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Bulgaria: Wrestled to the ground

People & Power investigates why Bulgarians have been protesting against corruption in the heart of government.

Last updated: 24 Apr 2014 10:44
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For over a year now Bulgaria, a modern EU member state, has been struggling with its troubled history and torn over where to go next. But what lies behind these divisions, and can they ever be reconciled? Are they really, as many Bulgarians seem to think, the consequence of a toxic legacy from its communist years?

People & Power  sent filmmaker Glenn Ellis to investigate repeated claims of corruption in high places, and the reason for months of sporadic demonstrations.

Filmmaker's view 

By Glenn Ellis

I flew into Sofia at night. The short drive from the airport through well-lit boulevards to a picturesque centre gave the impression of an affluent city.

I’d been sent to Bulgaria to look into a story that sounded, on the face of it, somewhat improbable: that even now, 24 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, power in this farthest outpost of the European Union was still largely in the hands of former communist secret service agents. Was this really possible, and could this be the key subtext to more than a year of anti-government protests, which still sporadically rock the country today?

A steady stream of compromising revelations flow from the Commission for Declassification of Communist Intelligence Records, a body set up when Bulgaria joined the EU. It transpires that many of those who have risen to prominence in the years since the Cold War share a past – their previous roles as spies and informers for the hardline and murderous Soviet-era dictator, Todor Zhivkov. Former collaborators include prime ministers, presidents, bishops, businessmen and top journalists.

In the morning, I got my first look at the wintry capital. A dilapidated splendour pervades Sofia: A beautiful Russian church, the 16 th -century Banya Bashi Mosque, the magnificent Nevsky Cathedral, and all an easy walk from an equally delightful parliament building that looked more like a provincial opera house than a seat of power. Even the solid Socialist Realist housing blocks a little farther out seemed easier on the eye than their brutal counterparts in Berlin or Bucharest -- and all of it under the shadow of snow-capped Mount Vitosha. It was hard not to be charmed by Sofia and its beauty but I wasn’t here to sightsee – there was work to be done.

'A good driver looks ahead'

One of the people I was most curious to meet was Bulgaria’s once-exiled King Simeon II, and I’d arranged to interview him at Vrana palace on the outskirts of the city.  A solitary sentry opened tall, wrought-iron gates, bearing the Saxe Coburg Gotha family crest, and waved us through. We drove through wooded parkland towards the main building, an extensive pile of Balkan battlements and towers.

Web extra: Interview with King Simeon II

"I suddenly realised that my father was no longer with us because of the way they addressed me," the king told me with a sigh. "Instead of ‘your highness’ it was 'your majesty' - then I thought, my god, now I’m the King."   

As the war neared its bloody conclusion the Soviet Red Army marched into Bulgaria, seized power and executed the three regents along with many others. The boy king and his mother were put on a train, given $200, and sent into exile. They were lucky to escape with their lives. It was 50 years before Simeon was able to return.  

Given this history I was taken aback by his attitude towards the former communist spies who had recently been unmasked:

“A good driver looks ahead - only occasionally in the mirror - you can’t spend your whole life looking in the rear view mirror and seeing whose done wrong to you because then you never finish.”

It was a surprisingly conciliatory response, but then the king is also a politician, in fact he’s probably the only monarch ever to be elected prime minister – a post he held some 15 years ago. 

I wanted to know what he felt about the periodic protests which have engulfed his country over the last year, demanding the resignation of the government.

"My own innermost law is that it’s by voting that you change things not by political tricks or demonstrations or riots. Unfortunately voting is not so active here. I’ve always been disappointed because I felt that after 50 years, when our people were not allowed to vote, they would go for each opportunity to vote with both hands. Instead for some reason or another there’s a sort of almost disbelief - or saying, well one vote won’t change anything so I might as well stay home and not vote."

Made of champions

Back at my hotel, a giant 4x4 car with blacked-out windows was waiting for us. It had been sent by one of Bulgaria’s leading oligarchs, Slavi Binev, who had generously insisted on buying me dinner at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. The car took me out of the city and up the slopes of Mount Vitosha towards one of his favourite eateries.

The only possibility to go abroad in the communist time was to be a celebrity in some socialist way

Slavi Binev, member of European Parliament

As we entered the restaurant dozens of well-heeled diners were being serenaded by a Balkan bagpipe ensemble. Binev arrived about an hour later, making a showman’s entrance with a throng of costumed waiters hanging on his every word. Over numerous glasses of rakia he told me ominous stories of how other politicians, mostly his enemies, had resorted to liquidating their opponents. Were it not for Bulgaria’s well-documented tradition of assassinations, it would have been hard to take him seriously.

But Binev is also, curiously enough, a member of the European Parliament and was about to hit the campaign trail for the forthcoming Euro elections. So I was keen to ask him if there was any truth in a US intelligence cable released by WikiLeaks, which listed his company’s allegedly criminal activities as "prostitution, narcotics, and trafficking stolen automobiles." He assured me that Julian Assange had admitted to a colleague of his that there was no substance in the report.

Next morning as we prepared for the interview at one of Binev’s houses, the oligarch showed me a Picasso, one of a number of artworks in a collection that also includes works by Salvador Dali.

I asked him to explain his political agenda.

"For me, democracy is the dictatorship of the law, not of somebody who wants to introduce his ideas -- no there should be a dictatorship of the law; and the law should not be two levels, it should be one law for everybody -- not a step-mother for one and a very caring mother for the other."

I changed tack and asked about his sporting background, for like many of Bulgaria’s leading political and corporate figures, Binev had been a sportsman during the communist period, in his case a taekwondo champion.

"The only possibility to go abroad in the communist time was to be a celebrity in some socialist way," he tells me, "That is, to be an artist, a high level professor or a sportsman, there was no other chance to live like a normal man: to go abroad, to be in the media or something like this, that life was reserved for people from the Communist party."

And so was this sporting background a good preparation for politics?

“Sport has given me a lot: discipline, a social network; to sacrifice everything for one, to know what the target is, and to run for the target and don’t think for nothing else. I think I learned much from sport. Confucius said you’re not a son of your father, you’re the son of your time -- I was a son of the time of the sport.”

'Bulgaria: Wrestled to the ground'

My next appointment was with Philip Gounev, a senior analyst, at Bulgaria’s Centre for the Study of Democracy.

"In Bulgaria the major crime syndicates were run by former secret service agents and former law enforcement officials. The front men for some of these criminal groups were athletes. Athletes clubs were part of law enforcement structures; the police and the army had sports clubs associated with them and so the foot soldiers of organised crime came from these athletes’ clubs.

"In Bulgaria, just like in Russia, we had special athlete high schools. These were high schools where martial arts, weight lifting and wrestling students became close friends -- they often became the seed of organised crime groups."

I couldn’t help wondering what impact all this had had on a country which many fear has become the most corrupt in the EU. Gounev was reading my thoughts:

"In the 90s our economic elite at the national and international level was being run by such individuals,” he told me, "and because money laundering has never really been investigated this has allowed for all these criminal syndicates to create legitimate business empires -- which partially explains why we have the problem of corruption. It makes it very difficult to counter organised crime when the same people are part of economic elites and are the major supporters of political parties."

If that’s the case, then it’s hard to imagine how Bulgarians, despairing of ridding their country of corruption, will ever see the total severance of links between the criminal and political classes.

'A bitter pill to swallow'

Next day was Sunday; we rose early and headed for the cathedral. It was the first anniversary of the accession of the patriarch, the supreme authority of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and there he was surrounded by bishops and acolytes in all their glittering finery. It was an astonishing spectacle, like walking into a Rembrandt. I had to remind myself that out of the 15 current bishops in Bulgaria, 11 of them - including the patriarch - had been revealed to have once been communist agents and informers, telling tales on their flock and helping to blight the lives of any who did not toe the party line. I couldn’t help feeling that there was something absurdly hypocritical in the display of piety and pageantry in front of me, given the misery caused to so many by the regime that used to run this country.   

That former supporters of the regime and members of its oppressive security apparatus went on to accrue great personal wealth and power is an even bitterer pill to swallow.

Glenn Ellis,  filmmaker

One of those was Nikoli Dafinov. Now in his mid-70s, he had been sent to the Lovech Concentration Camp as an undergraduate – his crime: speaking with a French student who was on an exchange trip to Sofia – an absurd charge given that Dafinov was studying languages at the University. It was the early 1960s, and people were sent to camps like Lovech to “disappear”, to die from being worked to death.

Dafinov, like the other prisoners, carried endless heaps of rubble with his bare hands from the quarry to the railway line half a mile away while guards stood over them with whips, knives and rifles – many died from exhaustion, many more from beatings - but this was the whole idea. “They died here in the quarry and in the evening we brought them to the place where we slept, and these dead bodies, they stayed for about four or five days in an open toilet, and after that in the night, some truck came and they take them 60km to Belene, where they put it to the pigs to eat them.” I have to double-check I’m hearing him right – "You mean the pigs ate the dead bodies?" I ask him. "Yes!" he replies emphatically.

Of course, this particular kind of barbarism was swept away with Communism years ago, but it still rankles here that no-one has ever been tried and convicted for the crimes and human rights abuses of that era.

That former supporters of the regime and members of its oppressive security apparatus went on to accrue great personal wealth and power is an even bitterer pill to swallow.

Many believe that the protests that have been such a feature of Bulgaria for most of the last year were ignited by one man who had simply had enough.

'The right price'

In an act akin to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the street trader in Tunisia who sparked the Arab Spring, Plamen Goranov, a 36-year-old campaigner walked calmly up to the County Hall in the Black Sea resort of Varna, carrying a banner which called for the mayor, Kiril Yordanov, to resign.

Goranov then poured petrol over his body and set fire to himself.

His complaint was that during the mayor’s 14-year tenure in Varna, more and more municipal assets were signed over to a company which now accounts for five percent of the Bulgarian economy. That company is a conglomerate set up by special service officers after the fall of the communist dictatorship.

For years Goranov had campaigned against the growing power that this enterprise wielded in Varna, but its malign influence has so far proved unstoppable.  

I had asked Gounev about the company.

“Just like any other oligarchic structure they’ve been using corruption and it’s most visible on the local level,” he told me.

“The local mayor who has been supported by them remained unchanged for many years regardless which party came to power - he would switch sides in order to get the votes - he would always remain in power. And I think the state of Varna deteriorated so badly over the past decade that local citizens became outraged.”

Nick Todorov, a friend of Goranov’s agreed to meet me outside the County Hall. He takes me to see a makeshift memorial marking the spot where Govanov took his own life, a shrine where people now leave flowers in memory of the martyr. His sacrifice coincided with the mass resignation of the centre-right government of Boiko Borisov. Since then daily protests have become a feature in the country.

If anything, Borisov’s successor, Plamen Oresharski, is even less popular. The belief for many is that corruption is now so rampant in Bulgaria that anyone or anything can be bought for the right price. Ordinary people are desperate for change. 

People & Power  can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2230; Thursday: 0930; Friday: 0330; Saturday: 1630; Sunday: 2230; Monday: 0930.

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