The European future of Bulgaria

On April 2, Bulgarians will go to the polls to pick members of their National Assembly for the sixth time in just two years. As Parliament was unable to put together a replacement administration for the departing reformist government of Kiril Petkov, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev called for a new poll. Galab Donev, the caretaker prime minister selected by the president, has been in charge of the nation throughout this time.

The Bulgarian democracy may initially appear to be falling into a crisis of its own making. The country is still in a state of limbo, uncertain of whether a reliable plan can be executed for Bulgaria’s economic recovery following the Covid-19 outbreak, despite five efforts to form a new administration. Public trust has likely suffered as a result of government failure, as evidenced by the depressingly low turnout of just 39.3% in Bulgaria at the most recent elections in October.

Notwithstanding the gloomy outlook, Bulgaria has a real chance for long-lasting, beneficial democratic transformation. Every political crisis poses a threat to democracy, and in the case of Bulgaria, this one provides much-needed disruption. For the first time since communism was overthrown in 1989, a sizable coalition in favor of electoral reform has arisen, unified by bitterness over Bulgaria’s ongoing institutional and political flaws.

Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), Boyko Borisov’s center-right party, entered into power in 2009, two years after Bulgaria officially became a member of the EU (EU.) On the strength of a pro-European platform and a pledge to “clean up” Bulgaria’s disreputable reputation as the most corrupt EU member state, Borisov, now 63, was elected prime minister.

Boyko Borisov, Founder and Chairman of the political party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB)

Born to a communist Interior Ministry officer, Borisov joined the organization and the party, attaining the rank of major. Later, he served as Todor Zhivkov’s bodyguard until he was overthrown by the party. But in 2009, a lot of people hoped for his presidency because of his image as a staunch opponent of organized crime while working as the Interior Ministry’s Chief Secretary.

The victory of Borisov dashed these expectations. During the political transition in 1989, the previous communist elite in Bulgaria implemented incremental changes to preserve their hold on power. Following his election 20 years later, Borisov was charged with adopting a similar strategy of sham democratization. As Bulgaria lost EU money as a result of the corruption of Borisov’s Socialist predecessors, his party joined the center-right political bloc in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party, and presented itself as a reliable partner.

The EU consented to restore the delivery of funding to Sofia in exchange for Borisov’s professed commitment to European integration. Most recently, Bulgaria received grants of $6.72 billion from the EU budget for 2021–2027 as part of the Recovery and Resilience Plan. It is to be hoped, and the EU has made great efforts to ensure it, that the Bulgarian government is now able to stop the corruption that was once thought to siphon off 10% of all transfers.

Consider the €110 million financial package for the reconstruction of the highway ring road encircling Sofia, which was funded by the EU as part of its Operational Plan for Regional Development 2007–2013. According to inspections, the road is deteriorating and one-third of the asphalt is gone. The Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works and the Interior Ministry conducted further investigations and concluded that almost €20 million was wasted as a result. According to Borisov, the tarmac had been damaged by cars transporting supplies to Ukraine.

In the meantime, the 420km (261 miles) roadway that connects Sofia to the Black Sea city of Varna has been the subject of countless scandals and is still less than halfway finished 24 years after construction recommenced.

There have been other financial sagas involving EU cash, and the Union is currently looking into 120 payments to Bulgaria. In 2019, Alexander Manolev, Borisov’s deputy economy minister, resigned after an investigation into claims that he stole €200,000 from the EU’s Rural Development Programme to pay for real estate purchases for personal use. Manolev is now subject to US sanctions for “serious misconduct.”

Corruption allegations can go both ways. Ivan Geshev, the controversial prosecutor general of the nation and a Borisov appointee, gave the go-ahead for raids on the president’s staff in 2020. The next year, the president, who has been a vocal opponent of GERB, won reelection with a sizable majority on a platform against corruption.

It is not surprising that the Bulgarian populace has become impatient with what they perceive to be an oligarchic gang that has taken over and is in control of the state. Bulgarians from all political stripes took to the streets in the massive anti-government protests of 2020–21 to express their outrage at the persistence of high-level corruption under successive GERB-led governments. Under Kiril Petkov’s leadership, the newly founded pro-reform, centrist party, We Continue the Change, has grown into a significant political force and won the 2021 elections with 25.3% of the vote.

Even though Petkov was able to put together a coalition, his administration was never solid. To maintain a majority in the National Assembly, the reformist leader needed the backing of three other parties (the Bulgarian Socialist Party, There Is Such a People, and the Euro-Atlanticist Democratic Bulgaria grouping, Democratic Bulgaria.)

Because of this, the Petkov government was at risk of falling before it could even start enacting reforms, especially given how sensitive the language and minority claims of North Macedonia were to the Bulgarians. There Is Such a People, led by Slavi Trifonov, left the coalition, criticizing Petkov’s decision to remove Sofia’s veto over Skopje’s EU accession negotiations.

Yet, We Continue the Change’s successful electoral campaign has demonstrated that there is broad public support for Bulgaria’s significant reform plan to materialize. Petkov, in contrast to Borisov, supported his anti-corruption stance with actual action.

Once the European Public Prosecutor’s Office opened investigations into claims of misuse of EU funds in the fields of building, agriculture, and public procurement, his administration imprisoned the former GERB prime minister. With the ambiguous election results in October, Parliamentarians’ hesitation to embrace Borisov’s coalition proposals is another sign that attitudes about corruption are shifting throughout the National Assembly.

The April elections are now expected to result in another deadlock. According to a March 1st Alpha Research poll, Petkov’s pro-reform coalition, PP-DB, has a 1% advantage over GERB-SDS, with 26.4% of the vote to the center-right coalition’s 25.2%. Voters in Bulgaria must be persuaded that their representatives are working for them in order to end the impasse.

Petkov needs to propose a concrete reform program that is based on a reasonable set of objectives and expectations to build on his office successes. For instance, strengthening government and civil society collaboration on Bulgaria’s framework for asset recovery, management of state-owned firms, and specialized law enforcement capabilities. The EU needs to own up to the fact that it ignored the misappropriation of EU funds from 2009 to 2021 for a long time. These are short-term, doable actions that can be taken to assist rebuild voter turnout and voter trust in the democratic process.

Before it is lost, Bulgarian and EU officials must keep up the momentum of the broad support for democratic renewal that was demonstrated by the protests of 2020–21. Hence, the current political crisis may pave the way for significant and enduring reform.

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