Is Trump Good for Bulgarian Corruption?

The Barricade’s Vladimir Mitev was the guest of Paul Jay’s The Analysis podcast, discussing Bulgarian protests, the all-weather warm relations between Sofia and Washington, the Bulgarian acquisition of US war planes, the genesis of Bulgarian organised crime and oligarchy in the times of transition, the eternal Soros-Trump clash in Eastern Europeans’ imaginary and the role of Russia and Putin in Europe

This interview was published on 19 October 2020 at TheAnalysis.news and was made in partnership with The Other News.

Welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. I’m Paul Jay. Don’t forget there’s a donate button at the top of the page, and without viewer support, we can’t do this. This episode is produced in collaboration with Other News. Other News is an international press platform that disseminates analysis, insights, and information about global issues in English, Spanish, and Italian. You can find it at http://www.other-news.info.

When considering the US presidential elections, not many Americans think of Bulgaria, but Bulgarian are following the race, and some think the outcome of the US elections will have an important effect on the country.

But first, a little background. Since July 9th, tens of thousands of Bulgarians have protested in the streets against rampant corruption, calling for the downfall and resignations of the prime minister and the chief prosecutor. By some measurements, Bulgaria is considered the most corrupt country in Europe. On Bulgaria’s southern borders are Greece and Turkey, and to the north, Romania, and Serbia to the west.

It’s a member of NATO and the EU, and most trade is with Europe. Russia, Turkey, and China are also important trading partners.

After the fall of the Soviet bureaucratic socialism, Bulgaria carved up much of the economy and sold it to a class of oligarchs. Although the state still retains ownership of much of the arms manufacturing industries, Bulgaria exports more than a billion dollars of arms each year, mostly to the Middle East, largely sold to Saudi Arabia, who’s funneled them to proxy armies in Syria and other places. Arms sales and the Saudis are a recipe for corruption everywhere. Bulgaria is also moving ahead with a controversial billion-dollar purchase of U.S. F-16 fighter aircraft, anywhere from 1.3 billion to 1.7 billion, depending on which report you read.

This was in a deal made with President Donald Trump. Bulgaria is in a state of demographic crisis. It has had negative population growth since the early 1990s when the economic collapse caused a long-lasting immigration wave. Around a million people, mostly young adults left the country by 2005. A third of all households consist of only one person, and 75.5% of families do not have children under the age of 16. The resulting birthrates are amongst the lowest in the world, while death rates are among the highest.

Bulgarian students were among the highest-scoring in the world in terms of reading in 2001, performing better than their Canadian and German counterparts.By 2006, scores in reading, math, and science had dropped. By 2018, the Program for International Student Assessment Studies found 47% of pupils in the 9th grade to be functionally illiterate in reading and natural sciences. So what’s driving the anti-corruption protests? And are the problems in Bulgaria really about corruption?

Vladamir Mitev, a Bulgarian journalist, writes about the process of the restoration of capitalism after 1989, quote, “transition was dominated by the ideology of anti-communism. Under its banner, a system of crony capitalism was created. Oligarchs emerged, while privatization and neoliberal reforms tore apart the social tissue, and hundreds of thousands went abroad for decent jobs and living conditions”.

Now joining us from Bulgaria is Vladimir Mitev. He’s the editor in chief of the Romanian section of the website The Barricade. Vladamir has appeared on Bulgarian National Radio, Bloomberg Bulgaria TV, and given interviews and written articles in many places. 

So thanks for joining us, Vlad.

Thank you for having me.

So you wrote in one of your articles that the outcome of the US elections might have a significant effect on Bulgarian politics. So why in the context of a protest movement that’s been going on for months, why does the outcome of the US elections matter to Bulgarians?

I think it matters, in a way for Bulgarians, but probably even more for our political elites. Bulgaria is the country of the region of southeastern Europe, it gives primary importance to its connection to Euro-Atlantic allies and so on. So you can imagine that whoever is in the White House, no matter Democrat or Republican, he has to be on good terms with the Bulgarian elites. And that also means that within these elites, certain changes, or re-alignments, or maybe repositionings should take place, taking into consideration that maybe there will be change, maybe not.

We still don’t know the outcome of the elections, but Bulgaria is a country which is to survive in these circumstances of our region. It has to have all options open. I don’t suggest any conspiracy about that, but certainly, I can imagine that every state has its state interests, and right now what we have in Bulgaria with these protests seems to be like what the Americans were saying once about Iran, all options are on the table. At least that’s my feeling.

We have all types of political, geopolitical, whatever you call them, currents, that protest, or somehow take a position with regard to the protest, or with regard to the government. And I believe, or at least that is the belief which is set which we comment, the result of these elections will probably matter to what will happen in Bulgaria, too.

“Let’s break the mafia state!”, a slogan from the protest (foto: Nikolay Draganov)

Well, the protest movement is against corruption. It’s really directed at the prime minister and the chief prosecutor, and calls that they should step down, they should resign. And it’s about a chronic systemic corruption that has evolved ever since the fall of this bureaucratic socialism, when they divided up so much of the public assets, and kind of looted the economy. So what is Trump’s relationship to all this? Why does Trump matter to this? And is this current government closely allied with Trump?

It is, of course, very complex to discuss who is aligned with whom, because in my experience from living in Bulgaria, things are very mixed, interwoven. So our political lobbies as well are interwoven with one another, and with different partners around the world. But certainly, if we stick to the facts, maybe we will notice that Borissov, the prime minister of Bulgaria, was accepted in the White House at the end of 2019, and it was because his government pushed forward through certain resistance, for example, by president Radev, with a deal for buying of military warplanes from the U.S.A. And as a result of that, the military expenditures of Bulgaria grew significantly.

So Bulgaria turned out to be, maybe temporarily, one of the most militarizing states in terms of military expenditures in the world, and certainly in NATO as well. So Trump accepted Borissov in the White House and lauded him for this great deal, and that could be a hint if we want to understand the attitude between the government and the administration in the White House. 

Also maybe it is worth it to know, to notice, that the protesters are the urban middle class. And I think in a number of countries in our region, the urban middle class has generally an affiliation with corporations, creative professions. These are young professionals, and they have a pro-European face. I mean, many people from these circles seem to be affiliated with NGOs or with European technocratic institutions. I don’t suggest that things are as simple as I describe them, but maybe these facts could be hints if we want to understand better what is going on.

At one point president Radev, who, if I understand correctly, the protesters like, or like better than the prime minister and the prosecutor, if I’m right about that, Radev wanted to block this arms purchase, or at least didn’t like the terms of the deal. Did Radev ever come around to support it? And how controversial is this purchase amongst the population?

If we speak about the population, I’m not sure Bulgarians have been so emotional about this purchase. I think it’s more important for our elites. I can try to explain why, but if we speak about Radev, he’s a military pilot, so there is a certain belief that he is aware of what the army needs in terms of air combat equipment. So he was opting for another view with a Swedish producer who is called Gripen.

There were many details at that time when the deal was about to be concluded. There were discussions about transfer of technologies, different bonuses that were proposed to Bulgaria. In any case, it was also suggested that that deal has certain geopolitical dimensions, in the sense that at that time, there was also looming discussion, or it was expected that some move should be made with regard to energy projects which are related to Russia somehow. 

For example, the extension of the gas pipeline, which comes from Turkey, from the Turkish stream, it is to pass through Bulgaria. It is currently being built, and at that time it was suggested that Borissov as some kind of great geopolitical player, should do something for the Americans to satisfy them, and maybe to receive certain free hands to act in other parts of the world with other partners. 

So when we speak about the protests, maybe I should say also that there are different intrigues, if I may say. One is certainly related to anti-corruption and control over the judicial system. But there is another, for example, related to European funds, as we know there will be a new multiannual financial framework of the European Union, and it is important who will distribute European funds in Bulgaria.

So, in other words, who will hold the government. And also, the Russian energy project seems to be somehow related in the sense that Mike Pompeo had already said at the beginning of the protests, so in July, that there will be sanctions for those entities that realize those projects. And now it is a curious game, in a way, for the Bulgarian government. It is branding the extension of, what is in reality, an extension of the Turkish stream, it is branded as a Bulgarian extension. So it is built by Bulgarian funds, and so it’s curious whether this will be accepted or it will be sanctioned. This maneuver from the Bulgarian government to both satisfy the Russian side, building this extension, and also have certain independence in a way, or making something with its own resources.

So the buying of the F-16, to some extent you think, could be a sort of payoff to the US to allow the Bulgarians to do some energy deal with Russia?

I can see that. I mean, it was suggested at that time, and maybe it was also suggested as a way for those people in Bulgaria who may be against the deal to somehow swallow it, because you know that there are different sensitivities. Bulgaria is simply a society that is divided. It doesn’t have a unified norm about who is the good guy in international relations in the way that other countries in the region have.

So there are also people who are sensitive towards Russia.There are people sensitive towards communication with the U.S.A. So maybe, I think, it might also have been something suggested for internal political reasons in our public space. But maybe it might also have had some value in international relations, I can’t know for sure.

Now if this number is correct, that almost half of grade nine students in Bulgaria are functionally illiterate, how do people feel about spending, you know, almost a billion and a half dollars on F-16s? I mean, what is Bulgaria even going to do with these F-16s except maybe join in some American military adventure somewhere?

You’re very right. Bulgaria has various social problems, and that was a criticism addressed at that deal. And it’s not only education. Various public services have been insufficiently funded. And for many reasons, I mean, that is one of the heritages of the transition period. Also, Bulgaria, compared to its neighbors, just these airplanes don’t change anything in the military balance or whatever. So it looks like it is a geopolitical deal. I mean, it has another value. Maybe it is important for Trump to prop up the American military industry. Maybe it’s important for Bulgaria also to modernize a little bit the army, which is set to be more than 90% of it is still with Soviet times weapons. But maybe it also has some political value in international relations.

The school system and much of the social infrastructure of Bulgaria seems to have really deteriorated since the fall of what was called some kind of socialism. I’m not sure what word you used to call what it was but, for now, I’ll call it bureaucratic socialism. But the living standards, at least for most people, actually seem to have gone down, not up, and I know at the time all of Eastern Europe, all the Balkan countries, they were all promised, you know, if you get rid of these socialists, these communists, you’re going to wind up living like Western Europeans. Well, that’s far from what’s actually happened.

So what has happened in terms of people’s psychology about this? You know, they must be awfully disillusioned with how things have turned out.

Yes, I was young in the beginning of the 90s, but I certainly remember the enthusiasm of many people which imagined that with the strong state control being gone or reduced, they will have the possibility to be a little bit more American, like to have their own small business, to I mean, they seem to have thought that they could just continue the good things from the old system, which in a way was allowed due to, people were somehow equal, and that meant that there was a certain vitality in the sense of life. People just were interacting very much. There were greater levels of solidarity. 

So maybe it was expected that we would just have the freedom to expand this lifestyle. But also, the 90s were the years when this forceful transition from public to private took place. And in Bulgaria, just like in other countries, but maybe mostly like in Russia, the transition was done with the help of organized crime, in the sense that there were people who were running some kind of extortion companies, and those who used to have their small businesses were forced either to pay sums for protection.

I speak about the medium here, the middle of the 90s especially, they had to pay sums for protection, or if they don’t pay, force was being applied on them or on their business. So this development certainly led to various social divisions. It led to accumulation of capital by some who had the power at that time. It also led to disenchantment, which for many years has been increasing. And there are various reasons for that. And that is also a very big issue.

Maybe you would like me to be more detailed in some dimensions?

Yeah, sure. Go ahead.

I wrote in the article which you quoted that transition has been harmful for the social tissue, as I said, and that is in many senses. So for example, I told you that the private opportunity, the small and middle business, has been hit. But also, I think what is more significant, the possibilities to change from below, the grassroots change, the possibilities for some common people to organize and do something together, they have been really seriously harmed all these years. 

Even after we entered in the European Union, the government of GERB (a conservative populist Bulgarian political party) came to power in 2009 on a national scale. And one thing I have heard about it, this claim, is that it was the government of the bodyguards of those who did the transition. So, you know, I mentioned that there was a primary accumulation of capital which was done in many cases in an illegal way. And at a certain moment, this claim at least says, that somebody has to guard over the possessions.

And maybe in this context, also, these protests seem to be interesting because Bulgarians didn’t have a lot of energy for any massive public unrest or organizational activity. There is, just like in other countries of our region, there is generally suspicion when somebody is doing something new. When somebody is acting in the sense in public interest, let’s say, he claims to be in public interest, there is always a suspicion that there is something doubtful, let’s say, that somebody stands behind this action.

So in this case of this protest, it’s interesting that the urban middle class, which for some time was also accepting Borissov, is now against him, and this could be a sign of certain division inside the Bulgarian elites. Maybe the urban middle class has finally felt or decided that it is humiliating for it to have a prime minister of the type of Borissov. I don’t know if I need to explain details about the type of Borissov, but…

Well, you can give us one that would make it clear.

He’s not fluent in foreign languages. He’s a very Bulgarian type of man, and he’s strong in dealing with… he came into politics through the police. So he was strong on putting things in order, or in controlling certain gangs. But he said himself, what is his governmental formula? What is his success in politics due to? 

A few years ago when he was speaking to some workers in a province in Bulgaria, he said to these workers, “I’m stupid and you’re stupid, too. So that is why we understand one another.”

Well, he claims that even though these people are protesting day after day, that he actually has a majority popular support amongst the working class and in the countryside. Is that true?

I’m not sure he has the majority support. He certainly has some support, and a part of this support is not exactly towards him, but it is more a kind of resentment at the faces of the protests. It is just that in Bulgaria, I told you there is no universal model, so there are not simply good guys and bad guys. We have hatred towards various politicians or social groups. So I have heard people saying that they don’t support a Borissov, but they don’t accept what these protesters are or represent. Borissov has support in the state administration especially.

It is because his party came into being in effect with the help of a number of former policemen and intelligence operatives who entered politics and became local representatives of the party. And at the time, he created something similar to communism, in the sense that before 1989 we had a party state. So the party was kind of equal to the state, and politics was reduced to one party, even though formally in a socialist Bulgaria there were two parties, so there was, at least formally, there was a kind of alternative. If you don’t want to be with the socialists, you could be with the agrarians. But in reality, it was a one-party political system. 

And in Bulgaria, for the last years, GERB, the party of Boyko Borissov, was the party which was distributing European funds to loyal firms. It was doing appointments in state administration. You can imagine that if you hold both the national government and the state of various state institutions and local government in almost all the places, you have a big resource to propose to or to offer to your voters.

So there was a feeling that you can advance socially, basically through this party. If you want to be a loser, of course, you can join other parties, you can join businesses, or work for businesses, or make your own business who is not affiliated with this party, GERB, but that could mean that there will be a lot of checks by the tax institutions or various state institutions upon you, while your competitors from this party will not face the same high level of control.

So there were different people crying that given that they are not accepted in the circles, or they are not supported by the ruling party, that they are undergoing certain kind of abuse by state institutions. And you can see here a link to what these protests are about too, because basically, they say that anti-corruption in the way it has been done in recent times, has been done in a corrupt way, which benefits a part of the oligarchy, but hits many other people who may be also hit just for political reasons, just because they have fallen from grace.

When I interviewed one of your colleagues at Barricade about the situation in Romania, she was saying that, especially in the countryside but not only, there’s a lot of influence of right-wing conspiracy theory, the sort of extreme religious sort of propaganda, has a lot of influence amongst people. And even, you know, things about the pandemic, and let me ask you how the pandemic is affecting Bulgaria, but it’s also how much is the pandemic seen as sort of a conspiracy?

And I was reading somewhere that there are people in Bulgaria, though I think it’s not just in Bulgaria, who are blaming George Soros for the COVID pandemic, which I guess in Eastern Europe, some people blame Soros for everything. But this kind of world view, how much influence does it have?

First of all, you’re right that there are conspiracy theories in Bulgaria, too. But I’m also a Romanian speaker, so I can make a little bit of comparison. And I think the Bulgarian conspiracy theories are a bit different from the Romanian ones. The Romanian ones seem to be focused very much indeed on coronavirus, and coronavirus outbreak in Romania is really serious, I mean, certainly more serious than the one in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian ones, are too there, for example, parents of children who are sensitive, if that’s the word I mean, they don’t accept that their children should carry masks at school. So there exists this opinion, just like in Romania, that carrying masks is something like a freedom. I mean, not carrying a mask is a sign of freedom. So there are people who want to be free, they want to have the right to choice.

But also I think, especially the coronavirus conspiracies, are a little bit more temperate in Bulgaria, maybe because the measures against coronavirus are also not so strong. For example, in Romania, you have to carry masks even in open spaces, for example, in the center of Bucharest or something like that, while in Bulgaria, the authorities have been aware maybe of that if people are pressed too hard there will be resistance, so they have been generally kind in their control measures. I can also remember that a few months ago in Romania, there was, for example, you could go out of your home only if you have a document, printed and signed by you which states your purpose of going out, like and there were only a few possibilities that allow you to go out. Well, in Bulgaria, there was control in the quarantine times for traveling from one city to another, but within the cities, it was free movement.

Well, if that if that’s true, then why was the outbreak in Romania worse than Bulgaria?

May I just finish a little bit with the conspiracies? Because there are conspiracies. And I wanted to tell the difference.

Yeah, go ahead.

In Bulgaria, conspiracies seem to be more aimed at the NGOs, while in Romania, I just don’t hear, maybe I have missed something, but I don’t hear this anti-NGO discourse being formulated.

Well that NGO discourse usually means Soros, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what a lot of the accusations are?

Yes, yes, I myself feel a little bit uneasy to discuss so much like Soros, it’s so abstract, this word, Soros, that I’m not sure I have… there is something to discuss, but indeed there is this belief that these NGOs in Bulgaria, which for example, provide social services, they seem to have some agenda, which is anti-Bulgarian, anti-traditions, and in a way, they are indeed. These NGOs which deal with social affairs, they’re modernizing the country. In a way, it is exactly that. It is true, they’re bringing modern practices in care about people with disabilities for example, in child care, et cetera, but people who support the conspiracies in Bulgaria, I think they have low faith in institutions, any type of institution, state, NGOs,whatever you call them. They seem to want just to be left alone, just to be able to do what they want.

So in this sense, the conspiracy theories in Bulgaria are a bit different. There have been protests against certain perceived abuse in child care, like the perceived ability of state institutions for care control, to take out children from families and things like that. It was suggested that trains with children will leave from Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria) for Norway.

So things like that, which are pure fantasy, of course. But you see that this fight between people who support Trump and people support Soros, without any deep understanding of what these things mean, has been going on in Eastern Europe, I mean, maybe all over Eastern Europe. So Bulgaria’s not the exception in this regard.

Some of the Jewish organizations have issued statements saying this attack on Soros is just thinly veiled anti-Semitism. And sort of you get a combination of anti-Semitic attacks on Soros, and then attacks on these NGOs, which they say are promoting gay marriage and things like this, and that a lot of this is getting sort of nourished from the United States. Is there evidence of that?

It has been suggested that some networks of religious organizations, which seem to be both American and Russian related, promote such conspiracy theories.

But it is complex because, as I told you, the government in Bulgaria right now has this junior partner, which is the nationalist coalition, and within this nationalist coalition, there are people who simply… that is their agenda. That is their message in politics, that they fight Soros, and they seem to be supportive indeed of any resistance to Soros, and use this as political capital.

And the leader of that party is deputy prime minister, is that right?

He’s Minister of Defense, in fact.

Oh, so he was involved in the F-16 purchase?

Yes, yes.

Oh, that’s interesting. And he’d be the closest ideologically to Trump?

I should quote him. So with regard to the protests that are going on right now, he made a curious statement that these protests want the so-called gender republic, which gender is another word which is Soros linked. Maybe I need to explain to your public?

Yeah, go ahead.

Because gender does not just mean social dimensions of sex you have, but it became a pejorative term, like the people who seem to have either a certain openness to LGBT culture, whatever that is, or they may be themselves LGBT people, or they might be feminists, or they might be just tolerant people, they might just not like Nazi’s, they might be Antifa.

So any type of people who have some resistance, don’t reproduce and have resistance to this obscure ideology against Soros, they are labeled as gender people. And in this sense, when Karakachanov (Bulgaria’s Minister of Defense) says the protesters in Bulgaria want gender republic, one can think that “what is so bad with gender republic?”, I mean, that that might mean a republic where LGBT people are treated as equals. But he certainly suggests indirectly, without saying the word Soros, he suggests that this is not his type of people who are protesting, and he, in a way, mobilizes his supporters against these protests.

Just to be clear, you’re using the word “gender republic?”

Yes, yes.

G E N D E R?

Yes.

OK, and as you said, this is not just happening in Bulgaria, it’s happening in many of the Eastern European countries, where this anti-gay agenda is used to kind of promote authoritarian politicians. I mean, and there’s nothing new and novel about that, Hitler did the same thing. This is, to what? To use this sort of fanaticism to bring this ultra-nationalist party to power.

I told you that this discourse, has certain support in society, and maybe can give political legitimacy for some time to some politicians. But also, it has to be said that these societies of Eastern Europe, they have undergone certain, in a way, violent transitions. It was harmful to the social tissue as I said, I gave some examples as well. 

So as a result of all the things that have happened, so you can say that, for example, a part of the international elites, like business elites, took over part of the Bulgarian economy and its resources. You can say that the local oligarchy also took over some resources. And there are some people who, I don’t know whether they understand that consciously, but they just understand that they lack the resources and the power within their country. And there is frustration, which I’m not sure it is so illegitimate. I mean, I can at least try to understand this frustration, and for the state, if I’m the state, I would maybe have thought how to channel this frustration in a way that either is not offensive to the system, or maybe can bring also certain benefits to the system.

So in this context, I try to understand this general… some of the discourses which we have in Bulgaria or in our region.

So you said something interesting a little earlier, which was this promotion of these conspiracy theories, and the sort of anti-gay religious fanaticism, partly coming from American evangelical right-wing evangelical groups, but also from Russia, which I think is very interesting because you know, in some quarters here, you know, Russia and Putin are seen standing up to the Americans, and some people here think, you know, in a good way. And Putin himself is quite controversial. But Putin, if I understand it correctly, has been very much behind the promotion of this kind of right-wing nationalist conspiracy type ideology.

To what extent do the Russians promote this in Bulgaria, and how do people feel about that?

What I said about certain American-Russian cooperation was more words of other people, which I have interviewed, or I have discussed with unofficially, but I myself don’t have so much data on that. I just observe that indeed, the U.S.A. and Russia, they have been in a Cold War, but as far as I know, they have never fought a war in their modern history. 

And it is indeed something which is worth to be studied. I mean, this special cooperation, which goes unreported often in media, but also on Putin, it may be the fact that I’m Bulgarian, and maybe the fact that I’m aware of a little bit of Russian language, allows me to think a little bit more different about Russia or Putin. 

I mean, Russia is a country which seems to have everything, all the currents, which basically every country has. And I’m not sure whether this personalization of Putin does good to understanding Russia. So we seem to have such that politicians also in Bulgaria, like Borisov, who in fact seem to be connected with everyone and the state in a way, is doing the things through them. 

But that also means that you can find different kinds of currents that act through them. It’s not only one. And in this sense, I’m not so keen on blaming specifically a country or a nation for something. I more tend to think that, just like in the West, there are billionaires like Trump or Soros who do some fight between their allies all over the world map. I believe also in Russia, there are some oligarchs who may be pro-European, some oligarchs who are maybe more conservative. I just don’t feel any country puts all its eggs in one basket as they say.

Thanks very much for joining us, Vlad.

Thank you for having me, Paul.

Paul Jay

And thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news podcast. Don’t forget, with your donations, we keep doing this.

Photo: The Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov got an audience in the White House in November 2019 after Sofia signed a military contract for the acquisition of 8 American-made war planes (source: YouTube)

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