Bulgaria: waiting for a change (not) to come
Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat, Cross-border Talks, 25 April 2023
– How many elections will it take to end the crisis in Bulgaria? – Dimitar Bechev asked on 4 April. Two days before the text was published, his compatriots were invited to vote the fifth time in two years. I don’t think any of those who did vote, or those who did not, had a good answer to his question.
I went to Bulgaria shortly before the election. In three different cities I asked similar questions and listened about disappointment, missed opportunities, and the falsehoods inherent in every political party. Hope? Change? If they come, I heard, they could only come from outside, inspired by people who have lived somewhere else and got to know other politics than the local spider’s web of connections, corruption and lack of trust.
Some of my interlocutors were even surprised that I was going to write about the Bulgarian crisis for a foreign audience and try to find explanations for the sequence of non-conclusive elections. – We ourselves don’t know what this is all about! – almost exclaimed Rositsa Atanasova, a young, well-educated resident of Sofia and an expert at a foundation that helps migrants.
So, let’s try to summarize first of all what is known rather unquestionably.
From 2009 to 2021, the Bulgarian government had mostly one face: that of Boyko Borisov, leader of the GERB party, former karate fighter and Todor Zhivkov’s bodyguard. GERB, or Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, has been a center-right party in theory, in practice – a rather intricate network of personal connections, holding power at all levels, fueled by the money of friendly oligarchs and by European funds distributed among ‘friends and partners’. The corruption and abuses of this system were an open secret. Yet hardly anyone made any remarks about Borisov’s problems with the rule of law.
In a few minutes you can search for pictures of the Bulgarian prime minister being greeted in European salons. During the height of the migration crises in the Balkans, Borisov discussed security issues with the Turkish president. He was also, by all accounts, welcome in Moscow. But the greatest mutual understanding beams from photographs in which tall and strong Borisov falls into the arms of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
– When Borisov was building the structures of his party, he got the know-how from German conservative foundations. His position in the European People’s Party was unchallenged
– Kalina Drenska, journalist of left-wing Dversia portal tells me.
The EPP came to Borisov’s defense even when Bulgarian citizens took to the streets to protest corruption and abuses of power. It was the summer of 2020, pandemic, Bulgarians still in shock from the border closure. A political scandal that under other circumstances would have stirred emotions for a while – it was about the protection of the seaside villa of one of the oligarchs by state servants – turned out to be a spark. Thousands of people, mostly young people, gathered in front of the parliament buildings and the prime minister’s office, demanding Borisov’s resignation, the fight against corruption, new elections. “Down with the Mafia” reappeared on tens of banners.
– If it weren’t for the pandemic, these protests wouldn’t have reached such a level of engagement – recalls Konstantin Mravov, a journalist, as we sit in a cafe in Sofia, a few minutes away from the place where the demonstrations took place.
– Sitting at home and seeing the borders closed made young and educated people feel that their last opportunities in life were being taken away from them. They felt: “If we don’t do something now, nothing awaits us in Bulgaria”.
The protesters, as Konstantin describes them, must have been like people passing through the café at the time of our meetings. Who knows, perhaps some of those who were drinking beer cheerfully were then shouting out their rage? Young, well-dressed, knowledgeable in languages, often having studied and/or abroad.
The protesters in Sofia dreamed of European standards in politics, honesty, transparency in public life. They had the support of President Rumen Radev. This was not an uprising of the most excluded, a leftist revolution.
Nor did they have mass support outside Sofia. In smaller centers, the protests did not go beyond a symbolic scale. It was as if those who were the worst off in Bulgaria,whose jobs disappeared during the transition from socialism to capitalism, whose villages and towns are now falling apart, had long since lost any faith in the sense of demonstrating.
Borisov did not resign. He waited out the biggest wave of discontent. He won elections in April 2021, but no longer won a majority. 92 seats in the 240-member parliament were taken by parties identifying with the protests. Not enough to form a government.
Next election in July 2021: 63 seats for GERB, 65 for There Is Such a People party, the “anti-systemic” force headed by singer Slavi Trifonov. In total, parties that want Borisov out gather 112 seats, nine seats short of a majority.
November 2021. Bulgarians and Bulgarian vote for the third time. In fact, fewer and fewer of them do, the turnout declines from election to election. Among those 38.4 percent of eligible voters who did, however, go to the polls, another political novelty is the most popular: the party Continuing Change (Bulgarian acronym: PP). The party-dream of the young, well-educated Sofia middle class-is pro-European, liberal, with two Harvard graduates Kirill Petkov and Asen Vasilev in the lead. GERB comes second.
To form a government, the “Harvard brothers” make an alliance of (almost) everyone against Borisov – with Slavi Trifonov’s party, with the liberal Democratic Bulgaria, and on top of that with the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which has long had socialism in name only. The coalition crackles from the start, not least for geopolitical reasons (Continuing Change wants a strong pro-Western course, the “socialists” dream of Bulgarian-Russian friendship). Nevertheless…
– Petkov’s government was like a ray of light
– Mikhail Mikhov, an activist with the Bulgarian Green Movement, tells me.
During those few months, he recalls, the fight against corruption was not an empty slogan. A powerful corruption arrangement that operated around the transportation of food across the Bulgarian-Turkish border was destroyed. The Bulgarian branch of Lukoil finally began paying taxes. The government also reached a historic agreement with the European Commission on the green transformation of the economy, pledging to close some coal mines by 2026.
Bulgarian rule of law expert Radosveta Vasileva is more skeptical when she summarizes Petkov’s eight months.
– Fighting corruption in an autocratic regime, where most key institutions, including the omnipotent Prosecutor’s Office, which has a monopoly on criminal investigations, are controlled by the corrupt status quo is a tremendous challenge. It seems that Petkov’s government approached these epic battles against powerful enemies of democratic values with enthusiasm and bold claims in the media, but with little preparation and a rather weak team
– she wrote.
According to Vasileva, Slavi Trifonov’s party was a Trojan horse in the team from the beginning. The analyst allows that the singer from the beginning did not so much want to change Bulgaria, but took votes away from the authentic parties of rebellion and change.
Either way – in June 2022 Trifonov announces that he will not remain in the government, which has withdrawn its veto of North Macedonia’s EU accession plans. It’s a pretext, virtually all my interviewees agree. Under it, GERB initiates a vote of no confidence in the minority government. The most pro-Western government in Bulgaria’s recent history becomes the first to fall under such circumstances.
October 2022, vote No. 4. In Sofia, the young and educated mobilize once again and entrust most seats to the PP, but, compared to the rest of the country, it is the exception. GERB wins, relying on old local relations and networks that have not been dismantled by a few months of fighting corruption. But the victory is not clear enough to form a government. Slavi Trifonov’s party is no longer in the new parliament. Instead, there comes Revival – Bulgarian nationalists who hate the West, discourage COVID-19 vaccinations, and attack migrants and Roma – and who gain 27 seats. Now they are the freshest “anti-system” movement.
In vote No. 5, the one on April 2, 2023, Revival gains more ground and comes as the third force. The grand rivals – GERB and the alliance of We Continue the Change with Democratic Bulgaria take the two first positions. No combination involving the weaker parties could lead to a formation of a government. On April 13, Borisov invites Petkov to join the coalition, but none of the observers believe he will get a positive response. The fighters against corruption would co-found a government with the epitome of political corruption? Wouldn’t they give a kiss of death to themselves?
– Bulgarian parliamentary democracy is dead – Stan Dodov, a journalist for the leftist portal Dversia.bg, tells me bitterly.
He is not alone in his feeling.
– Everything we call ‘political life’ is false – declares playwright and intellectual Petar Denchev. – The parties have no programs, no proposals for voters. The Bulgarian Socialist Party, which is really a conservative party defending Russian-style “traditional values,” is just one example of how words have no meaning. The voter can just observe personal power games without even understanding their true point.
Denchev does not believe that anything that has happened in Bulgarian political life over the past years is authentic. Not even the anti-corruption protests. He has no doubt that behind every party or movement there is either money from some oligarch who dreams of getting rid of his rivals, or simply funds from Moscow. – I have no doubt who is supporting the nationalists of Revival – he comments.
Stamen Belchev, a civic activist from Ruse in northern Bulgaria, still believes in those who Continue the Change. He calculates: we have more and more foreign-educated, ambitious citizens, those who would like to see real democracy in Bulgaria. Young people are entering politics, and unlike the older generation they don’t consider the very word “politics” a bad language. Of course, change won’t come overnight, too many people have lost faith that their involvement has any meaning. But, the activist from Ruse convinces me, a drop drills the rock.
Change will come from outside, he says, thanks to people who have had a taste of better, more honest politics abroad. This has always been the case in Bulgarian history.
I try to count the abandoned houses I see from the bus windows on the Ruse-Sofia route, then I stop. There are practically in every village we pass through.
Some look as if the inhabitants left yesterday, others, abandoned for years, have fallen apart. A few times we come across an abandoned school or post office building. The old signboard is still there, but no one will send letters and packages from here anymore.
The nightmarish legacy of Bulgaria’s transformation is not forgotten. If in Poland the change of regime was a traumatic experience for thousands of people, in Bulgaria it was a cataclysm: the country lost its existing markets with the fall of Soviet Union and the Socialist bloc, and the low quality of local production made it impossible to attract new ones. The liquidation of state enterprises and agricultural cooperatives in the countryside led to an exponential increase in unemployment. The wages of those who kept their jobs were rapidly losing value. The recovery program, prepared by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 1997, helped improve economic indicators, but failed to provide new jobs. At the turn of the 20th century, 65 percent of Bulgarian households were vegetating on the border of the subsistence level. As Polish researcher Rafal Woznica writes in his study, “At the opposite pole was a small group of nouveau riche who amassed fortunes unimaginable to the ordinary citizen. Very often they became rich through speculation, corruption, and the diversion of funds from state-owned enterprises and banks”.
In 1998, he continues, 8% of the wealthiest Bulgarian families accounted for 3/4 of domestic consumption. And in 1996, 76 percent of Bulgarians believed that socialism was a fairer system.
Then the hope of Bulgarians for a better life became the European Union. It was the one that was supposed to tame corruption, put a dam on crime and fight inequality more effectively than local governments. When it turned out that instant change for the better didn’t happen, society sank back into apathy. Then, the hope was Borisov. More recently, many Bulgarians casted the president Rumen Radev in the role of the savior. A former military general, strong, honest, he was the one who named technical prime ministers when elections were inconclusive.
He will probably soon come to do so once again, as the talks on a new government seem to be stalled. There are rumours of a minority government formed by We Continue the Change with a quiet support of GERB, at least to vote on key laws. But would GERB support a government where there are no GERB ministers?
If there is no sudden turn, Bulgarians will vote again this fall, together with local elections. But they might also vote on something else.
– If Radev leads a referendum on turning Bulgaria into a presidential republic, he could have gained his full power quite officially, journalist Galina Gancheva, editor of a portal promoting the Three Seas initiative, tells me. – After a series of inconclusive elections, and after a poor experience with previous rulers, part of the population may believe in strong-arm rule.
Gancheva is one generation older than Mikhail Mikhov and Stamen Belchev. It is not easy for her to share their hopes for the changes that the youth will bring, for the healing of democracy. In her opinion, it is more likely that the nationalists will expand their influence, that the topics of not only a presidential republic (“since parliamentarism doesn’t work”), but also Bulgaria’s exit from the European Union will be discussed seriously.
For now, however, the main debate is: whether and how Bulgaria should support Ukraine.
In January 2023. “Die Welt” called Bulgaria “the country that secretly saved Ukraine” . Philipp Volkmann-Schluck described how Prime Minister Petkov, from the first days of the Russian invasion, sent ammunition, fuel and weapons to Kiev, including post-Soviet ammunition well known to Ukrainian soldiers. At one point, Bulgarian supplies covered one-third of ammunition needs and 40 percent of tank fuel, the German daily concluded. They reached their destination through intermediaries – American, Romanian, British, Polish. Officially, this had no right to happen, because both President Radev and the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Petkov’s coalition partner, were against sending weapons.
Just like this part of Bulgarian public opinion for which the Russians, no matter what happens here and now, are the liberators. The ones who defeated the Ottoman Empire in 1878, allowing the Bulgarian state to return to the map of Europe after nearly five hundred years.
Together with Bulgarian journalist Vladimir Mitev, my partner in Cross-Border Talks project, we stand face to face with the power of gratitude and nostalgia. We go to the Pantheon of Fighters for Bulgaria’s National Revival.
In the last decade of Zhivkov’s rule, this cubic concrete edifice topped with a golden dome was built in the Danube city of Ruse – as if challenging traditional sacred architecture. Inside, the remains of fighters for an independent Bulgaria were laid to rest: participants and participants in armed anti-Turkish uprisings, teachers, poets. After the collapse of Bulgarian socialism, the Pantheon began to fall apart, as did the entire city. It was renovated relatively recently with European money, so that visitors can now not only read the names of past heroes from the tombstones, but also watch a multimedia show. Its message is clear: the Bulgarians worked assiduously to preserve their national distinctiveness, fought valiantly, but without the Russo-Turkish war, without St. Petersburg’s support for their aspirations, they would never have been victorious.
Can a Bulgarian even think of speaking out against the benefactors of his homeland, even 150 years later?
– Never – this is apparently the answer of ‘socialist’ and nationalist voters, as well as many of those who have not gone to the polls for a long time.
– Yes – respond the supporters of liberal parties, those who head for the West. I heard such voice from Rositsa Atanassova, when she exclaimed how much she wanted to see the Soviet Army monument in Sofia removed. – Why must we always praise those who did harm to us?! – she asked. – Why at our schools are we still learning mainly about the Turkish yoke, the liberation, and more recent history is not discussed? I want us so much to move forward – she concluded.
– Of course we can stand up to Russia! – exclaims Boyko Borisov. As prime minister, he manoeuvred, more or less succesfully, between East and West. In one term enjoyed the tacit support of the unequivocally pro-Russian, nationalist Attack party. Now, sensing how the wind is blowing, he promises that as head of government he would give Ukraine anything its ambassador in Sofia asked for.
Ten days before the election, I’m having breakfast at a family hotel in Veliko Tarnovo. In the corner of the room a television is playing. A news program begins. Speaking Serbian and Russian, I am able to grasp the message that the journalist is conveying.
I’m expecting the latest news from the election campaign, just as dynamic and controversial as they are in Poland on similar occasions. In addition, a few days earlier Bulgaria was visited by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis to sign a declaration on strategic partnership together with his Bulgarian counterpart.
It would seem, a breakthrough, after all, Romania is a NATO pillar in the region. The program release, however, is dominated by something else. A summary of the polls is news number four, far behind coverage of a brawl in a Sofia suburb and news of a fatal car accident. It’s as if the media also assumed in advance that there would be no breakthrough in politics, because there can’t be.
Perhaps I was lucky anyway. I haven’t bumped into any content discussing such issues as Soviet Army monument (it has not been removed so far) or the relations between Bulgarian and (Northern) Macedonia. As Vladimir Mitev tells me, these themes, focusing on history and symbols, recur constantly in what is called Bulgarian public debate, creating controversies and deep divisions. There’s little space left then for discussing challenges of the future.
Meanwhile, something else is not quite right. I can’t forget Bulgaria’s abandoned villages and collapsed houses. I have to ask my interlocutors why in one of the poorest countries in the European Union no party has emerged to defend the interests of the weakest?
Why do all parties address their program to business, even though there are incomparably more indigent workers and unemployed people in Bulgaria than rich entrepreneurs?
And why don’t they take to the streets, even though they have something to demand?
– But they are protesting, of course the workers are protesting! – replies Kalina Drenska. She offhandedly lists several professional groups that have taken to the streets. She recalls workers’ protests that, several years ago, engaged thousands of people. Something more recent? Healthcare personnel demonstrated, bitter that their sacrifices during the pandemic did not translate into even symbolic wage increases.
However, Drenska concludes, all these protests were ignored by those in power. Nobody even talked seriously to the protesting workers. A poor motivation to organize and protests in the streets again. Anyone would sooner come to the conclusion that individual survival must be sought on one’s own.
In addition, parties in Bulgaria sustain themselves thanks to business support, Stamen Belchev tells me.
– Which business will put up money for an organization that would want its freedoms limited? That’s why the Bulgarian Socialist Party at one point found it more profitable to fight for a conservative electorate nostalgic for a previous era by fighting “gender ideology” instead of being interested in workers’ rights. The only party that introduced some social-liberal elements, tried to appeal to the indigent, was the We Continue the Change party. They are on the side of business, of course, but they note that huge social inequality is a problem.
But are these small social-liberal touches enough to inspire the thousands of voters who struggle to survive from first to first and don’t believe that any politician really cares about their plight?
Or is that not the point here at all?
Perhaps personalities, local arrangements and the individual contacts of specific candidates are more important than programs?
Some of my interlocutors seem to lean toward this. Konstantin Mravov and Michail Mikhov, for example, believe that if any change comes, it will be sooner after local elections. It is the local elections that will be the test of the durability of the old networks woven by GERB. If it turns out that new faces are winning in cities and towns, voters may be bolder in parliamentary elections as well. Of course, those who go to vote at all.
Vladimir Mitev tends to disbelieve that a real political change is possible within this system and its logic. How could we change Bulgaria and empower the people, he asks, if every political camp tends to dominate and humiliate the others? How could we trust anyone in full, if the same politicians can first appear as enemies and then seek alliances and partnerships? How can Bulgarians decide which movements are authentic and which ones are just a show?
He reminds me that a totally pro-Western Petkov was first promoted in politics by president Radev, against Borisov. Nevertheless, Radev is now accused of pro-Russian attitudes, which he had apparently always displayed, by many of the young and educated who voted for Petkov and in fact also for Radev himself at his reelection in 2021.
Vladimir’s very own vision of change was born on the Danube, where he has lived and worked. Looking constantly over the river and working with the Romanians, he dreams of more than just a good neighbourhood – he imagines how both nation could work out something he calls ‘dynamic identities’.
In his view Bulgarian experience of transition has been traumatic and has led to stagnation – not only economic, but also one in terms of economy (in the vast space beyond Sofia, which is the city that concentrates most or maybe almost all of wealth and businesses) and personal development. So for people to have chance and become part of the world, they need to somehow interorize energy from the outside. He thinks this could happen through the attachment or grafting of a dynamic element to what otherwise is a static identity. That is an element that is in state of evolution and whose better understanding can bring change to what seems devoid of energy or hope.
He explains in this article that that is the change that has been going on during the rule of Petkov’s government, with the alliance between young, educated and business oriented people such as Petkov and Vassilev and the pensioneers, who are predominantly voting with the Bulgarian socialist party. Their pensions increased significantly as a result of Petkov’s government’s decisions, which had an active social policy, but also was apparently set up for times when the West and “the East” in international relations are at peace.
In another of his articles Vladimir shares a vision for the Bulgarian-Romanian relations, as he seems to discover his own dynamism in Romania. He tells me that he travels often to the north of Danube, listens daily to the analytical evening programme of Radio Romania and is immersed in interaction with Romanians, online and offline. He believes that in Bulgaria it is difficult to understand and learn what is going on, if you are not living in Sofia and you are not initiated in some of the political or economic circles of power. The elites, he says, are rarely willing to improve the masses’ understanding of the world and to get them involved in some large ambitious national projects. So he makes discoveries through his Romanian experience, which after that helps him understand better Bulgaria. He shared with me an article, which he wrote for the British site Open Democracy, where he makes parallels between Romanian and Bulgarian anti-corruption struggle, in order to understand better the Bulgarian protests of 2020. Another of his Bulgarian-Romanian parallels on the situation after the outburst of the 2020 protests can be read here.
On April 13, GERB and PP announce that they might announce a joint legislative minimum – a package of laws they will jointly support in parliament, although a common government will not be formed.
I write to Vladimir Mitev: what does this mean? Do the erstwhile reformers want to take their place in the system, instead of dismantling it? The journalist does not undertake a clear answer. His only hint is that parties are not all-powerful and if the state has interests for some laws to be agreed upon or some political action to be taken it will be taken. There always seems to be some formula, which could act as Adam’s fig leaf to cover what previously has been considered immoral and unacceptable in Bulgarian politics.
In the days after the elections there are constantly discussions on the radio what follows, he says. All the analysts were just guessing what would happen next. No one ruled out that there would be another election in the fall, however, he adds.
Perhaps it’s really just a matter of a deal on absolutely basic issues – such as the adoption of laws that are necessary for further efforts to enter the Schengen zone. Or perhaps the unexpected agreement has a second bottom. Bulgarians themselves are often at a loss to say what the point of the political games being played before their eyes is. More precisely: before the eyes of an increasingly large passive majority. At most, one thing can be certain: if nothing changes, Bulgaria will continue to fall into ruin. Quite literally.
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