Why attack a Bulgarian politician?

A detailed look at Ahmed Dogan’s political bio might clarify the circumstances of the recent attack against him.

Bulgarians politicians often try to divert the media's attention from the miserable reality many citizens live in, writes author [AFP]

Last Sunday, news agencies and western media outlets took out Bulgaria from oblivion once again to report on a bizarre news story. “Man points gun at Bulgarian Politician” flashed headlines, with subtitles pointing out that it was the leader of the “ethnic Turkish party” who was almost assassinated.

It is understandable that colleague journalists West and East immediately wrote up their news reports to accommodate a potential ethnic strife story. Contrary to expectations, the attacker turned out to be also an ethnic Turk and he was pointing a gas gun with two blanks and a pepper bullet, which, according to Bulgarian police, could not have killed anyone.

Now I don’t blame my colleagues for scratching just the surface of the surface in their reports because after all, if you go a bit deeper into Bulgarian politics, you would find yourself elbow-deep in reeking sewage,and no refined European soap can wash off the stench of it.

The immediate reactions of the Bulgarian public was that Ahmed Dogan has set up the whole scene as a PR stunt to build up support before this year’s elections. During the investigation the failed “assassin” Oktay Enimehmedov said that he didn’t want to kill Dogan but only to scare him and prove to him that he’s not “untouchable.” Enimehmedov even left a letter to his mother in the event of his death. He did not die, though he was severely beaten in front of cameras by bodyguards and members of Dogan’s party.

Now setting aside both scenarios, it is a legitimate question to ask, why someone would want to attack a Bulgarian politician, and why specifically Ahmed Dogan.

The falcon

Ahmed Dogan, the now former leader (after he announced his resignation on Sunday) of the “Movement for Rights and Liberties” (MRL), has earned himself the nickname of a bird of prey in Bulgarian politics, and that’s not because he has ferociously stood up for the rights and liberties of the Turks and altogether the Muslim minority in Bulgaria, which make up 10 percent of the population.   

In some high echelons of power, Dogan is well-respected and even followed as an example of how a politician should be. After all, he has not only managed to get his minority party into two coalition governments, he has also managed to amass quite a spectacular fortune.

It is a well-known fact in Bulgaria that being a former informant of the communist-era secret services gives you an advanced start in any career, especially in politics.

Some others of the lower echelons admire his candor, because although he is widely viewed as corrupt, he is at least honest about it. And honest he definitely has been in front of the media, but I will get back to that further down.

It is important to begin the story of Dogan’s long political career with his dishonesty or more specifically his snitching for the Bulgarian secret services. He was recruited as an informant as early as 1974, when he was only 20 years old while he was completing his mandatory military service.

He started by spying on fellow soldiers of the Turkish minority. During his informant career, he managed to amass 10 volumes in his file or more than 1800 pages. According to former member of the MRL Kasim Dal, Dogan actually swore that he did not inform on anyone while he was working for the secret services. When his file was open and Dal learned that Dogan lied, he criticised him and was eventually kicked out of the MRL for doing so.

Dal and Dogan were two of the founders of the Turkish National Liberation Movement that was launched in resistance to the oppression during the so-called “Rebirth Process” in Bulgaria, during which through violent suppression, Turks were forced to change their names to “Bulgarian” ones. Both of them were thrown in jail as a result of their involvement with the movement and after the fall of the communist regime, they founded the MRL. Dogan continued to receive payments from the secret services well into the first year and a half of the “Rebirth Process” operation.

It is a well-known fact in Bulgaria that being a former informant of the communist-era secret services gives you an advanced start in any career, especially in politics (the new MRL leader designated by Dogan is also a former informant). Hence, it should not come as a surprise that Dogan quickly built political and financial capital in the early 1990s.

He did not shy away from playing political games with his “archenemy” the Bulgarian Socialist Party (the successor of the Bulgarian Communist Party). He helped the PSP bring down the first democratically elected government in 1992 through a no confidence vote and jumped into a coalition government with them in 2005.

Dogan has gone as far as dealing with MRL’s “archenemy #2” or the far right party “Ataka”. In 2007 various media outlets received a copy of a memo in which Ahmed Emin, an MRL member, informs that he has handed over 1.6 million leva (roughly $1 million) to the leader of “Ataka” as per Dogan’s orders.

Emin was eventually found dead in Dogan’s luxurious home in an upscale neighborhood of Sofia; police suspected suicide. Now why would MRL’s (former) leader want to support a far right faction? Well, in Bulgaria such absurd cooperation is a win-win situation: “Ataka” has money for its provocative campaigns, which harness ultra-nationalistic sentiments in the Bulgarian majority and scare the Muslim minority and hence, both “Ataka” and MRL get more votes at the elections. But why deal with the (former) communists? Well, read below.

The honest song of the nightingale

Dogan seems to have a certain weakness for being shockingly frank, so every now and then he turns from a vicious hawk into a chirping nightingale and sings out some scandalous truth.  

Thus, a year before entering a coalition government with BSP in 2005, he came on a popular talk show and announced that “in the whole world, from America to Japan, every party has a ring of companies,” suggesting that this is true for his own party and the rest of the Bulgarian parties.

In the same interview, he also claimed that “In the past 15 years, more than half of the businessmen [with] above medium-size [businesses] are… with my assistance or at most with my smile.” That is, Bulgarian parties serve the interests of major businesses, half of which Dogan helped create and the other half of which was created with Dogan’s blessing.

 Bulgaria gun attacker charged

Four years later he briefed the residents of the village of Kochan in Southwest Bulgaria on his conceptualization of the Bulgarian political scene, famously saying that “The power is in my hands. [applause] I am the instrument of power that distributes the portions of financing in the state.” He says that in the context of clarifying to the villagers that “their MPs” are powerless without influential contacts (probably to him).

In fact, Dogan is famous for never attending any sessions of the parliament in his long career as an MP. Now we know that it is not in order to look after the “rights and liberties” of his constituency, but in order to distribute “portions of financing” to his “ring of companies.”

In that same speech in Kochan, Dogan mentions the key words “operational programs” and “Agriculture Fund.” MRL managed to enter two coalition governments between 2001 and 2009, one with the centrist “National Movement Simeon the Second” (NMSS or the “Tsar’s Party) and one with BSP and NMSS.

Those governments were responsible for distributing billions of euros in funds which Bulgaria was receiving as part of its preparation to join the EU and after 2007 as a newly-accepted member. One huge portion of those funds went through the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment, which was headed by an MRL member in both governments.

As early as the second year of the BSP-MRL-NMSS, the State Agency for National Security comes across the trace of an illegal financial structure which was collecting customs charges and 20-30 percent of the financing for projects funded by the EU funds. The scheme was traced back to BSP and MRL.

Thus the minorities not only remain empty-handed but also without a real alternative way to have their voice heard on the Bulgarian political scene and have their rights and liberties fought for.

All this EU money that the MRL has illegally and sometimes legally collected from EU and state funds has not really gone for the development of its constituencies, as much as there have been some demonstrative projects here and there. Southern and Central Bulgaria, where the majority of Turkish and Muslim populations are concentrated, remained the poorest regions of the country with extremely high unemployment and poverty rates.

Despite some calls of dissatisfaction and desperation in these communities with their situation and with the rule of the MRL, other parties continue to perceive them as a lost cause and the state has largely left the management of those areas formally and informally to Dogan’s party.

Meanwhile, Dogan himself has high ambitions about amassing more wealth, “Not only a yacht – if I have the opportunity, I would buy a spaceship!” he said to the Bulgarian press, referring to the public debate over his 2.3-million-euro yacht.

Thus the minorities not only remain empty-handed but also without a real alternative way to have their voice heard on the Bulgarian political scene and have their rights and liberties fought for. In fact, Dogan jumps at every case of Muslim citizens’ rights abuse to scare his electorate with the threat of the Bulgarian majority so he would get more votes.

Such was the case with the recent farcical arrests and trial of 13 Muslims for “preaching an undemocratic ideology”, which he brought up in his speech on Sunday. Both MRL and “Ataka” have been toying (together) with this trial as part of their electoral campaign strategy.

Assassinating a Bulgarian politician

Many Bulgarians expressed sympathy with Enimehmedov who was brutally beaten up by bodyguards and members of the MRL, after failing to scare Dogan. And that is not because the Bulgarian public has much sympathy for people getting publicly beaten up – activists, student protesters, Muslims, or non-white foreigners never got that much sympathy for being roughed up.

“Bulgarians watching the video of the ‘assassination attempt’ imagined themselves shooting with live bullets, not just this Dogan, but all the Dogans that have taken over Bulgaria.

Bulgarians reacted that way because they saw in Enimehmedov themselves. Because while Western Europe talks about how lazy Greeks are, we in Bulgaria say how lucky they are that even after near bankruptcy, austerity measures, and huge spending cuts, they still receive 10 times more in salaries than the Bulgarians.

Because Western economists, who masterminded our “transition”, like Steve Hanke, have nothing better to tell us today than “You are poor now, but you were also poor before.”

Because while the majority of Bulgarian pensioners survive on less than EUR 100 per month, Bulgarian politicians are trying to flare up ethnic tension and scare the majority and the minorities into forgetting the miserable reality we live in. Because so many Bulgarians watching the video of the “assassination attempt” imagined themselves shooting with live bullets, not just this Dogan, but all the Dogans that have taken over Bulgaria and have been mercilessly draining the country of its wealth for the past 24 years and even from before 1989.

So dear world, when you see the Bulgarian people pointing a gas gun at the Bulgarian political elite, please understand that we are in desperate circumstances and we’ve had enough!

Mariya Petkova is a Bulgarian journalist covering the Middle East and the Balkans.

Follow her on Twitter: @mkpetkova