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Bulgarian elections: Forward to the past?

The results of last weekend’s parliamentary elections in Bulgaria show, on the surface, a pretty clear verdict. Faced with a choice between Change and the Status Quo, Bulgarians unambiguously rejected Change – in the shape of the We Continue the Change/Democratic Bulgaria coalition {PP/DB) – awarding it just a quarter the vote, and leaving the formation of the government mostly in the hands of a political Old Guard. That is, the Unholy Trinity of:

  • GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria), whose leader Boyko Borissov has dominated the last decade and a half of the country’s politics;
  • The ethnic-Turkish based Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a constant presence in Bulgarian politics for more than 30 years, and still to a large extent dominated by its founder Ahmed Dogan (as well as the seedy – and ethnic Bulgarian – young oligarch Delyan Peevsky); and
  • The (former communist) Bulgarian Socialist Party, led by Korneliya Ninova, who epitomises an evergreen breed of overambitious Communist party apparatchik

A star is born

Mostly, but not entirely. For the ball is not entirely in the possession of these three stalwarts of the Status Quo. Instead, we have a new star on the field, the radical nationalist and pro-Russian party Vazrajdane (Revival) – led by Kostadin Kostadinov – which has ended up as the third-largest force in parliament, setting its cap at reshaping the internal political agenda in the interests of the Kremlin. It plans to do this in one or both of two ways. Either through soft power – obstruction in Parliament, overwhelming and well-funded presence in the social and electronic media, and theatrics about referendums. Or through hard power of the nastiest kind, brutal acts of intimidation against opponents and dissenters – and promises of concentration camps and lynchings.

Now, the election shouldn’t be seen as a straightforward popularity contest. The distribution of votes was to a significant extent planned, prearranged and tactical. And the legitimacy of the vote hangs on an ultra-thin thread, due to the unprecedented controlled vote and “creative” vote accounting.

The DPS, notably, seems to have been very generous with the votes of its fairly loyal and stable electorate. It “donated” significant numbers of votes to GERB. It also engineered a last-minute push in favour of ITN – Ima Takav Narod (“There Is Such a People”) – the irritatingly named grouping led by TV entertainer Slavi Trifonov, a comedian in more senses than one. ITN is closely aligned with Rumen Radev, the Russophile ex-Air Force general who currently serves as Bulgarian president and is a fourth pillar of the Status Quo. Perilously close to the 4% threshold for entry into parliament, ITN might have been excluded entirely but for a little help from its DPS friends. Which, of course, wasn’t acceptable.

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In short, the fact that Vazrazhdane came third in the polls does not mean that it is the third most popular party – and says even less about the popularity of its unsavoury leader, appropriately nicknamed “Kopeikin” after the lowest-denomination Russian coin. No, it means that the DPS, a key element within the Status Quo, had better things to do with the votes at its disposal than to come third itself. And, more broadly, it meant that it suited the Status Quo just fine to have Kopeikin and his cohorts riding conspicuously high.

Specifically – and skipping a few stages in the argument for the sake of brevity – we can assume that the current parliamentary constellation reflects an update of Mr Borissov’s arrangement with the Kremlin back in 2016, which led to the election of President Radev. By implication, the price that GERB has had to pay this time for continuing to play the “Atlanticist” card has been a boost to the ranking of Vazrajdane within parliament, offering it more opportunities to promote the Kremlin’s interests.

Now, there are many angles from which the range of outcomes that are possible in the current situation can be analysed.

Fan boys

Let’s begin with the “peculiarities” of the Bulgarian voter. That voter looks at elections pretty much as a football fan sees a football match. He – and let’s say “he” because it’s rather a male way of regarding things – picks favourites on the basis, not of a deep analysis of what parties can offer to promote his personal or family agenda, but of emotion. That emotion is partly of a tribal nature, based on a sense of belonging to an in-group, but it’s also partly a matter of media-induced sympathy and antipathy.

And, to say the least, there’s a lot of fuel for antipathy. “Transition” has been ongoing for more than three decades – and shows little sign of drawing to a close – and that has bred immense frustration across what has by now become an international community of Bulgarian citizens, comprising both those who have emigrated but certainly not forgotten the homeland, and those who stayed behind, opting for an introverted form of “internal emigration” – neither voting nor otherwise participating in the country’s political life, and thereby becoming part of the non-voting 60% of the electorate whose passivity represents the Status Quo’s biggest indirect political resource.

Frustration with unfulfilled dreams has piled up, catalysed by a sequence of betrayals of the people by the elite and by the fact that the Bulgarian version of “democracy”, dominated by an initial accumulation of capital, has ended up in a degree of injustice and corruption that is a record even by EU standards. Socialism (or, in Western terms, “communism”) implanted a relatively persistent anti-Westernism in the mindset of Bulgarians, who read the post-1989 changes as an exogenously enforced event, as the latest in a series of “liberations” (or takeovers) by a Great Power. It is no coincidence that support for the EU and NATO declined during Mr Borissov’s extended rule, while Russia gained in influence electing its choice of President and promoting Vazrajdane to the top three political party ranking.

The Vazrajdane project

That frustration, that reaction – that tendency to see everything as the outcome of (usually malign) foreign forces and their domestic stooges – has recently found its new expression in Vazrajdane, and its new spokesman in its distinctly Fuehrer-type leader, Mr Kostadinov. He, it must be admitted, has acquired an impressive mastery of anti-Western rhetoric in a relatively short time. In the eyes of his supporters, the West is to blame for the loss of the stability they so cherished under socialism (or at least seem to remember they did). And now it is time to wreak revenge for the corruption and injustice perceived (correctly) to have flourished under Mr Borissov’s rule, and seen (incorrectly) as the authentic expression of Western market cynicism and Western interests as administered by the West’s faithful satrap. Since frustration recognises no geographical limitations, moreover, this sort of political nonsense is as prevalent among emigres as it is at home in Bulgaria.

From the Russian standpoint, the war in Ukraine has put the “Vazrajdane project” increasingly in a centre-stage role: as Russia systematically loses its key strategic energy levers – natural gas, oil and nuclear fuel – the Kremlin is forced to rely increasingly on politics and to exploit the social frustration of Bulgarians. It’s illogical, of course. Varzajdane voters are not dealing in rational calculations of cause and effect. They are drawing on a reservoir of emotional denial of the West that they have inherited from the “good old days” of the Soviet Bloc and a sympathy for Russia’s losses in Ukraine. Feeling robbed or neglected by the new elite in Bulgaria, they blame the West for the Change, as they blame the West for the war in Ukraine – when in truth they might more plausibly blame Moscow for exporting corruption and denying them their fair share of prosperity and security. The bad guys are in Brussels, Washington, or Berlin; the good guys are in Moscow. There is no rationality in the Kremlin’s appeal, only exploitation of psycho-ideological matrices and of emotions akin to those of football fans.

Boyko – the godfather of Vazrajdane

Nor is it an accident that the Vazrajdane project was hatched and nurtured in the political incubator of GERB and DPS. Messrs Borissov and Dogan dislike the West instinctively, in their very bones. Witness, for example, various recorded chats of Mr Borissov, in which he exhibits a hubristic and indiscreet delight at his own cleverness in outwitting Western leaders both individually and collectively at EU and NATO summits. To him, they are “imperialists” who need to be “screwed”. This mentality has not emerged overnight. It is the legacy of his parents, of his alma mater (the police school in Simeonovo), and of an inferiority complex rooted in years of communication handicaps – born of his ignorance of foreign languages and lack of congruence in values – which have made Mr Borissov a pathetically lonely figure at the summits he has attended.

This is why Vazrajdane is not just an expression of popular anti-Westernism and of “Kopeikin’s” rabid authoritarian Russophilia. It can also be seen as an embodiment of Mr Borissov’s own resentment and revenge against the West and all its works, against Westerners, and against Bulgaria’s Westernising elites.

It’s also quite clever politics – at least assuming a certain level of gullibility among Western leaders. By promoting a Fuehrer-type party leader in Mr Kostadinov; by scare-mongering and talking Kopeikin up as a threat in the counsels of EU and NATO; and by offering GERB’s “services” in keeping him at bay in return for the West’s indulgence about his own past and present corrupt practices – by all this, Mr Borissov has come up with a cunning scheme to secure continued power and undeserved survival, by way of a fee for his role as a political intermediary.

And in this respect he’s been a lot more cunning than the leaders of new PP/DB coalition. They have spectacularly missed the point, failed to see what Mr Borissov has been up to. Their campaigning has been entirely focused on (in itself quite justified) criticism of GERB. But they don’t see that they should also have put some effort into exposing the sinister genetic bond between GERB and Vazrajdane.

Vazrajdane rising

Nor are the Bright Young Things of PP/DB the only ones to have missed something important about the new force on the populist right. Many believed the Vazrajdane political project was simply an updated version of previous nationalist and pro-Kremlin hardline groups in Parliament. Maybe that had been true, once upon a time. The original concept was to keep Vazrajdane as the useful “hooligan element” on the Bulgarian political scene, threatening Western interests so that Mr Borissov could prove his worth by taming it, demonstrating that he was a “lesser evil” and should be supported him as the lesser evil.

But not any more. The Vazrajdane “concept paper” has been upscaled, allowing the party to increase its support and join the premier league of Bulgarian politics, even claiming the right to form a government.

Before the April 2 elections, both GERB and DPS reassured the West that Vazrajdane was under their control, working on the margins with hardline Russophiles and containing the Socialists. However, after the elections they deliberately downplayed that line for the first time in the history of Bulgaria’s transition. Kostadinov and his followers directly affronted public consensus and stated that Bulgaria’s exit from NATO and the EU was their political goal. Now, when Kremlin acolytes had tried that sort of thing before, the reaction had been obvious and decisive: the Chief Prosecutor had intervened with charges of extremism charges, while the media had spoken out to drive the miscreants back from the “red line” of NATO and EU membership which they had just crossed. But, this time, both GERB and DPS remained passive and the media just played ball.

And, even before the elections, following the Magnitsky Act and most notably its second list, which featured top political figures from both GERB and the BSP, the parties of the Status Quo – GERB and DPS – had allowed Vazrajdane to gain further influence and to serve as a hedge, or alternative option, for retaining power if the West continued to pressure and threaten GERB and DPS with Magnitsky Act sanctions. Mr Borisov and Mr Peevsky made it clear they would rather pass on the baton of power to Mr Kostadinov and Vazrajdane than see a Western-supported Reformist group win elections and engage in a profound transformation of the post-Lukanov political and institutional power architecture.


In short, last weekend’s election has displayed Bulgaria’s critical vulnerability: a leading politician, who holds the keys to the country’s present and its future, has managed to make the Bulgaria a hostage to GERB’s dominant role in its politics. He is abusing his party’s role to solve a personal problem – that of how to remain out of court and out of prison. Mr Borissov knows he can no longer become prime minister. But his party’s strength in the new parliament means that he remains a key player and, indeed, gives him a fair degree of control over whatever government emerges.

Mr Borissov has had less of a problem with President Radev’s caretaker governments – which compromise Bulgaria’s geopolitics – ever since his deal with Vladimir Putin back in 2016, in which he traded the election of Mr Radev for leniency from Mr Putin over money received for the abortive South Stream pipeline (and then pocketed). In fact, Mr Borissov has few problems with a surprisingly wide range of possible governments. He would certainly rather see Vazrajdane or the BSP come to power than PP/DB, a genuinely pro-Western and pro-reform grouping within the elite that would almost certainly insist on holding him to account. But even that is not the fundamental reason for keeping PP/DB out. The underlying interest is that of his post-Communist handlers, who can ill afford to make compromises that would concede control over the country to “outsiders”.

In fact, the bridges of dialogue between GERB and PP/DB have already been burned. And the values they represent are as incompatible as ever. Mr Borisov’s consist of residual “Zhivkovism” and double-bottom Kremlin or ‘Turk Stream’ affiliation. And those of PP/DB boil down to that coalition’s whole-heartedly pro-Western orientation. So it’s hard to see what form joint governance could take, beyond working on “overlaying” issues, such as the war in Ukraine and entry into the Eurozone or Schengen. And even there, the contingencies are so numerous that trust and confidence could hardly be restored. So “dialogue” would actually be confined to pointless general declarations.

Take Schengen as an example. Bulgaria’s entry into the Schengen zone is politically preconditioned on a profound transformation of the ways in which GERB and DPS exercise control over essential institutions and cross-border channels for the traffic of drugs, people and money – including the most recent lucrative business of smuggling Russian goods into the EU. It’s not a question of which party appoints the top tier of officials in relevant ministries and agencies. It’s a matter of party apparatchiks themselves being involved in illicit dealings – and of agency structures being their accomplices in abuse.

It’s lucrative business, so the personal and group monetary and political interests involved are not such as to be sacrificed lightly to please NATO and EU allies. The problems, moreover, have been compounded by the Ukraine war. For these “dark businesses” have a serious effect on the integrated NATO and EU collective security systems designed to protect against Russia. And Bulgaria’s elections were preceded by “warning shots” from both sides of the Atlantic: from the US came the “second Magnitsky list”, complete with several Bulgarian names; while from Brussels – and in particular from hyperactive European Chief Prosecutor Laura Kövesi  – came orders for extensive searches of companies and institutions tasked with overseeing or executing projects, funded with EU money, during Mr Borissov’s long term in government.

The limits of the possible

Which is where we come to the limits of the possible. That includes the question of how much room for manoeuvre GERB actually has in talking to the PP/DB. And the answer to that question would appear to be “not very much at all”. Mr Borissov has stakes in a variety of activities that are, shall we say, not entirely above board. So do his lieutenants – and their lieutenants, and so on down the pyramid of client-patron relationships. That means “self-limitations” which amount almost to immobility. Whatever promises Mr Borissov may make, to PP/DB or to anyone else, in the way of radical reform and genuine change, neither he nor GERB will be able to deliver on them. It is as simple as that: Mr Borissov takes GERB hostage and, in turn, the party holds Bulgaria’s future hostage.

At both national and global levels, none of the current economic, financial, security and political crises that affect Bulgaria matters more to Borissov than his survival agenda. At the same time, he can only afford to have the PP/DB in opposition once he has secured an institutional and media rearguard capable of keeping them permanently on the media defensive.

What sort of government?

So what are the various options for forming a government?,

Well, the one that would stand the best chance is a “caretaker-type” government, elected by Parliament. This would relieve Mr Borissov of “political responsibility” for its functioning, while pretending to simultaneously take power away from Rumen Radev’s current (actual) caretaker cabinet. This option would be convenient enough for GERB, even if the variant chosen were to be a new “expert’ cabinet along the lines proposed (unsuccessfully) by Prof Nikolai Gabrovsky in December 2022.

Then, as a second option, comes the so-called ‘paper coalition’ government. That means one where those parties that voted for the return of the paper ballot in the previous Parliament, form a coalition or otherwise elect a government. This is in theory a realistic and feasible option, though in practice not a very likely one to come about, since to achieve it Mr Borissov would need the votes of BSP members of parliament.

And finally, with a very low probability of emerging, comes a “programme cabinet”, with some implicit or more explicit support from PP/DB. This would involve agreement on a detailed list of measures to be implemented – probably including entry to the Eurozone and Schengen, as well as some palliatives on judicial reform. The “programme cabinet” option can be considered the least likely to come to pass for reasons stated above – that the concessions Mr Borissov and GERB can credibly and practically offer are very limited indeed. However, it is likely at least to be mooted at some stage, as Mr Borissov will be keen to demonstrate his readiness to Brussels and to Washington, in order to exhaust the “Atlantic coalition” option.

In short, the situation in Bulgaria is rather similar to that in Israel. Though he hasn’t actually been in office for almost two years now, Mr Borissov resembles Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in at least three key respects. First, he has a de facto hold on power. Second, both men have an overriding interest in avoiding legal accountability. And, third, experienced politicians though they are, both are the objects of persistently high levels of social resentment. In the case of Mr Netnnyahu, this is already leading to an inability to govern in accordance with his own interests and to a resurgence of mass protests, especially in major cities. And there’s every reason to think that the same will be the case for Mr Borissov, if he tries to assert himself and to defend his interests.

In other words, the political cycle of the pre-COVID era is resuming: demonstrations, elections, and then yet more demonstrations. It should be an interesting few months in Bulgaria. And, for Mr Borissov, a worrying time.

Ilian Vassilev

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