Bulgaria's Supreme Judicial Council is due to elect a new prosecutor general to replace Sotir Tsatsarov, whose seven-year term is expiring. Hearings are scheduled for October 24 and the only candidate is deputy prosecutor general Ivan Geshev. In theory, Mr Geshev's nomination can be rejected but observers say this is unlikely to happen. In the coming weeks, the parliament has to appoint a new chairman of the government's Commission for Countering Corruption and Forfeiture of Illegally Acquired Assets after Plamen Georgiev resigned over an apartment scandal. Georgiev has been appointed consul general in Valencia.
A series of worrying developments cast a dark shadow over the already gloomy Bulgarian media environment. On 29 August, the microphones in the press conference room at the Bulgarian government headquarters were removed to make sure that journalists would not be asking questions after Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and the visiting president-elect of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen have delivered their statements. This left onlookers with the impression that the next EC head is ready to tolerate a media crackdown in the country scoring lowest in the EU in media freedom rankings. A few days later, brown media outlet pik.bg published intimate photographs of the girlfriend of Democratic Bulgaria candidate for Sofia mayor, Borislav Ignatiov. Although the abominable act made most media outlets and politicians shudder at pik.bg, it was also a reason to remember the close ties between the website and the government. Lastly, in mid-September Bulgarian National Radio host and justice system reporter Sylvia Velikova was briefly suspended from her show, allegedly for her overly critical stance against Prosecutor General nominee Ivan Geshev. After her colleagues staged a massive protest and BNR's Horizont news programme went off air for 6 hours, Mr Velikova was brought back but the public radio announced it would invite a second host to her show for the sake of 'pluralism'.
In a seemingly unprecedented turn of events, two Bulgarian institutions took a tough stance against Russia in September. First, on the eve of 9 September (the day in 1944 when a pro-Soviet coup overthrew Bulgaria's government and installed a regime loyal to Moscow), the Bulgarian foreign ministry issued a strongly worded declaration criticising the Russian embassy in Sofia for organising an exhibition commemorating "75 years of the liberation of Eastern Europe from Nazism." On 9 September itself, the Prosecutor's Office charged the leader of local pro-Russian NGO Russophile Movement, Nikolay Malinov, with spying for the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI) and the Double-Headed Eagle Society of Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev. Although the charges are unlikely to go anywhere, the two events are a rare show of tenaciousness by Bulgarian institutions which are usually friendly towards Russia.
Bulgarians will elect mayors and municipal councillors for the next four-year term on October 27. In Sofia, pollsters expect a tight race opposing current mayor Yordanka Fandakova from the ruling GERB party and Maya Manolova, a former socialist MP and ombudsman nominated by a civic committee and backed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party. A heated contest is also expected in Bulgaria's second-largest city, Plovdiv, where GERB has replaced incumbent Ivan Totev by regional governor Zdravko Dimitrov as candidate mayor. Dimitrov will face Slavcho Atanasov, who was mayor until 2007 and who has been nominated for the October vote by GERB's nationalistic partners in government VMRO and NFSB.
Two Bulgarian women came under the international spotlight in September. The European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel got nominated for a second term, this time as Innovation and Youth Commissioner. The position she has been designated to take in the next Commission carries much less political clout than other portfolios Bulgaria was rumoured to have negotiated for, including agriculture and foreign policy. Yet, the new portfolio would leave Ms Gabriel in charge of several key European programs, including Erasmus II, Horizon and Creative Europe which have 140 million euro allocated for the 2021-2027 program period. The other high-level Bulgarian appointment that is almost finalized is that of Kristalina Georgieva, ex-European Commissioner for Budget and Foreign Aid and current CEO at the World Bank, who will likely become managing director of the International Monetary Fund by the end of this year.
Bulgarian Prosecutor's Office announced on 10 September that it is indicting Bulgarian businessman and head of the Russophile Movement organization Nikolay Malinov for espionage in favor of two Russian NGOs - the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies and the Double-Headed Eagle Society. The ex-head of the first NGO, retired Russian Foreign Intelligence Service lieutenant general Leonid Reshetnikov and the president of the second organization, media mogul Konstantin Malofeev, were barred from entering Bulgaria for 10 years. While the official Kremlin reaction was muted, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov stressed that the operation is not aimed against Russia but against Mr Malinov per se.
Тens of thousands of pigs belonging to about a dozen industrial-sized farms were culled in August after an outbreak of African swine fever hit the country in summer. About 75,000 pigs were slaughtered in this period, causing uproar among representatives of the sector and private farmers. According to Agriculture Ministry's estimates, the culling would cost the state and farmers about 300 million euro, 75% of which would be covered by the European Commission.
Showman in politics
In his last show on 31 July, the long-time bTV talk show host and musician Slavi Trifonov announced he is leaving the private TV station in order to create a media of his own, as well as a political party to be called No Such State after a song of his. The planned TV channel of Mr Trifonov will be called Seven Eighths, after the name of his production studio (and another old song of his). The main goal of both the TV channel and the political movement that were to be launched on 15 September but did not appear before the publishing of this issue of KQ would be to make the changes to the political system backed by Bulgarians in a 2016 referendum, which Trifonov and his team campaigned for.
On 3 September Bulgaria's Foreign Ministry issued a heavy-worded declaration criticizing the Russian embassy in Sofia for organising an exhibition commemorating "75 years of the liberation of Eastern Europe from Nazism" on 9 September, the day the Bulgarian government was toppled by a "people's revolution" backed by the Red Army in 1944. The date, which used to be an official holiday in Socialist-era Bulgaria, still stirs controversy in a country where pro-Russian Soviet-era nostalgia and pro-Western attitudes coexist.
After Prime Minister Boyko Borissov announced at a conference of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria that currently, it was not worth for Bulgaria to join the EU's free-travel Schengen area, on 12 September he altered his stance, saying that his government has not given up the goal of taking the country into the EU's borderless zone. He explained that his earlier comment was related to the fact that every day hundreds of asylum seekers would have crossed into Bulgaria from Greece and Turkey if the country were in the Schengen area.
The February 2019 forecast of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov that Bulgaria will enter the ERM II (the precursor to membership of the Eurozone) by July failed to materialize. In June, Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov pushed back the intended date to join the ERM II until the end of the year, but since the European Central Bank will be changing its leadership at this time, it is likely that his hopes will also fail to materialize.
Energy Minister Temenuzhka Petkova replaced without explanation the management of Bulgarian Energy Holding (BEH) in July. BEH controls the state-owned assets in the energy sector and its consolidated revenue makes it the biggest company in Bulgaria. The new CEO of BEH, Jacklen Cohen, was fired from that same position for mismanagement in 2016. The replacement signals attempt by the government to force energy projects even though part of the management of the state-owned energy companies doubt their economic rationale. Two weeks later the CEO of National Electrical Company, Peter Iliev, was dismissed by the new management of BEH, again without explanation. Mr Iliev complained, without mentioning names, that he was pressured to manipulate electricity tenders.
Mountains of loses
State-owned thermal power plant Maritsa East 2 lost a whopping 145 million levs in the first half of the year. Losses continue to swell despite attempts by the government to keep the power plant afloat. The accumulated loss already totals 772 million levs and debt tops 1.5 billion levs. Technically speaking, the power plant is insolvent because it is unable to cover its production costs and fully relies on financial assistance from its owner, the state-owned Bulgarian Energy Holding (BEH). The amount of aid now exceeds 800 million levs and in practice cannot be repaid. BEH has initiated a procedure to increase the capital of the TPP by converting 600 million levs of debt into equity but for half a year the plan has not been endorsed by the European Commission and the effect will only be temporary.
Power plants connected to political leader Ahmed Dogan and businessman Hristo Kovachki won the lion's share of capacity tenders for 2019/2020. The Electricity System Operator will pay Varna TPP, Bobov Dol TPP, Maritsa 3 TPP and Ruse Central Heating utility 52 million levs in 2019/20 to stay ready to provide reserve electricity. The so-called cold reserve is rarely activated, therefore most of this money is pure profit for Mr Dogan and Mr Kovachki.