Under Communism ‒ just over 20 years ago ‒ political jokes proliferated, and in the absence of any media not controlled by the state, were the natural outlet for people's sentiments regarding the regime. Jokes in those days travelled faster than the Workers' Deed newspaper, faster than even the announcements masquerading as news the government promulgated through its television channel.
They summed up in just a few sentences what Kremlinologists, political scientists and spies toiled to decipher between the lines of the Communist newspapers as well as TV and radio broadcasts, in order to put together a coherent picture of what was going on. This side of the Iron Curtain the Politburo employed analysts, in a top-secret department, who collected jokes and then wrote reports to their superiors to keep them abreast of what was making the rounds at a particular time. In this way the Politburo kept itself informed about which direction the winds were blowing in the wake of this or that Party decision or this or that shortage of consumer goods.
Here is one (quite blunt) joke of the late 1980s. A Bulgarian, a Romanian, a Russian and an American were sitting in a room, discussing life and politics. Someone asked: "Why is there no meat in the shops?"
The Romanian, almost numbed by the constant hunger brought on by Ceausescu's economic policies, meekly asked, "What is meat?"
The Russian, used to getting along by going along without asking any questions, muttered: "What is why?"
The American looked up in dismay: "What is 'there isn't'?"
The Bulgarian looked around furtively (just to make sure there were no secret police present), and then intoned: "Who is asking?"
Intellectuals and political analysts in Bulgaria in 2012 have repeatedly voiced their concern that the current ruling party GERB, headed by Boyko Borisov, is rapidly bringing the country back to the times of Communism ‒ not, of course, traditional Communism with its Warsaw Pact and Comecon and all that, but a newer, more subtle form of "democratic centralism," to employ the term the erstwhile Communist Party used to describe itself with when it was in power. In plain language, it meant the press were controlled, citizens were watched and you were unlikely to progress or even exist if you refused to obey. The events in October-November 2012 concerning the appointment of a Constitutional Court judge suggest that those who compare Boyko Borisov to Communist-era tyrant Todor Zhivkov in fact underestimate the former.
The details of the nomination of Veneta Markovska, a Supreme Administrative Court judge, to the Constitutional Court are murky in a Bulgarian sort of way, and therefore difficult for anyone who speaks no Bulgarian and does not know the background to make sense of.
In essence, they come down to the following. In October, Markovska was nominated for the crucial position in the Constitutional Court. She got the support of the ruling GERB as well as - oddly - the DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and even the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party. In itself this was unprecedented as the GERB never agrees with the DPS and the BSP on anything. The West watched closely for two reasons: reforms of the judiciary are a top priority for Bulgaria and some Western ambassadors had insisted in an unprecedented manner on "transparency" in the appointments of members of the senior judiciary.
It very soon turned out that Markovska was not the unblemished character of high professional and moral integrity that the MPs who nominated her claimed she was.
During the floor hearings, a member of the opposition produced a letter, signed by one Georgi Tonev Kolev, which revealed a mixture of alleged facts about Markovska's career as a judge and her integrity as a person that plainly were incompatible with the position she was about to receive. It is important to note that Kolev's letter did not voice any information perviously unknown to the general public, but just put together media reports about Markovska, some of which dated back two years. The letter contained information about shady deals, various conflicts of interest, "trade in influence," interference in police investigations, and possible corrupt practices that had for long been in the public domain.
Initially, Iskra Fidosova, the GERB chairwoman of the parliamentary judiciary committee, dismissed the letter and defended Markovska. The latter refused to comment but, as the scandal grew, she was forced to.
The explanations she gave were at best inconsistent. Markovska claimed she did not know someone who later turned out to be the joint owner with her of a seaside property. She denied meeting a deputy interior minister, contrary to his own statements. She said she never presided over court cases where the defence council had been a close associate of hers, while in fact it turned out that not only had she done this, but she had decided in favour of the defence in all of those cases.
What some observers saw as an attempt at a coverup reverberated in Brussels. Mark Gray, the spokesman of the European Commission, said the commission was "concerned" about the new appointment and it was up to the Bulgarians to conduct a proper probe into the allegations. The British Ambassador to Bulgaria, Jonathan Allen, termed the appointment "quite a shame."
In response, GERB deployed their heavy artillery. Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Boyko Borisov's first lieutenant, dismissed Gray's warnings, saying he had probably spoken in his capacity as a "private person." The European Commission explained that whatever its spokespersons said at press conferences reflected official policies and positions.
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had to intervene. He called on Markovska to step down, in case there was a "grain of truth" in the allegations against her.
Significantly, throughout the buildup of the scandal, all those in power focused not on the allegations themselves, but on the manner in which they had been revealed. Was Georgi Tonev Kolev a real person or was that just a nickname? GERB announced that this amounted to anonymous libel and should not be taken into consideration.
Markovska also struck back. She wrote to the Interior Ministry and the Office of Public Prosecution, asking them to start "operative activities" to establish the identity of Georgi Tonev Kolev and give her his address. The Office of Public Prosecution refused, saying it had no legal grounds to do so, but Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov agreed. He said his police would act "as fast as possible" to find the whistleblower.
It remains to be seen on what grounds the Bulgarian Interior Ministry is undertaking this. The police, in theory, are supposed to investigate and fight corruption, rather than spend the state budget in "finding" citizens who produce information about corrupt practices.
In the meantime, Markovska, who had taken some sick leave, was seen and photographed by reporters for Mediapool, an independent news site. She was seen in a Sofia bar in the company of another senior judge, thought to be a personal appointee of Tsvetanov.
At this stage the scandal started to assume grotesque dimensions, evoking almost literally the Who-Is-Asking Communist-era joke.
Facebook, at this time the main enemy of the GERB establishment, erupted. Several people re-named themselves as Georgi Tonev Kolev. One of them went to the Interior Ministry's FB page, "liked" it, and left a message: "Are you looking for me?"
One central question that has been largely overlooked in this is why the ruling GERB agreed on a judicial nomination with its declared arch-enemies, the DPS and the BSP? How could Tsvetan Tsvetanov, his predecessor, Rumen Petkov, Yane Yanev and the DPS, often at each other's necks over almost anything, converge and endorse someone like Markovska? In what many Bulgarians refer to as the "normal" democracies in Europe such a unprecedented move would signify the person in question commands such professional and moral virtues that make him or her stand unchallenged by others regardless of their political predilection. In Bulgaria, however, the answer would open the way to many new questions which, in turn, may rock the whole Bulgarian political system. During her career as a senior judge, one analyst wrote, Markovska managed to "come close" to many circles of power, both political and economic; to many lobbies within the judiciary. Six of the eight BSP MPs who supported her are related to the funding machine of their party. Some explained after their vote that they had supported her out of gratitude for the "help" she had given them while they were in the executive power. Obviously, all of those - again regardless of their political convictions and party membership - have a vested interest in having her in the Constitutional Court.
The Markovska episode illustrates some very unpleasant truths about the political reality in Bulgaria. For one, the above shows how the various political parties with parliamentary representation are willing to abandon their differences and agree on anything that will ensure they have people they can rely on in the senior judiciary. But the issue goes further than that.
Anyone with the remotest idea of how Boyko Borisov's party functions cannot fail to see the obvious fact that GERB is hardly a political party in the Western sense. It has more in common with Vladimir Putin's organisation in Russia than it does with, say, Angela Merkel's CDU in Germany or even Recep Erdogan's AKP in Turkey. Since it achieved power three years ago, GERB has fully embraced the principles of "democratic centralism." All senior decisions are made by the leader himself, and he has a free hand to do whatever he sees fit ‒ including using government aircraft to fly his favourite football team to matches outside Sofia. Democratic debate, the expression of multiple political ideas, creativity and anything with "dangerous" nuances have been downgraded, and are allowed only if they fit into the grand scheme of the leader and his closest associates.
With this in mind, it is unlikely that Boyko Borisov himself, despite his protestations in the wake of the Markovska scandal, had been unaware of her reputation when she was nominated for the Constitutional Court position. In fact, the reverse is likely: that after Georgi Tonev Kolev's letter, and especially following the intervention of the European Commission, Borisov tried to save face by calling on Markovska to step down.
But even that does not tell the whole story, which is where the old-school Kremlinologists should step in. The wording of Borisov's statements indicated he wanted her out of the way not because of her questionable conduct as a senior judge in the past, not because of the allegations of corruption, "trade in influence" and other misdemeanours, neither because of the inconsistencies and lies, nor owing to the findings of some hypothetical parliamentary committee that should have been set up immediately to investigate Georgi Tonev Kolev's letter in substance rather than in authorship. None of these. Borisov called on Markovska to step down because of the "noise" her appointment had caused.
To put it in another way, this country's prime minister was more concerned about the media coverage than about Markovska's standing as a would-be Constitutional Court judge.
In the meantime, jokes were quick to follow.
Here is the latest one. One the day after the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Maxim, died, the prime minister called Markovska on the phone: "Hey, Markovska, have you been baptised?" the prime minister asked. "Why, prime minister?" she inquired. "Well, a new job just popped up."
NO WHISTLEBLOWERS, PLEASE
Despite claims by various governments that they are willing to fight corruption, Bulgaria has a sorry record of repressing witnesses to corruption rather than protecting them and investigating their claims properly. During the past several years a Romanian journalist who videoed corrupt practices at Ruse Customs using a camera hidden in his eyeglasses was arrested and tried. Late Ivan Slavkov, the former chairman of the Bulgarian Olympic Committee, sued the BBC, in a Bulgarian court, over _Buying the Games[ital], a TV documentary which used a hidden camera to film what it alleged were corrupt practices designed to ensure the selection of London as the olympic capital of the world. Slavkov's lawyers cited privacy laws. Former President Georgi Parvanov employed many resources to vilify another BBC documentary exposing hideous practices at a Bulgarian orphanage.Most recently a man in Varna, who had taken a funny picture of three police officers sleeping in their car during their working hours, was harassed by the police.