Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (R) receives a vacant mandate from Mariya Gabriel, Bulgaria's GERB-SDS party's candidate for prime minister, during an official ceremony for the mandate to form a new government in Sofia, Bulgaria, 22 May 2023.
© EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV   |   Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (R) receives a vacant mandate from Mariya Gabriel, Bulgaria's GERB-SDS party's candidate for prime minister, during an official ceremony for the mandate to form a new government in Sofia, Bulgaria, 22 May 2023.

The Grapes of Wrath: Bulgaria’s Turmoil Morphed Into a Clan Massacre

The two-year political deadlock in Bulgaria is about to end next week while fresh new developments are drawing new crossfires between the country’s fragmented forces. The crisis in Bulgaria won’t end just now, it will rather distort into different areas.

If Bulgaria’s election cycle seemed never-ending and an unprecedented situation, the exit of it will be as eccentric: two opposing blocs – GERB/United Democratic Forces on one side and the reformist duo We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria on the other, agreed on the experimental format of an 18-month government.

In that time space, for the first nine months, Bulgaria will be led by former Education Minister Nickolay Denkov of “We Continue the Change”, while the next nine months will be under the governance of former EU commissioner Mariya Gabriel, a marginal public figure before but now brought to the front as the fresh face of the GERB leadership.

This outcome is rather surprising as the post elections political knot seemed unsolvable: GERB, led by party strongman Boyko Borissov, won with 26.49 per cent of the popular vote against Kiril Petkov’s We Continue the Change (allied with Democratic Bulgaria), second with 24.56 per cent; an alliance between the two had been categorically ruled by the latter, and there were no other plausible ways to form a parliamentary majority, given the various grievances, animosities and incompatibilities between Bulgaria’s political parties. However, Borissov tried a different strategy: he decided to abandon his efforts to build a coalition around GERB and its traditional allies from Movement for Rights and Freedoms (focused on the Turkish minority in the country, similarly to GERB marred with numerous corruption and fraud voting allegations) and promoted the idea of an expert cabinet in collaboration with We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria.

It remains to be seen whether this development will be a Faustian deal for Petkov. Last Tuesday he apologised to voters that his party had broken the promise to not enter governance with GERB. "However, this format is done not because we're in a coalition with GERB but because we can't allow a coalition with GERB.”

However, there’s something most parties in the parliament find as a common thread – the mission to oust Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev.

On Friday, the parliament of Bulgaria voted in favour of initiating a mechanism for his ousting before the end of his mandate, with only the pro-Russia party Revival abstaining from voting.

For the last four years, Geshev had seem to be one of Borissov’s strongest confederates and a protector for GERB against any accountability.

Why Ivan Geshev matters

Chief prosecutors are supposed to be independent apolitical figures. However, in Bulgaria this role has been associated with ties to the government, blocking those in power from being accountable to the Prosecution. This has created a whole different context in which the judicial system keeps the political status quo alive and well. In various degrees this myriad of institutional dependencies has been plaguing the country since the 1990’s.

Geshev is part of the latest chapter of this story and he has been seen as a shield for the legacy of Borissov. His loyalty seems to have been betrayed: ever since winning the elections on April 2, GERB and Borissov have been trying to lure 2021-2022 PM Kiril Petkov’s We Continue the Change with promises of working on shared goals, passing laws which are long in limbo because of the short-lived parliaments and by showcasing a fresh face for PM designate – now former EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel.

Borissov, Gabriel and GERB made their latest offering by suddenly agreeing to We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria’s long-time demand: the ousting of Ivan Geshev as a mandatory move towards a healthy judicial reform.

A Greek tragedy in the making (with a Bulgarian flavour)

Ivan Geshev’s was appointed the country’s top prosecutor, for a seven-year term, in December 2019. His tenure has been marked by controversies since the beginning.

Geshev was the sole candidate for the post. The nomination caused protests and was vetoed by President Radev, at the time less openly favouring Russia, positioning himself as the major opposition to Borissov’s governance, and playing close simultaneously to the reformist parties such as Democratic Bulgaria and his closest partners, Bulgarian Socialist Party. Remaining the only candidate, Geshev was eventually elected by the Supreme Judicial Council.

The political parties which rose from the 2020 anti-government protests and found increased visibility in the 2021-2023 election cycle – There’s Such a People, the winners of the July 2021 elections, We Continue the Change, the winners in November 2021, and Democratic Bulgaria – have all called for the removal of Geshev.

In the next few years, the Prosecution has made no significant progress on cases which have gained widespread attention. These include the investigation into the suspected Novichok poisoning of arms dealer Emiliyan Gebrev in 2015 (halted in 2020), while the various scandals around Borissov – from leaked recordings and footage to allegations of corruption and money-laundering and intimidation of critical journalists – all backtracked.

The series of expulsions of Russian spies in early 2022 have been seen in hindsight as a bid by Geshev to clean up his act.

The prosecution also remained passive after politicians were sanctioned under the US’s Global Magnitsky Act in 2021 and in February this year when a second list of sanctions was announced. A month after the most recent sanctions, in March, Geshev flew to the US, but the exact nature of his visit – first promoted as official, then downgraded in statements as private – remains unknown.

Also back in March, Geshev first started talking about pressure on the institution and possibility that he might be a subject to an attack. And then it happened: on May 1, as Geshev’s vehicle was slowing down on a highway near the town of Samokov, a hand-made explosive detonated. The official version about the technical details around the bomb as well as whether Geshev was alone in the car varied – which quickly led to speculations, including from military experts and We Continue the Change / Democratic Bulgaria MP’s, that the attack was a PR stunt.

On May 15, Geshev made a press conference in which he hardly accepted a question, showed his resignation letter, and then tore it apart in pieces. “It’s high time for the political garbage in parliament to be cleaned up”, he argued and referred to Bulgaria’s political scene as oligarchy, a word that’s usually part of his opposition vocabulary, and “political mafia”.

Meanwhile, National Investigation Service chief Borislav Sarafov, who disputed Geshev’s version of the attack, stated that he fears his life might be in danger “because I know well what Geshev might do”.

Tectonic changes in Bulgaria’s politics?

It seems like Geshev is yet to make his crucial move as in recent statements he appears ready to spill information about his protection on GERB and Borissov despite still holding the position of Chief Prosecutor. The rift between Borissov and Geshev has also consequences in the wider context of local politics: this means that GERB are now controlling the narrative around the judicial reform instead of We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria who have built their platforms around the issue, while a failure of the Denkov - Gabriel cabinet might pave the way for a further breakthrough from pro-Kremlin, anti-establishment, far-right party Revival (Vazrazhdane) who have steadily grew since 2021 and scored their best result yet in the April elections (14.16 per cent).

The fact that Revival abstained from voting against Geshev on Friday also signals that the radical party would like to see how the conflict plays out for as long as possible.

Prolonging the crisis would also mean yet another interim cabinet selected by President Rumen Radev, who has strengthened his pro-Kremlin positions since the beginning of the war in Ukraine as well as his hard line on North Macedonia’s accession to the EU without first resolving historical disputes in Bulgaria.

The fact that there are tectonic changes and new collisions in Bulgaria’s politics was underlined by the killing of Interpol-searched mobsters Krassimir Kamenov - Kyro, his wife and several associates on the morning of May 25 in Capetown, South Africa. Kamenov has been associated with drug trafficking and corruption since the 1990’s. On March 27, the Prosecution probed Kamenov as involved in the killing of a police officer while a few days before that, the institution released an audio on which Kamenov is referred to as part of a plan related to remove Geshev. The details around the assassination are incoming.

GERB and the party’s opposition are in a curious situation where they both have a brand new opponent - and one that is both powerful and seemingly uncontrollable. Whether that will contribute to any warming up between the polar opposites remains to be seen.

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Svetoslav Todorov

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