The Romanianization of Bulgarian politics
This article was published on 30 October 2020 at the Bulgarian section of the site “The Barricade”.
After the outbreak of the Bulgarian protests in the summer of 2020, the Bulgarian political issues are more and more similar to the Romanian ones. The similarities are not just related to the aspirations of the Bulgarian “middle class” to replace the dinosaurs of the transition through the anti-corruption fight. Nor is it limited to the adoration shared with the Romanian middle class for the “martyr of anti-corruption”, Laura Kovesi, who was driven out of her homeland, but found refuge in the European Prosecutor’s Office in Luxembourg. It does not even reside in the intrusive repetition of the BSP leader, Cornelia Ninova, that in the person of Boyko Borissov she is fighting with the “parallel state”. This term was used by the former strong man in Romanian politics, Liviu Dragnea, to refer to his opponents in the secret services. It is not particularly appropriate for the Bulgarian realities, where Borissov is the center of the system of government, not parallel to it. The general game in Bulgarian politics is increasingly similar to that in Romania in 2017-2019, when the middle class convened mass protests against the ruling Social Democrats, and they responded by making financial gestures to the disadvantaged masses and reducing taxes on consumption.
As I stated in an interview with Bloomberg Bulgaria TV in January 2020, the Romanian Social Democrats used fiscal policy to create their own influence in business circles that have different interests from those of the so-called “corporatists” – employees in multinational companies. In addition, the Social Democrats have increased the incomes of teachers, doctors and public sector employees in several waves of wage rises. This is how they secured their public influence. This has put pressure on the private sector to keep raising wages so that it is not exposed to a staff exodus. And that is how gradually the dispute between the two major camps in Romanian politics – the technocratic and the politico-oligarchic, led to increased revenues, higher consumption, significant GDP growth. Combined with the increase of foreign investments, they gave strength and confidence to Romanian citizens. At that time, there was apparent stability in Bulgaria, the government was not challenged by anyone, sporadic protests disintegrated or their demands were met before they gained strength. Time seemed to stand still. The Bulgarians were either satisfied or too disappointed to take any public action.
Now it seems that the roles are getting reversed. In Romania, the confrontation has disappeared. Dragnea went to prison in May 2019. In the fall of 2019, the Social Democrats lost power to the National Liberal Party, which is a member of the European People’s Party and has European support. This support is a key factor in the context of the coronavirus crisis, when European funds are crucial to support the economy and health systems. In the December 2020 parliamentary elections, Ludovic Orban’s conservatives are expected to win by a significant majority.
Now, in Bulgaria, there are two major political currents – for and against Borisov, for and against Geshev, and time has begun to flow. Our confrontations meant money for pensioners, the unemployed, public sector employees, social services, education and the health system – or at least promises. At this moment, like the Romanians in 2017-2019, we are captive to our internal confrontations and we criticize every action of Borisov, Hristo Ivanov (the leader of a segment of the protests) or of any of the other participants in the political game, according to our personal preferences and prejudices. But we do not always realize that in the face of political competition GERB can no longer expect to win elections without any effort. Boyko Borissov must give more to the people to create additional electoral support, just as the Romanian Social Democrats supported their clientele networks with financial gestures at a time when their president was the baron of Teleorman County, Liviu Dragnea. .
At the end of his third term, Borisov found himself in a similar situation to Dragnea’s – having to work to expand his base beyond the “middle class”, which was actually divided into supporters and his opponents. It is worth remembering that befor the middle class stood united behind him, and he offered social stability and conditions for the development of those who succeeded during the transition. The urban right is now on the street, but it was a coalition partner in Borisov’s second government.
Borissov and Dragnea are similar in their approach to countering the dissatisfied middle class attack. But they are also in different structural positions. Borissov is a veteran EU prime minister, well received in European People’s Party circles (as seen during talks on the resolution on the Bulgarian political crisis in October 2020 in the European Parliament). The positive reports of the European Commission on the state of the rule of law in our country in the last two years have been a sign of GERB’s lobbying influence in the European institutions. As for Dragnea, he bet on military acquisitions in the US (gestures to Donald Trump and his administration) and gestures to Israel (he tried to move the Romanian embassy in the Middle East country from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem), while it was particularly obvious that Western Europe was extremely skeptical of its judicial reforms. In Romania itself, Dragnea won several battles (for example, removing Laura Kovesi from the leadership of DNA), but a war with the technocratic sector is unlikely to be won in the EU – and this was seen when Dragnea went to prison in the day after the European elections in May 2020. Therefore, the current confrontation between the urban right, which has positions in the European technocratic institutions, and Borissov’s government is interesting and may be the first real threat to the political system of Borissov’s time.
The Bulgarian situation is reminiscent of the Romanian one in other respects as well. The label “beautiful and smart”, which the Bulgarian protesters received in the summer of 2013 or put alone on themselves, has a direct equivalent in Romanian politics. It is about the so-called TFL-ists, the abbreviation of “beautiful and free young people”. This is the name for young professionals, for young people with creative professions, with the self-confidence of informed, capable and well-paid people, who have an elite feeling compared to the “ugly and bad” masses. This feeling repulses some older Romanians and residents outside the capital and big cities. Obviously, these are two worlds – some have graduated from high schools and universities (often in the West), live in urban centers and are part of the middle class, while others are on the social peripheries – in big city neighborhoods and in the rural ares. This objective and subjective difference is now used by the Bulgarian government.
“With all due respect to young people who don’t like us, (let me say that) we don’t like them,” says Boyko Borissov. And indeed – some people say they are not from GERB, but they are categorically against what Hristo Ivanov, the leader of the young generation party in politics, Yes, Bulgaria, represents. Not coincidentally, his public appearances are examined and any suspicion of something unfair is gossiped for days on social networks. It seems that the usual contradiction of Central and South-Eastern Europe between Trump and Soros supporters is also used discursively in the current protest, as in the words of Deputy Prime Minister Krassimir Karakachanov, protesters want a “gender republic” (which seems to mean a society where LGBT people, feminists and gender studies expert enjoys life, insead of being supressed).
The search for parallels between Bulgarian and Romanian politics can continue with the youth party in Romanian politics – the Save Romania Union and the Bulgarian equivalent – the Yes, Bulgaria party. Both are based on the middle class and corporatists, have anti-corruption as their dominant theme and are accused of not having a social feeling, but of finding solutions to society’s problems in a stronger private sector. USR is an ally of Dacian Cioloș’s Plus party – a party with several leaders from older political generations, who, however, have connected and supported the young people. For its part, Yes, Bulgaria is in alliance with the party of some old elites – “Democrats for a strong Bulgaria”, which comes from the group around former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov. In Romania, USR is so influential that it takes from the strength of the Romanian Greens, who remain with modest electoral support. In Bulgaria, “Yes, Bulgaria” is not as strong as its Romanian equivalent, but Bulgarian Greens have relatively good public support among younger generations.
In September 2020, I said in an interview with the Danish organization Democracy in Europe that the Bulgarian middle class wanted to feel empowered to fight corruption and therefore protested against the current Attorney General, who is seen by her as a defender of oligarchy. The Romanian middle class protested in 2017-2018 in defense of Romanian prosecutor Laura Kovesi, because due to her actions, the dinosaurs of the transition left the political scene and opened a place for new blood in it. The golden age of Romanian anti-corruption coincided with the founding of the Save Romania Union, which began with protests against the gold mining project Rosia Montana in 2013. Unlike its Romanian equivalent, Yes, Bulgaria did not emerge from street demonstrations that gradually grew in a cibic and political movement. Street pressure appeared in Yes, Bulgara only later, when the confrontation over the control of justice and the rise of Ivan Geshev in the prosecutor’s office appeared.
However, politics is too complicated to say and judge so easily, just by saying that we are seeing a cellestial confrontation between the young elites, the good ones and the old, evil elites, who need to be eliminated. This ambiguity is also shown in the “evil” social democrats of Dragnea’s time, who also had their own criteria for good and evil in society. They used fiscal policy to divide Romanian capital into two types – useful, productive and harmful, speculative. In December 2018, the Social Democratic government introduced the so-called “greed tax” – the taxation of the assets of financial institutions if the ROBOR interest rate index exceeds 1.5% for a quarter or half a year. This was because, according to the then government, many foreign companies used tricks to avoid paying corporate tax. The provisions of the greed tax have been rewritten by the government of Ludovic Orban so that it no longer creates any burden on the financial sector. But the Social Democrats have never taken action against the car industry, which is highly developed in Romania. In addition, the people of the former leader Dragnea exempted a large part of the programmers from paying income tax – another measure to support the production part of the business.
Starting in 2013 with the special VAT rate on bread, the Romanian Social Democrats reduced VAT on a number of products in the following years, while increasing wages and pensions and thus increasing consumption. This was one of the reasons for the significant economic growth in Romania during their rule. Due to their tax changes, the 9% VAT is charged for orthopedic products; medicines for humans and animals, food, drink (except alcoholic beverages); water when used for irrigation in agriculture; fats and pesticides used in agriculture; seeds and other agricultural products, as well as agriculture-specific services; water supply and sewerage. A special rate of 5% VAT is used for textbooks, books, newspapers and magazines; for tourist services, catering, for access to cities, museums, memorial houses, historical monuments, architectural and archaeological monuments; hotel accommodation, restaurant services (except alcoholic beverages other than beer), use of sports facilities, transport by train, elevator; for the construction of social housing.
Currently, in Bulgaria, the government also uses fiscal policy to gain social influence. However, it makes gestures to businesses rather than ordinary consumers. For years, Baricada has explained that taxes in Bulgaria are low for businesses, but high for workers and consumers. In November 2017, more than 30,000 Bulgarians demanded the introduction of a non-taxable minimum and a special VAT on vital products. Business tax support has a clientelistic element, as employers can train their employees to vote for the right political force in the upcoming elections. But reducing the taxes of ordinary people through a fiscal policy that leaves them a little more money in their pockets would mean empowering the common man without a binding commitment to vote for you. Based on current and future government action, we can judge who to rely on to receive electoral support.
The parallels between Bulgarian and Romanian politics do not end here. The topics are similar in terms of international relations. Both sides are at the forefront of US attention in our region – both are discussing the construction of US-assisted nuclear power plants, are expected to transfer US troops to our area to control Russia and possibly Turkey, and Sofia and Bucharest are buying weapons from the United States. The same debates are taking place on social networks for and against Trump and Soros.
Isn’t it time for Romanians and Bulgarians to overcome their prejudices and indifference towards their neighbors and realize that they live in a similar reality – a precondition for a more active interaction between them? Obviously, the Bulgarian political elites are informed about what is happening in Romania and are inspired, taking concepts, policies from the Romanian context. It remains for ordinary Bulgarians to show curiosity about Romanians. Knowing them, we can better understand what is happening in our country.
Photo: The banner wants a “European federal prosecutor’s office”, a claim related to mythology around Laura Koveşi as a chief prosecutor of the middle class (source: Nikolai Draganov)
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