Ivan Dikov (European Views) | Take a fun look at a wonderful display of the “strong men” frenemy macho state leaders that dominate the world of today in what might be its last decades.
“Oh, the humanity!”
Behind this article’s wordy title and the borrowing of Herb Morrison’s 1937 exclamation is a Hindenburg-sized concern about the fate of Europe, Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Asia, and everybody, which cannot help but cloud the skies when you witness a group of “strong men” leaders get together for some general or specific hanging out.
Last week there was a get-together of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Erdogan, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Instabul for the formal opening of the TurkStream gas transit pipeline.
That truly seemed as the ultimate happy gathering of a Brady Bunch of Euro-Asian or Eurasian leaders. “Strong men” – I would abstain from the term “strongmen” but “strong men” fits – ruling a great portion of the World Island (as per Mackinder’s classic geopolitics theory), and many of its most sensitive bits.
Try to wrap your head around the thought that there are entire societies / nations / countries out there, some of them very ancient, some of them very powerful, all of them claiming to be democracies, some even Western ones, and all of them with great claims on the international stage, which are ruled by the said leaders. This is the best that these societies can do.
State leaders don’t spring up from the ground or descend from alien planets (in spite of what might be written “on social media” and “on the Internets”), but emerge from within their own countries so they are the best those societies have to offer. “This is the best we can do, folks!” as the late George Carlin once shrewdly put it.
But before getting immersed into the Brady Bunch atmosphere of the grand pipeline-launching Eurasian leaders, a side note about the pipeline itself.
It might as well be pointed out that, in all fairness, TurkStream, a pipeline for bringing Russian natural gas to Europe via the Black Sea circumventing the traditional Soviet-Era transit routes through Belarus and Ukraine, is way cooler than Nord Stream 1 & 2, its mirror version in the north (which goes straight from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea).
First, because TurkStream is a downsized version of the former South Stream pipeline project (yes, there was supposed to be both a “North Stream” (“Nord” to humor the Germans) and a South Stream to reach Italy via the Black Sea and Bulgaria. South Stream was abandoned by Moscow in December 2014 with accusations that EU member state Bulgaria had sabotaged it under pressure from the US and the EU, but in reality because its setup (itself approved by the Bulgarian authorities) didn’t comply with EU energy competition rules.
Second, because TurkStream miraculously becomes “Balkan Stream” when it crosses from Turkey into Bulgaria – at the ingenious insistence of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, and with the hesitant acquiescence of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
Third, because the Bulgarian section of Turk-Balkan-whatever-Stream – and other parts of its route further up northwest, to Serbia and into Hungary, won’t be operational for a while.
But enough with the technicalities of this natural gas pipeline project – which is not a bad thing in itself as long as it abides by EU competition rules, which are to the public’s benefit and do make sense.
January 8, 2020, was a super-busy day for Boyko Borisov, the state leader of the only EU country among the strong men Brady Bunch in Istanbul, a rather intriguing state leader with stereotypically Eastern European background, detailed a decade ago in leaked US diplomatic cables published on WikiLeaks.
In the morning, Borisov presided over the first ever high-level meeting of the US – Bulgaria Strategic Dialogue in Sofia, and in the afternoon he was 500 km (300 miles) to the east, in Instabul (once Constantinople), Turkey, to launch the TurkStream/Balkan Stream gas pipeline with Putin, Erdogan, and Vucic. Score on both the Western and the Eastern front, right?
The US – Bulgaria Strategic Dialogue sealed a swell-sounding framework for a strategic partnershipbetween the US and Bulgaria agreed in advance, and came in the wake of Borisov’s visit to the White House. (Where the Bulgarian leader had a modest Oval Office photo op with US President Donald Trump despite their very important two-hour meeting.)
That Trump-meeting achievement got clouded a bit by the fact the Strategic Dialogue was not attended by US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, the third highest ranking US foreign policy official, as originally announced, but by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central European Affairs and Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Matthew Boyse (whose precise foreign policy rank I didn’t care to figure out), but let’s not read too much into the US State Department ranking and its meaning, hidden or otherwise.
Two days later major no-show David Hale himself gave an interview to the Bulgarian National Radio stating that the USA is against a “second line” of TurkStream, precisely the thing Borisov co-launched, so, in plain text, the United States isn’t very “enthused” about the Bulgarian leader’s decision to join the Eurasian Brady Bunch in Istanbul.
But symbolic diplomatic gestures and direct statements aside, probably the most telling news surrounding the US – Bulgaria Strategic Dialog popped up two days prior: the appointing to the US Embassy in Sofia of a new Resident Legal Advisor. That job, which last existed in 2006, has been assigned to Jessica Kim, apparently a brilliant young American lawyer.
“Kim arrived last month to serve as the U.S. Department of Justice’s regional Resident Legal Advisor for Bulgaria and Romania, providing justice sector assistance to build capacity in combating public corruption, money laundering, and organized crime,” the US Embassy in Sofia said laconically on its website.
The few remaining Bulgarian media still criticizing Borisov’s rule, however, quickly noted that the last time Jessica Kim’s position existed was shortly before Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007. The job was abolished since at the time the two Balkan European countries were making enough progress on the rule of law and fighting corruption and organized crime. Ha-ha. The joke’s on the Americans.
However, contrast the restoration of the post of U.S. Department of Justice’s regional Resident Legal Advisor for Bulgaria and Romania with the desire of the now former European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker to abolish the post-accession progress monitoring (the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism), a required condition for Bulgaria and Romania’s EU accession, at least for Bulgaria and Juncker’s “my friend Boyko”. Somebody is reading the situation wrong and this time it isn’t the Trump side of the Atlantic.
Nonetheless, the issues in question are well-known (I’ve even dedicated a book to them, “Ugly Bargain: How the European Union and Bulgaria’s Post-Communist Oligarchy Fit Together”), and this article you’re reading wouldn’t exist, had it not for a wonderful bout of fresh new boykovisms that came after the launch of the TurkStream pipeline in Istanbul.
Boykovisms are utterly perplexing, often shocking, statements and comments by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. Many have even been gathered in a book. They used to be funny during the first three days of Borisov’s first government term back in 2009, and have long since lost that quality, Boykovisms are similar in style to the bushisms of POTUS No. 43 George W. in the 2000s. Or now the COVFEFE-type trumpisms of reality-star POTUS No. 45.
There have been thousands of boykovisms in Borisov’s three terms so far but this refreshing outburst after the Istanbul Brady Bunch hang-out with Borisov’s Russian, Turkish, and Serbian doppelganger must be shared with the rest of the world in its entirety since it is in a league of its own.
Not just because some of the quotes are astonishing but also because boykovisms are very telling of the entire Eurasian Brady Bunch, including in this case himself, Putin, Erdogan, and Vucic but also a whole bunch of other “strong men” leaders in the World Island, and beyond (with US President Donald Trump the most notable non-Eurasian candidate for the club, a candidacy clearly reflected in his own trumpisms).
This modest text’s notion of Eurasian Brady Bunch-ness generally reflects a sad state of affairs. My native Bulgaria is a “good” example of a post-communist oligarchy quagmire – despite the actually tremendous progress it has made since the formal dismantlement of the communist regime 30 years ago. (Which is expected when you start from a very low base.) In such context, the silver lining for many countries in a sad state of affairs out there, if you really want to see one, would be that very little depends on them internationally, that is, they can’t do that much damage.
For example, a moderately successful US rapper may have greater international clout than the state leader of some Eastern European country. For example, Talib Kweli probably has more international influence than the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, whoever they might be. And that’s not just because of “globalization etc” but because oligarchies are so bad for their own country that they make it less and less significant. The longer an oligarchy sticks around as its country’s ruling class, the less significant the country becomes. I might have just inadvertently formulated the second most deterministic rule in international politics after democratic peace theory.
Boyko Borisov’s diplomacy has been to be on good terms with everybody: Washington, Brussels, Moscow, Ankara, Berlin, Paris, London, often with little substance, all the while the ruling Bulgarian post-communist oligarchy continues to benefit lavishly from being in charge of the country while suffocating it. The formerly proactive, pro-Western part of Bulgaria’s civil society has made its peace with Borisov’s rule with the thought that at least he is technically preserving the (newly restored) Western status of the country, instead of turning it into, say, another Belarus, or something. And they are not entirely wrong…
When something stuns you too many times, you eventually become immune to being stunned. And Borisov’s boykovisms, verbal and behavioral alike, have been many: from performing a martial arts move on your own Agriculture Minister during a state visit to Japan in 2011, to suggesting that Bulgaria is on great terms with the Arab world because of the many doner kebab (which is Turkish) places in Sofia, to explaining that detecting the word “Congratulation” in foreign leaders’ speeches was the goal of his English-language training, to telling French President Macron that “I’m saying that here everybody ‘Parlez–vous français’” – as the latter was being greeted in French by Francophone Bulgarian officials at Varna Airport, to very recently personally driving the new US Ambassador in Sofia, Herro Mustafa, around a pipeline construction site in Southern Bulgaria and hugging and kissing her beyond her wildest imagination of what close relations and “shared values” with an American ally might entail.
Many in Bulgaria and beyond have made the mistake of dismissing such behavior on part a state leader as inconsequential. It’s not. In the world of “strong men” leaders whose reincarnations range from the TurkStream Brady Bunch in Instabul to the likes of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Xi Jinping, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Rodrigo Duterte, Kim Jong-un, Boris Johnson, Matteo Salvini, Bashar al-Assad, you name it, it’s the new normal, folks. It probably started at in the time of George W. in the mid-2000s. And the macho toying around with entire humanity’s destiny is far worse than talking nonsense.
This is the new normal for a world of anti-social “media”; “reality” “TV”; Instagram-dependency-driven superficiality; oligarchy propaganda; “identity” “politics” engineered by the One Percent as it’s getting ever richer beyond imagination by the second; blatant, gut-wrenching lies legitimized by being masqueraded and pampered as “fake news”. It’s the world where everybody in the West now finds everything offensive, and everybody in the Rest is ganging up on the West for what used to be Western values, all the while nobody’s noticing that the planet is becoming ever more unlivable by the day.
But grab the popcorn and let’s dive into the really good stuff: Bulgarian leader Borisov’s comments back in Sofia after his TurkStream get-together with the rest of the Eurasian Brady Bunch of Putin, Erdogan, and Vucic. (Their initial affectionate greetings were captured in this footage.)
The quotes are my translation from Bulgarian, and if they don’t make sense to you, it probably isn’t the translation. Here they go.
“This is a strategic day for at least the next 10 years.”
(So far, so good. Presenting your balancing of interests as a success, while not considering that when you are on good terms with everybody, you might be irritating just about everybody – since they aren’t on good terms with one another.)
“Bulgaria is actively building the interconnector with Greece, and developing its gas transit network with the so called Balkan Stream.”
(During the 2009 natural gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine, Bulgaria was left without gas for three weeks in the middle of the winter. Bulgaria’s pro-Moscow ruling elite has been paying lip service to the need to reduce its 90% dependency on Russian gas but it’s been more than a decade, and a simple gas pipeline to Greece hasn’t been completed yet. Although, in all fairness, on the same day, Jan. 8, the Bulgarian government became a 20% shareholder in a liquefied natural gas terminal in Greece – a development Borisov also emphasized.)
“And as to why these heads of state invited to this meeting such as small Prime Minister as myself, I leave it to be analyzed by the analysts who analyze me from dawn till dusk.”
(Referring to Putin and Erdogan, and the TurkStream opening)
“They [Putin and Erdogan] consider me their friend as well as a friend of Trump’s.”
(When asked if the leaders in Instanbul didn’t consider him “a man of Trump”.)
“[Putin] informed me that as of tomorrow, there are [Russian] military drills in the Black Sea. I told him that the F-16 Block 70 [fighter jets Bulgaria has ordered from the US] haven’t arrived yet, which is why he had nothing to worry about…
But he was very well-intentioned. He praised me about them (the F-16s), he said they were very good planes indeed. Of course, President Erdogan was praising his own [F-16s] because they (Turkey) bought such. That was some boasting about who has what kind of planes. At the end President Vucic said, ‘And I’ve bought me missiles in order to shoot down planes.’”
“As everybody else, we also hope that with the leading role of the EU, with the leading role of NATO, and of all countries that don’t wish to see innocent people die, don’t wish to see conflicts continuing. […]
I even joked with them that when Turkey shot down the Russian [fighter] jet, how many Russian tourists were in Turkey.”
(Referring to the downing of a Russian Su-24 fighter jet by the Turkish Air Force in 2015)
(All quotes from above are found here)
“On Bulgaria’s territory there is no “TurkStream”. This is our own gas transit network through which we will be transiting gas. There will be Russian, Azeri, and liquefied gas going through it. And Serbia is also calling the project “Balkan Stream” now.”
(Perhaps a maneuver to make the United States et. Al. believe that at some point a pipeline stops being the same pipeline but becomes a different pipeline. Or perhaps a reference to the fact that, luckily, on Bulgarian territory even the mighty Russian gas giant Gazprom has to comply with EU energy competition rules.)
“I waited for him (Putin) to ask me the entire time but he didn’t do it. He didn’t ask me about the spying scandal because he knows very well what it is about.”
(Referring to a recent spying scandal including the expulsion of a Russian diplomat / intelligence officer from Sofia, and the arrest of Nikolay Malinov, the unabashedly pro-Moscow leader of the Bulgarian Russophiles movement, who even managed to fly off to Moscow, get awarded a medal by Putin, and fly back to Sofia while supposedly being banned from leaving the country. The spying scandal has spilled over into the relations between Bulgaria and Serbia.)
“[Putin] was very impressed because the dinner was 3 km away from the St. Stefan Church. President Erdogan, you know, really insisted that we said that we had done/ it together. And I told him (Putin) so: look, I saw that Bashar Assad is lighting a candle. I managed to get Taypy in the church but I couldn’t get him to cross himself.”
(St. Stefan is a 19th century Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Instanb, which was renovated recently. “Taypy” is apparently an affectionate reference to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)
“[Putin and Erdogan] were joking: Boyko is going to inform Washington. I said: I am not hiding [that]. I want to know what you are thinking. Today we were with our strategic partners, we were with our neighbors.”
(No comment other that the last sentence seems to refer to Borisov’s two meeting that day.)
That must have been one fun natural gas pipeline launch. Borisov has told everyone what they talked about: joking about fighter jets and missiles to shoot them down, joking about who is going to snitch about their talks to the United States, revealing how he couldn’t get Erdogan to do the sign of the cross – even though Putin got Bashar al-Assad to light a candle in a Christian church. Good stuff.
Plus, as the quotes above demonstrate, at the Eurasian Brady Bunch TurkStream get-together in Istanbul, Borisov was very active. Suits him well as the only EU state leader there.
Borisov got to converse in Bulgarian-Russian with Putin in a hasty staircase and corridor walk as depicted in this nice amateur footage filmed by his staff. (Their conversation reminded me of my only holiday in Greece so far where the owner of the family hotel we stayed at near Halkidiki spoke an unbelievably coherent, sense-making mix of Bulgarian, Serbian, and Russian as a single language.)
Borisov got a meeting with a stony-faced Erdogan, Taiiypy, as he calls him, whose actual kind predisposition towards Borisov boiled down to repositioning him for the photo op. Somehow that footage seems like a bizarre flashback to the times when the rump state of the medieval Bulgarian Empire agreed to be a vassal of the rising Ottomans, who decided shortly afterwards to conquer it “properly” at the end of the 14th century.
And Borisov got to converse in Bulgarian-Serbian with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who for the most part seemed to be staring pensively, and to be nodding here and there. Borisov and Vucic understand each other without a translator. For example, back in 2017, at a meeting of the Balkan state leaders – of Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Serbia in Belgrade – where Borisov and Vucic were joined by then Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and whoever was briefly Romania’s Prime Minister at the time. Borisov and Vucic were talking about some gift of rakia (traditional fruit brandy in Bulgaria and Serbia) before the others, and Tsipras and the Romanian guy couldn’t understand what these two were having a laugh about.
Borisov and Vucic have more in common. Borisov has never hidden his admiration for Bulgaria’s communist era dictator Todor Zhivkov (r. 1956 – 1989) whose chief bodyguard he actually was in the 1990s. And Vucic was the “Information Minister” for former Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1990s.
Borisov and Vucic, of course, weren’t the most remarkable pair of the Eurasian Brady Bunch at the TurkStream launch in Istanbul. Not in the presence of world leader heavyweights such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan.
Erdogan and Putin, for a few years now, seem to be locked in one of the most curious frenemy-ships of our time. “Frenemy-ship”, the abstract noun for the state or condition being frenemies, might just be the perfect term to describe these two leaders’ relationship since their rapprochement in 2016.
The idea that Russia and Turkey, both which are very major powers of today, with grand aspirations, can be sincere and not just situational allies is a deeply dubious one. And that’s not just based on the application of theoretical knowledge from Geopolitics 101.
Or on the history of a total of 13 Russian – Turkish Wars (Russo-Turkish Wars or Ottoman-Russian Wars) since the 17th century, the last hot one being World War I. If you stretch the notion a little bit to include the Cold War, the total number of Russian-Turkish Wars grows to 14. With the often diametrically opposed interests of Russia and Turkey – for example, overtly demonstrated as they have been supporting opposing parties in the ongoing civil wars in both Syria and Libya, one never what could happen, and the two powers came close to open hostilities in 2015 when Turkey shot down the Russian jet at the Turkish-Syrian border – the incident Borisov decided to joke about. Hopefully, a 15th Russian-Turkish war won’t be in the making because those powers’ involvement on opposite sides in both the Syria, and the Libya.
Among the Brady Bunch of Eurasia that got together in Instanbul last week, some have great admiration for the former Russian Empire and/or the Soviet Union, some for the former Ottoman Empire, some for the former Yugoslavia, and some are more modest and even pay lip service to Western values. More than one might subscribe to each of these categories.
Back in 2010, Russian leader Putin (he was Russia’s Prime Minister at the time, with that famous 2009-2013 chess-style castling with Dmitry Medvedev) visited Borisov in Sofia for the first time (it was their second meeting). They were sealing the later deceased South Stream pipeline, now brought back from the dead as Turk-, Balkan-, whatever-Stream, and one was bestowing a cute, sizable puppy onto the other. It was a bizarre spectacle, some exotic macho grand state leader posturing, an anomalistic atavism which was fun to watch precisely because it was out of place and out of its time. My article at the time was entitled correspondingly: “Borisov and Putin: The Pragmatic Puppy-Loving Great Leaders of the East”.
It’s now a decade later, and that kind-of once ridiculous “strong men” state leadership stuff and its strong men bromances, Brady Bunch joint macho happiness, at least on the outside, have bewilderingly become the rule, not the exception, and not just in the Rest, but also in the West, with Trump, BoJo, and now even the likes of a liberal Macron adopting such mores.
It has become a “‘Strong Men’ of the World, Unite!”-type of world. It’s not just the Brady Bunch of Eurasia at the launch of TurkStream – there are so many more of them now, all over the world. And each has his own brand of spunky can-do spirit! (Dave Barry would forgive me for borrowing the expression from his ingenious book “Dave Barry Slept Here”).
Forget about values and institutions, and checks and balances. It’s the time of the grand strong men towering above the ebb of democracy, freedom, and civil society, against the backdrop of a humanity increasingly doomed for systematically destroying its own living conditions on its own planet. The fact that history has demonstrated how “strong men” leaders’ frenemies often end isn’t even the worst part.
And people love it. People love them. They get the people’s love fair and square. Or they buy it. Or they trick it. A gleichschaltung or the prudent choice and the real will of the people? Doesn’t matter. Maybe every single one should subscribe to it. Fall in line! Join the chorus! Enjoy the show! What do you got to lose? Values, principles, decency?
Forget about it. Get on Instagram to gawk at fake celebrity photos. Get on some of the Facebooks to enjoy a farting squirrel video. Stack on carbs. Binge some politically cleansed sitcom. Hit the mall. Ignore a “trigger warning.” Get offended. Demand reparations. Look forward to a cell phone brain implant. Hopefully, before the time the planet becomes too hot and toxic for human beings.
So are the great “strong men” leaders of our time.
Enjoy it all while the human-friendly climate lasts.