Two analysts, one to the south of the Danube, another from the north of the river, study the problems that their countries have when tens of billions of European funds are going to be absorbed. The “Yes, Bulgaria” party and the USR-PLUS alliance claim that the money needed for the post-COVID period risks being spent by old politicians through the clientelist networks for syphoning of public resources
Vladimir Mitev, Sorin Ioniţă
This article was published on 11th November 2020 on the Libertatea website.
After the US presidential elections and before the parliamentary elections of March 2021 in Bulgaria, the big question in Sofia is who inherits the mantle of partnership with the West and, especially, who will manage the billions of euros from the EU recovery fund. Nobody wants to leave the oven when the pancakes are baking, as they say.
For now, in Bulgaria, even more than in Romania, the recent political leadership has somehow been set up for the Trump era. Of course, no one did the performance of Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janda, who rushed on 4th November 2020 to congratulate Donald Trump for his victory. Boiko Borisov, a political chameleon who has ruled Bulgaria since 2009 with short breaks, has already taken the first steps for rebranding in line with the new wind from the United States. With Biden in power, the civic protests that moved Bulgaria in the summer and fall of this year are beginning to have a special significance. The protesters demanded the resignation of Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, accused of applying anti-corruption selectively, in a way that primarily benefits the oligarchic group behind the current government. They also demand the resignation of prime minister Boiko Borisov, who governs together with an alliance of nationalist parties, the rhetoric of these parties being primarily anti-civic, covered by the well-known fight against cultural marxism, which is called in Bulgaria “gender ideology”.
What takes place in Bulgarian politics even before the US elections is a competition for who will deliver the technocratic element to the future government. Will GERB, the party of the prime minister affiliated to the European People’s Party, be reinvented as the official leader of the future pro-European governmental formula, with new junior partners and with rhetoric different from that of Viktor Orban, that is, in step with the new trends? Or, on the contrary, will those who protest prevail, especially the party of the young elites “Yes Bulgaria” (similar to Save Romania Union) which has occupied an important part of the public agenda after the break-up of the protests? Will the previous model of Romanian politics also be reproduced in Sofia, after the years, in which the Bulgarian civil society kept an eye on the adventures of the DNA in Bucharest and on the protests for the rule of law launched in January 2017?
It is clear that many political developments after the outbreak of the June 2020 protests have something to do with Bulgarian-American relations. The Bulgarian state is discussing the construction of a new nuclear power plant at Kozloduy in partnership with various American companies; a similar offer was recently made in Bucharest. It also plans to purchase eight new F-16 fighter jets in addition to those already purchased in production. Bulgaria also participates with funds in the presidency of the Three Seas Initiative in 2021, wanting to benefit from its economic and infrastructure component.
On the other hand, there are difficulties that will grow after Biden settles in the White House. The United States has a principled position against the expansion of Russia-related gas pipelines to Europe. However, Bulgaria is expanding its gas transmission network with its own funds, in order to be able to receive deliveries from Turkstream and take them to the border with Serbia. It seems that lately Borisov, under the pressure of the street, is trying to gain time to complete this expansion, before opposition or sanctions from the USA appear; and probably in that sense he was considering even more partnerships with the Trump administration.
The autumn wave of COVID-19 hit Bulgaria hard. The medical system in Sofia collapsed, where in early November hospitals couldn’t receive new COVID-19 patients due to overcrowding. Ambulances were arriving very late at the applicants, and some patients have died without being able to receive medical care in time due to the collapse of the health network. Again, as in Romania, the political competition takes second place in these conditions, and the electoral race that is about to start will be an atypical one. But the stakes are not to be neglected.
At the end of October, Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Doncev made a spectacular video presentation, with a wall of TV screens behind him, in which he announced the government’s plan to use the 6.13 billion euros in grants and 4.6 billion euros in loans given to Bulgaria under the European program for recovery and resiliece. According to Doncev, this money will be used to increase the competitiveness of the economy, with a focus on the knowledge economy, sustainable management of natural resources and the liberalization of the electricity market. They should also increase the competitiveness of Bulgarian regions and increase transport and infrastructure connectivity. They will be used for social, health, programs for people with disabilities and administration reform too.
The plan got reports in the media without much criticism. One employers’ organization reacted, with generally positive remarks. Criticism came from Hristo Ivanov, the leader of the “Yes, Bulgaria” party, who heavily criticised Doncev’s ideas. “From a careful reading of the proposed relaunch plan, it is clear that the theft of public resources is being prepared by siphoning them to the (clientelist) networks of power. This plan has no clear focus, no personality and betrays an embarrassingly low ambition,” Ivanov wrote. He also criticized concrete aspects of the plan, emphasizing the need for measures for small and medium enterprises, investments in human capital, or in the energy transition to green energy production.
Against the background of the repeated crises in our region, which have drained it of resources, EU funds have become an ever more important stake than before for the political class. In this context, the role of experts and technocrats is growing, because without them absorption will get bogged down. The novelty in Bulgaria is that in the summer of 2020 the middle class, which previously saw no alternative to the prime minister or his GERB party, is now divided into two wings, for and against Borisov. Biden’s victory in the United States and, consequently, the possible loss of speed of the anti-liberal political camp in Europe could accentuate the rift. There is now a greater competition who will offer and apply the vision of development and modernization of Bulgarian society, with of course the attractive component of managing European funds.
Somehow Bulgaria and Romania are destined to evolve further in the mirror. That will be seen especially if after the Romanian elections on 6th December 2020, the competition between pro-European political actors will intensify in Bucharest. Until now they were on the same side of the barricade. But after the election they may have to share the costs and not only the benefits of governance.
Photo: The protest in Sofia of the summer of 2020 (source: Nikolay Draganov)
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