Prince Potemkin, the Russian military leader, statesman, nobleman, artist and reputedly lover of Catherine the Great, once erected a series of cardboard villages to impress his patroness on her visit to Crimea, in 1787. Since that time, the expression "Potemkin Village" has gone down in all world languages to denote a pretentiously showy facade intended to mask or divert the attention of the public from the unpleasant reality. Erecting Potemkin villages has been used with great success throughout the history of the Soviet Union, now Russia. It caught on in Bulgaria as well, when it became a Communist country, in 1944. The technique is still being used widely by the various post-1989 governments, but the current one, dominated by Boyko Borisov's GERB, has really excelled in it – to an extent that the whole of Bulgaria's democracy in 2016 can be termed one huge Potemkin village.
Here is but one example. Recently, a bunch of Counter Organised Crime Agency policemen stormed into the offices of the Medical Treatment of Children Fund and arrested its manager, Dr Pavel Aleksandrov, as well as a number of other employees. They were charged with grave instances of corruption and mismanagement. The bust unfolded in real time, as a number of "well-informed" media spread "news" purporting to "prove" that the arrested officials had been videotaped taking bribes and syphoning off large amounts of cash into private bank accounts. Picking on the piece of juicy "news," the prime minister was quick to react. Boyko Borisov announced the this time around the "evidence" was "spick-and-span."
The general public was shocked and rightly outraged. In a country where parents have to pay cash for their children's medical treatment, especially in cases of life threatening or rare conditions, seeing on TV a couple of officials accused of taking bribes at the expense of kids instantly pushed the right buttons.
On the following day, however, it started to emerge that the Bulgarian public had again been fed with the usual mixture of truths, half-truths and speculations. At a press conference the state prosecution failed to produce any proof of the "spick-and-span evidence," referred to by the prime minister, of bribes and financial wrongdoing. The accusations boiled down to a charge that the fund's managers had rented an overpriced apartment in Paris to accommodate children and their guardians while being treated in France. It added that 16,000 euros worth of cash, as well as jewellery and jubilee coins, had been discovered in Dr Aleksandrov's possession.
The accused appeared in court and were promptly released on bail. However, the fund's manager was sacked and a replacement, appointed by Health Minister Petar Moskov, a darling of the prime minister, was installed. Moskov went on appearing on TV for several days extolling the efficiency of the police and the importance of their "bust."
A bit later some other details surrounding the operation started to emerge. First it transpired that the cash and "rarities" found in Dr Aleksandrov's possession were quite legitimate. Then it emerged that the envelope filmed by special surveillance means and alleged to contain a bribe in fact held a CD with medical examination results. Then it turned out that the Paris apartment was priced quite reasonably, in Parisian market standards.
Let us consider what the Medical Treatment of Children Fund is doing and how it operates. Many Bulgarians cannot afford to treat their children of life threatening or rare diseases and have to depend on either charity, including donation campaigns, or public resources. The fund was set up and mainly funded by the state, in 2004, to assist them in raising and managing donations and to determine whether a particular child is sick enough to live up to the conditions for treatment. Whether it has been efficient is open to discussion. In 2009 three children died while on the fund's waiting list – at a time when the fund returned a sizeable part of its budget to the state coffers. The following year brought changes to the fund's working that made it independent from the Health Ministry and shortened the sick children's waiting list. While just 105 children were treated through the fund in 2009, in 2011, or the first year of Dr Aleksandrov's term, the number was 387. In 2015, 1,390 children were treated.
Only two weeks before the arrests, an audit by the State Prosecution of the Medical Treatment of Children Fund said it had uncovered no wrongdoing in the fund's operation.
The arrest of Dr Aleksandrov in April 2016 predictably brought the fund's operation to a halt. Dozens of children are currently waiting for treatment.
If the fund worked properly, why sack its manager? Why the media frenzy showing special forces arresting doctors? Why the character assassinations? Why risking the lives of sick children?
To answer these questions, one must look behind the facade of the Potemkin village. The spectacular arrests and the surrounding media din coincided in time with two unrelated things. One was the changes in Bulgaria's Election Code that stripped many Bulgarian citizens outside Bulgaria of their voting rights. The other was the stepped-up pressure by the EU on Boyko Borisov to do something meaningful to fight corruption. Only a day before the arrests, the prime minister promised to the public to expect more busts against corruption after the ones in the State Automobile Inspection and the Refugee Agency. So, the Potemkin village of the Medical Treatment of Children Fund was used, skilfully, to divert the attention of the public from the Electoral Code changes to enable the prime minister once again to appear smiling on TV and declare that something important had been done to counter corruption – in an area every Bulgarian holds very dear to his or hear heart, the treatment of sick children.
The Treatment of Sick Children Fund episode is not the first of its kind under GERB. In 2010, during GERB's first term in office, then Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov gleefully read out, on the floor of the Bulgarian parliament, the printouts of tapped conversations that "proved" a baby murder had taken place. The "murderers" in question were four doctors in Gorna Oryahovitsa, a backwater in northern Bulgaria, who had been tapped, using special surveillance means, to be "killing" a baby. The doctors were arrested. Subsequently, the courts dismissed the cases. However, the doctors' lives and reputations were ruined. The incident happened as a part of a series of other such arrests of individuals of various standing, ranging from former government ministers to former business associates of the prime minister. Tsvetanov accused all of them of heinous crimes. Many of them were arrested in a spectacular, Rambo-style fashion – and videotaped by Interior Ministry cameramen, only to be released later by the courts. Some of the affected sued successfully at the International Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. Bulgaria at present is steeped to pay a total of more than 203,000 euros in indemnities in cases initiated by Tsvetan Tsvetanov. Significantly, it is not Tsvetan Tsvetanov who will cough up the money for the wet squibs, but the Bulgarian taxpayers.
This doesn't seem to perturb the GERB establishment, however. Their aims have been achieved. The general public will think about the vile doctors for three or four days, just before the next such Potemkin village scandal grips the nation and enables the prime minister to appear on TV in his well-rehearsed role as a saviour.