Video Leaves Nasty Taste in Mouth for Bulgaria's Reputation
by Andrew MacDowall
It's a spectacular video that has been watched across the world. During a party conference, a man leaps onto the stage and draws a gun at the leader's head at point-blank range; the gun misfires and the speaker manages to knock it away; the gunman is dragged across the stage and subjected to a savage beating by besuited delegates.
But what does it tell us about Bulgaria's reputation – and reality?
Ahmed Dogan, until hours after the incident leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a party largely supported by Bulgaria's Turkish and Slavic Muslim minority, escaped unharmed. The controversial politician's assailant, Oktay Enimehmedov, 25, himself an ethnic Turk, was taken to hospital, having been kicked, punched, stamped upon and hit with objects by enraged DPS members. It was later reported that the pistol he brandished was a gas gun loaded with pepper spray, so reports of an "assassination attempt" may be an exaggeration.
Nonetheless, the video has made waves internationally. In Bulgaria, where the majority of the population look on the DPS and Dogan with at least contempt and in many cases loathing, conspiracy theories are already rife: a set-up to boost the DPS's profile in the run-up to July's election, some say.
Dogan stepped down on Saturday, as he was expected to do, but will likely remain the power behind the scenes in his party, says Dimitar Bechev, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations office in Sofia.
Bechev rubbishes conspiracy theories, saying that Enimehmedov appears to be a lone figure who resents Dogan and is obsessed with fame, not least since his brother triumphed in a popular TV dance show in 2007 and appeared on Bulgaria's Got Talent last year. More important than the gunman's motives is the effect of the video nasty on Bulgaria's reputation.
"This is terrible for Bulgaria, because the instant reaction of the media is to link the event to ethnic hatred," says Bechev. "Also, this shouldn't happen in any normal democracy." Some would also make the link to organised crime-linked shootings in Bulgaria since the fall of Communism, which have tarnished the image of what is in reality an easy-going country. In 1996, ex-prime minister Andrey Lukanov was shot dead, and in the last decade, there was a spate of shootings of businessmen, organised crime figures and ex-cons, few of which led to convictions; kidnappings and amateur bombings linked to politics and turf wars also took place. It was not unheard of for people to be shot in broad daylight on main streets, and the assassinations brought the serious issue of organised crime in Bulgaria sharply into focus as the country was making its first steps in the EU. But even then, the bodily threat to ordinary Bulgarians and foreign visitors and investors was negligible. Almost all the victims had reported links to the country's murky underworld.
A representative of a foreign investment agency based in the region tells beyondbrics that she has never heard of any investor fearing for their life in Bulgaria: more commonly, they feel safer than elsewhere in the world. Indeed, your correspondent lived in Sofia for more than four years and never saw a fist- fight, let alone a weapon drawn.
Not only it does it seem unlikely that the Dogan incident is linked to organised crime; Bulgaria has made progress on tackling criminal networks. But this may not offset investors' concerns about the country at a time when risk-aversion is the watchword.
"There has been a decline in assassinations and this government has been able to clamp down on kidnappings," says Bechev. "Even during the worst times, foreign businesspeople weren't targeted. More serious is the rule of law – this is a real issue. But [the Dogan incident] sends the wrong signal." The foreign investment representative, who asked not to be identified, concurs.
"The risk of violence in Sofia is not high, so long as you don't do big deals with the mafia," she says. "But of course, investors who read the news may be worried, it's bad for Bulgaria's image. Investors concerned about organised crime in Bulgaria often go to Romania, where it's less of an issue."
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