The Regime Changer

After 1989, some of the dissidents of East-Central Europe went back to their original jobs as journalists or engineers or teachers. Others threw themselves into politics, as Vaclav Havel somewhat reluctantly did. And then there was the smallest category of them all: the dissidents who turned professional.

There were, after all, still some tyrants to topple around the world. Some of the experienced dissidents, using the skills honed over the years of underground activism, helped out their compatriots in Serbia. Others looked further afield to the former Soviet Union where the Color Revolutions beckoned. Still others could be glimpsed behind the scenes of the Arab Spring.

Deyan Kyuranov is a professional regime changer, though he is too modest to adopt that moniker for himself. He was deeply involved as a dissident in Bulgaria in the 1980s. After working in civil society after 1989, he helped out the anti-Milosevic forces in Serbia. And when Milosevic eventually fell, he turned his attention to Belarus.

"I'm a very lazy guy," he told me in Sofia in September. "I don't want to invent new behaviors, after I invented the one for Bulgaria. In Serbia I was repeating more or less what I did here. In Belarus as well. In a sense, I'm not really a relic from the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s. As long as I'm working on the same situations, I'm not a relic, I become a relic the moment I step out."

It's not just the skills that are applicable, he explains. There's also the understanding of national culture. For instance, Deyan Kyuranov was reluctant at first to work on Belarus. He tried to push a Serbian candidate for the job. Ultimately, however, he realized that perhaps a Bulgarian was a good fit after all.

"The Serbs know more about rising up, and both winning and also messing it up," he explained. "They've done both. We Bulgarians know a lot about not rising up. Belarusians fall more into that category. It's not that they would never rise up, but you really have to push them to their limit. It's the same in Bulgaria. And once past this limit, things get really nasty."

I first met Deyan Kyuranov in 1990. He was affiliated with the Center for Liberal Strategies, as he is today. In a relatively short period of time, he managed to explain everything I found bewildering about Bulgarian society. I checked back with him again in 2007. This past September, we focused on the situation of ethnic Turks and Roma, the persistence of nationalism, and the meaning of Europe.

The Interview

So Ataka has already passed the crest of its popularity?

It passed it less than one year after its foundation as a party. During the time of political crisis, the interregnum, Ataka's popularity was higher than everyone else. Nobody could form a government, until finally a government was formed by a three-part coalition of the Socialists, the King, and the MRF. If that hadn't happened, we would have had new elections and, likely as not, Ataka would have won. Unilaterally Ataka very probably would have had an absolute majority in parliament. We conducted special nationwide research to evaluate this scenario.

But in six months, after the government was formed and Ataka entered parliament, it was all over. There was internal bickering inside Ataka. There were all kinds of affairs: public scandals, thefts, misappropriations. Ataka people started peeling off from the parliamentary group. Now Ataka's parliamentary group is frankly nonexistent.

Did you ever think you'd be happy to see the return of the king as a counter-force to Ataka?

No. I believe it's a textbook case of what democracy can do just by virtue of its own mechanisms. The king won outright and he didn't want to be the head of his party, and he didn't want to be the head of government. And the party forced him to become the party's head, and then they forced him to become prime minister. And he obeyed, because probably they said to him, "You do this, or else we'll do it without you and you'll get nothing."

Where has all of the sentiment behind Ataka gone?

I don't see much of that sentiment around anymore. Again I'm speaking rather as an outside observer. Maybe in the next elections, for the first time people will vote more dispassionately, for instance looking at their checkbooks. They will vote a little bit more rationally instead of just, "Oh, that's the real magician! All the others turned out to be fake but this one's the real messiah so we'll vote for him!" The king was elected that way. And after him, Boyko Borisov was elected that way as well. The Ataka leader would absolutely have been elected that way. Even if they reelect Borisov, I believe it will be a different type of election.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.