Bulgaria’s political battle lines over nuclear energy referendum

The political picture that emerges as Bulgaria’s parties line up their positions regarding the January 27 2013 referendum on the future of nuclear energy in the country is rather perplexing.

The referendum is the outcome of an initiative by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) to go to the country on the future of the Belene nuclear power station, an issue on which ruling centre-right party GERB has flip-flopped spectacularly. As a result of a series of political complexities, any reference to Belene has been removed from the question.

There are now, in turn, a number of complexities to consider in looking at political parties’ positions in the referendum.

First, a roll call of parties currently in Parliament does not translate into how much support they will be able to muster in the referendum. Since the July 2009 national parliamentary elections, most of the smallest among the minority parties have shed support that not only is it unlikely that they will return to the National Assembly after the 2013 elections around mid-year, but also it is unlikely that they will hold much sway on January 27.

Second, indications are that stated public support for a “yes” vote in the nuclear power referendum – more than 60 per cent, going by recent polls – supposedly is predicated on the fact that a reference to Belene has been removed.

Third, ruling party GERB may well campaign for a yes vote and clearly take this not to mean a mandate for Belene (senior BSP figure Angel Naidenov already has complained in public that GERB had “stolen the referendum from the Bulgarian people”) and, here a quick fourth point can be added, whatever the outcome, it may not be binding on the current or next government or any government at all.

The simplest aspect of this story is that the BSP will, of course, be campaigning for a “yes” vote. Against the background of the polls indicating public support for a positive vote along with the consistent if slight gains made by the BSP in opinion polls, the probability of a “yes” is strengthened.

GERB, which according to opinion polls remains the political party in Bulgaria which may expect to take the largest share of the vote in the 2013 national parliamentary elections, also will be campaigning for a positive vote in the referendum – but, as The Sofia Globe has reported previously, the question is how much energy it will put into the campaign, to say nothing of how the ruling party will be interpreting the question.

The position of the next most significant party – both in the current and future Parliament, going by opinion polls – Ahmed Dogan’s Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), is hard to read, to say the least. Mainly, because it is intended to be.

Officially, neither Dogan nor other leaders have taken a position on the referendum question.

Speaking on November 4, Dogan poured scorn on the January 27 referendum as a trick by the ruling party. He said that he did not want to state his own position “so as not to influence the position” of the party, although he said that there were “other alternatives” in the energy debate, while adding that a debate on the future of nuclear energy was needed.

The referendum, he said, was a political power game that would not resolve the issue.

Dogan, of course, is being slightly disingenuous. His party was in two successive coalition governments, the Saxe-Coburg administration from 2001 to 2005 and the Stanishev cabinet from 2005 to 2009, that supported the building of Belene. Given that Dogan’s MRF frequently operates in informal alliance with the BSP, a “no” stance by the MRF seems improbable, and a formal boycott of the referendum unlikely. However, that does not rule out the MRF simply putting no effort into campaigning regarding the referendum, instead holding its resources in reserve for the 2013 election campaign.

The two deeply troubled right-wing parties in the deeply troubled right-wing Blue Coalition are against, but they are among those that provide a case in point of political entities that lack clout.

The Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), which lately has been battering itself to death in the Markovska-Stoyanov-Dimitrov episode, is against participation in the referendum; practically a reflex reaction against anything with a possible Belene link, given the party’s track record of opposing projects with a Russian connection.

Current UDF leader Emil Kabaivanov outlined the party’s objections to the referendum, saying that it would leave the actual Belene question undecided, would cost 30 million leva at a time when the money was needed elsewhere, and was nothing more than a rallying point for the respective electorates of the BSP and GERB.

Ivan Kostov’s Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB) has set up a 15-member committee (including some of the senior MPs expelled from the UDF over the Constitutional Court judge row) to campaign for a “no” vote in the referendum.

Kostov’s party commands little support, going by opinion polls – although, as noted, its former electorate may well vote “no” in the referendum irrespective of whether they would again vote for the DSB.

Senior DSB member Svetoslav Malinov presented a “message to Bulgarians” from the party, describing attempts to build a new nuclear power plant in the country as “the biggest corruption scam in Bulgaria post-communism”.

So far, more than 1.8 billion leva had been spent on unnecessary construction and obsolete equipment, the DSB said. The National Electricity Company was in dire financial straits and the cost would be paid through electricity prices, the DSB said.

The DSB underlined the huge costs, lack of interest among neighbouring countries in joining the project, the risk of nuclear accidents: “Severe accidents at nuclear power stations in the pas three decades have shown that the risk of nuclear accidents is much higher than theoretical calculations, especially in areas of high seismicity”. Other arguments advanced by the DSB included that the high costs would in turn generate social unrest.

Volen Siderov’s ultra-nationalist Ataka party is in favour of proceeding with the Belene project. Siderov is very keen – he also suggested allowing voting to proceed for three days, called for a lowering of the threshold of votes required for the “yes” vote to be officially deemed the outcome and, in an enchantingly Quixotic moment for the party which also appears bound for oblivion in the 2013 elections, suggested tacking on to the ballot a question on whether Bulgaria should remain a member of Nato.

Not in Parliament but expected to be after the middle of next year, with a small parliamentary group, Meglena Kouneva’s Citizens for Bulgaria party has called for a boycott of the January 27 referendum on the future of nuclear energy in the country.

Kouneva said that the referendum would be a pointless exercise. “We do not want to have the first referendum in our democratic history labelled as ‘fake’,” Kouneva said.

She said that the result of the referendum would not be binding on the government of the day and the referendum represented nothing other than a stunt to distract Bulgarians from the country’s real problems, such as rising unemployment.

* The January 27 referendum will be preceded by a 30-day awareness campaign which will end 24 hours before voting starts. This final 24-hour period will be a “day of contemplation” during which campaigning will not be allowed. Polls will open at 6am and close at 7pm on January 27. Citizens resident in Bulgaria will be automatically registered to vote and those abroad will have to give notice of their intention to vote at the country’s embassies and consulates.

(Illustration: Billy Alexander/sxc.hu)



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

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), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.