Happy Baba Marta and welcome to the first KInsights newsletter for March! This week our editor-in-chief Ognyan Georgiev is off and you will get your weekly digest from me, Martin Dimitrov, the charge d'affaires for politics in our media.
It seems like a good week to take over: from Friday onwards Bulgaria is officially in campaign mode. On Tuesday, all parties had to submit their lists of election candidates - usually the most important aspect of Bulgarian politics: faces and names are way more important than governing programs, priorities or, God forbid, sectoral politics. To sum it up: most of Bulgaria's stars, past and present, seem to be running for office now.
These include the former coach of the famous 1994 Bulgarian football team Dimitar Penev. And how did he choose his party - the nationalist-populist NFSB-Volya? He would have run for other parties, he said - if they invited him. "My life is nearing its end, it's time for me to try politics," Penev told Nova TV on Thursday.
It's as good an explanation as any in Bulgarian politics these days.
One name that is obviously missing? Look at the end of the current newsletter and be surprised.
And don't forget it is a pandemic, and medics were the stars of 2020. So now every major contender has at least one doctor in an electable position. Voters can select from several types of Covid-19 deniers - Slavi Trifonov's "There is such people" opted for Dr. Andrey Tchorbanov, while the Left ABV faction of former President Georgi Parvanov bet on the original denier - Dr. Atanas Mangarov. Or they can go for one of the leading figures in the battle against the virus - Dr. Aleksandar Simidchiev, nominated by Democratic Bulgaria.
If you want to find out more about the upcoming elections, the main players and their messages, you can read our summary here. Come back for more info on everything about the vote and contenders in coming weeks.
Now to some substance.
POLITCS THIS WEEK
While the campaign did not officially start until Friday, all major players have been preparing throughout the week. The unofficial start was given on Wednesday 3 March - Bulgaria's National Holiday marking the liberation of the country from five centuries of Ottoman rule.
The most glaring example came, of course, from one of the Facebook Live interventions of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov himself. Instead of joining any of the state celebrations - in central Sofia, where most politicians go, or at the Shipka monument, where the most decisive battle of the 1878 war was commemorated by President Rumen Radev, Mr Borissov chose to inspect the construction of the Hemus highway.
Bulgarians, said Borissov, had never been freer in their history, "constructing the future with their bare hands," while in the meantime some "liars and manipulators" (i.e. the President) were only talking about freedom. In an act of ultimate populism, he gave his suit jacket to a worker at a highway, citing the Biblical proverb that "If you have two shirts, give one to the poor." Later, it turned out that the "poor" worker is, in fact, also a municipal councilor from GERB from the small town of Suvorovo near Varna.
What makes the situation even funnier and more absurd is that the guy joked with Mr Borissov about finding euro notes in the pockets - obviously alluding to the pictures of the Prime Minister's drawer containing 500 euro notes. "Halal for you, if you find any," Mr Borissov responded.
High-level corruption allegations are such a mundane topic in Bulgaria that even highway workers from the Prime Minister's own party joke about it with the guy himself.
Light at the end of the tunnel
On the positive side, another section of the Hemus highway will finally reopen after five years of repairs. Suspiciously, that happens just a few weeks before the elections. The Vitinya and Echemishka tunnels were closed in 2016 after a woman lost her life when a lamp fell straight into the passenger seat of a passing vehicle.
The repairs, which were supposed to take a year, dragged on for six years due to structural problems discovered in the tunnels.
And you call this a Prosecutor?
It was not a brilliant week for the Bulgarian Prosecutor's office. On Wednesday, the Supreme Judicial Council announced that it will investigate why the office of the European Public Prosecutor's Office, headed by Romanian former anti-corruption prosecutor Laura Kovesi, has dismissed seven out of the ten Bulgarian nominees for national prosecutors.
According to specialized publications, the EU office's central argument was that the Bulgarian Prosecution had nominated people with little to no experience in the abuse and mismanagement of EU funds - supposedly the main domain of the new agency.
Instead, it only put forward police investigators or Civil Procedure prosecutors, who had little to do with the investigation of abuse of EU money.
To be honest, while it is true that such a slap in the face is well deserved by this most problematic Bulgarian institution, even if they DID try, they could hardly find any prosecutor who had won cases involving EU fraud. There are simply way too few of those.
Case in point: SAPARD case
In an ironic twist, the news from Brussels came a day after the signature case of EU funds abuse in Bulgaria - the "SAPARD" affair - finally ended in court due to an expiration of the statute of limitations 14 years after the case was launched.
The affair, which concerned a 2006 purchase of old German machines with the first pre-EU accession funds Bulgaria received, was closed in Germany five months after it started with two sentences for the perpetrators of the fraud. In Bulgaria, none of the dozen suspects were sentenced, a full 14 years later.
You wouldn't hear about this from the spokesperson of the institution Siyka Mileva. In very Soviet-style she announced on Thursday 1249 specialized operations on the territory of 3090 towns in Bulgaria and then refused questions from journalists.
Speaking of media, a good piece of news
At least the controversial changes to the media law, initiated by Parliament just a few weeks before the end of its mandate, which might have led to prolonged mandates of the directors of national media, among other things, was postponed until after the election.
Another postponement: NATO Black Sea exercise
Officially - because 11 out of 96 sailors from the two Bulgarian ships that were supposed to take place in the Poseidon'21 drills got infected with Covid-19 and were quarantined. Some observers - such as ex-Defense Minister Velizar Shalamanov, currently running for office on the ticket of Democratic Bulgaria - saw in the move lack of preparedness of secondary crew, as well as genuflection to Moscow by the Bulgarian military authorities. Defense Minister Krassimir Karakachanov from VMRO answered that some people always see a "global conspiracy" where there is none.
And last, but not least: remember that pandemic?
This week, three quarters of Bulgaria joined the unfortunate club of regions where new Covid-19 infections surpassed 120 per 100,000 population in the past fortnight. According to the National Crisis Committee, there has been a 40 percent rise in the overall number of infections and deaths on a weekly basis, with numbers of hospitalized patients reaching the dangerous mid-November 2020 rates of 4,700. This does not seem to worry the health authorities, however, with Health Minister Kostadin Angelov saying that any extra measures are to be decided on a regional rather than national level.
On the positive side, on Thursday the health authorities launched an electronic register to help people seeking a Covid-19 immunization to book an appointment, select a vaccine and a place to have it. On the less positive side, the first people who attempted to register on Thursday evening complained about an #ERROR message...
GDP: Still at Europe's tail (except for Sofia)
Bulgaria remains the weakest EU economy in 2019, finalized data by Eurostat showed this week. According to the European Statistics Office, Bulgarian GDP per capita of 8,800 euro amounted to only 53 percent of the average per capita income of the rest of the EU.
The Northwestern region of the country remains the poorest in the union as well. According to Eurostat, a person from Vidin, Montana or Vratsa contributes 5,400 euro to the GDP, which is 32 percent of that of the average European. On the positive side, this is a marked improvement from 2010, when the region was producing 27 percent of the average for the EU.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is, obviously, the capital city of Sofia, which boasts a 14,800 euro per capita contribution to GDP, which is a six percent annual growth and a 13 percent growth compared to 2010. This places Sofia just above the average GDP per capita levels for the rest of Europe.
Grants for mid-sized businesses
Over 3,200 medium-sized companies applied for the 25,000 euro Covid relief grants available from the EU in the first five days since applications opened.
This means that struggling businesses are seeking 81 million euro, almost twice as much as the available 37,5 million euro funding. The program was launched a year late, after the earmarked money was instead used for Covid-19 subsidies by the government last spring.
The big business news this week is that the British financial platform Revolut has received a license to operate as a bank on the Bulgarian market. This means that paid users of the application will now have their deposits (under 100,000 euro) covered under the common EU deposit insurance scheme. The fintech company claims that it has 220,000 active users in Bulgaria.
Bulgarian online supermarket eBag has received another investment of 500,000 euro from the Czech retailer Rohlik as a second tranche of a 1-million euro investment announced last summer. Hence, the Czech company now owns 7,63 percent of the Bulgarian online shop, which is currently valued at 17,8 million euro. Currently the company employs 300 workers.
Eurohold Bulgaria is planning to raise 100 million euro on the Bulgarian Stock Exchange to finance the 335 million euro deal for the purchase of CEZ energy holding's Bulgarian assets. This will be one of the largest fundraisings on the Bulgarian Stock Exchange and should take place on 10 April, with issue price set for 1,25 euro per stock. The holding, which maintained its revenue during the crisis-ridden 2020 at the price of increase of the incurred losses, is currently under surveillance by the Fitch credit agency precisely due to uncertainties surrounding the purchase of the energy company's Bulgarian assets.
Long-term contracts with US TPP investors to end
One of the most significant energy reforms in the country will have to happen by 30 June this year, when Sofia plans to abolish regulated electricity prices and open the sector to all. For this to happen, however, the authorities have to terminate their 15-year power purchase contracts with the respective owners of the two coal-fired power plants - AES Corporation and ContourGlobal 13 and 15 years early, respectively.
This will be a hard thing to do: governments have been trying to do it in one way or another for several years, yet contracts are still in place. But Borissov's cabinet already proposed the plan to the European Commission, which leaves little room for maneuvering. You can read more about the plan in the article by Ivaylo Stanchev and Rumyana Gocheva on Kapital Insights.
WATCH OUT FOR
The media mogul and backstage power-broker in the last 4 governments has suddenly been dropped from the lists of the Turkish MRF party, so expect him to assume an even more shadowy role.
8 March, International Women's Day, has been rediscovered in the past couple of years by Bulgarian women and female rights activists. Look around for the Women's march in central Sofia.
WORDS OF THE WEEK
This week's top word comes from the mouth of history professor Ivan Ilchev and is almost as hard to translate into English as it is to pronounce by a non-Bulgarian speaker. It ought to mean "nonentity", or "worthless good-for-nothing," but in a very high literary style. The word came up when Prof. Ilchev said the phrase "Oh Lord, what worthless, good for nothing people rule Bulgaria," during a live broadcast by Bulgarian National Television on 3 March to describe Parliament speaker Tsveta Karayancheva. It was a mistake by the sound director of the show - he did not mute Prof. Ilchev's microphone while tuning in live for Ms Karayancheva's intermission, but it echoed around Bulgarian media - likely because the professor just voiced what many Bulgarians feel. And before we feel too sorry for Ms Karayancheva - her own boss, Mr Borissov, called her much, much worse in a leaked phone conversation from 2020, and she did not bat an eye.