Political gulf widens as Bulgaria’s caretaker administration begins clean-up operation

When in 2013 it was clear that political circumstances made an immediate return to power by Boiko Borissov impossible, a cartoon depicted him rolling up the motorways for which his administration was noted.

Bulgaria’s caretaker cabinet now in power after the departure of the discredited cabinet that had been held in place with the support of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and Ataka, has a somewhat different task – and one beyond its powers to complete.

The final redress that will have to be conducted in Bulgaria will also be the task of the government elected after October 5, assuming that government will not be a new incarnation of the disaster that held the country in its thrall from May 2013 to August 2014.

The political atmosphere has worsened, well beyond even the antagonism that attended the dirty election campaign that preceded the May 2013 parliamentary elections. Animosity holds sway everywhere, from the streets to the institutions.

In the months of the “Oresharski” cabinet – the quotation marks not a bow to the Bulgarian practice of using them in referring to a government, but a sign that the person in the prime minister’s chair was only nominally head of the administration – there were protests and counter-protests. The little band that made up the latter seemed to have as a key part of its existence the goal of discrediting the presidential institution.

The unmissed and unlamented 42nd National Assembly did a fine job of discrediting itself, with the antics of all parties.

There was, and no doubt will continue to be, a campaign aimed against the reputation and stature of head of state President Rossen Plevneliev. This campaign has been conducted through various channels – various parties large and small, and of course through the media allied to the now-gone ruling axis.

It is a campaign that will have done the state of Bulgaria no good at all, especially because it has again fallen to Plevneliev to play the role assigned him by the constitution, to place the country in proper stewardship in its path to new elections. Hurling rocks at an institution meant to be anchor of stability and continuity at all times, but especially times of crisis, has been an act of selfish foolhardiness on the part of those involved.

Bulgarians may have heard enough about “experts”. The cabinet appointed in May 2013 was billed as such by its political sponsors, who claimed its members to be experts in a “programme government”.

Leaving aside that it was anything but expert, at least in the sense of being capable of carrying out a programme in the interests of the country as a whole, the cabinet and its individual members engaged in a purely partisan political programme, as evidenced by the numerous changes at the heads of state agencies and other institutions, to say nothing of some of the legislation (the Interior Ministry Act, the National Audit Office Act, among others) that was patently geared to seizing the levers of power and placing people politically desirable from the point of view of the ruling axis into bosses’ chairs.

We should not have too many, or perhaps any, illusions about what has happened with the advent of the Georgi Bliznashki caretaker cabinet. Forces other than the BSP-MRF are now in power, and the agenda will be by no means purely technocratic.

Already, there has been clear evidence of the sense of redress, or at least rapid repairs.

The first example is the belated nomination of Kristalina Georgieva for the post of EU foreign policy chief in the Juncker European Commission. During its agonising long goodbye, the BSP did all it could to obstruct this; all that can be said – very generously – in its favour is that the outgoing cabinet at least spared the country the embarassment of having nominated a candidate who would have ended up being withdrawn in favour of Georgieva.

More symbolic was the decision at the first meeting of the caretaker cabinet to confer on the former French ambassador and the outgoing German ambassador the country’s highest honour, the Stara Planina. This corrects the mealy-mouthed explanations offered by the BSP-controlled foreign ministry and cabinet in 2013 about rewriting the rules for conferring such honours – a step that just happened to come after the two envoys publicly sought to draw the government’s attention to the voice of Bulgarian civil society.

Hardly surprisingly, attempts to rule from the grave have been made by the former cabinet. Making headlines on August 7 was the swathe of appointments made to the top positions in hospitals by the outgoing health minister. It seemed this last-minute bid at handouts is doomed to failure, with the caretaker health minister already signalling that the implementation of the orders for the dismissals and appointments would be suspended.

Similarly, on August 7, the head of the Road Infrastructure Agency left office, to be replaced by the head whom he had been appointed to replace after GERB was out of government.

Prime Minister Bliznashki has been quoted as saying that there would be no purge, except for political bias, in other words only those who show that they are not capable or willing to be politically compatible with the new administration will be shown the door.

This raises the question, among others, of what will become of those people with State Security backgrounds who again were given forms of advancement within the Foreign Ministry – a policy that was a diametric reverse of the cleansing of the ministry during the GERB government of 2009/13.

Some might even see symbolism, or even a vigorous turning of the wheel, in the appointment of Martin Ivanov as Culture Minister. Ivanov was sacked by the former ruling axis from his post as head of the State Archives Agency (to be replaced by someone who had State Security connections in his background) and some time after his dismissal, was given a post in the presidential administration. Now Ivanov is, at least for the interim, a cabinet minister. However, it is only Plevneliev and a few others who are privy to just how the process of decision-making on the appointments to the caretaker cabinet worked.

Plevneliev, in making his announcements at the ceremony of appointing the caretaker cabinet, had several telling points to make.

Many, although not all, will see justification in his complaint that the caretaker cabinet is hamstrung by the now-departed National Assembly having not approved amendments to the Budget.

Plevneliev underlined that “although the caretaker government will not adopt a revenge-seeking approach, it will tell the truth and will not hide from the Bulgarian citizens the state the country is currently in.”

He said that one of the tasks of the caretaker cabinet would be to conduct a thorough analysis of the implementation of the budget as of July 31 and will prepare a budget forecast until the end of the year.

“It will show the real picture of the finances in this country, the deficit, the fiscal reserve, the debt, the uncollected revenues, the bloated expenditures, the due payments to the construction companies, municipalities, hospitals and others, the public procurements and contracts that have been signed even though no funding is available for them.”

On the issue of the 42nd National Assembly not having approved the Budget revision, Plevneliev said that “it is not the caretaker government that will bear the responsibility, but those, who for technical reasons and using party propaganda and strongholds, failed to take into account the strongholds of the people. No tactical interests are above financial stability, above the European orientation, above the European solidarity and the public interest.”

The 2014 budget was mistaken from the very beginning, he said.

“For instance, consider the planned extra two billion revenues compared to 2013, which however, nobody managed to collect and there is no way to collect them in their full amount.

“The budget update was supposed to correct the mistakes made when it was planned and to secure some freedom of action for the caretaker government in an unpredictable environment. This did not happen. The willful refusal of the 42nd National Assembly to correct the mistakes in the 2014 budget means less security in the state in this transition period,” he said.

Plevneliev also bemoaned the caretaker cabinet not having been legislated the power to borrow on international markets, and he referred scornfully to criticism of the idea (from the BSP) as giving the caretaker administration a blank cheque.

“The same politicians who during the already two-month long torrential rains and floods have been explaining how everyone should insure their property, refused to insure the state by failing to approve a text which is not worth even a single lev but only requires some work in parliament.”

But, he said, although the budget update was “short-sightedly refused”, the budget will be revised and the caretaker government will prepare the budget update and it will be introduced in the 43rd National Assembly as early as the first days it starts functioning.

The thought of that 43rd National Assembly seems a slightly remote one in these, the peak hot summer days of the holiday season, in a country not generally accustomed to dramatic political twists at this time of year.

For all the intentions about the caretaker cabinet having as its main mandate the delivery of proper elections in October, it will hardly be a surprise if the Bliznashki cabinet also is targeted for attack in the way that the Marin Raykov one was during its term of office before the May 2013 elections – perhaps even more so because of Bliznashki’s own history that led to his expulsion from the BSP. (This made it all the more seemingly futile when Bliznashki expressed his wish to seek to reason with Party of European Socialists leader Sergei Stanishev to try to persuade Stanishev to change his stance to back the Georgieva nomination.)

The gulf between Blizhnaski and the BSP of which he used to be a member is, however, by no means as the gulf that has been riven between the BSP and President Plevneliev.

In the short term, the current caretaker cabinet will start work on repairing the damage of the past months, or at least assessing the extent of it, and this very task will be seen as political retribution.

For all the sunny days, the political atmosphere is dark and ominous, and is likely to become even more so as the days gather into autumn and October. There will be a new Parliament after that, and at some point, one assumes, a new government. The deep gulfs, however, will endure for years.

(Main photo: Plevneliev, right, with Bliznashki, middle, during a meeting with the electoral rules referendum initiative committee, in February 2014. Photo: president.bg)



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.