How the German Right Created Bulgaria’s Kleptocratic Prime Minister

As anti-corruption protests pile pressure on Bulgarian premier Boyko Borissov, EU leaders have begun to distance themselves from his government. Yet throughout the last two decades, Borissov was actively sponsored by the German right — a dismal example of how foundations in Berlin created postcommunist Eastern Europe's new elites.

Boyko Borissov in Dublin, 2014. (David Plas / Wikimedia Commons)

Since June, Bulgarian political life has been dominated by anti-corruption protests calling for the resignation of prime minister Boyko Borissov and the coalition led by his GERB party.

Though the nightly rallies have started to dwindle — and it seems they won’t topple the government before parliamentary elections scheduled for early 2021 — they have done likely irreversible damage to Borissov’s image. He is polling at all-time lows — and no less significantly, GERB’s reputation has been seriously undermined on the international stage.

The protests are the culmination of public outrage at a long line of scandals implicating the government in mafia-style abuses of the public purse — and repression which has helped enrich GERB’s leadership as well as its business partners. The streets of the capital Sofia and other cities have seen angry crowds calling for resignations, with signs directed at EU elites, oftentimes even written in German, asking “Ms. Merkel! Are you not ashamed of that corrupt guy?”

Several left-leaning and Green EU politicians did express support for the protests early on; later, they were followed by some conservatives, albeit more timidly. Gunther Krichbaum, a senior member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), called Bulgaria “the most corrupt state in Europe” and urged the EU to act.

In early October, the European Parliament adopted a resolution backing the Bulgarian protests, criticizing deteriorating press freedom, lack of rule of law, rampant corruption, repression of NGOs, and government disregard of the rights of women, prisoners, LGBT people, and minorities.

Until recently, this type of critique was reserved for Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: despite undeniable similarities between the two governments, Borissov’s Bulgaria was spared. But not anymore.

Ahead of November’s US election, Foreign Policy magazine even declared: “If Trump Wins, America Could Look a Lot Like Bulgaria.” In reality, Bulgaria still has a long way to go before it matches the kind of racism, violence, political instability, and concentration of corporate power found in the United States. But the fact that it has become a symbol for corruption in the Western press says a lot about how much international opinion has changed.

Made in Bulgaria… With German Engineering

For all of the moralistic finger-wagging today coming from Berlin, GERB — which means “coat of arms” but is also an acronym for “Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria” — was the conscious creation of Germany’s conservative establishment.

Stealing a page from the playbook of the German Social Democrats — who funded Portugal’s Socialist Party in the 1970s to undermine the Communists — in the 2000s, German conservative think tanks began cultivating Borissov as a counterweight to the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and a reliable guarantor of “stability” and the “fight against corruption” in the EU’s newest member state.

These days, Borissov is keen to pose as Merkel’s loyal partner. But well before GERB was an established party, he bragged publicly about personal invitations from the CDU’s Wolfgang Schuster (at that time the mayor of Stuttgart), and his links to Edmund Stoiber, who served as Bavaria’s minister president and head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s sister party in the wealthy south German state of Bavaria. Today, he loves to take pictures with Merkel’s longtime finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, and brag how Bulgaria completely halted immigration from EU’s external borders.

Indeed, Borissov has always been proud of his links with German conservatives. Speaking to Deutsche Welle around the time of GERB’s founding in 2006, he declared, “The new party needs to be Euro-Atlantic and Christian, inspired by the Bavarian CSU … Germany is my role model for its mentality, accuracy, discipline, order, responsibility — everything.” Borissov credits the CSU’s think tank, the Hanns Seidel Foundation, with helping him to establish party structures in those early days.

Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany walking in Sofia, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

His big break in 2007 itself had German help. Following a conflict between GERB and the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) — another center-right party in Bulgaria — the German CDU’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation openly sided with GERB and cut funding for the UDF. This decision came just a few weeks after the first European Parliament elections to be held after Bulgaria joined the EU.

Here GERB won 21.7 percent, enough to take first place — and far ahead of the UDF, which won a meager 4.7 percent. From then on, it was clear that GERB was the safe bet for anyone looking to boost conservative politics in Bulgaria. That same year GERB ran in local elections and Borissov was elected mayor of Sofia, once again with support from both the Konrad Adenauer and Hanns Seidel Foundations. Only two years later, in 2009, he was elected prime minister.

The party GERB replaced, the UDF, has a dismal history. Founded in 1989, as a movement against the communist regime, it united an odd bunch: political dissidents, elderly prewar fascists, human rights activists, socialists, and the Podkrepa trade union, a mass working-class movement inspired by Solidarnosć in Poland.

Due to interpersonal conflicts, ideological inconsistencies, and the unstable and contradictory character of the coalition itself, the UDF had a hard time forming a stable government. It got the chance only after a severe economic and political crisis in 1997.

Once in power, it sought to steer the country through a series of what the party called “unpopular reforms” — radical neoliberal restructuring under the auspices of the IMF and the World Bank, privatization of the remaining public industries, and a ruthless austerity regime.

Ivan Kostov, UDF’s leader, became prime minister; and under his leadership the party was transformed from an amorphous protest movement to a disciplined, centralized party positioned clearly on the right and tolerating little internal dissent. Kostov’s authoritarian style earned him the nickname “The Commander” — a title coined by party members themselves.

The UDF managed to serve a full term, but by 2001 its “unpopular reforms” had rendered it virtually unelectable. The leftovers of the party survive in various guises, sometimes aiming to be GERB’s junior partners and sometimes opposing it, never quite sure if they are liberal or conservative but always certain of their pro-Western and pro-market orientation.

Today these forces are united in the liberal party “Da, Bulgaria” and a broader liberal opposition called Democratic Bulgaria, whose leader once served as a minister in a previous Borissov cabinet.

Other German foundations have also been keen to get in on the action. In 2001, a new political party was formed by the heir of the last Bulgarian tsar, who was expelled by the Communists and went into exile in Franco’s Spain after World War II.

Aided by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, associated with Germany’s ultraneoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha founded a new party called the “National Movement Simeon II” (NDSV) just eleven weeks ahead of parliamentary elections — and handily won an absolute majority.

Nicknamed “The Tsar,” Saxe-Coburg-Gotha portrayed himself as a nonpartisan technocrat who would apply the business skills he acquired in Spain to public office and “fix everything in 800 days.” He flirted with populist rhetoric, but in practice continued the previous administration’s neoliberal reforms and today is largely remembered for sweeping rounds of privatization. His party was defeated in the 2005 elections but remained in power as part of a coalition until 2009, after which “The Tsar” returned to his Spanish exile.

It was during this period that Borissov rose to prominence and was noticed by German conservative elites. He served as chief secretary of the Ministry of Interior under NDSV, and learned a lot from that government in terms of how to secure popular support for neoliberal policies by deploying anti-corruption rhetoric.

Borissov’s Rise

Prominent liberal political scientists in Bulgaria credit both Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Borissov as being “soft” — meaning acceptable — populists. This label owes to their ability to provide neoliberalism with a degree of popular appeal. They are counterposed to “hard” populists, who question Western dominance and the superiority of the free market.

An heir to the tsar, however, simply does not make for a good populist, even a soft one, when compared to a man like Borissov, a former police officer and karate master who grew up on the outskirts of Sofia and was steeled in the violent restoration of capitalism in the 1990s.

Prior to 1989, Borissov worked as a fireman and was also active in karate tournaments. Some have accused him of being implicated in beatings of activists from the Turkish minority’s civil rights movement in the late 1980s, opposing the so-called “Revival Process” in which Muslim citizens were forced to change their names or move to Turkey. When asked in 2008, Borissov said the Process should be criticized “not for its aims, but for its means,” and he denied his involvement in repression by stating he was merely leading a battalion of firefighters and young karate students in guarding agricultural fields from Turkish arsonists.

After the fall of socialism, Borissov established a private security firm called “Ipon” — a common career move among former martial arts athletes, wrestlers, and police officers in the early 1990s. They came to be known as mutri (“ugly faces”), the strongmen responsible for the street violence of that era.

Borissov is proud of this chapter in his life, and has never tried to hide his involvement with high-level gangsters. In an interview titled “Only the Fittest Survive” given to an influential lifestyle magazine called Egoist fifteen years ago, Borissov, wearing a military uniform, discusses his close connections with notorious 1990s gangsters. He calls them “intelligent boys,” proven by the fact that they now operate “legitimate businesses” — at least those who were not murdered by their associates. Even today, Borissov publicly reminisces about the 1990s, explaining that “all my life I am on guard, not to go back to the punching. There is no good fight. Even when you beat them up, it still stings.”

After 1989, Ipon was hired to guard the longtime leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Todor Zhivkov, and in 2001 Saxe-Coburg-Gotha also became a client. Borissov worked as the personal bodyguard of both. Through this role he got to know the Bulgarian political elite, which led to his appointment as chief secretary of the Interior Ministry during NDSV’s reign.

As police chief, Borissov had a brilliant PR strategy much appreciated by corporate media. He was constantly in the news, playing the role of a hard-working cop who was tough on crime, swaggering in front of the cameras alongside the corpse of the next victim in the crime wars, shouting into his phone while clad in a black leather coat.

His slogan as police chief was: “We [the police] catch them and they [the judiciary] let them go.” His theatrics bolstered the idea that if only an iron-fisted mafia-hunter such as he would get into office, the rule of law would finally be restored.

Borissov’s growing public persona attracted the attention of Wolfgang Glaesker, who headed the Hanns Seidel Foundation’s Sofia office, and he began pushing Borissov to create a new party. By this point, the German conservative foundation was already playing a key role in restructuring  the Bulgarian police and had established connections with the future premier.

The foundation paid for Borissov’s national speaking tours, used to recruit party members. Even the first GERB program contained huge sections cribbed from the CSU’s program. The translator Antoaneta Baycheva worked for the Hanns Seidel Foundation at the time, and was later appointed Bulgarian Consul-General in the Bavarian capital Munich. The name GERB was also given by Hanns Seidel Foundation. This influence led some observers to joke that the only real difference between the two parties’ programs was the insertion of “Bulgaria” where Bavaria used to be.

Writing about the CSU’s early flirtations with the future Bulgarian premier in 2016, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung correspondent Michael Martens claimed that Borissov was easy to impress — all it took was a splash of Bavarian hospitality, a few training sessions with the German special forces, and driving a BMW on the autobahn.

Martens cited Borissov’s famous saying about the Bulgarian electorate, “I am dumb and you are dumb, so we get along,” as a possible explanation for the relative stability of GERB’s governments. Martens’s analysis was perceived in Bulgaria as ironic and critical of GERB.

“Our Son of a Bitch”

In the 2009 elections, Borissov’s new party won less than 40 percent of the vote and formed a minority government with the tacit support of the extreme right, despite the liberal right’s willingness to play second fiddle. The first thing GERB did once in power was to start prosecuting Alexei Petrov, Borissov’s former business partner from the 1990s who had gone rogue.

Petrov became Borissov’s archenemy and was blamed for all of the country’s problems — a kind of Bulgarian Emmanuel Goldstein from George Orwell’s 1984, who was subject to a regular “Two Minutes Hate” on national TV. Eventually, Petrov was acquitted in Bulgarian court and later won a case against Bulgaria before the European Court of Human Rights for the show trial against him.

“We catch them and they let them go” continued to encapsulate GERB’s record in fighting corruption, as Petrov’s story was repeated numerous times — at least for those who survived the arrests. The Bulgarian police were involved in at least two assassinations during arrests of suspected criminals during Borissov’s term as chief secretary.

In one case, as was proven in court later on, the suspect was first blown up by a grenade launcher before his body was set on fire to make it look like a suicide. No one was indicted for the murder, which some speculated was to prevent the victim from testifying against officials including Borissov himself. “Every country has its own mafia, but in Bulgaria the mafia has a country” is a common refrain among Bulgarian protesters.

Despite its nominally conservative program, in practice GERB’s ideology is fluid, with strong anti-Communism resting comfortably alongside a heavy dose of nostalgia for the socialist past. Only the party’s staunch pro-EU stance and servile attitude vis-à-vis Western elites remains constant.

It is also a one-man party — democratic decision-making against Borissov’s will is practically unimaginable. At GERB’s founding meeting in 2006, Borissov, mayor of Sofia at the time, announced that he personally had invited everyone in attendance and, if he wished to, he could have them dismissed as well.

Borissov’s German mentors were not oblivious to his shady past or authoritarian tendencies when they took him on as their political protégé fifteen years ago. On the contrary: his reputation was precisely what made him so attractive. When it comes to German elites’ attitudes toward their poorer European neighbors, political and business interests seem to trump professed liberal values, and in that regard GERB made for an excellent partner.

Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany at the 56th Munich Security Conference, 2020. (Republic of Bulgaria Press)

The party has been in power for nearly ten years, and continues to be a loyal supporter of German conservatives in all EU debates, securing “zero migration” through its tough guarding of the EU’s external border with Turkey, and, perhaps most importantly, providing a perfect environment for German capital to invest.

Germany is Bulgaria’s top trading partner and the second-largest foreign investor in the country after the Netherlands. German money mostly goes to retail, finance, and manufacturing, but also resource extraction. The German company Aurubis, for example, is a top producer of copper in Bulgaria. In fact, cathode copper — a key resource in the growing electric car industry — is Bulgaria’s top export, and the country is Europe’s fourth-largest copper exporter.

Sectors like retail and extraction, however, provide neither high-paying jobs nor much added value to Bulgaria’s economy, but rather reinforce its semi-peripheral status on the edge of Europe. One needs only to look at the numerous Bulgarian firms contracted by larger German corporations, such as the garment factory Pirin-Tex, notorious for its anti-union policies, which makes clothes for Hugo Boss.

Even if Borissov’s demeanor and ambivalent attitude toward liberal values might prove distasteful in Berlin or Brussels, the stakes are simply too high for German capital and its conservative allies to give up their pliant statesman in Bulgaria. Borissov has returned the favor by promoting the country as an ideal business climate for German capital, offering tight public budgets, poverty wages, and tax exemptions and subsidies to investors.

The only ones losing out in the deal are the people of Bulgaria — its mass emigration today makes it the fastest shrinking nation in the world, with the highest inequalities and the lowest wages in the EU.

Franklin D. Roosevelt supposedly once remarked about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García that, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” German conservatives were probably not quite so blunt, but it is easy to imagine that the thought often crosses their minds when looking at their own backyard in Eastern Europe.