A powerful Bulgarian politician who stepped down two years ago amid accusations of corruption is trying to make a comeback in upcoming parliamentary elections with the help of a U.S.-based trucking tycoon.
Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the former right-hand man to Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, has formed the Republicans for Bulgaria party with Pavel Valnev -- the owner of the Illinois-based AmeriFreight Systems -- to challenge his once close friend.
The duo has staked their political future on a party platform that calls for closer relations with the United States, full integration of the Balkans into Western institutions, and fighting corruption at home.
Tsvetanov and Valnev bring to Bulgaria's crowded political scene strong campaigning skills, media savvy, and deep pockets. Tsvetanov is credited with meticulously building Borisov's ruling GERB party infrastructure over the past two decades while Valnev, a multimillionaire, set up a popular television station.
But political analysts say their party lacks the kind of magnetic leader and poignant messaging needed to energize Bulgarian voters for the April 4 elections. And amid the growing anti-elite sentiment within Bulgarian society, Tsvetanov's image as a quintessential insider is a liability, they say.
"Tsvetanov is a very energetic organizer, very talented at creating party structures, but he has no charisma, which is a must in today's political world," Parvan Simeonov, a Sofia-based political analyst for Gallup International, told RFE/RL.
Parties need to win 4 percent of the vote to qualify for seats in parliament. Tsvetanov and Valnev see their potential voter base -- those that strongly identify with the West -- at 10 to 15 percent of the population. Polls published less than three weeks before the elections show Republicans for Bulgaria garnering just 1 to 2 percent of the vote. Tsvetanov and Valnev claim the survey data is manipulated by state-friendly agencies and say they expect to win some seats.
Crowded Party Scene
The 55-year-old Tsvetanov is just one of several prominent Bulgarians who have launched their own opposition parties in the past year amid growing disillusionment with the government.
Slavi Trifonov, a colorful talk-show host and singer popular in Bulgaria for decades, last year set up the anti-establishment party called There is Such a Nation.
Trifonov, 54, currently ranks third in the polls with 12.7 percent of the vote, edging out the ethnic Turkish party, Movement for Rights and Freedom, with 12.1 percent, according to the Sofia-based Trend Research Center.
Maya Manolova, who gained popularity in her role as ombudswoman investigating complaints filed by citizens against government agencies and institutions, also launched the Stand Up! Get Out party last year. Manolova, who took part in the huge summer street protests against corruption last year, currently polls sixth with about 4.5 percent support, slightly behind the liberal Democratic Bulgaria alliance, which has 5.9 percent.
Democratic Bulgaria was formed three years ago to consolidate parties promoting Western values and is close in ideology to Republicans for Bulgaria, analysts say.
GERB and the Bulgarian Socialist Party, a relic of the Communist Party, hold the top two spots in the polls, with 28.8 percent and 23.6 percent, respectively.
As many as seven of the 30 parties vying for seats could enter parliament this year, including the nationalist VMRO, polls show. There are currently just five parties in parliament.
Simeonov warned that the outcome of the elections could be much different from the polls if many voters stay home due to the coronavirus pandemic. Bulgaria does not have mail-in voting.
Borisov, who has served as prime minister for most of the past 12 years, is expected by analysts to extend his term by another four years. But the emergence of new parties like There is Such a Nation and Stand Up! Get Out could dilute the seats held by his GERB and coalition partners, making it harder for him to form a government.
Public frustration with Borisov's government was on full display last year as tens of thousands of people took to the streets for weeks of anti-government protests.
Democratic Bulgaria co-Chairman Hristo Ivanov, a former justice minister in Borisov's government, lit the protest fuse in July when he live-streamed his investigation into abuse of power.
Borisov dismissed several ministers in an attempt to placate the demonstrators.
Bulgaria is the European Union's poorest country and, according to Transparency International, one of its most corrupt. Hundreds of thousands of citizens have moved abroad to find work and there is deep distrust in the government.
But Tsvetanov and Republicans for Bulgaria will find it hard to tap into the anti-government sentiment, says Dimitar Ganev, a political analyst and co-founder of Trend. "Tsvetanov has been strongly associated with GERB for almost 15 years and it is very difficult for him to escape this image and be perceived as a legitimate critic and sincere opponent of the ruling party," he says. "This does not allow him to regain the confidence" of voters.
Former Best Buddies
Tsvetanov and Borisov worked together for decades and were close friends until a falling out in 2019.
Having worked together in the Interior Ministry in the early 2000s, Tsvetanov was named by Borisov to be deputy security chief after he was elected mayor of Sofia in 2005.
In 2006, Borisov formed GERB as a conservative, populist party with himself as chairman and Tsvetanov as deputy chairman.
When Borisov first became prime minister in 2009 after his party won the parliamentary elections and formed a ruling coalition, he chose Tsvetanov to be interior minister.
Jim Warlick, U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria from 2010 to 2012, says Tsvetanov continued to develop the GERB party organization, often traveling on weekends to the regions. Though Borisov was the public face of the party, "all the mayors and local government officials knew [Tsvetanov] and looked at him as the leader of the party," Warlick tells RFE/RL. "Tsvetanov worked diligently to build a party and build loyalty at the local level. And he was very adept at it, I think, because he was very committed to it," he says.
Warlick adds that Tsvetanov did not appear to have political aspirations, describing him as "very loyal to Borisov." Tsvetanov "was much more interested in building the party than being that inside player," he says.
In 2013, Tsvetanov entered parliament and, a year later, led the GERB faction. Many considered him the second-most-powerful person in Bulgaria after Borisov.
But his influence came crashing down in March 2019 after RFE/RL published an investigative report showing he received a new luxury apartment in Sofia from the construction firm Arteks for about 25 percent of its market value. The 2018 transaction came a year after GERB lawmakers passed legislation that allowed Arteks to construct the high-rise luxury building.
Tsvetanov denied any wrongdoing and claimed it was a smear campaign ahead of elections to the European Parliament. Nonetheless, he resigned from the legislature and left the party.
Analysts say Borisov may have used the apartment scandal to push Tsvetanov out of GERB amid concern over his influence. In an interview with RFE/RL in February, Tsvetanov claimed he quit GERB following a disagreement with Borisov about power sharing, saying the prime minister wanted to consolidate decision making.
Critique Of Borisov
Tsvetanov also told RFE/RL he sharply disagreed with Borisov on foreign policy, criticizing his former boss for moving ahead with the Kremlin-backed Turk Stream II pipeline to carry Russian natural gas across Bulgaria to Serbia.
The United States opposes the project on the grounds that it tightens Russia's grip on Europe's energy market and undermines Ukraine by depriving it of transit fees. "The transatlantic relationship and Bulgaria's European orientation are among my top political priorities," Tsvetanov told RFE/RL.
In opinion pieces published in Western media, Tsvetanov and Valnev also criticized Borisov's government for vetoing North Macedonia's bid to join the European Union, saying its membership in the bloc would be important for Balkan stability and bring economic benefits to Bulgaria.
Tsvetanov said Borisov's decision on North Macedonia was driven by a desire to shore up GERB's support following the summer protests by playing the nationalist card, adding that Republicans for Bulgaria would not go down that path.
Both men support the continued integration of Balkan countries into the EU and NATO. Valnev has reportedly $70 million invested in the Balkans, says the Washington-based lobbying firm Yorktown Solutions, which was hired by Valnev to help publicize the new party in the U.S. capital.
Trip To Washington
Tsvetanov visited Washington with Valnev just days before the official start of the parliamentary race in an attempt to raise their party's profile with voters who identify with Western values. Yorktown Solutions helped Tsvetanov and Valnev set up meetings with lawmakers, Capitol Hill foreign-policy staff, and think tanks analysts.
Tsvetanov has also criticized Borisov and his government for their control of the media and the country's weak rule of law, highlighting a recent spate of actions by the Prosecutor-General's Office against wealthy businessmen. His party chose "government with rules" as its campaign slogan to tap into the anger that drove the summer protests against corruption and lawlessness.
Tsvetanov and Valnev expressed confidence their party could win enough votes to earn a seat in parliament and dismissed the polling data as being manipulated to discourage potential supporters.
Tsvetanov says he has been busy building out the party infrastructure and has opened about 85 party offices around the country as of late February and has recruited former GERB colleagues to his new party. Ganev says Republicans for Bulgaria "can expect a slightly higher result" than polls indicate because of Tsvetanov's ability to mobilize party supporters.
U.S. Truck Magnate Contributes
Tsvetanov says he got to know Valnev during a trip to the United States in 2017 that included a stop in Chicago, where Valnev's business is based. He says they connected again in Bulgaria three years later.
Valnev emigrated to the United States in 2003 and settled in Chicago, which has one of the largest Bulgarian diasporas in the country. He set up AmeriFreight with his younger brother, Rumen, in 2006. Chicago is a major U.S. transportation hub and a large percentage of the country's truck drivers are immigrants from Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics.
AmeriFreight has more than 500 leased or operator-owned long-haul trucks carrying goods around the United States that generate millions of dollars annually. Valnev used some of those earnings to set up Bulgarian International Television (BiT) in 2013 with studios in Chicago and Sofia.
But the entrepreneur claims the government viewed his independent station as a threat and squeezed it financially via a "political-advertising cartel" that he says controls Bulgaria's advertising market.
Valnev shut down BiT in 2018. Now he is hoping to do via Republicans for Bulgaria what he couldn't do via the media. "I realized you can't change things only with television, you need to go into politics," he told RFE/RL.
Valnev adds that he is largely financing the party with the money from his businesses. Tsvetanov says Valnev's participation in the party helps "build confidence with Bulgarians living abroad," especially in the West, where their numbers are significant.
Even if they don't make it into parliament after the April elections, Tsvetanov and Valnev say they are in it for the long haul. "We are a long-term political project," says Tsvetanov.