Sandy Gill in Sofia -
It's been bugs, bugs, bugs just lately in Bulgarian politics. February's government-toppling demonstrations were directed against excessive electricity bills, foreign power distribution monopolies, poverty, corruption and a generalised "mafia". But ironically, it's been bugs - or "special surveillance devices" - that have really clocked up the column-inches in the resultant campaign for the May 12 election.
Hence the latest bizarre spectacle on May 7 when, just five days before the parliamentary election, the leader of what may or may not still be the country's largest political force called in on a top prosecutor for a "conversation", as the leader in question, former prime minister Boiko Borisov, put it in an uncharacteristically terse statement after the meeting. Or for "questioning", as the Supreme Prosecutor's Office of Cassation promptly corrected him.
Borisov's arch-enemy Sergei Stanishev must be pleased. He's the head of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), main rival to Borisov's Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria - or GERB, as it's universally known from its Bulgarian-language acronym. And it was Stanishev that, at end-March, first tipped off Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov that he had (with remarkably fortunate timing, it must be said) received information regarding the widespread use of wiretapping by the Interior Ministry during Borisov's premiership. This bugging, it was claimed, had a strikingly wide range of targets, including politicians both friendly and hostile, judges, and protest leaders, as well as business figures - even Borisov's former long-time girlfriend, banker Tsvetelina Borislavova.
Variously dubbed "the Bulgarian Watergate", "bug-gate" (brumbargeit), or even "Sergeite" (in honour of Stanishev), the scandal was nicely targeted. The interior minister on whose watch the alleged bugging had happened - and who, according to Stanishev, had ordered it - was a key Borisov supporter.
A former aide during Borisov's own stint at the interior ministry, Tsvetan Tsvetanov had remained at his side during the founding of GERB, serving as the movement's nominal head while the real boss, Borisov, had been technically disqualified from the post as Sofia mayor. He'd been made deputy prime minister when Borisov took over the premiership in 2009. Similar in his earthy, macho style to Borisov, he was a man after Boiko's heart - though also, if occasional press speculations are to be believed, just possibly after his job. As elections approached, he took on the job of campaign chief. So bugging allegations targeted a key associate in a key job, who had also been key to Borisov's stewardship.
Matters escalated amid demands from most parties other than GERB that Tsvetanov step down from politics - and loud defence of Tsvetanov by Borisov. Serious allegations, for instance of facilitating drug trafficking in return for bribes, surfaced against a close ally - and boyhood friend - of Tsvetanov, Stanimir Florov, chief of the General Directorate for Combatting Organised Crime. Tsvetanov lauded Florov - who was suspended and had investigations opened against him.
Meanwhile, investigators worked on the bugging allegations, coming up on April 23 with the conclusion that illegal eavesdropping was possible since there was a lack both of written regulations on training exercises and of proper oversight over the use of surveillance equipment by the personnel of the relevant ministry directorate. One current and two former heads of that directorate were charged with abuse of power and negligence for failing to put guidelines in place, while a fourth official was charged with attempting to destroy evidence.
Embarrassment mounted further the following week. On April 25, Miroslav Naidenov - GERB-aligned agriculture minister till March, but now facing BSP-prompted corruption charges - revealed on television that all of Borisov's ministers, including Borisov himself, had been subject to bugging. Borisov brushed this aside, noting that Tsvetanov had sworn "on his children" that the allegations were not true.
But on April 26, the media received what purported to be a recording of a conversation on April 15 in Borisov's villa in the outskirts of Sofia between Borisov, Naidenov, and Sofia Chief Prosecutor Nikolai Kokinov. The result, according to a covering note, of the villa's bugging on Tsvetanov's orders, this was notable for colourful and often homophobic language, for the sound of a flushing toilet, for Borisov's evident concern at the good showing of certain small parties, for talk of "crucifying" an inconvenient journalist - and for highly improper discussions with a member of the prosecution service as to how the process against Naidenov could be hindered. Conspicuously not bothering to dispute the recording's authenticity, Borisov concentrated his anger on the question of "who has been bugging my toilet" and postulated BSP-sympathising parallel networks within the interior ministry.
Kokinov's resignation followed swiftly, but the main blow to Tsvetanov came four days later when Chief Prosecutor Tsatsarov announced that there was enough evidence on the bugging question for a criminal indictment against the former interior minister, for knowingly allowing his subordinates to engage in illegal wiretapping, and possibly for abuse of his office. Indictment was not possible at present, however, since Tsvetanov enjoyed immunity from prosecution as a parliamentary candidate.
Which leaves GERB's No.2 man in a rather tricky position. For the sake of loyalty or appearances (or, say cynics, because Tsvetanov knows too many secrets), Borisov is standing by Tsvetanov, insisting that he believes him to be innocent - while simultaneously saying that, if he's shown to be guilty, he won't be appointed interior minister in the next government. For his part, Tsvetanov has said that he will waive immunity after the election - in which, being high on GERB's lists, he is well-nigh certain to become an MP.
Meanwhile, with the polls approaching, Borisov himself is under a shadow thanks to that "conversation" with the prosecuting authorities, which the latter said had to do with matters arising from the recorded conversation. With characteristic bluster, Borisov has tried to muddy the waters with news of evidence from "foreign intelligence" about an assassination plot (target unspecified) involving former ethnic Turkish political leader Ahmed Dogan. It's not clear whether anyone's convinced.
Nor is it clear, however, precisely how influential the issue will be. Just about everyone is saying, at least, that it's not the real issue. President Rosen Plevneliev and caretaker Prime Minister Marin Raikov have been consistent in denouncing smear campaigning and urged parties to concentrate on policies.
Reporting on his election tours in small-town Bulgaria - where his provincial flesh-pressing feats have indeed been prodigious - Borisov has said that, "no-one asks questions about bugs". Stanishev hasn't been missing points-scoring opportunities: most recently he's quipped that the difference between Borisov and Tsvetanov is "three years" - referring to what he thinks will be the difference in their prison sentences. But even he has commented that Bulgarians "have more important things to think about".
And there's some evidence of apathy: a rally in Sofia against snooping on April 27 attracted precisely 20 people. Ordinary Bulgarians "worry about being out of work, not having money for food, their unbearable utility bills, and bank loans repayment," commented Angel Slavchev, one of the organisers, who had also led some of February's mass demonstrations.
But the bugging issue could nevertheless make some difference. Between April 17 and 24 - that is, before Naidenov's revelations and the publication of his conversation with Borisov and Kokinov - Sofia's Centre for Analysis and Marketing did a survey including the question of whether "Bug-gate" would make respondents switch their vote from their favourite party. 81% answered "no", but 3.7% answered "yes" and 5.4% said they were "hesitating". What subsequent developments have done to the "hesitators" is an interesting question. And with two days of campaigning still to come, who knows what revelations are in store.
And even 3.7% is a significant shift when electoral arithmetic is intricate. Which, as we shall see, it is.
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