More than nine months after the formation of Bulgaria’s current government, the leaders of the two parties and their prime minister held a meet-the-press session with about 200 journalists on March 10, with topics raised ranging through almost every topical issue.
The meeting was billed to last two hours, but ran 45 minutes over time – arguably partial compensation for the fact that the sum of opening remarks by Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Sergei Stanishev, Movement for Rights and Freedoms leader Lyutvi Mestan and Plamen Oresharski, occupant of the prime minister’s seat, alone took up about 50 minutes.
Predictably, those opening remarks were along the lines of “you’ve never had it so good,” to revive that arguably apocryphal phrase from the Britain of the early 1960s.
These, in sum, were the now-familiar talking points.
The former GERB government had left Bulgaria in a mess, and now the country was stabilised, but now the state was functioning better, the customs service improved, use of EU funds improved, the refugee crisis had been well-handled, and so on.
Stanishev, in an apparent reference to the anti-government protests and perhaps the scant level of confidence in the government as evidenced in opinion polls, complained about the “monopoly of truth” being held by those who made the most noise, about the “cacophony and bedlam” and said he wanted to return the debate in the country to being about its future.
He also indicated that he did not want the May European Parliament elections to be about the future of the government – perhaps seeking to forestall those who are arguing that those elections should be treated as a national opinion poll on whether to go to early elections.
Leaving aside the woolier and most incoherent of the reporters’ questions, and the more rambling of the replies by Stanishev, Mestan and Oresharski, the following may be gleaned from the session.
The South Stream gas pipeline project should be examined in the context of the situation in Ukraine, with Bulgaria closely following Russia-Ukraine relations because “we are among the countries least interested in the worsening of these relations because we will pay a high price,” according to Oresharski. He again defended foreign minister Kristian Vigenin’s trip to Ukraine, underlining that this was to protect the interests of the Bulgarian minority there. Mestan used the Ukraine issue to liken the situation of mother-tongue to his party’s own issue, seeking the legal right of the use of languages other than Bulgarian in election campaigning.
Mestan wants the current government to complete its term in office and in spite of disagreements in the ruling axis over issues like language use and the future of the flat tax system, the governing arrangements will remain in place.
The government will pay Easter bonuses to about a million Bulgarians below the poverty line and the BSP wants Christmas and Easter bonuses to be “state policy”. There were repeated denials that these handouts are linked to electioneering.
Stanishev and Mestan want editors to submit their own legislation on reform to provide transparency in media funding and say that they will submit this to Parliament “unedited”. The background to this is ever-critical external reports on the Bulgarian media environment and President Rossen Plevneliev’s call for the parties in the 42nd National Assembly to legislate against media monopolies. A question on contracts between government and media publishers goes unanswered because Oresharski says he has no information on this at hand.
Oresharski says he is against directly injecting state funds into businesses and wants to encourage foreign and direct investment. Given that his opening presentation of figures glossed over plummeting foreign investment and worsening unemployment, how the current government plans to improve investments remains anyone’s guess.
Being asked about Delyan Peevski clearly continues to instil an annoyed weariness among those in power. The question – a mantra for anti-government protesters – about who put forward Peevski to head the State Agency for National Security gets the response from Stanishev that anyone who asks the question “thinks that he’s clever or a great oppositionist”. For Stanishev, the question is a smokescreen to conceal behind-the-scenes political dealings. Mestan seeks to turn the question around, telling the reporters that whenever in future they ask of it him, he will ask with whom GERB leader and former prime minister Boiko Borisov met several times to discuss state matters.
To a question about the “three directions” in which the government intends taking the country, Oresharski said that these are printed on the cover of the governance programme – restoration of economic development, restoration of statehood and “solidarity in society”.