Bulgarian politics: what change comes after the government of “change”?

Graf Ignatiev street in Sofia (source: Pixabay, CC0)

A review of the Petkov government actions and a few suggestions for a more complex understanding of Bulgarian political life

Vladimir Mitev

The political crisis that led to the fall of Kiril Petkov’s government provoked a lot of protests and counterprotests. Bulgaria’s partners are beginning to worry that political instability has returned to Bulgarian society. There are fears of a possible rise of pro-Russian tendencies. And Western partners are worried that the steps undertaken by the Petkov government to promote “change” – e.g. reduced access by the oligarchy to state money – would be reversed.

These fears could still be justified but I would prefer to look at the Bulgarian political evolution not as a zero sum game, where the pendulum moves either to the US or to Russia. I rather see here the superstructure of a society undergoing a transformation from the longstanding regime of “stabilocracy” under prime minister Boyko Borissov which ended last year with its decapitation. In my view, Bulgarians are interesting and deserve engagement not only when they are ruled by a John Travolta-looking prime minister. The battle for modernization and “change” of the country will continue no matter what the governing formula is. And perhaps, a correct understanding of Bulgarian society, contradictions and essence, could help the very process of change. 

It is still not well understood by all that Kiril Petkov’s government, the government of “change”, comprised four parties with very different political profiles and geopolitical affinities. It’s a bit of a puzzle how Petkov, labelled as “anti-Russian”, managed to collaborate with the rhetorically russophile Bulgarian Socialist Party. Another ally of Petkov was the populist party “There is such a people”. which was accused by leading liberal political scientists of being a twin of the Movement for Rights and Freedom – the party of Bulgarian Turks, whose member of parliament is the notorious businessman Delyan Peevski.

The current political crisis was created by the departure from the government of “There is Such a People”. After the no confidence vote, Peevski announced that the fall of the Petkov government was the first step in the fight against oligarchy. Peevski himself is sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act.

What Peevski meant with his claim about oligarchy is that the Bulgarian political system has been marked for more than a decade by tensions between two businessmen – Peevski and Prokopiev. The deputies of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms were constantly repeating that the Petkov government represents the interests of Prokopiev. At the same time, Petkov and his team were accusing the chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev as being compromised, apparently because of his links to Peevski.

What did change mean?

When the Petkov government was formed in December 2021, it had the big idea of change and modernization after the years of atemporality under Borissov. But what did the change actually mean? In the initial months it seemed to mean that the chief prosecutor had to be replaced by somebody who was doing anti-corruption in “an incorrupt” way, in line with the understandings of the government. But, despite the pressure, that didn’t happen – the chief prosecutor retained the support of the Superior Council of the Magistrates. 

Then Petkov, apparently feeling insufficient power, tried an unusual and rarely used legal procedure via the internal ministry, rather than prosecution, accusing Borissov over his alleged exercise of blackmail. Borissov was released after 24 hours without accusations and got the profile of a victim, in spite of his long-time association with various wrongdoings. So Petkov’s use of anti-corruption rhetoric and concepts proved ultimately to be futile. 

Another change strategy used by the government tried to stop the flow of state money to the firms and sectors, which were thriving under Borissov’s government – construction, transport, etc. These efforts led to huge protests in which employers of these sectors took their workers to block roads or protest in Sofia under the banner that the state had signed contracts – or that people needed to make a living. The government also closed a sanitary verification firm at the main border crossing with Turkey, claiming it was associated with “the mafia” of the oligarchy. 

The bottom line from all that is that In Bulgaria businesses apparently need government representation in order to function. Politics is the place where businesses or business sectors obtain influence and “understanding” friom the executive power – be it the construction and motor transport, or the finance and IT.

The fourth change strategy for the government was the politics of income. It raised significantly the pensions, an apparent gesture towards the generally older voters of the Bulgarian Socialist Party. It demonstrated the development of a dynamic identity between the dynamic young representatives of the business (embodied by the financial minister Assen Vassilev) and the unprivileged older members of the Bulgarian society, a process which could possibly heal the wounds of transition, left uncured by Borissov. The government also raised the salaries in education. There were various strikes in state administration, which demanded salary increases too, as the inflation diminished the value of income. Borissov had long kept salaries and pensions low or rising only moderately.

Importantly, in the category of change fell also the intensification of Bulgarian-Romanian diplomatic and political relations. In the era of Borrisov Bulgaria and Romania were attempting to get the other party aboard for a common strategy in the Black Sea region. Romania was interested to see intensification of security activity on the lines of NATO, while parts of Bulgarian foreign policy elites seemed to be interested in initiatives such as the creation of Black Sea european macroregion, that could spur cooperation with Black Sea countries. In the end, no one sacrificed its interests so that the other’s regional agenda could be realized. 

But the foreign policy situation in the region on the eve and after the start of the war in Ukraine and the coming in power in Sofia of a government, which had the backing of the USA and the European Commission changed the dynamics in the Bulgarian-Romanian relations. The discussions on infrastructure interconnectedness were apparently advancing. In spite of that, it could also be seen that the two nations don’t know one another and the dynamics in their political and economic relations is caused mostly by the international structures they are integrated in. In the absence of reciprocally exchanged cultural centers in the two capitals and other infrastructure for cultural, economic and media cooperation, the two nations still need to find the inner drive for this engagement. So we need to see to what extent and in what form this Bulgarian-Romanian engagement will continue in a future governing formula.

Why did the government of change fell?

With these ambitions for change and obtained or unaccomplished results, the Petkov government fell. Interpretations of why this happened go in two directions: internal and international. 

The first suggests that Petkov apparently really hit some vested interests in Bulgarian society. He attempted to stop state money for the companies seen as close to the Borissov government. Also, he wasn’t willing to pay for Russian gas in roubles, which led to the stopping of Russian natural gas to Bulgaria. That is how he could have harmed the vested interests in the energy sphere. 

The geopolitical story could be linked to both the changing dynamics of the war in Ukraine (with Russia having military successes in Lugansk region) and the changing dynamics with regards to the issue of North Macedonia’s possible start of negotiations for accession in the EU. In the days around the fall of the Petkov government, Bulgarians learned about the so-called French proposal for resolution of the Bulgarian-Macedonian conflict – which allows the EU to become a guarantor that the Bulgarian demands towards Macedonia, related to curbing the ideology of Macedonism, will be respected. In exchange, Bulgaria would allow for the start of North Macedonia’s negotiations with the EU. The Bulgarian parliament approved the French proposal after the Petkov government fell. 

There are some interpretations that if the Petkov government was still in power, such a vote could have been impossible or could have led to the falling apart of the governance formula. The French proposal was voted for in the Parliament by two parties from the fallen coalition – Change Continues and Democratic Bulgaria, and two parties from the opposition, labeled for a long time as oligarchical – Borissov’s GERB and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Both There is Such a People and the Bulgarian Socialist Party were saying throughout the months they were against lifting the Bulgarian veto on North Macedonia’s negotiations. At the end of the day the Socialists abstained in the parliament, while the populists from There is Such a People and Revival voted against. Apparently, parties which lean towards a nationalist or conservative agenda had some resistance to letting EU negotiations with North Macedonia start, while other parties, dubbed “euroatlantic” in the current situation, were seeing the French proposal as one that corresponds to the Bulgarian national interests.

Some more context

There is another player in Bulgarian politics who matters – the president Rumen Radev. He used to be a military pilot, and in various moment of his political life he was labelled as either pro-Russian (because he entered in politics with the support of the Bulgarian Socialist Party) or pro-American (because he advances the Three Seas Initiative in Central and Southeastern Europe – an international platform, which is seen as US-supported effort to block the Russian and Chinese influence in the region). 

The same thing can be observed with Borissov. After 2020 anti-corruption protests he was accused of being pro-Russian, because he made great effort to complete the Turkish stream gas pipeline towards Serbia. Also, he was set up for good relations with Trump and Orban. Now, as Borissov offered to support in Bulgarian Parliament, anything which the Ukrainian ambassador wants (even though later Borissov hinted at a nuance in his attitude towards the ambassador) and as Borissov supported unequivocally the French proposal, he is labeled on some TVs as a euroatlantic politician. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms is labelled in the same way.

Both Radev and Borissov are generals and have backgrounds related to the institutions of security. Borissov is a general of the internal ministry. Radev is a general of the army.

The relations between Petkov and Radev now seem to be deteriorating. A number of voters of the Change Continues and Democratic Bulgaria have expressed their unhappiness at having voted for Radev as president. On the other hand, people who seem to be supportive of more autochtonous political tendencies, such as those embodied by Radev, like to say that Petkov was too much aligned with the American embassy, while the attitudes among the people “are different”. 

Apparently, Petkov was the face of Bulgarian technopopulism – a tendency which promotes technocratic approaches, the sectors of finance, green policies, and anti-corruption. Radev has been carefully building up support among local intellectuals, representatives of the Church, people who have a certain patriotic orientation. He has been engaging also representatives of the business and labor unions by conferences and events that have been establishing him as some kind of arbiter or balance force in the political system. Radev both claimed that the French proposal on North Macedonia is good, and insufficient. He appeals to people of older generations, who have interiorised values from the times when the state was a stronger factor in people’s life. Apparently, the young and educated Bulgarians until the age of 40 lean towards Petkov party or towards Democratic Bulgaria.

It is important however to note that it was Radev who made Petkov minister of the economy, with Petkov failing to declare he had Canadian citizenship at that time, which makes his nomination as minister of the economy in 2021 illegal because of dual citizenship. In addition, the Harvard duo Petkov and finance minister Vassilev asked their supporters to vote for Radev at the presidential elections in November 2022. 

Some observations

What emerges from all this is that Bulgarian politics has been undergoing a gradual reset. The fall of the Petkov government and issue of the French proposal on North Macedonia, makes this even more obvious. 

It’s anyone’s guess what will now happen in Bulgarian politics, in which everyone is able to match with everyone. One hypothesis is that the autochthonous political tendency in Bulgarian politics could be getting stronger at the expense of the one that is more supportive of global capital or at least to be strong enough to demand redefinition of the governance formula. The reasons for that apparent evolution could be any: changing dynamics of Russian military intervention in Ukraine, the forthcoming midterm elections in the USA, where it is expected that Republicans will have good results, the dynamics of relations between France and Germany or the one between the EU core and the UK, the contradictions around Turkey, which is an important factor in Bulgarian politics, etc.

If it is true that the Bulgarian governing formula is changing, I think observers should remain careful when giving labels to Bulgarian politicians. Bulgarians are mixed and have complicated identities with each other. We rarely are asked to choose between West and East in a clearly defined, distilled sense. Our “pro-Western” prime minister Petkov governed in coalition with parties which are accused of being pro-Eastern. Our “russophile” president promoted “pro-Western” man Petkov to big politics and supported stoically the negatives of Petkov’s fault with the dual citizenship. Before being accused of being “pro-Russian”, Borissov had very good times with the administration of Barack Obama or with Angela Merkel. 

Romanian public opinion or any other people interested in Bulgaria, can only win, if they manage to think in more complex terms about Bulgarian politics. One way to understand Bulgarian society is to look at it not through some static definition – e.g. not that it is pro-Western or pro-Russian in a fixed way (as neither West nor Russia or the East are fixed themselves), but to see its evolution, dynamics and contradictions. There are internal realities in it as well – tensions between oligarchs, security institutions, etc. 

No matter what the next ruling formula will be, Bulgarian society will still need change. Even if Petkov, the smart face of Bulgarian politics, is no longer the prime minister and even if some other political tendency comes into power, Bulgarian-Romanian engagement will remain one of the elements that brings change to the countries and the region.  

Apparently, in times of political competition, as we see now in Bulgaria, there could be propaganda or manipulation in which one tendency would aim to stop the initiatives of the other party. It would be great if Bulgarian-Romanian engagement were to be possible regardless of the international or local political weather. That requires a greater level of mutual knowledge and trust and this is what hopefully this article contributes modestly to.

Photo: A cave in Bulgaria (source: PIxabay, CC0)

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