Bulgaria’s political crisis: A President in the middle

He has been booed and jeered by protesters, called a marionette by a minority party leader and had his ability to create a caretaker government publicly called into question by acting prime minister Boiko Borissov – while all the while President Rossen Plevneliev determinedly tries to project a message of calm and future stability for a Bulgaria caught up in its biggest political crisis in years.

Plevneliev became head of state in January 2012 after being elected on the ticket of Borissov’s centre-right ruling party GERB. During the campaign, detractors caricatured Plevneliev as under Borissov’s thumb.

When Plevneliev won the presidential election, GERB’s political rivals developed the habit of saying that Borissov’s party now controlled every institution that mattered – the Cabinet, Parliament, all the large municipalities – and the Presidency.

After taking office, Plevneliev firmly set out to project himself and his office as above politics and independent of the executive. He spoke repeatedly of “monitoring” the work of the executive, and launched the first annual “month of political consultations”, the results of which he pointed to as an achievement of consensus on key national issues.

In 2012, Plevneliev’s speeches were relentlessly positive about the possible future of Bulgaria, provided a number of things were done right, such as the building of competitiveness, educational reform, energy liberalisation, the development of e-government.

He saved the government’s bacon by vetoing the amendments to the Forestry Act, after these had brought protesters out into the street, and again by walking out of the inauguration ceremony of a controversy-smothered Constitutional Court judge-designate.

Plevneliev, who appears to boast not only acute judgment but also a pretty capable set of lawyers, also vetoed government legislation including, notably, the amendments to the Investment Promotion Act. His reasoning for sending the amendments back to Parliament contained precise analysis of their flaws and contradictions.

The political crisis of February 2013, from the nationwide street protests to the abrupt resignation of Borissov and the GERB cabinet, have upped the stakes considerably. From the routine work of a head of state, even including the role of headmaster-in-chief returning laws for a rewrite, Plevneliev now is projected into a decisive role set out in the constitution as Bulgaria heads towards a caretaker government and early elections.

A few short days after Borissov announced his resignation, Plevneliev – brought by Borissov out of the private sector when GERB came to power in July 2009 to serve as regional development and public works minister, a highway-building role that made Plevneliev Bulgaria’s most popular minister – effectively criticised Borissov for abdicating the responsibility that a government had to serve out its term when it had just a few short months to go.

In turn, Borissov responded on February 25, after the two met in Plevneliev’s office for the ritual of GERB being offered a fresh mandate to govern and turning it down. In emotional remarks, Borissov picked up the theme of responsibility and turned it against the opposition socialists and their de facto allies, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, challenging them to form a government and jeering at them to fulfil their promises of higher pensions, incomes and jobs.

But Borissov also not very subtly responded to Plevneliev, appearing to call into question the President’s ability to come up with a caretaker government. (Who would serve in a caretaker government is the subject of near-hysterical speculation in Bulgarian newspapers; in the face of this thumbsuck “journalism”, Plevneliev has refused to feed the speculation and has said names will be announced as the process gets further down the line and people identified who are suitable to fulfil the tasks they will face.)

Plevneliev also is the only high-profile mainstream politician to come face-to-face with the protesters. Fulfilling the intention that he had announced in advanced, the President appeared in open-neck shirt and, understandably, behind a formidable bodyguard or three, to address the protesters and receive their demands.

Howls of derision and the blowing of football whistles came close to drowning Plevneliev out as he took the microphone. Over the jeering and booing, and with a protest organiser futilely waving to the crowd to stop the noise, Plevneliev delivered his message.

“Let us now prove that we believe in democratic values and the future of Bulgaria,” said Plevneliev, who offered a guarantee to the protesters that their “desire for dialogue” would be fulfilled. The Presidency would be a platform for this, he said.

He thanked the protesters for the fact that their demands included the creation of a council representing civil society, to include representatives of the protesters, trade unions, employers and other organisations. He said that the council would be convened the following week.

The high emotions that greeted Plevneliev among the crowd of protesters were in sharp contrast to the most recent public opinion polls, released just before the protest crisis broke, showing him in the very top ranks of popularity and approval in Bulgaria.

On February 26, addressing a meeting that he had called of the Consultative Council on National Security, Plevneliev underlined that the government, even if it had resigned, remained fully responsible for the situation in the country until a new cabinet was appointed.

He said that the council was called together because of the rising tensions in the country and the growing need to find appropriate tools to solve the crisis.

“The demands of the protesters are escalating, they have a great distrust of political parties, have declared themselves against their bills, against monopolies and corruption. On Sunday, about 150 000 Bulgarians in more than 40 cities took part in the nationwide protests,” Plevneliev said.

“We should no allow destabilisation of the foundations of the state and institutions. We need to act responsibly. The situation is complicated in Europe, politically, economically and financially. Each country has its own specifics. Europe’s economic prospects are not good. The government should not allow a new escalation, should fulfill its commitments – urgent checks of the Electricity Distribution Companies (EDCs) and the regulator (State Energy and Water Regulatory Commission), publicity of the signed contracts, reducing the price of electricity by eight per cent. We need a strong regulator,” he said.

“We will seek consensus on possible solutions to overcome the crisis. There are several main objectives: to resist social pressure being exploited for political or corporate purposes, to give quick answers, to ensure sustainable functioning of the institutions,” Plevneliev said.

Ahead of the council meeting, MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan said that Plevneliev was participating in Borissov’s election scenario.

Initially, it had been planned that the ritual of offering and returning the mandate to govern would see GERB undergo the procedure on February 25, the socialists on February 26 and the MRF on February 27, according to Mestan. Plevneliev should explain why this schedule had been changed, the MRF leader said.

Meanwhile, on February 26, Plevneliev was doing some explaining at another level, in a telephone conversation with European Commission President Jose Barroso.

According to a statement by the Bulgarian President’s office, Plevneliev told Barroso that the processes that were occurring in Bulgaria were democratic in nature and in the spirit of European values of the rule of law and justice for citizens.

“The President informed the President of the European Commission about the situation in the country as well as aspects of economic and social crisis in which Bulgaria is now in,” the statement said.

Barroso, according to the statement, said that the European Commission was closely monitoring the situation in the country and expressed thanks that the processes were taking place in the country in a democratic way.

Aside from other meetings, including that with the BSP on February 27, Plevneliev’s next major part in the national political drama in which he has a central role will be when he addresses Parliament on February 28, to outline the next steps that he intends taking.

(Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)



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.