The importance of being Alexander Nikolov, or what is eating the Bulgarian middle class?

A famous twitter montage distributed in early 2017 when the first suspicion around Alexander Nikolov started to circulate: the first picture describes Alexander a successful businessman who works for international firms, lives in Paris and travels to Dubai and Frankfurt… the second image is of Spas who ‘lives in a village with his folks’. The montage says ‘Spas deserves respect as for three years now he has put so much effort to be Alexander’. (source: Dnevnik.Bg)

Note from the LeftEast editors: a longer version of this piece was first published in Bulgarian by web portal Baricada.

Over the last week, the major media outlets in Bulgaria, and especially the liberal press, were taken over by a seemingly small-scale scandal: an online celebrity called Alexander Nikolov tricked tens of people with the promise of buying them cheap plane tickets. To do this he “just” needed their credit card details. In some cases he did not deliver the promised tickets, in others – he withdrew money from the credit cards in small instalments. The first remarkable thing about this case is that the victims were some of the most prominent Bulgarian public figures, journalists, and politicians, who willingly sought his favours and gave him their own data. The second – that Alexander Nikolov did not even exist. A fake profile created over several years in several online platforms, Aleksander Nikolov was a successful journalist who published articles in various media, spoke on national television (via Skype) and even created the web site http://e-spaces.eu, nominated for the .eu Web Awards. As it turned out behind the successful (and fake) Alexander, in fact, stood the scamming genius of a normal guy called Spas from the small town Kocherinovo, 90 kilometres away from Sofia. The public fascination with this fraud and the moral outrage it caused have been no less than spectacular. They exceeded the banality of the case in the same way the skills, the efforts, and pro bono work Spas put in creating his online alias exceeded the profits he reaped from his scam.

What is it that makes this fraud so interesting? In a sense, the scam “Aleksander Nikolov” reveals the deep seated contradictions between the Sofia middle class and the rest of the country. The fake successful entrepreneur Aleksander and the real unemployed Spas from the small town are the two sides of the same coin, the two Bulgarias that can be bridged only by the wild imagination of a skilful scammer. In the eventful 2013 these two Bulgarias protested in different periods of the year. The big nationalist protests over electricity bills in the winter were followed by the more boutique middle class protests in the summer against the scandalous appointment of Delyan Peevski as the head of the State Security Agency. Peevski is a controversial mogul who has managed to concentrate media ownership in the country. In 2013 many independent online media emerged to counter the falling quality of offline journalism and provide authentic news. Unfortunately, many of these projects were co-opted by different oligarchic circles in the country and ended up reinforcing the logic of fake news, low media accountability, and partisanship. “Alexander Nikolov” emerged as a profile exactly in 2013 and adopted a lot of the language and clichés of the Bulgarian middle class. He was an active summer protester and an even more active anti-communist.

In a sense, the non-existing Alexander Nikolov is the ideal type of the Bulgarian middle class. Ideal type in the sociological sense of the term – an abstract, hypothetic construct that unites dispersed individual traits and reveals their inner logic and coherence. Who is he and what are his traits? A successful entrepreneur, he travels a lot  – according to his blog he lives in Australia, and according to his Facebook profile – in Paris. He is always on the move and has even posted a photo of himself on the North Pole (the photos on his Facebook profile turned out to be the photos of a random French guy). Aleksander has left Bulgaria because all people there are lazy and incompetent. Their southern mentality makes him almost as angry as communism. In a blog post with the telling title “The Middle Class or the Red Scum” he writes: “I am not left-wing. I am not right-wing. I am a conservative. But such a conservative that even Margaret Thatcher is a leftie compared to me.  That’s why the pseudo-right wingers don’t represent me. That’s why I am not in Bulgaria. Because I understand social justice in another way. Because I work like crazy, I have travelled 500 thousand kilometres since the beginning of the year. My last holiday was the 1st of January. That’s why I spend my 500 000 euro yearly salary the way I want. I also help financially (and my boss much more than me) and with personal engagement in the Unicef ‘Water for Everyone’ campaign in Africa”. Alexander shares in the About Section of his blog that he considers socialism an incurable disease: “I have participated in the team of Sarkozy, when he won his presidential mandate. As a member of a global PR-agency I have consulted the Greek New Democracy and the People’s Party of Aznar. I don’t like parties, I like individual politicians”.  Alexander follows closely international politics – he loves Macron and publishes analyses of Merkel’s politics. He hates nationalists. Sometimes he shares pages of charity causes but almost no one likes them. Particularly telling for the dark side of the “authentic” right is the first post on his blog Nepolitkorektno [Not-politically correct] from March 2013, which includes the following statement: “Because I am not a racist. I don’t hate niggers. I like them, when I go to Africa. I send them to pick bananas. It is nice to train good habits in the others’.

Alexander Nikolov reveals the unconscious phobias, fantasies and illusions of the Bulgarian middle class – from their faith in web technologies as a driver of economic growth (software+ “authentic right” = cutting edge capitalism), to praising Macron as the arch-protector of Europe from the twin evils of communism and fascism. In what can be interpreted as nothing else but ingenious irony, the fake Alexander Nikolov even publishes on his Facebook profile a material criticizing fake news. The fake personality, that has spoken on national media, criticizes fake news!

The scheme “Alexander Nikolov” is to a certain extent reminiscent of the ironic provocations of the activists from “Yes Man”, for example, their brilliant impersonation of Dow Chemicals’ representatives who put forward the concept of a golden skeleton: a bit of risk for the population is acceptable, as long as it brings profits. Members of the audience are impressed and come forward with congratulations and business cards. However, the case of Spas is a more traditional scam. So how is it possible that so many people believed the fake profile Aleksander Nikolov and gave him their data? The truth is they recognized themselves in him, they saw him as one of them and that is why they trusted him.

Many commentators noted that a person with such a high IQ could have been a web developer, journalist and a political figure without having to create a fake profile. The skills needed to create his fake persona are completely real. And yet this is the point. Would the beautiful and successful members of the Bulgarian middle class have given their credit cards data to a random guy from a small town. Probably not. Because he is not one of them. What the case “Aleksander Nikolov” reveals is that skills don’t matter that much. What matters is who has the initial capital – symbolic, educational, economic. And for some people the only way to get such capital is fraud.

An unknown place for most people in Sofia, Spas’ home town has seen its main source of employment – the once important factory for paper and paper wraps – closed. In exchange, there are several small-scale workshops for clothes and pastry-production, and a factory for Briquettes. The conditions of work in small workshops in the countryside of Bulgaria are well-known: work overload, lack of proper social insurance and exploitation are almost guaranteed.  Nevertheless, Spas did not include such a job in his CV. As a true entrepreneur he made a pro-active move: he created himself social capital in the fake online profile of Aleksander Nikolov and then cashed it.

It is not a coincidence that most of the frauds of Spas (including previous ones as it has emerged) include plane tickets. In a country of emigrants, in which the ones who stay gain symbolic dividends from their exotic travels abroad, everyone needs cheap plane tickets. Of course, it is another question, why even middle class Bulgarians try to save money from plane tickets. After the financial crisis, in a situation of constant uncertainty, even the middle class in Bulgaria cannot afford to waste money and is always threatened by losing its status. On the other hand, historically the Bulgarian bourgeoisie as a social and psychological type has remained until very late mainly a mediator, depending on the state, without the grand ambitions and the self-esteem of Western capitalists, but also without the big mistakes. Always careful and thrifty, the Bulgarian bourgeoisie has survived and adapted to everything, even to communism, which it retrospectively condemns (but without having a serious dissident tradition).

One last comment about the case of Aleksander Nikolov should be added and perhaps this is the most important one. This fraud is so interesting also because it is the perfect form of (unintended?) critique towards the mythology of Internet activism as a way to revolutionize politics. After all, Aleksander Nikolov was an active Twitter and Facebook user, with his own blog and a project for an independent online media. The main reason why he could trick his victims is that he became deeply embedded in a self-enclosed circle of right-wing liberals and contributed through his numerous posts to the ever-increasing fragmentation and radicalization of the Bulgarian public sphere. The use of digital media has not lead to a more pluralist, rational or deliberative public sphere but exactly the contrary. It has also not lead to the “Death of Geography”  as some of the earlier prophets of digital media had professed. One of the first things that rang the alarm bell for some victims was that the IP-address of the cosmopolite Aleksander was actually in Bulgaria. What is more, in order to impress the people living in the centre of the capital, the guy from the small town had to pretend he travelled from Paris to New York. Geography is more alive than ever.

If there is any moral from this fraud story, it is that the Bulgarian middle class is more interested in the imaginary adventures of flying Alexanders, than in its own country men in the country side. Until this focus of attention changes, the liberal elites will continue to struggle to pass the electoral threshold, no matter how active they are in Facebook and Twitter. With regard to the practical consequences of the fraud and restoring the rights of the victims, the state has taken the case in its own hands. As a comment to a journalistic investigation of the fraud has noted: “state justice is the system in which the big thieves prevent the small thieves from becoming big thieves”.

Julia Rone is a PhD student in social and political sciences. Her research explores protest movements, hacktivism, and struggles in defense of Internet freedom.