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Scandals in GERB add to Borissov’s predicament

The bus crash near Svoge was due to the bad quality of asphalt. [Dnevnik]

Less than five months before the European elections the third government of Boyko Borissov is in its mid-term. It is undertaking big deals (such as the purchase of fighter jets) whilst social tensions are growing. Short-term responses (Borissov’s trademark) hardly make the situation sustainable. The ruling party GERB is also shaken by scandals. The junior coalition partner “United Patriots” is a generator of scandals too. Krassen Nikolov has the story.

The biggest issue is that the “Borissov 3” cabinet is afraid of the much-needed reforms, while corruption deepens social inequality, the cost of life becoming a growing irritant. Protests against the high fuel prices took place last November. They began to fade away when petrol stations started lowering the prices, but the tension remained.

The cost of central heating in the capital has increased by nearly 30% over the past 18 months. There is also a serious increase in the price of water. The average cost of the communal services for an apartment of 80 square meters in Sofia during winter is over €150 euros per month. In comparison, the average income per working person in the capital is €600-700. People in the province have even more serious problems because their income is lower and their expenses are roughly the same. The inflation for the past year is over 3%.

The government’s response was to increase the salaries of civil servants by 10%. Pensions will be increased by less than 6%. According to the Institute for Market Economics the increase in wages and pensions will not lead to a higher living standard and will only compensate the inflation. Winter in Bulgaria has always been a political test for the successive governments.

Against this background the government will spend at least € 1 billion on the modernization of the army. The lion’s share will be for buying new American fighters (F-16) and the renovation of old Russian jets. At the end of the year €680 million was allocated for construction of the Hemus highway in northern Bulgaria. This money will be spent without a public procurement procedure.

There are enormous suspicions about corruption in road construction. A bus crash in the small mountain town of Svoge led to the death of 20 people in August. After the accident the attention focused on the quality of the asphalt which proved to be slippery. The scandal led to the resignations of three GERB ministers. That was followed by the so-called ‘GP Gate’, named after the construction company GP Group. Two journalists investigating the company were arrested in September. The scandal damaged GERB’s reputation. GP Group became notorious also for the poor rehabilitation of a central street in Sofia. There was also a problem with the public procurement procedure for this reconstruction. That led to the resignation of a deputy mayor of Sofia. The prosecution opened an investigation, and so did OLAF, as EU funds were involved.

So far GERB have put pride in road construction projects. But the problems in the area have provoked the opposition BSP to ask for independent expertise on their quality. This has not been done yet.

“Many Bulgarian experts consider that 40% of the value of motorways returns to those in power (as corruption money). Companies in Bulgaria can build with good quality, but it is difficult for them in this situation”, says BSP spokesperson Elena Yoncheva.

Problems do not end with roads. The Minister of Finance Vladislav Goranov has been checked for conflicts of interest, offense of service and trading with influence because of an unpleasant scandal. It turned out that for the past 6 years he and his family have lived free of charge in a luxury apartment owned by a businessman and prominent mason, Ivan Sariev. Goranov said he was his family’s godfather. The minister explained that he had declared everything and the law had been respected. But meanwhile Sariev’s had been employed by the Ministry.

At the end of the year environmentalists renewed their protests for the fate of Pirin Nature Park, which is under the UNESCO protection. The protestors call for the concession for a new ski zone close to the Bansko resort to be denounced. The Prosecution has stated that the concession was illegal and the concessionaire (an offshore company called Yulen) had used more land in the mountains than it was given. In the end of the year famous skier Mark Girardelli was announced to be the owner of Yulen. He explained that he bought the Yulen in 2016. The problem is that at that time he was an adviser to the Minister of Tourism.

Recent sociological surveys show that despite the scandals GERB continues to be the first political power in the country with a 2-3% advance over BSP. By the end of December the number of people demanding early elections declined. 45% of Bulgarians say that the country does not need early parliamentary elections. 36% of Bulgarians want elections, according to a study of “Exacta research group”.

This stability, which has worked for Boyko Borissov and GERB for the time being, may evaporate until the end of winter and that may hit the ruling party just before the European elections.

“Logic shows that tensions in society will continue to grow. Sometimes there is no need to have a price increase, it is enough to have an announcement or perceptions for such. Sometimes the public finds issues only because there are fears”, says the political analyst Parvan Simeonov in an article for BGNES agency.

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