By Clive Leviev- Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry has come under fire from various anti-government quarters, with the main opposition party alleging that it is acting as a public relations agency for the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party-Movement for Rights and Freedoms axis, while a blogger has shown video that he says proves the Interior Minister is lying about anti-government protesters’ personal data not being recorded.
Already, reports had alleged that the Interior Ministry had co-operated in providing the BSP, in government since May 2013, with talking points intended to discredit the anti-government protests. This allegation has been met with denials.
Matters deepened as recently police cordons at the customary locations of anti-government protests have been demanding to see the state-issued identity cards of those arriving. It also has been alleged that the identities of people taking part in the anti-government protests have been recorded.
On top of that, anti-government circles have cried foul about reports of police making early-morning visits to question people who have been involved in the protests.
Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev, in an interview with local media, confirmed that police had visited some individuals who were “known to provoke violence”, of whom some had made sworn statements. But he has denied that police recorded the data of people arriving for protests.
However, Ivo Bozhkov, a familiar sight at anti-government protests since June, recording and live-streaming events, said in a November 18 television interview that in spite of the assurances by Yovchev that the data of protesters was not and would not be recorded, he had video evidence of police doing so.
Bozhkov had footage that he had shot on his mobile phone on the evening of November 13, showing a woman giving her identity card to police who recorded the data.
Bozhkov said that there were two possibilities, one that he knew about the recording of personal data and had “lied to the whole of Bulgaria”, the other possibility being that he did not know what was going on in his department, which meant that his orders were not being carried out.
Since the beginning of the protests, plainclothes police had filmed the faces of the front ranks of anti-government protesters, Bozhkov said.
“It is worrying that there is a large gap between what is happening on the streets and what the minister said,” Bozhkov said.
Separately, while the anti-government protests have been initiated by individual citizens on social networks such as Facebook, parliamentary opposition party GERB arranged its own anti-government protest in Bulgaria’s second city of Plovdiv on November 16. The same day, the ruling BSP and MRF brought in thousands of people by bus and train, many from Bulgaria’s poorer areas, who were provided with food and drink and a day trip to Sofia for a pro-government meeting.
The Interior Ministry, which for months has been the subject of critical comment from anti-government circles for allegedly underestimating turnout at protests, a charge the ministry denies, put out a November 16 statement estimating turnout at the pro-government rally at 50 000 and that at GERB’s event at 15 000.
Both figures, notably the latter, were considerably at variance with estimates by reporters from various media at the two events. In the case of GERB, local media reporting from Plovdiv estimated attendance at more than double the number claimed by the Interior Ministry.
In a November 17 statement, GERB said that in recent days, the Interior Ministry press centre had been playing the role of “PR agency of the BSP and MRF”.
From the outset, GERB alleged, the ministry had presented false information about anti-government protests to undermine them. “In recent reports, however, the Interior Ministry has crossed the line of what is acceptable and is flooding us with frank lies”.
The centre-right opposition cited the talking points allegedly provided from within the ministry, and dismissed the ministry’s estimates of turnout at the two rival November 16 events as “absolutely untrue”.
In the case of the BSP-MRF rally, the physical location could not possibly accommodate 50 000 people and the real number was at least five times less than that, according to GERB. In turn, it said that its turnout was about triple the figure given by the Interior Ministry.
The Interior Ministry, in showing excessive force against protesters and spreading lies as official information, was deepening distrust not only in itself but also in the state as a whole, GERB said.
The party said that it had lost confidence in the ministry and could not believe that Bulgaria any longer could hold free, fair and regular elections. GERB said that it would ask all international institutions to send observers to monitor the conduct of the European Parliament elections in 2014 “and the early parliamentary elections”.
In response, the ministry issued a further statement, spelling out its methodology, including its figures for the space where the events had been held, and repeating the figures for attendance in its earlier statement.
Online, the official estimates became the subject of ridicule in anti-government circles – including those who say that they do not want GERB back in government, while one author said that if the ministry’s method was applied to the turnout of anti-government protests in July, the figure of 500 000 people was arrived at. At the time, the ministry was giving attendance at about 3000 daily.