FOR A COUPLE OF LIONS' HIDES

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Prime Minister saves cubs from zoo

Under GERB, Bulgaria's public has become accustomed to scandals of various magnitude that come and go about every second day, sometimes several times a day. Outrageous statements often generated by fake news make headlines for a few hours and electrify the public's attention only to be overshadowed by the next scandal that may be even more outrageous than the previous one. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov likes to put his hand (or his foot, as the situation warrants) in everything from police investigations to football and natural as well as man-made disasters, and the result is usually seen by many as callous at best and horrendous at worst. These scandals often question the existence of a genuine civil society in the Bulgaria outside of Facebook that is ready to act if the interest of the public so demands.

What has been going on in recent weeks with the ado generated by the failure to approve the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence can easily outshine all of the previous year, but few "scandals" have been odder than Boyko Borisov's involvement with… two lion cubs.

Two lion cubs? In the autumn of 2017 a lioness in the Razgrad city zoo gave birth to three cubs. One of them died as a result of substandard care and lack of proper conditions. The other two scrambled to survive.

The Razgrad City Council, acting following pressure from citizens, decided to send Masoud and Terez to Sofia. In Sofia, a couple of NGOs, Four Paws and Wild Animals, took over and cared for the cubs for months.

The plight of the duo grabbed the attention of the nation in an unprecedented outpour of sympathy and even cash donations. Yet Masoud and Terez were still at risk as this country lacks the equipment and expertise to handle baby wildlife. So, the two cubs would be sent to the Netherlands. Upon reaching maturity, they would be reintroduced to a lions' shelter in South Africa.

However, the Razgrad City Council got other ideas. Its councillors approved a plan to donate Masoud and Terez to the zoo in… Pazardzhik – despite the fact that it too lacked the facilities to handle young lions. Razgrad's decision was backed by Environment Minister Neno Dimov. The usual media frenzy ensued, but with an unexpected twist. A major newspaper ran a surreal headline, "Green Octopus Steals Bulgarian Lions," as the "octopus" being viewed was the environmentalist movement collectively. A TV channel accused the environmentalists and animal welfare activists of trying to deprive Pazardzhik children from a pair of cute little lions. Social network trolls were activated. They suggested the wildlife welfare NGOs had a sinister plan to sell Masoud and Terez for "millions" of dollars to South Africa where the two, which belonged to Bulgaria and Bulgaria alone, would be hunted down by Western tourists.

The NGOs responded by organising a rally and requesting Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to intervene personally. Following his unfailing propensity for spotting a chance to boost his own popularity, Borisov agreed. A few days later, Masoud and Terez landed in the Netherlands in spite of a previous refusal by the Bulgarian Food Safety Agency to issue travel permits for the two lions.

The lion cubs episode exemplifies two things. Neither of them is particularly complementary to Bulgaria, which currently holds the EU rotating presidency.

A significant number of people rose up in arms to defend the lions, but their civic valour and manifested compassion was hardly a triumph for the Bulgarian civil society. Masoud and Terez garnered greater public support than far more pressing matters such as the fight against corruption, the low standard of living, the sorry state of the Bulgarian media under GERB, the insufficient funding for cancer medication and the inability or unwillingness of the current rulers to implement judicial reforms. Thus, the plight of the two lions only illuminated the deep division lines breaking Bulgarian society in 2018.

And then there was Boyko Borisov's intervention. As it was actively sought by the protesters, it signalled another truism. In modern Bulgaria, the rule of law and the division of powers don't really matter. In order to get anything done in this country, you have to obtain the blessing of none lesser than the prime minister personally. If he senses a profit for himself or a chance to boost his standing, he will gladly comply.

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