The Globe 2013: Bulgaria makes its choices

Written by on December 27, 2012 in Bulgaria, News, Perspectives - No comments

There are to be two defining political events in Bulgaria that may be predicted in the coming year – the January 27 referendum on nuclear power and the mid-year national parliamentary elections; as to everything else, as is always the case with politics, that is unpredictable.

Albeit at a long remove, the referendum will be a test for the government, after the strange saga of on-again, off-again twists and turns in the question about building the long-planned nuclear power station at Belene.

Officially, the referendum is about the further development of nuclear power in Bulgaria in principle, and not specifically about Belene, which is not mentioned in the question. But the opposition socialists, which sought in 2012 to revive their campaign for the Russian-linked project and sought to seize the initiative from the government, will surely see a yes vote as a mandate for the project.

Whatever the result, the outcome of the referendum will be contested by all political sides as they seek to interpret to their advantage. Certainly it will enliven January, in the political sense, and history is likely to record that in effect campaigning will flow in a continuous stream from the darkest days of winter to the early days of summer, when Bulgarians will be called back to the polls to choose a National Assembly.

As to that latter vote, current opinion polls are showing ruling centre-right party GERB as likely to take the largest share of the ballots. However, the opposition socialists already have been telegraphing that they expect the election to be skewed by irregularities. This perspective of theirs is predictable not only in current statements but also in the rowdy dispute over the electoral law and before that, the fracas that followed the 2011 presidential election.

With six months or so to go, caution about predictions is advised, but should GERB retain its lead and be placed to get the first chance to form a government, it may reach out to one or more minority parties – depending which, if any, of these get into Parliament – to try to build a working majority. This would be in line with GERB’s behaviour in the past, of forming working if effectively informal alliances with, for example, Ataka and later the Order Law and Justice party. The two last-mentioned may not get seats at all and GERB will be moving fast to negotiate its options.

 

Welcome to the house of fun

 

Should Prime Minister Boiko Borissov return as head of government, and should predictions of fewer parties returning to Parliament prove true, lined up against his administration will be a form of the 2005 to 2009 tripartite coalition, but in opposition – the socialists, Ahmed Dogan’s Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and Meglena Kouneva’s Bulgaria for Citizens.

Boiko Borissov. Photo: European People's Party

The ranks in the ruling party seats may well look different. Already there are reports in the Bulgarian-language media that there may be substantial changes when GERB’s election candidate lists are compiled. Similarly, it is quite likely that there will be a number of changes in the Cabinet too, especially if some of its current members move on elsewhere, have not done well in popularity polls or if promotions are to be handed out to GERB rising stars currently at the head of parliamentary committees or (a source that Borissov has tapped before) to people now in municipal government.

Should socialist leader Sergei Stanishev be unable to lead his party back into government, he would face trouble. He may now be the leader of the Party of European Socialists and have roundly defeated the 2012 challenge from former president Georgi Purvanov, but crying foul about alleged election irregularities in 2013 would not alter the record of the succession of defeats of the socialists over which he has presided in various elections.

Sergei Stanishev. Photo: Party of European Socialists

Kouneva, the former European Commissioner who was eliminated in the first round of Bulgaria’s 2011 presidential elections, also will have the challenge of defining – in reality – just what it is her party stands for. In Parliament, it will no longer be enough to offer vague notions of listening to the voice of the people and distancing oneself from other parties; Kouneva’s party will have to choose sides, and the choice it makes will determine from the outset what is likely to happen to yet when the next elections are held.

 

Down Dondoukov Boulevard

 

Another dynamic to watch will be the performance of President Rossen Plevneliev and his relations with the government in which he served before Borissov made him the presidential candidate in 2011.

Plevneliev, in office since January 2012, has exercised his veto more than once. He may have saved the day by vetoing the Forestry Act amendments, but more recently he also sent back to Parliament the Investment Promotion Act amendments too. Explaining his reasoning for asking the House to try to do better next time, his arguments (assisted by his legal team) were cogent and coherent in a way that the law clearly was not. For months before Parliament approved the act, Plevneliev had been talking up what was to come when he went on foreign trips and met potential investors. It is no surprise that he sent back the classwork with red marks on it.

President Rossen Plevneliev. Photo: UN

However, if the trend is to continue of the President returning legislation to the National Assembly for further consideration, it will raise questions – not least among which must be why ministries and members of Parliament are apparently not capable of writing and approving better-drafted laws.

In 2012, the only – relatively minor – controversy involving Plevneliev and a Cabinet minister was when Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov publicly sought to slap the head of state back into what Tsvetanov saw as his place. The word is that Borissov carpeted Tsvetanov to tell him not to behave in this way – and do not forget that Tsvetanov is one of Borissov’s closest lieutenants, was once mooted as the presidential candidate before Plevneliev was, and has half-jokingly be named by Borissov as a possible successor to him at the head of government.

Plevneliev is extremely careful not to get into partisan political bickering matches, but it remains to be seen what would happen the next time a Bulgarian Cabinet minister flings pebbles at the door of 2 Dondoukov Boulevard.

 

Bulgaria and beyond

 

Will Bulgaria be admitted to the Schengen visa zone in 2013?

Many may immediately stifle a yawn when that question is put. The Irish Presidency of the EU, which will be in office in the first half of 2013, has signalled that it will not really bother trying to resolve this one. The issue has been stuck in the revolving door for ages, and while no one is likely to decide their vote according to whether Bulgaria gets into Schengen (for most Bulgarians, because the issue has no real bearing on labour market rights in individual EU states or the freedom to travel visa-free in the EU, the Schengen issue is irrelevant), it will deprive the government of an election talking point.

Bulgaria will, no doubt, continue its policy of offering assistance to the countries of the Western Balkans to make some steps closer to the EU and Nato. Sofia has achieved positive signals in this regard with Belgrade; as usual, matters may be pricklier when it comes to Skopje, but that is really up to Skopje, at this point, to take several real steps of its own.

Leaving aside the other neighbours – Romania, Greece and Turkey – where Bulgaria either has no serious issues or has underlined further progress in bilateral relations, the big issue will be relations with the European Union as a whole.

Not that, on the face of it, there is any probability of bailout talk, but there will be the continuing question of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism process on justice and home affairs – read, whether Bulgaria makes genuine progress against organised crime and corruption. Further, to get off the runway a story that look on new life at the end of 2012, whether the European Commission chooses to make a big issue out of Bulgaria’s stated intention to go ahead with direct, tender-free, negotiations about buying fighter jets. The EC already, in 2012, discreetly rumbled about Bulgaria (along with the Czech Republic and Romania) not keeping to the spirit of EC directives on competition rules.

 

Hearth and home

 

For Bulgaria, the real issue in 2013 will be not political point-scoring or the fleeting distraction of the scandal of the day, but what will be done in the face of rising cost of living, the lowest spending power in the EU and increasing unemployment.

People – whether or not they will vote – may well have had enough of the minor spectacle of yet another stretch of highway being opened, or the opposition seeking to recruit support by depicting Borissov as a power-crazed sultan.

Given the economic forecasts by the European Commission, the World Bank, the United Nations and others, Bulgaria – while no doubt continuing to beat its drum about fiscal discipline and stability – will have no easy time on a continent currently again largely in recession and with chances of nothing stronger than a mild recovery, medium to long-term.

In the phrase legendary in British politics, the government will have a hard time persuading Bulgarians that “you’ve never had it so good” or making any more direct references to how much worse off the Greeks are.

In Bulgaria, pensioners are becoming an increasingly larger proportion of the demographic, and the demographic itself is continuing to shrink.

For Bulgarians, there may be another continuing issue in the course of 2013, and that is the ever-growing concern about media freedom and the ever-declining quality of the Bulgarian-language media (though Bulgarians, generally, are anything but stupid and can tell a useless newspaper when they idly peruse one; and nor is a bright report on a television screen any substitute for real sunshine). But this again, is a matter of high politics and foreign concern, and anyone who does not want to bother with a newspaper need only keep their stotinki in their pockets.

Especially when those stotinki will be needed for increasing prices, even if, apparently in isolation, natural gas prices will go down. Going by the polls, the priorities in Bulgarian household spending are food, drink and cigarettes, and for obvious reasons, all three have been going down to varying degrees. Not so much cigarettes, though, given the figures being put forward by the hotel and restaurant industry, bothered by the fact that excise earnings show that Bulgarians are smoking just as much, but not in bars and eating places where it will continue to be against the law.

But then in turn, and as noted, that will be one of the major issues for Bulgaria in 2013 (as it has for so many years): the law. Will the court system start to function as it should, not for the sake of nice CVM reports but so that a small business owner can go to court to get a debt collected and get a fair judgment in reasonable time? If in 12 months from now, that has changed, then much will have changed, and will be more important than the passing parade of political faces, old and new.

 

 

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About the Author

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015).