At what may be officially if ironically termed a courtesy call on then-president Petar Stoyanov when Ivan Kostov was leaving office as Bulgaria’s prime minister, Stoyanov presented Kostov with a silver knife; Kostov, who reportedly hardly spoke, turned up empty-handed.
That story, which took place in 2001 after Kostov was ousted as prime minister after the right-wing Union of Democratic Forces was routed in scheduled elections by the party of Simeon Saxe-Coburg, is part of the deep background to the politics around the current nomination of Stoyanov to become a new member of Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court to replace scuttled nominee Veneta Markovska.
Kostov and Stoyanov both had their roles in the long, agonising decline of the UDF, which according to current polls, is set to disappear from Parliament altogether in the mid-2013 national parliamentary elections.
Time was when Stoyanov played a decisive role in the politics of Bulgaria, serving as head of state from January 1997 after having defeated his predecessor as head of state, Zhelyu Zhelev, for the UDF nomination and going on to defeat his socialist rival for Bulgaria’s presidency, Ivan Marazov (whose vice-presidential running mate, Irina Bokova, would later go on to become director-general of Unesco).
It was Stoyanov who intervened in the collapsing scenario around the Zhan Videnov socialist government, appointing Stefan Sofiyanski as caretaker prime minister in a political drama followed by the election that saw the UDF come to power with Kostov as prime minister.
This meant that from May 1997 until July 2001, Bulgaria had a prime minister and a president with the same party background (this would be repeated from 2005 to 2009, when socialist Sergei Stanishev was prime minister while Georgi Purvanov was president and to a lesser extent, currently with Boiko Borissov and Rossen Plevneliev, although the latter has a background in the private sector, not in party politics). However, in the days when the UDF was in the ascendancy, not all in the garden was rosy, except to the extent that roses have thorns.
Not that much made into the media of the time, but the tension between the president and the prime minister progressively worsened. It is not as if there were policy battles fought in public – in part because of the quasi-silence of the media, in part because of the constitutional theory that the president “embodies the unity of the nation” (a unity that did not seem to extend to include the individual Kostov).
This is not to paint Stoyanov as the villain. That Kostov was known by the sobriquet of “the Commander” gives an idea of the recipe for a personality clash. Whether, on the day that Kostov was leaving office, Stoyanov gave him a knife as a gift was just because it was what the head of state’s protocol office had in stock or for another reason is not known to the current author.
On to the post-defeat history of the UDF. Kostov stepped down and largely disappeared from public life for about two years. The UDF passed, after a very public battle with Ekaterina Mihailova, to the stewardship of former foreign minister Nadezhda Mihailova. The latter, among other things, led the party to spectacular defeat in municipal elections in UDF stronghold Sofia, and eventually gave way to another leader, who in turn – having taken the ever-diminishing political force nowhere – gave way to Petar Stoyanov. Back in active politics, the former head of state took two years to not achieve the resuscitation of the party, and in turn was replaced by Martin Dimitrov, who in turn gave way to the current leader, Emil Kabaivanov, who in an opinion poll released on November 22 2012 turned in a two per cent rating, a fact that the pollsters ascribed to the fact that almost no one polled had ever heard of him.
In parallel, Kostov had re-emerged on the political scene, founding the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria. He attracted some of the former UDF figures from its heyday, including the defeated Ekaterina Mihailova, currently sitting as one of the National Assembly’s deputy speakers, in the DSB interest. For a time, there seemed to be hope for the memory of the UDF, with the founding of the Blue Coalition, a working alliance between Kostov’s DSB and the UDF as led by Dimitrov. Even then, the power balance seemed unequal, simply at the sight of the veteran Kostov accompanied by the undeniably extremely bright economist but inexperienced Dimitrov.
Dimitrov’s departure as leader of the UDF came precisely over the question of the continuation of the Blue Coalition. His party did not back him on keeping it going, and he went, though he remains as an MP. But while political forces may become impotent, political vendettas endure.
This, again, is the background to the events of the recent days.
Having seemingly painted itself into a corner over the Markovska debacle, it seemed a solution had come to current ruling party GERB with the announcement that the UDF was nominating Stoyanov for the vacant Constitutional Court seat granted at the behest of Parliament. However, it was not to prove the coup that it may at first seemed.
First, Stoyanov, after the news conference announcing the nomination, said that he needed three days to think about it (let no one ever call this man a fool; he is most decidedly not).
Second, it was obvious that this was the first time since GERB came to power in July 2009 that there had been such open collaboration between GERB and the UDF. GERB has had cohabitations of convenience before, with ultra-nationalists Ataka and with Yane Yanev’s tiny Order Law and Justice party’s MPs, but an embrace with the UDF was something of an innovation.
GERB’s socialist and Movement for Rights and Freedoms opponents in Parliament did not lose a moment to say beastly things about political deals (a subject, given their own histories, that they should be quite expert on) but many observers waited with morbid interest as to what Kostov would say.
The Commander bided his time, and at this writing – with Stoyanov’s decision still not known – to an extent, still is. But there have been a few terse comments from him.
Speaking to television station bTV, Kostov said that the Markovska case and the nomination of Stoyanov had presented a really difficult case to GERB to solve, “and I hope that Mr Stoyanov will not fall into this trap”.
Figuratively twisting that souvenir knife that he may or may not still have in his possession, Kostov added that the GERB government had fallen into the highly unpleasant situation of being attacked by the EU over the Markovska case, because it was acting like a country that did not observe European principles and norms.
“Prime Minister Boiko Borissov is getting out of the situation by shifting the entire negative energy of society on to the UDF,” Kostov said.
Former UDF leader Dimitrov was forthcoming, saying that it seemed that his party was a crutch for GERB.
Speaking on November 21 to journalists in Parliament, Dimitrov said that there should have been a debate in the party, with several nominations discussed, and only after a decision about the candidacy, the seeking of external support.
It seemed that the party was acting on someone else’s orders, he said.
Somewhat more embarrassingly, the UDF caucus was springing leaks that would make a Versailles fountain seem understated, with media reports swiftly following that no one within the party’s parliamentary group was prepared to formally table Stoyanov’s nomination in Parliament.
Bulgarian-language website reported a comprehensive summary of UDF MPs’ unhappiness about l’affaire Stoyanov, a particular choice quote coming from an unnamed MP on the lines of (in the current author’s translation), that former presidents were given resources to last after their terms of office, “so as not to be involved in dirty games and other bullshit”. (*But then again, this principle did not seem to be applicable in the case of Purvanov, who shortly after leaving office made a failed bid to claw his way back to the leadership of the socialist party.)
Regarding the fallout of the Markovska case, many eyes were on how the matter would be resolved.
For the UDF, meanwhile, an acceptance by Stoyanov could mean at least one thing. For a party that has gone from a political artillery battery to an infantry section armed with small calibre airguns, Stoyanov would have been a political personality to campaign for the party – however Quixotically – in the 2013 elections; but of course, Constitutional Court judges cannot lend their names to partisan campaigns.
But then again, in turn, the light so briefly shone on the UDF – or what remains of it – may be its final contribution to the political history of which it appears to have destined itself to become a part.
(Main photo, of Petar Stoyanov:: eppgroup.eu)