A week in Bulgarian politics: Potshots in the shooting gallery
A month after the resignation of the Boiko Borissov GERB government and with less than two months to go to the May 12 parliamentary elections, it is clear that not only are no holds barred but no targets exempt from sniper fire.
The spring 2013 election contest in Bulgaria is unlike others in a number of respects, first for the extent that the fairness of the election process is being called into question by more than one party well before the elections are actually held, and second for the way in which attempts at “citizen participation” are being made.
It might seem reasonably obvious that citizen participation is somewhat fundamental to the holding of elections, but in this case the term arises as a response to the nationwide protests that precipitated the political crisis, and in turn the elections.
The “public councils” concept that is being hurried into the formal institutions of government, including the ministries of the Marin Raykov caretaker cabinet, also is being included in the election process itself, with a “Citizens’ Board for Fair Elections”.
Meanwhile, the past few days have made it clear, as if there could have been much doubt, that for some parties Raykov and his administration are fair game in the election race – parties that clearly intend seeking to discredit a “GERB B-team” cabinet, as they describe it, as part of wider campaigns to daub the Borissov government a failure.
All this, and bear in mind that the official campaign period has not yet started, with the week seeing only the start of the process of registration of parties and coalitions for the elections. But the household-name political parties are coming across as desperate to get the headlines back from Bulgaria’s various protest groups.
Volley after volley
For the moment, Bulgaria’s political parties have to unleash every volley that they can as fast as they can reload, because there is no Parliament to use as a platform and pending the election period, no opportunity for radio and television broadcast advertising. The result is daily new diaries dominated by party news conferences.
Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Sergei Stanishev has been tossing one grenade after another, although as anyone acquainted with these powerful little pineapples knows, grenades occasionally can turn out to be duds or bounce back at your feet.
In recent days, Stanishev variously, in what he describes as his party’s campaign to “uncover the truth” about the legacy of the Borissov cabinet, has said that there is a real danger of Bulgaria failing to absorb 25 per cent of European Union funds, meaning what he called an irrevocable loss of 800 million euro by the end of 2013.
Mindful of the constant jibes by Borissov in recent years of the suspension of huge sums of EU funds during the years that Stanishev was prime minister, the socialist leader decried these “myths” and said that since GERB’s election victory in 2009, Bulgaria had plummeted in the rankings of rates of absorption of EU money.
Stanishev told journalists that Miroslav Naidenov, agriculture minister in the GERB government, and his ministry were being investigated by EU anti-fraud office OLAF. By the end of the week, there was no confirmation that this was true, with Naidenov adding his own denial.
A particular focus for Stanishev was the issue of whether Bulgaria’s May 2013 elections would be fair. Stanishev has been talking about this for months, starting when it seemed that GERB Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov would still be in office when the elections were held.
Now, Stanishev has lined up quite a list of suspects in official positions that he has suggested would be party to manipulating the elections, among them Mihail Konstantinov, the chairperson of the board of Informatsionno Obslujvane, the state-owned IT firm that, among other activities, provides the software for tallying the votes in all Bulgarian elections.
Konstantinov had said that he would do all he could to prevent a return to power of the tripartite coalition that Stanishev led.
After meeting, along with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, OSCE mission representatives, Stanishev called for the dismissal of Konstantinov and the entire Informatsionno Obslujvane board.
Raykov’s assurances that the elections would be fair should be matched with deeds, Stanishev said. Raykov, at a post-cabinet news briefing, said that he had had a “not very easy and not very short” conversation with Konstantinov and would make his decision on the matter known at the end of March. At the same time, Raykov said that he had no doubt about Konstantinov’s professional competence and said that suggestions that Konstantinov could rig the elections were “impertinent”.
Stanishev alleged that GERB had been involved in large-scale vote-rigging in presidential and municipal elections in 2011 and said that 60 per cent of Bulgarians believed that this year’s elections would be rigged.
Stanishev did not confine himself to decrying GERB but also had expanded on his party’s campaign promises, reiterating the promise that a BSP government would create 250 000 jobs, 190 000 of these in the first year in office (details of how this would be achieved are awaited but there are still seven weeks available for Stanishev to explain it).
Under the socialist government promised by Stanishev, not only would there be huge job creation but also Bulgarians would have serious financial incentives to get busy addressing the demographic deficit. Incentives to encourage Bulgarians to have five-member families (meaning, two parents, three children) would include significant increases in child benefits, abolition of income criteria for child allowances and financial assistance to parents when their children are in first grade.
The socialists also are promising eased early retirement, special financial attention for people with disabilities – each child with a disability would be granted 70 per cent of the minimum salary and there would be incentives for employers to hire people with disabilities.
But for Stanishev, the skirmishes were not confined to his attacks on GERB’s record and his pointed questioning of the Raykov administration’s commitment to fair elections. As with GERB, the BSP is caught up in serious internal wrangling over parliamentary candidate election lists.
Beyond that, the actual preparation of the BSP for elections has been the subject of public criticism within the party.
Roumen Petkov, formerly a minister in Stanishev’s government but a long-standing ally of Georgi Purvanov – who was defeated in 2012 when he sought to reclaim the BSP leadership from Stanishev – was quoted in an interview as saying that he was “embarrassed” by the BSP campaign office not functioning and by the overall state of organisation.
Petkov’s comments came not longer a Bulgarian-language newspaper claimed that Stanishev was seeking to force Petkov and former economy and energy minister Roumen Ovcharov, the lanky socialist veteran whose standing in the party has tended to match his height, out of a return to Parliament.
The outcome of that part of the narrative remains to be seen, but so does whatever will happen with GERB’s candidate lists. Already in 2012, there were reports that the then-ruling party’s lists might be quite different in 2013 to those of 2009.
It was GERB’s Tsvetanov, accompanied by senior MP Iskra Fidossova, who took the documents to register the party at the Central Election Commission for the May 2013 vote.
With Borissov’s own public appearances now still a rarity, it was left to Tsvetanov to reject the sundry allegations against the party, including that it had left various senior officials in place who could manipulate the vote in its favour.
On GERB’s behalf, a counterattack also came from European level, with GERB MEP Andrei Kovachev saying that EU funds for Bulgaria could be lost if the BSP came to power.
“The BSP is the master at losing European institutions’ confidence and having European funds blocked,” Kovachev said.
People should not be misled by the dire forecasts of the socialists, he said. Bulgaria currently was well-placed in terms of the absorption of EU funds, according to Kovachev.
About 38 per cent of European funds have been paid and more than 95 per cent have been contracted in this programme period. What was necessary was complete mobilisation at local and national levels so that payments can continue and no funds are lost, Kovachev said.
Volen Siderov, leader of the minority ultra-nationalist Ataka party, again staged a stunt trying to lead a group of his party members into a meeting of the Raykov cabinet.
Security at the Council of Ministers building blocked the attempt at what Siderov said would be “civilian control” of a non-elected administration, in the absence of a parliament.
Somewhat more imaginative was Siderov’s other headline-grabber of the past week, when he claimed that the decree that President Rossen Plevneliev issued appointing the Raykov administration was unconstitutional.
Siderov said that Plevneliev, in appointing a minister for e-government and in appointing three deputy prime ministers, had unlawfully changed the structure of the cabinet. Amending the cabinet structure required the consent of the (now-dissolved) parliament.
The Ataka leader said that he would ask the Ombudsman to take the matter up and refer it to the Constitutional Court. Now there were sufficient grounds to impeach Plevneliev, said Siderov (who in the 2011 presidential elections ran a poor fourth in the first round, getting 3.64 per cent of the votes).
The head of state’s office responded that it was untrue to claim that the decree was unconstitutional because the constitution provided for the appointment of at least two deputy prime ministers while the e-government minister was in fact a minister without portfolio (as the constitution allowed) who had been assigned the e-government responsibility.
As noted, notwithstanding Raykov’s insistence from the outset that his administration is an apolitical one with some important jobs to do – delivering legitimate elections, finding money for social spending – there are those very willing to put him in the firing line.
This week, allegations were made in the media on the basis of a former diplomat’s claim that Raykov had worked for communist-era military intelligence. The source of the allegations, former ambassador to Croatia Velizar Enchev, claimed that “everyone in the Balkans department of the Foreign Ministry before and after the fall of communism knew that Raykov worked for military intelligence”. Enchev alleged that when Ivan Kostov was prime minister, of an administration in which Raykov served as deputy foreign minister, Kostov had arranged the destruction of Raykov’s record as a military intelligence member.
The socialists’ Petkov pushed the question forward but Georgi Yurukov, named in the allegations as Raykov’s handler, vehemently dismissed the claim as an “ugly lie” and called on God to judge those behind it.
Raykov said that he had been background-checked six times by the Dossier Commission, the body empowered by Parliament to conduct checks into whether people in certain public offices worked for State Security or military intelligence, having been a deputy minister twice and an ambassador twice. “There is no way I have been a spy,” Raykov said, adding that the allegation was beyond the pale.
It was not the first allegation attempted to discredit Raykov, after claims were made that because the caretaker PM had been born in Washington DC he had dual citizenship and therefore constitutionally was ineligible to head the government. His office pointed out that under US federal law, children born in the US to diplomats were not entitled to US citizenship and Marin Raykov never had dual citizenship.
Raykov, speaking on March 21, hit back at people “who are tempted into making the caretaker government a punchbag, perhaps because they find it more difficult to come up with another political message.”
The main task of the caretaker government was “to organise elections, not to stand in them,” the Prime Minister said.