and wants to remove both parties' "balancing role" in parliament. "We do not accept the corrupt leaderships of BSP and GERB either," Barekov tells bne – interestingly, since BSP corruption hasn't been a major theme in his rhetoric so far. But he adds that "we work well with their supporters and members locally," citing mayors from both parties. Useful allies in a brave new post-election world, no doubt.
However, political pundits advise a degree of caution. For a start, Barekov's best bet at present probably lies in appearing to dislike as much of the political class as possible – and he seems pretty good at the disliking. However, whether he's for real about the MRF (Peevski's party) or the BSP depends on where you think his real allegiances lie. "The thing to watch is how they behave in parliament," says political scientist Vladimir Shopov, who dismisses Barekov's programmatic utterances as "a la carte populism."
Second, what happens between now and the EP elections is unpredictable. Like share values, poll ratings can go down as well as up. No doubt the odd banana skin lies on Barekov's path. Interestingly, he's made it clear that BWC's coalition will be the last to publish its MEP candidate list, which might reflect diplomatic problems with the pecking order among an expanding band of allies. And the sort of ratings BWC & Co have enjoyed so far would probably yield only one MEP, hardly a landslide.
Third, BWC may claim the "moral right" to new elections – and may even look plausible in doing so if it improbably turns out to have won, say, three MEPs – but others may not take notice. All parliamentary parties will be looking at the EP election results, but may not like what they see. Both BSP and MRF could decide to sit pretty. And if Ataka hasn't done enough meanwhile to bolster its nationalist credentials tarnished by indirect collaboration with its old enemy the MRF, it may not relish the prospect of elections. Really dramatic parliamentary defections to BWC would be needed to defeat that arithmetic. And it's interesting that there haven't been any since February.
Fourth, even supposing parliamentary elections do ensue – and BWC performs reasonably well in them – politics is the art of the possible, of compromise. Does the combative Barekov have a sense of the former or a knack for the latter? Interesting questions.
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