Bulgaria's Big Jeleva Mess and the Reshuffle of the Borisov Cabinet

Editorial |Author: Ivan Dikov | January 26, 2010, Tuesday // 23:43|  views

At 9:53 UTC on January 12, 2010, the Caribbean nation of Haiti was shattered by a devastating earthquake that left hundreds of thousands dead. This was at about the same time the hearing of the first ever EU Commissioner-Designate for humanitarian aid and crisis prevention ended in the European Parliament in Brussels making it clear that the wretched of the world – be they in Haiti, Congo, Somalia, Gaza, or Afghanistan – cannot expect much larger-scale help from the EU in the weeks to come.

Spirits in Brussels, Sofia, and other EU capitals are still agitated over the whole Jeleva affair – the attempt of the already former (and then acting) Bulgarian Foreign Minister Rimiana Jeleva to become EU Commissioner for humanitarian aid which failed miserably terminating her political career.

The Jeleva affair threw the EC President Jose Manuel Barroso and the European People’s Party off course, and led to a delay of (at least) two weeks of the confirmation of the entire EC. Stirring serious public tension for the Bulgarian government of Boyko Borisov, it also led the Prime Minister to announce the first ever reshuffle of his cabinet which took over only six months ago

The Jeleva Affair – a Big Time Mess for Bulgaria

Most of the time (deservedly or not) Bulgaria makes the headlines in the EU press with organized crime and corruption and with being close with Russia. In January 2010, however, there was a significant change in that respect – it started making them with the ill-fated EC bid of its Foreign Minister Jeleva.

For weeks before her EP hearing Jeleva had been rumored to have been an unworthy candidate for the EC job. First, there were claims that her husband – banker Krasimir Jelev – had ties to the Russian mafia, and/or the murky corporation TIM based in Bulgaria’s Varna. Now, while the Russian mafia is a rather general term, TIM is more specific and even though there are legends about this company taking over the entire city of Varna – also published in a book by the German investigative journalist Jurgen Roth – hardly any charges of any kind have ever been pressed again that group.

The other kind of rumors which actually caused real trouble for Jeleva were the so called conflict of interest allegations which went, more or less, that she was a manager and owner of a private firm while being a Member of the European Parliament in 2007-2009. After emergency inspections by the Bulgarian Justice Ministry and the EP Legal Office, it pretty much turned out that those allegations were both true and untrue – because the actual conflict of interest law which also applied to MEPs - entered into force in Bulgaria only in January 2009. Thus, Jeleva technically did not break any legal rules in Bulgaria – only suggested moral ones.

It is both weird and interesting how for a while Jeleva based her defense on the fact that the firm in question did not carry out any commercial activities in 2007-2009, which she presented as meaning she did nothing wrong even though she only sold the problematic company in April 2009. The picture, however, is complicated by the fact that even after her resignation as EC Designate and Bulgarian Foreign Minister, a journalistic investigation in Bulgaria showed that she was still the owner of still another firm.

How to End One’s Political Career the Fast and Hard Way

To wrap up the whole conflict of interest issue – it does not seem that Jeleva benefited in a substantial way (if any) from the companies she participated in over the last couple of years – giving grounds to her conviction that she had done nothing wrong. But it remains a puzzle why she did not take proper care of this issue by getting out of those commitments the moment she was elected to a public post – such as a MEP or Foreign Minister. This is MISTAKE No. 1 on her part and on part of her Bulgarian party GERB that led to the EP hearing fiasco.

Part of the answer might lie with the lax legislation and its even laxer enforcement in Bulgaria in that respect. Because even though Jeleva claimed during her EP hearing that “the existing proper authorities in my country would have exposed any violations of mine”, everybody knows that is not necessarily the case with Bulgarian institutions.

The second issue with Jeleva’s EC bid was – well – her competence and knowledge of her portfolio. First of all, it is fair to say that the situation during her hearing was really tense and that she was attacked fiercely by the MEPs. But this could have well been anticipated.

Given the staunch support of the EPP for her, the hard-to-prove conflict of interest case probably would not have mattered much, had Jeleva demonstrated outstanding knowledge of her portfolio. Sadly (for Bulgaria at least as she was its representative), that was not the case, and the humanitarian crises in the Congo, Gaza, and Afghanistan did not seem to have been on Jeleva’s agenda during her supposed reading period. This was MISTAKE No. 2 which many of those who attacked her bid stressed as more important than the rather complex and unclear conflict of interest thing.

Finally, Jeleva got criticized much for using the most widely spoken language in the world during her hearing – i.e. “Bad English.” It is bewildering why she did not speak solely in her native language – which she is entitled to - if she was insecure about her English. MISTAKE No. 3.

To sum it all up – it seems that both Jeleva and the Bulgarian government of Boyko Borisov which endorsed her EC bid did not really take the whole hearing matter seriously. They clearly underestimated the ferocity of their political enemies and the set of skills and knowledge necessary to handle the portfolio of the first ever EU humanitarian aid Commissioner.

There was much talk of two other Bulgarian political parties – the Socialists and the liberal NMSP of former Tsar Saxe-Coburg – being behind an “attack” against Jeleva. As it never became absolutely clear if Jeleva did something wrong but it became clear she was not prepared for the job, “attack” might be too strong a word. It’s like being angry at a street gang for raping a young girl that you yourself let wander past midnight at the thugs’ gathering place in a very bad neighborhood. (And the girl herself went along.) Sure, it is a terrible crime but why didn’t you take precautions?!... The Borisov government just should have been smarter about their adversaries and politics in general.

Mending Fences: The Reshuffle of the Borisov Government

There would have been changes in the Borisov government even if Jeleva had become EU Commissioner – as someone had to fill in the Foreign Minister job. But the reshuffle was really brought about but her all-out withdrawal from politics whatsoever – allegedly, after the EP Legal Service cleared her name – which technically was – and was not – the case (see above).

It is interesting to note that despite the whole fiasco with Jeleva’s bid, the Borisov government and the Prime Minister himself completely managed to save face. For one thing, because many Bulgarians saw Jeleva as a victim – the rationale being that she should have been backed wholeheartedly by the other Bulgarian parties because of being Bulgarian. The start of this whole argument is probably the major publicly significant result from the Jeleva affair for the Bulgarian society, and it is still raging on TV, in the papers, and in Internet forums.

The fact of the matter, however, is that Prime Minister Boyko Borisov himself indicated the scope of the defeat with Jeleva’s withdrawal by bringing in the really big guns – he endorsed for the EC job World Bank Vice President Kristalina Georgieva – one of the few Bulgarians with real international renown. Georgieva herself made it clear that she was coming over to the rescue of the troubled Bulgarian nation and government by flying across the Atlantic to take over the EC spot which belongs to Bulgaria by default.

Borisov used his last, or major trump card: although in his own words Kristalina Georgieva was supposed to join the Bulgarian government as a Deputy PM in charge of the economy, he sacrificed her in order to mend his political fences on the Brussels front.

How suitable a candidate is Georgieva? She is certainly an extremely well qualified professional. The only major question raised about her so far has to do with the ongoing inspection of whether she collaborated with the State Security service of the former communist regime.

At the same time, Defense Minister Nikolay Mladenov with his degree in war studies would have been more suitable for humanitarian aid commissioner than Georgieva, who is essentially a banker and financier. Yet, it will be an interesting experience – and experiment – to see how Georgieva would feel by moving from Washington DC to Brussels. One is left wondering if that is a step up or down in her career.

Basically, Borisov chose to commandeer Georgieva to Brussels and to make Mladenov the new Foreign Minister,, his Defense seat being filled up by an actual member of the military – General Anyu Angelov – for the first time since 1989.

Brain Drain Pays Back (Finally?)

Even though Georgieva is now getting a EC job (not just Bulgaria but also all of the EU now hopes she will be confirmed by the EP), thus leaving a vacuum in the government in Sofia that she was supposed to boost, Borisov came up with one more new trump card - turns out he had more of those in his sleeve.

He has announced that one of his “economic advisors” from abroad – INSEAD Professor and top finance expert Ilian Mihov – is going to fill up for Georgieva in his government by becoming a Deputy PM in charge of EU funding absorption and Eurozone accession.

Mihov’s showing up in Sofia – which has been delayed for the late spring of 2010 as he is supposed to be teaching – has generated much interest – about as much as the potential joining of the Sofia cabinet by Georgieva, or the appointment of Simeon Djankov – another top World Bank economist – as Bulgaria’s Finance Minister.

Djankov, Mihov, and Georgieva are renown names of somewhat of a future dream team. They are people who got their training and/or experience at really prestigious institutions abroad. So one can’t help by ask the question if brain drain is finally starting to pay back for Bulgaria as those experts are taking up key government jobs. For the answer to be positive, however, they will have to put their knowledge into making tangible progress for the Bulgarian economy with their (future) measures – a tough task in a time of still raging global economic crisis. Yet, the prospects do look promising if the dream team is installed properly in place.

In addition to Bulgaria getting bad publicity (again), the whole Jeleva affair has led to the withdrawal of a key person from the “Bulgarian-grown” people of the government and greater positions for Bulgarian experts coming back from abroad. If one is to accept that those are with really exceptional qualities, then maybe the Jeleva fiasco would have a positive effect by putting things in order for the Borisov government.

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Tags: Rumiana Jeleva, EU Commissioner, EP hearing, EP, hearing, Commissioner-designate, Kristalina Georgieva, Boyko Borisov, government, Cabinet, cabinet reshuffle, Ilian Mihov, Simeon Djankov, brain drain


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