Ahmed Dogan. Or 'Who's Your Daddy?' in Bulgarian Politics
Ahmed Dogan, the founder and leader of Bulgaria's ethnic Turkish party DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedoms) was acquitted this week of conflict of interest charges in a much advertised trial.
Dogan was tried for receiving a fee of BGN 1.5 M from the government for serving as a consultant to four state hydro-power plant projects at the same time when he was a MP, and during the term of the three-way coalition government (2005-2009) which was formed under the mandate of his party.
It is true that Dogan's acquittal will be appealed but the outcome will most likely remain unchanged. The trial, however, has coincided with several other political developments – a visit to Bulgaria by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, and claims by a marginal but vocal political party that Bulgaria's Interior Minister had received benefits from a secret alliance with the DPS party, among others.
This article has more questions than answers. In the case of Dogan and the DPS party, it is hard to give definitive answers unless you are a part of the inner circle. And if you are, chances are you would never want to do that. But having good questions lined up could also be very helpful.
As far as the trial is concerned – Dogan's entire involvement into the hydro-power projects as a consultant appears to be a pretty blatant violation, morally. And his acquittal has led many to say he is invincible to justice.
Now, has he been acquitted because he is innocent? Or because he has sway with the Bulgarian judiciary? Or because the whole trial was just a farce intended to soak up some public pressure for "justice" by trying those who were in power in the recent years? Or because the Bulgarian legislation on conflict of interest, and in general, is a big mess, the result of deliberate efforts to leave loopholes, and general incompetence?
For all I know, it could be any or all of the above. Perhaps the last option is the most likely one considering that if found guilty, the maximum Dogan could've been sentenced to is a fine of BGN 3000.
A decent Bulgarian citizen should hope the answer lies with the first or at least the last of the four questions. The third one would be the worst because it would imply an actual secret deal between Bulgaria's ruling party GERB and the DPS party, now technically in opposition.
Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has multiple times described Dogan as his archenemy in politics saying the latter is shrewd, sly, and powerful thanks to the network of and around his party. Still, is it possible that GERB and DPS have got a backstage deal? If they do, what could its parameters be?
Claims that GERB and DPS have got a secret alliance – or at least some kind of a handshake deal - have been appearing occasionally in the Bulgarian media since the Borisov Cabinet took office in 2009.
Various indications for that have been cited. The most recent one – allegations presented this week by the "conservative" party RZS (the abbreviation, interestingly enough, stands for "Order, Law, Justice") that Bulgaria's Deputy PM and Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Borisov's right hand for many years, acquired several real estate properties in the past few years through favorable deals that he made with a businessman from the city of Haskovo, who is said to be connected with the DPS party.
If these deals happened as described, it is still unclear whether they would mean a secret grand deal between GERB and DPS, but these claims have cast a shadow on Tsvetanov and his much advertised crusade against organized crime in the past year.
(The RZS party itself is a questionable entity, which, if one is to believe various reports, might have connections with both organized crime and foreign intelligence services; it is certainly connected with Alexei Petrov, the former secret agent nicknamed "the Tractor" and now "the Octopus", who has been jailed since February on organized crime charges; in fact, Petrov's brother is part of the RZS leadership. The RZS party has been at odds with GERB since December when some of its MPs defected to join the ranks of GERB or to become independent.)
What else is there to suggest that Dogan's DPS has dealings under the table with the ruling party GERB? Those who wish to see such a secret alliance point to this week's Parliamentary vote in which GERB and DPS came together to prevent, or at least delay, a referendum on Turkey's EU accession. This, though, seems like a logical coincidence – the ethnic Turkish party expectedly backed Turkey, and the ruling party did not want to antagonize a powerful neighbor.
Then there comes the "New Bulgarian Media Group", the media empire of Irena Krasteva, a former civil servant, who in the past few years, "overnight", acquired a handful of Bulgarian media.
Krasteva's rumored connections with the Corporate Commercial Bank and the DPS party – which are said to have financed the numerous media acquisitions have not been proven but Krasteva's son Delyan Peevski has been a MP and a Deputy Minister from the DPS party in the past few years.
As reports would have people believe, if real, the alleged triangle between Dogan's party, the Corporate Commercial Bank, and the New Bulgarian Media group works in an interesting way.
In the spring of 2010, Finance Minister Djankov revealed that about 64% of the funds of 18 strategic Bulgarian state companies are kept in three local banks with a market share of under 9%; of these, the Corporate Commercial Bank, believed to be tied to DPS, keeps about half of the combined funds of the state firms.
This information was disclosed at the insistence of the editors-in-chief of 11 large Bulgarian media, clearly worried by the expansion of the New Bulgarian Media Group, which they claimed resulted from political ties, and the practical availability of state money allowed the group to provide its papers at "dumping prices" leading many impoverished layers of the Bulgarian society to chose them.
The way the triangle has been described in a nutshell is that during its time as part of the ruling coalitions (2001-2009), the DPS party got state companies to put their funds into its favored bank, and then the Corporate Commercial Bank funded the media empire of Krasteva, which in turn emerged as something like a political propaganda machine. It is probably impossible to prove with material evidence that such a triangle really exists but if it does, its author must be somebody very inventive such as Mr. Dogan.
The editorial policy of the New Bulgarian Media Group has seen an interesting shift since the Borisov Cabinet took over. Its media have been making no mention of Dogan and the DPS party, while piling much praise on Prime Minister Borisov (even though they had demonized him before the 2009 elections).
Borisov himself explicitly stated that this obvious change of the editorial policy of what are believed to be media connected with his "archenemy" Dogan was in fact a sly plot to trick everybody into believing he had a deal with Dogan in order to damage his image and voters' trust in him. An alternative interpretation has been that upon taking power, the GERB party told DPS the rise of Krasteva's media empire will be investigated unless its media dialed down their mudslinging against Borisov.
The above-mentioned instances do raise some questions about how comfortable Ahmed Dogan really is with the GERB party. They do make it easy for conspiracy theorists to see what they want to see but the fact of the matter is that there is no hard evidence that Dogan is enjoying special ties with GERB, or Borisov, or Tsvetanov. He appears to have been powerful enough as a political player in order to stand firmly on his feet even when he is in opposition.
Even if there is some kind of a deal between Borisov and Dogan – such as "peaceful coexistence" of a kind – that would hardly be a precedent in the history of democracies, even advanced ones. A review of the past in Bulgaria's post communist transition has been a complete failure in principle – so perhaps the most rational thing would be to try to focus on the future... deplorable as such a conclusion might sound.
A couple of things are for certain, however. Dogan is vilified all the time in Bulgaria – oftentimes because others – such as the nationalist party Ataka – need a villain. He is constantly described as a mafia boss, a contemptuous corrupt politician, an evil genius, or the spearhead of a fifth column whose purpose is to eventually turn Bulgaria over to Turkey, or at least stir ethnic tension and create autonomous regions that will amount to the same effect.
But the fact of the matter is everybody has recognized Dogan's style and skill for political organization and manoeuvres.
His brainchild, the DPS party, appears to be a solid amalgam of political and corporate structures bound together by not just by party loyalty, but also by economic profits centered around securing public procurement contracts or deals with state properties, extended families and nepotism, and the almost blind allegiance of the ethnic Turkish voters.
Descriptions of the DPS party as Turkey's fifth column are probably only 50%-75% justified. The DPS party has advocated boost of ties with Turkey. And Bulgarians in the regions with mixed population have complained that the DPS party has established a monopoly of power there, and has reserved all jobs for its members – clearly a disturbing scenario in which many ethnic Bulgarians have been practically forced to join the DPS party as members only to be considered for a local job.
On the other hand, Dogan has indeed sought to include in his party ethnic Bulgarians in the past years in order to achieve greater legitimacy for it as a centrist liberal formation. While probably having strong ties with factors in Turkey, he has most likely sought not to become a tool of Turkey's in order to preserve his independence as a political player.
Some of the most interesting questions around Dogan were raised by the recent visit of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sofia during which a planned meeting between the two failed to happen, and Erdogan met with another senior DPS member instead, Kasim Dal. This led many, including a detailed article in a major Bulgarian weekly, The Capital, to declare that Ahmed Dogan lost Turkey's backing for some reason.
"If for many years the Bulgarian public opinion received signs from the student of Machiavelli, Ahmed Dogan, today it is him who received the most serious political sign from Erdogan. Namely, that it is time for him to go. In order to make way for another, cleaner, and with God's help, wiser generation," commented Vezhdi Rashidov, Bulgaria's ethnic Turkish Culture Minister in the GERB Cabinet, who has been harshly critical of the DPS party and its methods of establishing political monopoly in certain Bulgarian regions. Rashidov did say that it was time for Kasim Dal to take over the DPS party.
Putting aside the questions about why the Turkish Prime Minister should have an influence of the leadership of a Bulgarian political party, it is still unclear what effect, if any, the failed meeting between Dogan and Erdogan means, and if Dogan could really be ousted as head of the party that he epitomizes if Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan wants that.
As already mentioned, Dogan must want to stay independent, and whatever his role in Bulgarian politics, that situation is much better for Bulgaria than a scenario in which his "ethnic Turkish" party is run by someone else who could be a docile tool in Turkey's hands. Dogan appears to be aware that he is the big deal in Bulgaria by dealing the political cards, not by becoming another country's stooge.
Both his admirers and enemies describe Dogan, who holds a degree in philosophy from the Sofia University, as a professional politician, perhaps the only really skilled one that Bulgaria created in the past 20 years or so (all claims that he is the head of a mafia organization aside).
Dogan's past remains publicly unclear. In the 1980s, he is proven to have been a collaborator of DS, Bulgaria's State Security, the secret police and intelligence of the communist regime. He is then said to have taken part and led the "Turkish National Liberation Movement in Bulgaria," a terrorist group that is said to have been formed to resist the so called "Revival Process" or "Regeneration Process", the 1980s campaign of the communist regime to assimilate ethnic Bulgarian Muslims and ethnic Turks by forcing them to adopt Slavic-Christian names (it is unclear which caused which but the two occurrence did coincide timewise). As a result, he spent four years in jail.
(An early 1990s statement by a former Bulgarian intelligence chief even suggested that Dogan was infiltrated by the DS into the terrorist group, and the episode with his term in prison was orchestrated in order to create a veneer for him so that he can then be sent as a spy into Turkey.)
Dogan is publicly remembered for two especially notorious statements that he made in 2005 and 2009 respectively, in the weeks before the respective regular general elections, which are believed to have been either blunders that rallied Bulgarians to the polls, or carefully calculated moves to demonstrate his power.
In 2005, he said in a TV talk show that every Bulgarian political party, including his, created around itself a "ring of firms" to fund its activities; in 2009, speaking with voters in a southern village he claimed to be the "factor" who apportioned the resources in the Bulgarian government.
Another huge question around Dogan is when he will retire. He has himself mentioned this prospect a couple of times, at one point hinting vaguely that there could be a role for him on the EU level. With the number of Muslims (and Turks, for that matter) in the EU on the rise, who knows, maybe the Philosopher, aka the Falcon (i.e. "dogan" means falcon in Turkish), eyes a career in European politics.
With all those reports, allegations, rumors, and questions above, Ahmed Dogan is probably the one politician in Bulgaria, who can stand up and ask the other political leaders, grinning, "Who's your daddy?"
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