Eavesdropping on the Bulgarian mind

A week into the official election campaigning period, Boiko Borissov’s GERB either has a lead of a few per cent over its socialist party rival or is facing a neck-and-neck race, depending on which pollsters you believe.

But in terms of potentially damaging controversies, the list for GERB is longer.

One of its former MPs from the 41st National Assembly was caught up in alleged links to a reported vote-buying scheme. For Emil Dimitrov, who denies wrongdoing, it was the latest in a series of controversies and in fact neither is he a member of GERB – having been expelled after a conflict-of-interest scandal – and nor is he on the GERB list of candidates for the 42nd National Assembly. None of this, however, stops the name of GERB being linked with new scandal in headlines.

The much bigger story has been that of the outcome of the first stage of an investigation by senior prosecutors into alleged widespread illegal electronic surveillance of state leaders, politicians and business people. The allegation was the subject of an approach by Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Sergei Stanishev to Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov, who at the beginning of this week announced that “prerequisites” existed for illegal wiretapping by the Interior Ministry, even though the investigation so far had not found actual illegal wiretapping itself.

The investigation also led to pre-trial proceedings against some officials at the special department for eavesdropping, most for dereliction of duty in failing to set clear rules, one for allegedly destroying evidence in response to the prosecutors’ investigation.

Whatever the nuances of the announcements by Tsatsarov and fellow prosecutors, the statements immediately were fuel for calls by rival parties for former interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov of GERB to keep his promise to withdraw from politics should evidence of illegal eavesdropping during his time as the minister be found.

Tsvetanov, campaign chief for GERB and the most powerful figure in the party next to Borissov, rejected these calls, including on the grounds that the prosecutors had not actually said that there was illegal eavesdropping. This fine point did not matter. What mattered is that it had been established that illegal eavesdropping was theoretically possible and the discrepancies found in the probe were enough for suspicious minds, including on social networks and in much of the Bulgarian media. An especially endearing photograph depicted Tsvetanov with his ears replaced by imposing satellite dishes.

But will it make a difference?

With Bulgarian election campaigns tending to lurch from slogans to soundbites to scandals with scant space for substance, it is an open question whether the eavesdropping controversy will make a difference by the time voters reach the ballot boxes on May 12.

The image of Tsvetanov as a cut-price Nixon, bugging all and sundry from political rivals to cabinet colleagues, is one that suits the political messages that Sergei Stanishev’s socialists have been sending for years, depicting Bulgaria as increasingly a police state under the thumb of the “sultan” Borissov and his loyal lieutenant, Tsvetanov.

Not only the socialists, of course. Other parties have not failed to highlight the media freedom issue, given allegations that those listened in on included journalists – fuelling existing concerns that already have been raised at European Union level.

For the most, Bulgaria’s talking heads dismissed the notion that the eavesdropping controversy would have a decisive impact.

Mediana agency’s Kolyo Kolev told mass-circulation daily Trud that there would be a negative effect on GERB but not a colossal one, while pollster Vassil Tonchev said that GERB would lose support and the BSP gain from the scandal.

Ognyan Minchev, one of Bulgaria’s leading political commentators, doubted that there would be a long-term effect. A contrary view came from commentator Kuncho Stoichev, who said that the controversy would spell the end of the political career of Tsvetanov (while Tsvetanov continued to insist that the public were being duped by a scandal conjured up by the BSP for election purposes). Mira Radeva of MBMD saw the scandal hitting GERB at a “vulnerable spot”.

For Dimitar Avramov, the eavesdropping controversy was a setback for both GERB and the BSP. If that is true, it refers to a response not drawn on yet by GERB, probably because it would be grasping the double-edged sword by both sharp ends: that the surveillance services were no more accountable and controlled under the socialist government than they are now. It is an argument, whatever the validity, that has the perilous implication of “we may be doing it, but so did you”.

For the socialists, it has been a gift. The BSP’s Maya Manolova, by all accounts something of a rising star in the party and probably bound for higher things in the event of a socialist victory, reached as far as the conclusion that figures that 115 000 phones had been eavesdropped on meant that everyone who dared to oppose GERB had been wiretapped.

General Toncho Mihailov, former regional police chief in Stara Zagora, alleged to Bulgarian media that Tsvetanov had spent 100 million leva on electronic eavesdropping “for personal use”. No evidence was forthcoming.

From poll to poll

At this writing, no results of polls done after the Tsatsarov news conference were available.

Existing ones were contradictory: BBSS Gallup, which has a record of showing significant performances by the socialists, said that if factors such as the leanings of those who voted regularly and would do so again were taken into account, GERB and the BSP were running neck-and-neck.

On April 18, local media reported that a poll by Alpha Research saw GERB at 22.5 per cent, a slight gain month-on-month, and the BSP at 16.9 per cent, a slight loss. (Among lesser players, Ataka was sliding off its peak down to 4.9 per cent, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was steady at 4.8 per cent and Meglena Kouneva’s Bulgaria for Citizens had lost a per cent, to 2.9 per cent.)

Time will tell, in the cliché, but it also has to be borne in mind that in the medium-term, national controversies such as the protests and the Borissov resignation in the end appeared to have played well for Borissov’s party rather than against it, and that it is certain that there are more controversies – genuine or manufactured – to come. To pick just one, the Dossier Commission has pledged to release the full list, having made a start on April 17, of credit millionaires linked to State Security. In turn, many will be scrutinising the lists for the third connection, to a political party – although so far there have been scant incidents of a State Security affiliation having been damaging to a political career in Bulgaria.

(Photo of Tsvetanov and Borissov: gerb.bg)



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.