Any time a new Bulgarian government takes office, the first day is traditionally reserved for the ceremonial handover of portfolios from the outgoing ministers to their successors. In addition to being a photo-op moment, it is also an opportunity for the new ministers to outline their priorities, though it is rarely used to announce major policy decisions.
Traditionally, such meetings are held at the respective ministry after the bigger ceremony at the Council of Ministers building that features the outgoing and incoming administrations. It is also a day when the usual political sniping even between bitter rivals is generally held to a minimum.
The current handover, of course, is different in that the incoming Cabinet is a caretaker one, severely restricted in its powers by the constitution – its main remit is organising snap elections, all the while keeping the machinery of the public administration ticking over.
Below is a selection of the statements made by members of the caretaker Government on the day they officially took office.
• Deputy Prime Minister and Labour Minister Deyana Kostadinova said that her immediate focus would be to study the Budget framework to find any possible “reserves” that would allow helping vulnerable social groups. She did not offer additional details, saying that she needed to first see what the country’s finances could afford – although one possible way would be to increase the minimum salary, she said. Kostadinova also re-iterated that the planned pension hike, scheduled by the outgoing cabinet for April 1, would go ahead as planned.
• Finance Minister Kalin Hristov is the man tasked with finding any “budget reserves”, but he declined to say whether he saw such an opportunity. Instead, Hristov said that he would continue the “policy of macroeconomic and financial stability” pursued by his predecessor in office and would not exceed the public debt mark set in this year’s Budget. The ministry will focus on increasing revenue collection to offset the higher-than-projected government spending so far this year, he said. Hristov also downgraded the forecast for Bulgaria’s economic growth this year to 1.5 per cent (compared to 1.9 per cent expected by the previous administration), saying that it was a natural effect of the recession in the euro zone, Bulgaria’s biggest trading partner.
• Economy Minister Assen Vassilev sought to temper expectations of drastic change, saying that it was unrealistic to find a solution for all the ills troubling Bulgaria’s energy sector. He said that his focus in office would be to conclude the audits in the three privately-owned electricity distribution companies, a comprehensive audit of the entire energy sector, as well as increasing transparency so as to start an “informed public debate on how these problems can be solved”. He too dismissed talk of nationalisation, saying that “the road to higher salaries lies not through nationalisation, but through learning how to make a better product.”
• Deputy Prime Minister and Regional Development Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva said that one of her key priorities would be the civil registration and administrative services directorate of the ministry, which maintains the comprehensive list of Bulgarian citizens – the basis for the voting lists in national elections. A major criticism of Bulgaria’s first national referendum in January (on the future of nuclear energy in the country) was that the directorate had not updated its list. Zaharieva said she was confident that the directorate was already busy updating the register so as to provide correct voters’ lists for the elections.
• Interior Minister Petya Purvanova said that she planned no major changes in the senior ranks of the ministry’s civil servants. “We must all understand that in such a short period, two months or three at the outside, we must accomplish the most urgent matters,” she said. These urgent matters were the parliamentary elections and ensuring that the police continued to uphold public order. She said that part of the reason she accepted the nomination was because she was familiar with the ministry’s top civil servants and was confident that she could seamlessly step in.
• Continuity was a recurring refrain of the handover ceremonies – both Justice Minister Dragomir Yordanov and Defence Minister Todor Tagarev said that they would continue pursuing the policies of their predecessors and not seek drastic changes in their respective areas.
• Transport Minister Kristian Krustev sought to assuage fears that the cargo division of state railways BDZ would be sold on the cheap, saying that the caretaker government will stick strictly to the privatisation plan that envisions the lowest acceptable selling price at 100 million leva.
• Education Minister Nikolai Miloshev said that his focus would be ensuring that the end-of-year exams in Bulgarian schools are not disrupted by the changes at the ministry.
(Bulgaria’s Council of Ministers building in Sofia. Photo: Nenko Lazarov)