The new Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov (R) and the new Minister of Foreign Affairs Mariya Gabriel (L) after taking the oath at the Parliament in Sofia, Bulgaria, 06 June 2023.
© EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV   |   The new Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov (R) and the new Minister of Foreign Affairs Mariya Gabriel (L) after taking the oath at the Parliament in Sofia, Bulgaria, 06 June 2023.

Bulgaria’s election spiral is on hold – but at what cost?

Susține jurnalismul independent

The alliance GERB/We continue the change showed its first cracks, as it’s being pressured by a hostile president, pro-Russian parties and the entry into politics of their main opponent.

No major scandals related to Bulgaria’s current and future prime-minister, but they’re not spotless

A continuous crisis or a risky exercise of democracy? Make what you want from Bulgaria’s two-year cycle of repeat elections – which started in April 2021 and ended in April 2023 with  autocratic ex-PM Boyko Borissov’s GERB coming on top, unlocked several protest waves and brought new figures on the political scene in the meantime – but it definitely changed and challenged the political status quo.

The latest chapter of the turbulent last few years in Bulgarian politics is that there finally is a government. And it’s an unexpected one: the reformist duo We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria, part of the short-lived Kiril Petkov cabinet in 2021-2022, built their platforms and latest campaign on the promise of eradicating the legacy of corruption often associated with GERB and introducing a judicial reform; but entered a de facto coalition with GERB after agreeing on a cabinet with “rotating Prime Ministers”.

After heavy negotiations which at times seemed to be going nowhere, the cabinet stepped in power on June 6 and is supposed to lead for at least 18 months.

Main parties and rivals GERB and We Continue the Change made the symbolic move not to designate their leaders (Boyko Borissov and Kiril Petkov) as potential Prime Ministers. In the first nine months the government will be instead led by scientist and former Education Minister Nickolay Denkov of We Continue the Change and then the second half of the mandate will be carried out by GERB’s Mariya Gabriel, former European commissioner and the fresh face that should give the party an image makeover.

Both choices look clean cut on the surface but have their weak points.

Despite not being associated with any major controversy, Denkov was Education Minister while the COVID-19 pandemic disturbed the school process and chaos reigned in the state’s responses. Denkov remains largely unpopular to the general audience.

His successor-to-be Gabriel confirmed in May she has no PhD in political science despite claiming to have one in a promotional video from 2009 when she was running to be an MEP. Gabriel has also been investigated for renting, between 2010 and 2017 (while she was an MEP), a municipality-owned apartment that was supposed to be for socially disadvantaged individuals.

A pro-EU and pro-Ukraine government vs. a pro-Russian president

“I hope that parliament won’t betray the national interests in the same way the leaders of the coalition have already betrayed their voters,” was the immediate response by President Rumen Radev, who has been associated with several pro-Kremlin remarks in the last several years, a position which has been solidifying since the onset of war in Ukraine. Plus, “betraying the national interest” has turned into a popular catchphrase within the public statements by the politicians who swing to the nationalist and conservative rhetoric and would like to designate their opponents as traitors.

The new cabinet, as divided as it is, will hold a pro-EU and pro-Ukraine stance, which automatically means a line of tension between the government and the President. Ironically, it was the President who created his current opposition: in 2021 Radev helped We Continue the Change’s Kiril Petkov, Nickolay Denkov and Assen Vassilev to launch their career in politics by choosing them in his interim cabinet before the duo established their own party. After We Continue the Change won the November 2021 elections and expressed a pro-Ukraine and pro-military aid stance, Radev turned vehemently against the coalition led by Petkov.

The president’s fears were quickly confirmed as Todor Tagarev, one of the vocal defence experts and critics of Russian meddling into Bulgarian politics, was appointed as a Defence Minister. This marks a rare case of an outspokenly pro-West and pro-Ukraine figure of being nominated on the post (in comparison, 2021 interim PM and 2021-2022 ousted Defence Minister Stefan Yanev referred to the war as a “military operation”, a term used by the Kremlin, and then created a pro-Kremlin party).

On June 20, Tagarev, member of We Continue the Change, said to local media on Tuesday that Bulgaria will send more military aid to Ukraine, predominantly ammunition and firearms. Tagarev also criticised the last Radev interim cabinet for not contributing more after sending heavy military equipment to Ukraine was green lighted by the parliament last November.

And while the government is appearing collaborative towards Ukraine, in the levels of power beneath, the geopolitical divide remains intact. For example, on June 20, Sonia Momchilova, Chairperson of the Council for Electronic Media, said during a broadcasted discussion that “lie also has its right to live on” in relation to protests against a pro-Russia presenter on the Bulgarian National Radio, and in a recent interview referred to the Bucha massacres in Ukraine as a conspiracy by Kyiv. The statements saw an immediate critical reaction from the Ukrainian embassy in Sofia.

In Bulgaria, the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions

The current union, albeit unlikely, is beneficial for both ends of the government. It is a way out (or back in) for GERB, continuously isolated in parliament, while Kiril Petkov’s We Continue the Change gets a comeback after the ousting of his 2021-22 reformist coalition, ironically triggered by GERB after luring their former partners There’s Such a People.

However, in the Bulgarian media there are often comparisons with opposition alliance Reformist Block, which was initiated after the 2013 anti-establishment protests, only to make a compromise and enter a government with GERB which essentially annihilated them.

GERB (allied with the United Democratic Forces) and Democratic Bulgaria plus We Continue the Change remain adamant they have not softened too much to each other. “Not everyone is happy, that’s a fact. It’s a situation that’s hard to accept,” GERB member Tomislav Donchev stated during a TV interview around the final negotiations, while Petkov is never referring to the cabinet as a coalition, saying that “we’re doing this format of governing exactly because we can’t make a coalition”.

The shaky government will also have to find a way to work while carrying out opposing campaigns during the upcoming mayoral elections in the autumn.

Some of the very first controversial decisions by the “Denkov – Gabriel” cabinet are already in place: on June 21, Reporters Without Borders urged Bulgaria’s government to reject legislative amendments proposed by GERB that would restrict access to public information and would require anyone interested in obtaining the information to have a “legitimate interest” and be a “member of the local community.” This would mean that a journalist based in the capital would be denied access to the financial accounts of another city although the law defines such information as “public”.

The push to oust the Chief Prosecutor gives way to a new party

Part of the peace pact between GERB and We Continue the Change was the ousting of Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, internationally known for uncovering a Russian spy ring in Bulgaria in 2021, but viewed at home mostly as a protector of GERB’s legacy. Geshev kept the Prosecution strategically inactive on allegations about GERB, and he failed to initiate any investigation following American and British sanctions on politicians from GERB and allied party Movement for Rights and Freedoms.

On June 12, Geshev was ousted – all while he tried to activate the Prosecution on investigating a money-laundering scheme around Borissov and a double citizenship issue with Kiril Petkov in a revenge move – and now temporarily on the post is Borislav Sarandov, also an ambivalent figure with a history of being close to Borissov.

This development is giving the impression that a judicial reform will still be carried out on GERB’s terms making it less effective, which is causing a rift with We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria, the latter entity built as a one-issue party focused on judicial reform. Borissov, on his part, refuted the claims he is orchestrating the Prosecution again.

On June 20, Geshev, who once in 2021 referred to himself as a “Christian-socialist patriot”, made a video announcement in which he vaguely confirmed that his next step will be forming a party.

What remains a key factor in present-day Bulgarian politics is that parties are not so much grouped by political or ideological divisions rather than common enemies. Borissov and Petkov, now represented by PM’s Gabriel and Denkov, are now pressured to carve out a way forward mostly out of survival necessity, endangered by a hostile President, two pro-Russian parties in the parliament and a potential new political player – the former top prosecutor – who is also their archenemy.

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