Bulgaria’s Failing Bid

15. 3. 2017

Apeculiar incident took place here last January (2014): a train was derailed near Sofia as a result of stolen rail screws. The transportation minister was quick to decry “a terrorist act,” although the reality was far more banal—an ever growing trade with recyclables targets any available metallic objects left unsecured. The usual culprits are the local Roma (who constitute up to 10% of the country’s population), despite the fact, that police investigations fail often to produce sufficient proofs of their involvement. The event is a real life metaphor of the dire living conditions in a country, which joined the EU in 2007 to become the poorest member-state. The situation did not improve since, as Bulgaria felt the effect of the economic crisis. Currently up to 40% of the population is bordering on misery—no wonder that in 2012 and for a third year in a row, Bulgaria had the negative distinction of leading the global suffering list (with 39%). However, what usually impresses foreign journalists on short assignments in the Bulgarian capital is the procession of luxury cars and the exclusive residential areas around Sofia. A country of oligarchs and pariahs, the former Soviet satellite has evolved into a society of deep contrasts and growing disenchantment.

The Gap Year…

By the end of 2012, Bulgaria was still praised for its mix of austerity policies and right-wing populism: the charismatic former bodyguard Boyko Borissov was backed by western allies and his finance minister Simeon Dyankov—an ex-World Bank official—was awarded with Chairmanship of the EBRD Supervisory Council. Meanwhile the three-year lull was coming to an end. The February 2013 hunger protests surprised those who betted on the traditional restraint of Bulgarians. Initially, Borissov tried to put the blame at his finance minister discredit, nevertheless, he had to resign as the protests turned violent in March 2013.

The June 2013 early elections, which gave his party (GERB) a tiny parliamentary majority, ultimately led to a two-party coalition led by his archrivals—the Bulgarian socialists.

Instead of resolving the political crisis, however, the June elections led to renewed protests, triggered by the highly controversial election of media mogul Peevski to head the State Agency of National Security, which is charged with investigating high-level corruption. This second wave of protests upheld the anti-monopolistic demands of the February riots on one hand, but was politically focused from the outset on the other. The Oresharski socialist led coalition (including the Rights and Freedoms Movement, representing the Turkish-speaking communities and benefitting from the conditional support of the nationalistic “Ataka” party) came under the crossfire of social media protesters and anti-Communist veterans. Much to Borissov’s delight, their rallying cry was the resignation of the cabinet. However, contrary to initial expectations, the Oresharski government stood firm, while the protests were allowed to degenerate into a daily routine and sporadic students’ occupations of the universities premises in the capital.

Rather than ushering the country into a new era of civic activism, the daily protests so far underlined the failure of traditional political parties. The main opposition force—Borissov’s GERB is for all intents and purposes a one-man (political) show. His leader is famous for using a sharp language in his attempt to put the blame on his opponents. Such tactics seem to be successful so far, as sociological figures suggest that GERB continues to represent the only viable alternative to the BSP-RFM coalition. The efforts of the traditional right-wing parties to present a united front led to the emergence of the leaderless “Reformist Bloc” (in lieu of the old Union of the Democratic Forces and its splinters). The new entity, however, is no match for the two main parties—the RB could hope to win 2 seats in the European Parliament (out of the 17 allotted to the country), and is bound to pass the 4% parliamentary barrier in subsequent parliamentary elections. In addition, new entities have emerged as was the case in previous political crises in Bulgaria’s recent history, which seek a parliamentary status, but have slim chances to change the status-quo.

The mix of continuing political deadlock and economic stagnation seems to preclude the country’s descent into chaos and extremism, but here again Bulgaria eludes ready-made schemes: with the one million Turkish-speaking community solidly shielded from Islamist radicalism, Bulgarian nationalist movements represent a minor if vocal nuisance. Although its main proponent—the “Ataka” party has currently the balancing role in parliament, sociological data show that its support is far below that of the French National Front and similar western parties. This is even more surprising given the recent media hysteria about the influx of Syrian refugees entering the EU through the porous Bulgarian-Turkish frontier.

…And a Pivot Year?

With the May elections for the European Parliament looming, the political year of 2014 has a busy agenda. As elsewhere within the EU, the “European elections” reflect local priorities rather than Community worries. In the Bulgarian case, both the ruling coalition and the opposition insist on their seminal importance in the efforts to overcome the current deadlock. No doubt, a strong left-centrist showing will validate the coalition’s bid to carry on its four-year mandate. So far, this seems unlikely: the timid success in improving social conditions achieved by Oresharski since last June is no match to both pre-election promises and popular expectations. Austerity may not be on the government’s agenda, but it is still an economic reality much to the frustration of the increasingly restless trade unions. On a political level, while the government received a credit from the European Commission (in its January 2014 report on the progress of the country) for lessening its pressure on the judiciary, it continues to bear the brunt of media criticism and popular discontent. Another recent worry for the socialists is the split within their own ranks. Georgi Parvanov, the former socialist president and contender for the party leadership post, launched a parallel electoral platform (the “ABC”electoral list), which led to his eviction from the party. As sociological surveys give his platform a sizable share of the voters’ intentions, this is likely to erode the BSP grip on left audiences in the country further, to the benefit of GERB and its right of the center allies. This leaves the elections outcome even more unpredictable…

Last century the first Bulgarian Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov urged his post-war country to achieve in a matter of 15 years what other countries and peoples achieved after long centuries. More recently, democratic leaders and their parties saw Bulgaria’s entry in the EU as a new era in its modernization and prosperity. None of these promises did materialize so far.

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