Bulgarian politics might be on the verge of systemic change
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Bulgarian politics might be on the verge of systemic change

Bulgarian politics might be on the verge of systemic change

This is hardly good news for the country as it may lead to instability and turbulence

1996 прочитания

This article is part of K Quarterly # Issue 1 / November-January 2017. Contact us for subscription options on [email protected]

The upcoming presidential elections in Bulgaria could be the tipping point for a possible systemic change in the country’s politics. The election campaign signals a weakening of the pro-EU consensus and general slide towards national-populism. This is hardly good news for the country as it may lead to instability and turbulence.

The reasons for the systemic change are both external and domestic. For the last two decades Bulgaria has enjoyed a rather favorable international environment, in which the EU and NATO have always been important anchors and stabilizers. The general course of Bulgarian governments was in synchrony with the other European capitals, which has contributed to the creation of a sense of continuity and even inevitability of the most important political decisions. This sense is now gradually being lost with the succession of crises affecting the EU, and with the aggravation of the security situation in both Ukraine and the Middle East. Most importantly, after the Brexit referendum the EU has lost its previously unquestionable "soft power" and attraction. Or at least Brexit has given wings to a motley crew of populists, nationalists and Russophiles united in their Euroskepticism.
The domestic factors pointing towards a possible systemic change relate to unfinished business in the fight against corruption, the reform of the judiciary and the fall out of the collapse of CCB (Corporate Commercial Bank). Although the second government of Borisov came to power in 2014 with promises to fix all these significant domestic problems, it is now apparent that it has failed to do so to a considerable degree. Progress is modest and hopes for further significant steps are generally weak. This has eroded the support for the government forcing it to rely more and more on ad hoc coalitions in parliament. Furthermore, the loss of support for GERB is particularly visible in the presidential race. Although the GERB’s candidate – Tsetska Tsatcheva - is still the favorite to finish first in the first leg of the election, the candidate of the Socialists, Roumen Radev, may win the elections in the second leg, according to some polls. Even the very prospect of a possible loss undermines the political position of GERB and makes early parliamentary elections in the first part of 2017 very probable. As a result of these developments, the pro-EU consensus among the political establishment in Bulgaria is falling apart. At one extreme, there are more and more voices calling for the withdrawal of the country from NATO and even the EU. These voices are for now marginal and exotic, but their sheer presence is surprising in a country, which has benefited tremendously from the EU. More troubling are the "centrist" and "nuanced" voices which seemingly accept membership in the two major organizations of the West, but try to qualify this membership in a variety of ways.
The most vocal are the so-called "patriots" who advocate bizarre ideas such as introducing mandatory military service or the deployment of missiles directed against Istanbul for "deterrence" of Erdogan. The "patriots" have capitalized politically the refugee crisis and have fanned a mass hysteria directed at all migrants or "invaders", as they call them. The electoral chances of this bloc of parties may be positively affected by the upcoming presidential elections, in which their candidate Krassimir Karakachanov is expected to do well. This may be used as a springboard for the next parliamentary elections in which the national-populists may establish a sizeable presence in parliament. The stance of these political formations on major political issues is either problematic or ambiguous. Part of them sides openly with Russia and campaigns against EU and NATO. All of them are staunchly against common EU solutions to the refugee crisis, such as quotas, for instance; further, they harbor unrealistic hopes that Europe can simply ignore the refugee problem by surrounding itself with razor-wire fences. On domestic issues the "patriots" are either irrelevant or worse. Regarding the constitutional amendment passed in 2014, for instance, they were rather instrumental in watering down the initial, more coherent proposals. While such a behavior is expected from the national populists, the real surprise is the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) which has positioned itself very much in the Euroskeptical corner. As part of the Party of the European Socialists, the BSP is supposed to be one of the mainstream, pro-EU parties, supporting supra-nationalism and the humane treatment of refugees. The BSP is at odds with all these positions, however. Its presidential campaign is centered on issues such as "sovereignty" and regaining control from Brussels. In addition, it is a party which advocates the lifting of the sanctions against Russia and is generally seen as a lobbyist for Russian energy projects. Finally, the BSP has quite openly fanned fears of migrants and refugees for the purposes of electoral mobilization. Against this background, the only unequivocally pro-EU parties have remained in the Reformist Bloc (RB) coalition. Their presidential candidate Traycho Traykov has given them a temporary sense of unity, but the rifts they have on domestic politics make the survival of the whole coalition unlikely in the short term (see more in The uncertain future of the Reformist Bloc). After the presidential elections this ambiguous situation is likely to come to an end since Mr Borisov has signaled that he is willing to part with the reformers. The problem for him is that there are no other legitimate options for coalitions open to him, which may continue the limbo for a while.

In fact, the key of the present situation is held by the still-biggest Bulgarian party – GERB of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. So far he has tried to "balance" among the different trends in Bulgarian politics, which has left his own position relatively indeterminate. Because of this balancing act, there are at least three rather different possible scenarios for developments in the country:

Muddling through

This scenario will materialize if Tsetska Tsatcheva still manages to win the elections. Then Mr Borisov will have an argument to stay in power albeit with certain ministerial reshuffles. Most probably, RB ministers will go and they will be replaced with GERB nominations. It is unrealistic to expect the "patriots" to participate in the government with ministers since this will shut the door to possible support from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) – the main Turkish minority party. In essence, in this scenario GERB will have a minority government with the explicit support of a variety of smaller political forces, and with the tacit support of MRF. This scenario cannot last very long because it is likely to delegitimize GERB further and to diminish its prospects for success in the next parliamentary elections. Still, this might be the best or at least the least risky option for the ruling party.

In such circumstances, we could generally expect the continuation of current policies in the medium term. However, anti-EU positions will benefit from the gradual erosion of GERB.


GERB may attempt to move into the field of "patriots" and nationalist-populists. If the rise of nationalism is significant enough, Borisov may opt to entrench himself in power by coalescing more explicitly with the Patriotic Front. This is a highly risky and opportunistic strategy, which will result in worsening of the relations with the EPP and Chancellor Merkel – relations of which Borisov is particularly fond. So this scenario is unlikely unless we see a serious turn to the Euroskeptical right in Europe next year. If something like that happens in elections in France and Germany, in Bulgaria we have a ready formula for a rather fast Orbanization of the country. A softer and more likely version of this scenario could materialize if GERB attempt to find in BSP a possible coalition partner. This could become possible if the candidate of the socialists – Mr Radev – does well at the presidential elections, wins them or comes in a close second. For a grand coalition to be engineered something like a national emergency needs to be announced, however, otherwise the GERB supporters will be seriously disappointed. Fanning anti-immigrant hysteria could be resorted to for their persuasion.

Policy changes from such a shift will be dramatic and most of them will relate to renewal of Russian energy projects, lobbying for the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia, etc.

Centre-right, pro-EU GERB

The presidential elections clearly show that in terms of electoral support GERB is positioned centre-right. Its voters are pro-EU, pro-NATO, and generally support domestic anti-corruption and judicial reforms. The GERB leadership has abandoned some of this agenda with the hopes to attract other, more "centrist" votes (or for other reasons, related to the suspected tacit ties between Borisov and DPS). The presidential elections will most probably show that moving towards the left is a wrong strategy for GERB. Especially if the candidate of GERB loses, this will be a serious reason for its rethinking. In order to stay closer to its own base, however, GERB need to be much more radical in terms of anti-corruption and the securing of judicial independence. It remains to be seen whether Borisov is at all capable of such U-turns, but they may be necessary for the preservation of his own party. All in all, the main political forces are at a crossroads at the moment. The Socialists have obviously chosen radicalization in anti-EU direction: the question is whether GERB will follow them. In either case, however, we do have a political system which is markedly different from the one based on the broad pro-European consensus of the last two decades.
* Daniel Smilov is a comparative constitutional lawyer and political scientist. He is Program Director at the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, Recurrent Visiting Professor of Comparative Constitutional Law at the Central European University, Budapest, and Associate Professor of Political Theory at the Political Science Department, University of Sofia.
Roumen Radev, the paratrooper of the left

The name of Maj Gen Roumen Radev, former Bulgarian Air Force commander, was almost unknown outside of the Armed Forces until three months ago, apart from a couple of short, yet memorable publicity spells - the staging of the largest Bulgarian air show since 1989 and the vocal handing of his resignation in 2015 in disagreement over the way the joint air policing of the Bulgarian air space with NATO allies should be handled by the Ministry of Defence.

He has repeatedly stated that paying another state - be it allied or not - to defend Bulgarian skies is inadmissible. In 2015, PM Borissov urgently granted the air force 80 mln. levs (40 mln.euro) to extend the flight resource of the aging MiG-29 fighter jets in Polish maintenance facilities in order to keep Mr Radev in his post.

Yet, after the negotiations between the two main left-wing parties BSP and ABV for a joint presidential nomination commenced, the Air Force commander’s name popped out as of nowhere. At the beginning of August, as rumours of Radev’ possible nomination spread, he quickly resigned as Air Force chief, citing the same reasons as the year before and saying that paying for air policing was worse than the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine of 1919 which granted large Bulgarian territories with Bulgarian-speaking population to the Balkan winners of WWI.

Mr Radev’s credentials as NATO general are hard to dismiss - he had studied not once but twice at the Maxwell Air Force Base NCO Academy, a leading US pilot school, and graduated in the top of his class. He then worked at NATO headquarters. Yet, from the start of his election campaign he got hooked up on BSP’s leading messages for spearheading better relations with Russia and investing in nuclear energy projects (after billions of losses in two previous attempts to build a new NPP), as well as anti-refugee rhetoric (adopted by most of the presidential candidates). Mr Radev fervently denies his opponents’ claims that he is pro-Russian but the label sticks.

Although his image as a patriotic defender of the nation in a tumultuous time gives him a chance to reach out beyond the BSP’s elderly hard-line electorate, Mr Radev remains largely unknown to the general public.

Tsetska Tsacheva, the "Stepmother" of the Nation

When PM Boyko Borissov announced his party’s presidential nominee, Parliament Speaker Tsetska Tsacheva, he said: "To this day, the nation has had many fathers, it is time for it to have a mother".

GERB’s candidate was named just a month before the election date and there has been a lot of speculation why this happened. The most benevolent theory was that the party wanted to protect its nominee from the usual smear campaign in the media that will try to ruin her reputation - something which some of the other candidates, including the main opposition one, Roumen Radev, have already faced.

A more prosaic reason, however, was that none of the leading and popular members of the party would take the risk to become president and get constantly pressured by PM Borissov every time their stances clash. Ms Tsacheva apparently has no issues with that. She has been one of Mr Borissov’s most loyal lieutenants ever since she entered Parliament and became its chair in July 2009. In this position she often "shielded" the PM from difficult opposition enquiries during question time, using her powers. She also refused to admit to discussion in parliament a legislative proposal drafted by the civic initiative Justice for All. The amendments proposed by Justice for All aimed at reforming and decentralizing the National Prosecution Office which is now dominated by the Chief Prosecutor who can interfere with any single case assigned to anyone of his subordinates.

Ms Tsacheva is by no means the most popular GERB candidate and it is clear that the party will do its best to muster the full potential of its unwavering electorate to get her elected. This has worked so far. In 2007, shortly after joining GERB, Ms Tsacheva won 6000 votes in the mayoral elections in her stronghold, Pleven, that gave her only the third place in the race. Two years later, in the heyday of GERB’s popularity, she won close to 55,000 votes as candidate for MP from Pleven.

Her membership of the Communist Party until 1989, her lack of international experience, absent foreign language skills, a tendency for absurd slips of the tongue run against her. What is more, she is not seen as a strong, independent candidate who can emancipate herself from Boyko Borissov - a quality that the PM may cherish, yet one that makes the reputation of the future "mother of the nation" languish.

Traycho Traykov, reformists’ last hope

"They send a letter saying – we give you all the money as a credit, you don’t pay anything, why bother about the price. This is an absolute insult to our intelligence, but some people buy this argument". The comment was made by Traycho Traykov, then Minister of economy referring to the planned Belene NPP and among those who "bought this argument" was PM Borissov himself. At the beginning of 2011, in a new reversal of his position, Mr Borissov became a fan of the NPP project, only to scrap it personally a year later. The statement was one of many that soon led to the removal of Traycho Traykov, then economy minister, from the first government of Boyko Borissov (2009-2013). Mr Traykov was fired in March 2012 with some bogus arguments. The real reason was Mr Borissov’s personal disdain of his minister’s independence and refusal to bow to every whim of the PM. "The government has lost half of its IQ" was a popular comment on Facebook.

Mr Traykov made enemies not only with Russia’s Rosatom, the company that was going to build Belene NPP, but also with Lukoil which owns the sole refinery in Bulgaria and controls 35% of the fuel retail market. He claimed that the Russian oil company didn’t play by the market rules and was hurting consumers, while the budget was ripped off of billions in tax revenue because Lukoil always closed the year with a loss.

Before entering politics Mr Traykov was a corporate manager and consultant with Roland Berger, specialized in restructuring and advised leading services companies. He has never been affiliated with Mr Borissov’s party and became known as one of the few government ministers who stuck to their expert opinion. This made him a familiar figure in the civic council of the Reformist Bloc during the formation of the alliance in 2014, yet he remained out of public positions when the RB joined the second Borissov government.

The divisions within the bloc would definitely affect Mr Tryakov’s chances to reach the second round of the election, as well as his declaration that he would support the GERB candidate if he fails to reach the run-off phase. However, Mr Traykov remains the only serious candidate who has outspokenly defended Euro-Atlantic positions and strongly opposed Russia’s interference into Bulgaria’s domestic politics.

Krassimir Karakachanov, patriot against the refugees

Krassimir Karakachanov, leader of VMRO - an anti-Roma, anti-refugee party - has one of the longest CVs in modern-day Bulgarian public life. He started his career as a historian and counter-intelligence officer in the repressive security service apparatus of the Communist era. He claims to have prevented the creation of a pro-Macedonian independence party in Southeastern Bulgaria that would have acted under the influence of Belgrade.

After the shift to democracy he became leader of a party which claims the heritage of VMRO, the XIX-XX century organization that fought for the independence of Macedonia from Ottoman rule. VMRO has consistently argued that there is no Macedonian identity separate from the Bulgarian - an assertion that sits well not only with Bulgarian nationalists but with regular folks as well. Apart from the Macedonian issue, Mr Karakachanov’s party has fed on the xenophobic attitude of parts of Bulgarian society towards Roma population and, in recent years, towards refugees and migrants crossing from Turkey. VMRO proposes sending both refugees and migrants to closed-off camps outside of cities and Romas - to reservations, not much different from the ones, in which native Americans dwell in the USA.

The party and Mr Karakachanov himself have gained increased popular support since the start of the refugee crisis in Bulgaria in 2013. His nomination is backed by two other nationalist parties which had been at odds with each other - Volen Siderov’s pro-Russian Attack party and Valeri Simeonov’s anti-Turkish National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB). NFSB and VMRO form the Patriotic Front (PF) group in parliament. The PF supports Mr Borissov’s cabinet and although they have never signed a coalition agreement with GERB like the RB did, Mr Karakachanov and Mr Simeonov have remained much more loyal to Mr Borissov, as long as he supports their demands to build a wire fence on the border with Turkey and take a tougher stance in relations with Ankara.

Some public opinion research agencies point out that Mr Karakachanov may have a chance to reach the run-off, yet his major weakness is that his main anti-migration message has been taken over by almost all other presidential nominees. Most probably, he will urge his voters to support GERB’s candidate in the second round of the elections.

This article is part of K Quarterly # Issue 1 / November-January 2017. Contact us for subscription options on [email protected]

The upcoming presidential elections in Bulgaria could be the tipping point for a possible systemic change in the country’s politics. The election campaign signals a weakening of the pro-EU consensus and general slide towards national-populism. This is hardly good news for the country as it may lead to instability and turbulence.

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