Slavi Trifonov’s concert in London last Saturday was the biggest gathering of Bulgarians abroad in history. But mainstream Bulgarian media, largely under the control of GERB, pretended nothing happened. Rumen Cholakov, Chairman of Millennium Club Bulgaria, an international network and think tank of young Bulgarians with permanent representatives in seven different countries, offers his views on the matter.
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This famous philosophical question sums-up the attitude which mainstream Bulgarian media has taken towards the country’s most famous showman, Slavi Trifonov.
Last week, Mr. Trifonov, who is better known simply as “Slavi”, staged a concert at London’s most prestigious venue, the O2 Arena. This was the first occasion a Bulgarian band plays at the O2 Arena and it will probably be the last for at least the foreseeable future. To book this venue, reservations are placed three years in advance and it is not enough to pay the price – careful due diligence is conducted on each request and had it not been for Slavi’s previous concert at the SSE Arena Wembley in 2016, which gathered 12,000 Bulgarians, the O2 would most likely have rejected the band.
The event on Saturday has certainly been the single biggest gathering of Bulgarians abroad in history. I was among the many thousands at the O2 arena and can attest to the strength of emotion of the crowd. Many traditional patriotic Bulgarian songs were played and the audience even interrupted the concert at one point to chant Slavi’s name for over a minute. There were people crying, folklore dances on the floor and hundreds of Bulgarian flags. While it might have been one of the best displays of Bulgarian culture during the country’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, there was no mention of this or the EU at all.
Instead, the concert was dedicated to the Association of Mothers of Children with Disabilities in Bulgaria under the slogan “The System Kills Them”. Slavi announced he will donate all profits from the concert to the association after Bulgaria’s National Assembly refused to allow some of its members to enter the building due to their ‘improper attire’ and this focused public opinion on the savage conditions in which Bulgaria’s disabled people are forced to live.
[Social minister Bisser Petkov resigned on 11 June over the protest of mothers of children with disabilities, but the next day PM Boyko Borissov said he should keep his post.]
The reason why all of this met with full media blackout in Bulgaria is that Slavi seems poised to enter Bulgarian politics soon. Having led the country’s most watched talk show for 17 years, he initiated a referendum to change the political system in 2016. Despite the overwhelming support of the people (more than 2/3rds voted in favour), it was quashed by the political parties [as turnout didn’t reach the threshold of 50%+1 of the total number of voters to make it binding]. Slavi’s response was that he will pursue his objective to the end, even if this means creating a political movement and entering politics.
For the past year, Slavi has been reaching out to the Bulgarian diaspora in search for young, talented, successful Bulgarians with ambition to change the political status quo of the country. Thousands answered his call and he conducted rounds of interviews streamed online with the select candidates, some of whom had graduated from the world’s most prestigious universities and work in top firms across the globe – in stark contrast to the poorly educated, strongman elite of the ruling GERB party with barely a handful of top government officials who can speak a foreign language.
Slavi’s plans have certainly caused great alarm amongst the political elite, which exerts a suffocating grip on the major media outlets in Bulgaria. The Presidency of the Council of the European Union has so far shielded the government from the massive scandals which have erupted ever since it took power last year. These have included corruption scandals of key GERB officials, shady energy deals such as the acquisition of CEZ Bulgaria by an unknown company and the re-start of the nuclear power plant “Belene” project and speculations of Magnitsky sanctions looming over the country’s chief prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov and oligarch MP Delyan Peevski, who is rumoured to be closely connected to Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.
On 30 June, however, the curtains of the Presidency will fall and Bulgarians will be left with the retrospection of the past six months and the reality that the country failed to achieve either of its major two goals – entering the Schengen area and the Eurozone. The government will have lost its main defence [not to ‘disturb’ the presidency with protests] and the people will show much less tolerance in the face of corruption, poverty, and a feeling of political stagnation and lack of change. The main opposition party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, is attempting to expose and ignite many ill practices of the government, but still struggles to be recognised as a viable alternative to GERB due to its socialist nostalgia, generational politicians, and perceived close ties to Russia and it is itself plagued by internal power struggles and conflicts.
Europe, therefore, should not be surprised if it wakes-up to a new movement led by showman Slavi Trifonov in Bulgaria that could grow quickly and looms large over the political elite of the country. While GERB has been a loyal ally to the European People’s Party and followed Germany’s strictest advice, this has led little by way of real results for the Bulgarian people. The era of Jean-Claude Juncker, a self-professed close personal friend of Prime Minister Borissov, is soon to come to an end in 2019 and Europe will be dominated by new key players such as Emmanuel Macron and Sebastian Kurz. The scene is set for Slavi and if he uses the opportunity well, his movement could become a novel fusion of anti-establishment and technocracy that might captivate a country hungry for change and a better life. Despite the attempts of Bulgaria’s media, the tree has fallen and it was heard loud and clear not just at the O2 arena, but throughout the country and this sound could turn into a political thunderstorm in the months to come.