Eastern Europe's Watergate
A grey Chrysler Voyager van equipped with antennas called “The Catcher”. A former official of the interior ministry who interrupts his 50th birthday party to destroy data on the ministry’s computers' hard drives with a screw driver. A former minister of agriculture wired with recording equipment, presumably attached to his chest with scotch tape, who visits the home of the former prime minister. These are all scenes from the “Bulgarian Watergate”, a wiretapping scandal that could have profound implications for the elections on May 12th.
The story reached its climax on April 26th when the chief prosecutor in Sofia, Nikolay Kokinov, resigned following leaked wiretaps of a conversation between him, the former agriculture minister, Miroslav Naydenov, and Boyko Borisov, the former prime minister. In what observers call a “vulgar and cynical” conversation, the three men discuss a corruption case against Mr Naydenov, absorption of European Union funds, relations with the media and the choice of Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor earlier this year. Mr Kokinov told Mr Borisov: “You chose him, don’t smile now”.
The leaked chat, which raises serious questions about the independence of the judicial system, follows an interview with Mr Naydenov on April 25th where the ex-minister accused the former interior minister, Tzvetan Tzvetanov, who is Mr Borisov’s right-hand man, of illegally wiretapping everyone in the previous cabinet. Earlier this month, prosecutors pressed charges against four former police officials accusing them of wiretapping political figures, businessmen and journalists. According to Mr Naydenov, even Rosen Plevneliev, the president, was a target: Mr Naydenov cited a meeting with the president when the two had to leave their mobile phones in another room and turn on the television to avoid being wiretapped.
Mr Tzvetanov denied ordering any surveillance and instead blamed the Socialist opposition of stirring up the scandal. Mr Borisov went even further: the former prime minister spoke of a “private interior ministry” which is involved in illegal activities and manipulations and is organised by people from the surroundings of Sergey Stanishev, the leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).
The current controversy follows a long tradition of wiretapping senior politicians in Bulgaria including Mr Borisov himself in 2011. The American State Department cites the abuse of wiretapping as one of Bulgaria’s most pressing human rights problems.
The current scandal might have profound implications on the upcoming snap elections following the resignation of Mr Borisov’s government in early February. “The undecided voters now have a strong motive not to vote or to vote for one of the smaller parties,” says Rumyana Kolarova, a political scientist at Sofia University. “While Borisov’s party might lose some votes, it is clear that the opposition, especially the Socialists, will not profit from this scandal.”
Mr Borisov’s centre-right GERB party is currently leading the polls with up to 25% ahead of BSP with up to 19%. According to analysts, the lack of a clear winner and the polarised campaign will make it difficult to build a coalition after the elections and increase the chances of a new vote. The strongest parties after GERB and BSP are the Turkish minority party and the ultranationalist Attack, which both come in at around 5%. The centrist party of Meglena Kuneva, a former EU commissioner, is currently hovering around the threshold for entering parliament (4%) but it could take away some votes from GERB’s periphery in the wake of the scandal, Ms Kolarova says.
The outcome of the election will depend on the undecided voters, which constiture about a fifth of the electorate, according to a recent opinion poll. “The voters of GERB and BSP are like opposing football fans,” says Tihomir Bezlov from the Centre for the Study of Democracy in Sofia. “They cannot vote for the other team and cannot miss the game— that would be treason. Those who will not go to the stadium are the undecided voters.”