Vladimir Mitev discusses about the outcome of the November 2021 parliamentary and presidential elections in Bulgaria, anti-corruption, need for revitalisation of Bulgarian politics and corona crisis’ influence on poltica in an interview for the Iranian Labour News Agency
On 14th and 21th November 2021 Bulgaria held parliamentary and presidential elections, which reconfirmed the prevalence of president Rumen Radev in Bulgarian politics and gave credit to the newly-formed anti-corruption party Change Continues to try forming a government. In this context the Iranian Labour News Agency interviewed Vladimir Mitev, trying to find out more about the essence of “change” in Bulgaria, about the political meaning of anti-corruption, Bulgarias’ political apathy and the role of corona crisis in all that. The interview was published on 8th December 2021 at ILNA’s website.
The results of the Bulgarian presidential election show that Rumen Radev, an ally of the country’s Socialist Party, has won the election. Radev, a firm supporter of last year’s anti-corruption protests, has attracted many Bulgarians who are fed up with politicians they see as corrupt. How will his victory affect the political life of the Bulgarian people?
The political life in Bulgaria undergoes a certain transformation. Since April 2021 when the government of Boyko Borissov fell, attempts have been made to move away from what is considered to be his legacy: corruption, privilege for large scale Bulgarian capital, lack of meritocracy, long period of austerity, etc. Now we have a lot of talk about honesty in politics, about anti-corruption. The leader of the winning political tendency (Change Continues) in the 14 November 2021 parliamentary elections – the Harvard-educated entrepreneur Kiril Petkov, declared that Bulgaria should become the financial hub of the region, attracting foreign investment. Petkov entered the political scene this year when he was appointed the minister of economy in a government appointed by Rumen Radev, who has just now won his second term as president.
The victory of Radev means that the processes that have been going on since April 2021 will continue. We must be aware that in the whole region of Central and Southeastern Europe politicians and statesmen, associated with the Trump times, have been falling from grace, and others, set up for the Biden times, have been rising. Borissov’s fall could be seen as part of this tendency.
However, the so-called Bulgarian politics (to the extent that politics exists) is too vague in its promises, vision and strategies. Both Radev and Petkov have been supportive of “judicial reform” and “anti-corruption”, but it is not clear what it means concretely beyond the dismissal of the chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev. Geshev is perceived by his opponents as standing close to a major businessman and a public face of the party Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS – which is the party for which most of Bulgarian Turks vote), called Delyan Peevski. A number of political parties plead for Geshev’s sacking. The counter-answer of representatives of DPS is that their opponents promote the interests of another large-scale businessman, called Ivo Prokopiev. For a number of years, Prokopiev and Peevski have been in conflict. Sometimes one of them seems to be supported by the state against the other. In other cases, something happens, e.g. the tenant of the White House in Washington changes and their role gets reversed. The anti-corruption remains strong on the agenda of the Western partners, but when nativized in Bulgaria its application might mean that some part of the political and economic system uses it against other parts, thus anticorruption effectively becoming part of our own contradictions.
Now that Radev has won the presidential elections, we need to see whether a majority will be formed in the parliament and a government with Kiril Petkov as prime minister will be formed. The challenges before any government, be it a caretaker government, appointed by Radev, be it a regular government, supported by a parliamentary majority, are related to the corona crisis’ health and economic challenge, rising prices of electricity, gas and consumer goods, the dire need for modernization of the country after a long period of cronyism under Borissov. Given that a lot of talk for a change, higher ethical and managerial standards have been talked over the last year, Radev and his associated politicians will have to face scrutiny and apply those higher standards to themselves too. But they also need to give prospects to Bulgarians, to make them feel the change for the better is coming, empower them and get them involved.
As a side note, when Radev was elected for the first time in 2016 he was supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party. 5 years later the attitude of the BSP’s leadership towards him was ambiguous – some were openly against him, others were supporting him. But the voters of the socialist party, in general, voted for him. He is seen by them as a manly statesman, who protects national interest, is honest and intelligent. Importantly, Radev was supported by many other parties, including the parties of the urban middle class, or some with patriotic orientation. He wasn’t appealing only to the voters of Boyko Borissov’s GERB and DPS. Parties, as well as politics in Bulgaria, are in a great crisis. So Radev is seen by many, but not all, as somebody who stands out in this context.
I guess his victory means that for people of various political convictions, not only socialists but more importantly people of the urban middle class, businessmen, professionals, intellectuals, as well as members of the state apparatus, he is set up in the best way for the times we live in. Does it mean that after a long period with one man’s rule in our politics (former prime minister Borissov) we are moving towards another single strongman (president Radev)? There are already such criticisms, encouraged by the fact that both of them have the rank of general (one from the internal ministry, the other from the army). But we need to wait and see how the Bulgarian political system will evolve during the second term of Radev. There have been rumors that a new constitution will be worked upon, there is some talk about modernization. So far there is no substance, no money and figures in the talk, no concrete legislative modifications with measure of the effect for various segments of society.
Political parties in Bulgaria, like in many Eastern European countries, focus on fighting corruption. Nevertheless, it seems that despite all efforts, these issues remain unresolved in these countries. What is the reason for this?
We need to understand that anti-corruption also serves as a political tool: those people who control the judicial system, especially the prosecution, can use it to the benefit of their group against the other. Basically what appeared in Bulgaria during the transition from socialism to capitalism as a politico-economic system was oligarchy – we have influential businessmen, who control not only a lot of financial and human resources but also sponsor political parties and have influence in the judicial and media powers in society. Their endless fights over resources affect national, and maybe even international politics.
And here enters another layer: Bulgaria’s international partners declare their permanent interest in rule of law in the country. But this inevitably falls into the Bulgarian contradictions, which means that one politico-economic group is seen as better than the other – with the local favorites spared from scrutiny, while the unfavorables suppressed. That was a situation, which was observed during the times of Borissov when Bulgaria didn’t have any high-ranking politicians convicted for corruption but received for some time better reports through the European Commission’s Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification than Romania which convicted plenty of its former ministers. The development was partially explained by the powerful lobby of Borissov’s party GERB in the EU in the times of Angela Merkel.
Even if some oligarchs get taken out, as has happened in Bulgaria since 2020, the basic contradiction in society still remains untouched, society still remains based on in-groups, mafias (understood not necessarily in a criminal way but as something that resembles tribes). So anti-corruption in these conditions in the best case could replace the upper levels of the political superstructure or could take out some part of the economic base, but still doesn’t neutralize the corrupt essence of society. Even if applied honestly and competently, anti-corruption has limits – e.g. it counters already realized criminal acts but doesn’t act preventively: something which can be achieved in terms of organizational culture inside any state or private institution if it established its all internal culture of non-corruption and transparency. Prevention in its turn, doesn’t attract good headlines in Western media, it is something specialized and banal. If somebody wants to pose as a reformer in our region and attract international support, it is always easier to brand himself as “an anti-graft politician”, some kind of surgeon who takes the cells of corruption out. But I haven’t heard any discussion about the need for the transformation of the social and cultural “genes” of our society, something which is much more complex to happen.
Having said all that, there are some more things to add: anti-corruption in our region is usually seen as a tool that empowers the middle class against the clientelist networks of the oligarchy. So it can have a modernizing effect, e.g. it can eliminate from political life the so-called political dinosaurs of transition – old-style and old-guard political players, who are perceived as having a corrupt effect on politics and society. But the insistence on anti-corruption as a magical tool for the solution of the problems of our society usually comes as an alternative and substitute to having social policies that transfer money to the unprivileged (who in their turn are seen by many in the middle class as bolts in the clientelist networks of the oligarchy).
In the end, contradictions of any type in our societies tend to increase as an accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few leads to scarcity for the others. And the judicial system becomes very important for the resolution of contradictions. As a result, the chief prosecutors and the nature of their behavior become more important in a number of societies in the world. That is one of the reasons why a number of political parties in Central and Eastern European countries have an anti-corruption agenda. Usually, these are the parties that represent the middle class, the young professionals, the corporate workers. These people see themselves as some kind of technocratic elites that modernize the society and meet opposition from less educated, underprivileged, backward masses.
For the moment I would just say that elements of the states in our region in my view would always be interested in having some autochthonous economic base, some politicians who derive legitimacy more from national, rather than European or international politics, some discourse that has certain skepticism towards the discourse of anti-corruption, because it is easy to see it as a hypocritical tendency. Corruption, disrespect of regulation, desire to abolish regulation or to influence it in a way that suits one’s business or groups of businesses is an inevitable part of the capitalist system and the pursuit of profit. That is why when anti-corruption goes beyond its positive role, it might get criticized that it doesn’t eliminate corruption, but only determines who is allowed to be corrupt in a given period and against whom the fight for honesty is directed.
Holding multiple elections in a country like Bulgaria will undoubtedly lead to a kind of political burnout among the masses. Does the winner of the election have a solution to restore vitality to the political life of the country?
The good result of the anti-graft party Change Continues could be seen as a sign that parts of Bulgarian society have discovered hope in these new politicians. It could be seen as a rare case when society overcomes its apathy and cynicism and supports a positive vision. If that is true, it is caused perhaps by the fact that Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev did something as ministers that is seen as exposing corruption from the times of the previous government, even though the punishment they achieved was mere dismissal of some people from positions of power. So, if they want to revitalize the political life, they indeed have to “continue the change”, as they promise and do more concrete things, rather than just say they are for change.
The picture however is more complex. Some 59,5% of Bulgarian voters didn’t vote at the 14 November 2021 parliamentary elections. Apparently, for them there is no political party that represents them or voting doesn’t make sense. Their skepticism needs to be understood by anyone who wants to revitalize Bulgarian politics.
As I mentioned above, we don’t have politics in terms of political representation of various social groups or classes. Most of what we have as politics is a struggle between different brands of the business – some perceived as more honest and more modern (e.g. the corporate ones), others perceived as more related to the business style of transition, clientele networks, mafia, etc. (this tendency is loosely defined as an oligarchy, even though there are internal divisions within it too). Various nuances can be attached: discourses of anticommunism or antifascism, discourses pro or anti certain geopolitical entities, discourses of cultural wars, etc., but at the end of the day we get a political superstructure that reproduces the economic base and the structures, which have power in our society.
My guess is that even if the winner of the elections formulates a solution for revitalizing political life, something more would be necessary. The solution must come from more places, and not only from those who are politicians in the strict sense of the world. To borrow a phrase from the famous philosopher Zizek, we lack the language that could help us name and understand the deeper reasons for our discouragement or withdrawal from public activity. It is not that Bulgarians are not politicized. People have various political sentiments and opinions. But what we have as politics and public space (I mean mostly the media space) on one hand tends to be vague and superficial in its discourses and on the other hand is too infested with propagandists and echo chambers that prop them up. People are just not getting empowered through politics. They are invited to be proxies of some of the vested interests in society.
The issue of revitalizing political life will probably be connected with the issue of what kind of society and what kind of Bulgaria could rise to the challenge of present times. If the new people or new parties in our politics simply reproduce and further the values and policies of transition, that is useless. There must be new ideas, new discourses, new social bases for them, new ways of interaction and new essence – in society and in us.
The Corona pandemic crisis has had a profound effect on politics around the world. Can the current election results be attributed to the pandemic crisis in Bulgaria, which is regarded as the EU’s least vaccinated country?
Bulgaria has had a large anti-vaxx current in society throughout the pandemic. In the context of the current elections, as well as the previous ones, it was important for those who wanted to win the Bulgarian voter not to alienate this current. This was especially valid for Rumen Radev, who at the end turned out to be victorious by a large margin, but throughout the year there was an opinion his victory was not predetermined. Perhaps, that is one of the reasons why Bulgaria was known for a long time not only as the least vaccinated EU country but also as one of the EU countries with the most relaxed measures against coronavirus. The entrance in parliament of the small party Revival, which plays with anti-vaxx messages, could also be seen as an effect of the pandemic crisis on the elections.
While the public may have opinions and passions, pandemics is an issue that requires experts in order to be countered. Throughout the pandemic crisis, there have been “experts” who in fact play a political game and even become affiliated with parties and power. My guess and my hope is that Bulgarians are able to distinguish real experts from false ones. The same goes for politics: we must be able to find out the truth behind the facade, bearing in mind that there tend to be manipulative figures and mass delusions. And we need to look for change and empowerment in ourselves too, as politics is in an obvious crisis.
Photo: Kiril Petkov is the face of “change” in Bulgaria after the parliamentary elections, which took place on 14 November 2021 (source: YouTube)
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