Politics and theatrics as Bulgaria sees end of an era

By bne IntelliNews January 21, 2013

Sandy Gill in Sofia -

Sofia on Saturday, January 19 saw the end of an era - at least in appearance. And the end came not with a whimper, but not quite with a bang either.

The era that ended was the leadership of the wily and controversial Ahmed Dogan's 23-year reign as the head of Bulgaria's mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). The "non-bang" came somewhat earlier when, with Dogan 15 minutes into his farewell address to the MRF's 8th national conference, a leather-coated man mounted the platform brandishing a gun which he pointed at the outgoing leader's head - and which, when the trigger was pulled, failed to fire.

The assailant, later identified as 25-year-old ethnic Turk Oktai Enimehmedov, was wrestled to the ground - and roughly treated - by several of Dogan's lieutenants. And the gun turned out to be a non-lethal gas pistol loaded with two blanks and a pepper-spray cartridge. Taking place during a live televised session, the attack received wide publicity abroad and on social media.

Takes on the incident differ. There's the "lone wolf" interpretation that emerges from official reports of police questioning - and of a farewell letter to his mother found in Enimehmedov's apartment. An architecture student with some record of petty criminality - and a reported friendship with a Sofia drug boss - Enimehmedov reportedly said that he was acting alone, explaining that his intention was to show Dogan that he wasn't "untouchable". He wanted to show he was a "real patriot", the somewhat confusing letter noted, adding that he "loved" the MRF and "had looked at" the formation of Kasim Dal - a former lieutenant of Dogan's who set up a breakaway party some time ago. The gun was bought at a shop two days earlier, according to the police.

There's also the "MRF set-up" interpretation, fairly widespread among Dogan-sceptical Bulgarians - and articulated by Sofia News Agency editor Ivan Dikov in remarks to the British newspaper The Guardian. With elections expected around mid-year, according to this version, the incident was staged to inspire sympathy for the MRF and rally support among the faithful.

Unsurprisingly, this is hotly denied by MRF officials, notably Dogan's successor and long-time lieutenant Lyutfi Mestan, who has called for an "international investigation" into what he described as an attempt at "ostentatious ritual assassination," with a view to finding its "political backer". Mestan dismissed official explanations of the attack and reacted indignantly to what he saw as Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov's emphasis on the Turkish ethnicity of the attacker. Tsvetanov has indeed not been 100% sympathetic to the MRF, saying in a TV interview that the violence against the assailant after the assault had exceeded what was necessary and showed the MRF in its true colours.

Further clarification is awaited - if not entirely expected, in Bulgaria's highly charged and polemical climate. For once in Bulgaria, the least conspiratorial reading of events could well be the correct one. On the one hand, it's not obvious what a "political backer" of a non-assassination could have hoped to gain. And on the other, an "MRF set-up" would surely not have been quite so ineptly staged. As to how the non-assassin gained access to the platform, there's a blame game underway between the police, the national agency responsible for senior politicians' safety,and the security firm involved in the conference. Cock-up, rather than conspiracy, isn't an implausible explanation. And it's every bit as Bulgarian.

One good argument against the "MRF set-up" version, incidentally, was the evident fear on Dogan's face during the incident. Another was that, though still in the hall, he was in no shape to deliver the rest of his speech, which was read for him by Feliz Hyusmenova, one of the MRF's Euro MPs. This announced his departure, which pundits have been assessing since.

The consensus seems to be that Dogan - still only 57 - may be handing over some of the routine work to Mestan, but isn't really relinquishing control. The conference, which unanimously backed his nomination of 53-year-old Mestan as party chairman, also voted Dogan into the post of "honorary chairman", whose position is defined by new party statutes adopted by the gathering. These allow him to participate in all MRF councils and to have a voice in the selection of party candidates for parliament and assemblies at other levels.

Add this to Dogan's personal authority and the guile that has allowed him to outmanoeuvre and eliminate potential rivals for almost a quarter of a century, and it's a fair bet that Dogan can remain as influential as he wants to be behind the scenes. And a behind-the-scenes role is entirely in character: "kingmaker" in the formation of several governments over the years - with the MRF directly participating in two of them - Dogan has never held ministerial office, and never visibly aspired to it.

The decision could have some impact on what happens after the next elections in the summer. These seem increasingly likely to result in a complicated parliament, with the ruling Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria - GERB, in its Bulgarian acronym - likely to be the largest political force but to fall considerably short of a majority. With the traditional right not certain to enter parliament, the MRF will be rubbing shoulders with the Bulgarian Socialist Party and, probably, a right-of-centre formation led by former EU commissioner Meglena Kuneva. Coalition will be in the air and it's possible that Mestan, as figurehead, will be better placed to achieve it than Dogan - who has a reputation with the public for sleaze and with politicians for extreme slipperiness.

Dogan's farewell speech made it fairly clear which way he's thinking just at present. A passage on "dictators", while not referring to anyone by name, was pretty clearly a tirade at prime minister and effective GERB leader Boiko Borisov, who, shall we say, knows his own mind. But coalition-builders need to keep their options open - if only to enhance their bargaining power - and it's still some months till elections. Meanwhile, Borisov's first remarks on Mestan have been conciliatory, describing him as "moderate, reasonable and competent" as a politician and a man. So we'll see.

Politics and theatrics as Bulgaria sees end of an era

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