Bulgaria’s government: 100 days of isolation

Written by on September 6, 2013 in Perspectives - No comments
protest cabinet office Sofia June 2013 photo Clive Leviev-Sawyer

As the Bulgarian Socialist Party government marked 100 days in office on September 5, there were criticisms of all that it had failed to do, while its defenders argued that it had done much that had not been acknowledged.

But perhaps the most telling point could be that no one should complain that it had not done more, given that its successor – whenever that point may come – will have much to do to undo what has been done.

The 100th day of the government that came into office on the ticket of the BSP, runner-up in the May elections, and with the support of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and ultra-nationalists Ataka, was also the 84th day of anti-government protests. These protests, according to the most recent Alpha Research poll, are supported by 55 per cent of Bulgarians who back calls for the government’s immediate resignation and the holding of fresh elections.

The BSP rejects calls for the government to resign and dismisses talk that there is a secret deal that it will fulfil certain tasks and then make way for early parliamentary elections to be held simultaneously with Bulgaria’s European Parliament elections scheduled for May 25 2014.

Its advocates, for example socialist MP Maya Manolova – a favourite Aunt Sally among anti-government protesters, even go so far as to argue that the government is popularly elected, if the numbers who voted for the three non-GERB parties are taken into account, and reject the stance of centre-right GERB leader and former prime minister Boiko Borissov that the ruling axis has no real mandate for change because it was his party that got the single largest share of votes in the May 2013 elections.

There are a number of oddities about the current government, not merely that it is a minority one or an awkward coalition, because neither is unprecedented in Bulgaria’s post-Zhivkov history. The person appointed to sit in the prime minister’s chair, Plamen Oresharski, is not a leader of a political party but is a former finance minister supposedly placed there as an “expert” to bring about the economic and financial recovery of Bulgaria from the dire straits into which GERB, in the BSP view, placed the country.

At the time of his appointment, Oresharski was highlighted by the BSP as being unprecedented in being prime minister while not the leader of a political party. It was a striking factual inaccuracy, given that, sitting just a few feet away as Oresharski was sworn in was Marin Raykov, the diplomat who had stewardship of the country as caretaker prime minister and also is not a political party leader.

That leads to the point that the current government did not take over the country directly from the GERB administration. The interregnum of the Raykov administration saw a number of steps taken, within the confines imposed on a caretaker cabinet, to address what were then (and still are, but in a much more distorted fashion) the headline issues of Bulgaria – energy costs, cost of living, social assistance for the most vulnerable.

Armed with “Plan Oresharski”, a mish-mash of intentions made murky by an absence of detail about implementation, the government that came into office, instead of addressing pressing issues of economic recovery and the encouragement of foreign and domestic investment, to say nothing of basic cost of living issues, instead went off on a tangent in rearranging the levers of power in the security sector.

This obsession was to lead to its first great catastrophe, the rushed appointment of controversial figure Delyan Peevski to head the State Agency for National Security. This monumental blunder lent massive impetus to the anti-government protests.

The process of decapitations, not only in the security sector but elsewhere in other key agencies (either through outright dismissals or sometimes abrupt resignations) has continued. BSP leader Sergei Stanishev has denied that this is a process of purges, although at the same time he referred to getting rid of people who were the political appointments of the previous, GERB, government.

The personnel changes have not been simple matters of replacing people with those apparently loyal to one or another party in the ruling axis. In sharp contrast to the policy of the GERB government, which moved firmly against people from the former communist-era Secret Service holding positions of influence (with that government doing so within the confines of lustration not being permitted by Bulgaria’s constitution), the current administration has been rolling back this policy.

Kristian Vigenin, foreign minister in the current administration, was quoted as speaking of “rehabilitating” former State Security people but while he subsequently insisted that he had been misunderstood or misquoted on the issue, few who followed such matters closely failed to notice the return, in various forms, of old-order people to high posts – including, for instance, the new permanent secretary of the foreign ministry. The policy, in effect, is dressed up as not wasting the long experience of people in the ministry, the implication being that former foreign minister Nikolai Mladenov’s policy in ridding the top echelons of Bulgaria’s diplomacy of State Security agents and collaborators had been destructive of the country’s diplomatic capacity.

Loyalties of long standing deep in the roots of the BSP clearly play a part in policies foreign and domestic. Leaving aside the debate on the merits or otherwise of military intervention against the Assad regime in Syria, the slightly vague position taken in Sofia about the primacy of a purely political process looked very much like the behaviour of an administration wanting to be seen as an EU and Nato state while also not stepping out from the line set by Moscow.

One of the other major controversies in the first 100 days was about the amendments to Budget 2013, also characterised by critical vaguenesses, as identified by President Rossen Plevneliev when he sent key amendments back to the 42nd National Assembly for reconsideration. In a special session, his veto of these amendments was overturned, an episode that also served to illustrate the tension among the institutions that has characterised this government.

It has not only been President Plevneliev who has tussled with this government. Independent and direct criticism has come from Ombudsman Konstantin Penchev. But in the case of the head of state, moves already made and still intended – the changes to the reporting line of the National Security Service being a case in point – will roll back the territory of the head of state. Speaking of changes that may, in turn, be rolled back by a future administration, the changes to the security sector and areas around the President’s prerogatives are quite likely to be among them.

So, on the other side of the coin, what successes does this government claim for itself.

According to Oresharski, speaking in Parliament on September 4, the “successes” of the first 100 days are social measures, changes in the energy sector and, somewhat more mystically, “perhaps the most important achievement is that the country is liberated from fear. You hear this everywhere – on the streets, among businesses, among ordinary citizens”.

Subtly backtracking on the promises made by the party that appointed him to his current job, Oresharski said the same day that he hoped that the Budget in 2014 would be less lean, but he warned against expecting “miracles”.

It has been left to others in the current administration to make the plea that the government is doing wonderful things, but it is just not getting its message across. (The implication is that this is the fault, in large measure, of a hostile media, an implication that has a sad hilarity about it considering the newspapers, websites and television stations controlled by supporters of the ruling axis).

Speaking to local television station bTV on the eve of the 100 days, deputy prime minister in charge of economic development Daniela Bobeva said that there was a gap in communication with people, who when she met them, so she said, “could not believe that the cabinet does such nice things”.

“I travel a lot and I can say that people cannot believe that we are doing such good things. We need to communicate with people a little more actively,” Bobeva said in response to the Alpha Research survey showing that disapproval of the government had doubled since June.

Asked for an example, she said that half of the 320 million leva that had been owed by the state to small and medium enterprises had now reached them, enabling businesses to pay money owed to their employees and reducing inter-company debt.

A similar line came from Manolova, the BSP MP who currently is one of Parliament’s deputy presiding officers. Ministers should appear in the media more often to explain what they were doing, she said (ironically, a day before, local daily Sega said that Ivan Danov, holder of the new investment planning portfolio, seemed only to appear at cabinet meetings – his ministry had not gone into operation, had no website and seemed only to be rewriting ordinances and regulations to empower it).

Speaking of preparing changes, there are drafts that have been come up with in the first 100 days that count as planning, if not actual action. The finance ministry is reported to have prepared changes to tax laws to counteract fraud. There have been stated intentions about reforms to public procurement procedures (the cabinet recently cancelled two that it said it had found suspicious).

The current government, like several before it, inherited the financial mess that is state railways BDZ and responded by installing new management. Rather surprisingly, on the eve of the 100 days, this new management stated its intention to launch new services and revive cancelled ones, with it remaining unclear how this would move the deeply troubled behemoth to profitability.

Another government tactic, in the face of the protests against that routinely draw the support of many thousands, has been to respond with the setting up of “public councils”, supposedly bringing citizen participation directly into government, and media statements around Oresharski meeting “protesters”. However, these events have varying degrees of ludicrousness. The Oresharski meetings with “protesters” are in fact with individuals who took part in the February 2013 protests that were directed against the Borissov government.

That same Borissov – who going by the polls has gained nothing from the political situation, with the anti-government protesters driving the real momentum and with his party seen by many as just as contemptible as the rest of the political establishment – said on the eve of the 100 days that, in reality, there was no government at all, just a series of personnel errors and the initial easy option of trying to buy popularity with borrowed money.

As the 100th day in office drew to a close and anti-government protesters again gathered, with renewed momentum after the lull of the summer parliamentary recess, it was ironic that the date came on the eve of Unification Day – ironic in a country so deeply polarised and so deeply divided, and with, eventually, a winter coming in the next 100 days likely to drive that polarisation and division even deeper.

(Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)

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About the Author

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe