Within a few days, Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry will have a new minister and a new chief secretary and its State Agency for National Security a new chief. These are changes that will make Prime Minister Boiko Borissov even more powerful than before, and that raise the question – what will he do with that power?
Borissov rose to prominence in public life more than a decade ago precisely on law-and-order issues. Himself then chief secretary of the Interior Ministry, he was fond of the mantra, “we catch them and they let them go”.
By “we”, he meant the country’s law enforcement agencies, and by “them”, he meant the judiciary.
The events of recent days clearly did not go according to script for Borissov.
His Interior Minister, Vesselin Vuchkov, resigned on principle over the issue of being thwarted in his intentions of replacing Svetozar Lazarov, the ministry chief secretary left over from the now-departed 2013/14 Bulgarian Socialist Party-Movement for Rights and Freedoms administration.
Borissov reacted with emotion, less at the fact of Vuchkov’s resignation than at its timing. The Prime Minister clearly felt that he had lost face with a domestic political melodrama erupting just as the head of the FBI and the president of Azerbaijan was in town.
The now-Prime Minister is, after all, someone who even in his days as Interior Ministry chief secretary prided himself on his office display of photographs with the leading lights of foreign security and intelligence agencies such as the FBI and CIA. His thrice-repeated public statements of chagrin at Vuchkov trying to push something on to the March 4 cabinet agenda and then submitting his resignation was unquestionably genuine.
There was a degree of shilly-shallying about whether Vuchkov could be persuaded to withdraw his resignation, but it is highly doubtful that even if he sought to backtrack, Borissov would have had him back. In the days before the March 4 cabinet meeting, Vuchkov had disagreed very publicly with his Prime Minister on the issue of the Interior Ministry chief secretary.
Instead, Borissov turned to a close ally, Roumyana Buchvarova, a powerful influence in his GERB party and in the cabinet, where she has served as Deputy Prime Minister since the “Borissov II” government came into office in November 2014.
Buchvarova, a former chief of staff of the prime minister’s office, was instrumental in the negotiations that shaped a working form of coalition with parliamentary support that would enable Borissov to govern.
She came into office as one of four deputy heads of government with a portfolio including, importantly, coalition policy.
In the coalition negotiations, the appearances by Buchvarova at live-broadcast news conferences brought across, especially to those who may not have been acquainted with it, not only her strength of personality but also her gravitas.
To say that she is unlikely to run counter to Borissov in her future expanded role is not to suggest that she will be a compliant flunkey, but rather to indicate that the Borissov-Buchvarova alliance strengthens the opportunity for genuine change at the Interior Ministry.
Again, it is the ministry from whence Borissov rose to prominence and ultimately his current role in government. Moreover, changes at the ministry are not merely a matter of partisan political manoeuvring but rather a matter of meeting the expectations of Bulgarians for changes in how policing works – to which may be added their expectations (by now undoubtedly laced with weary skepticism) of making the country’s judicial system work according to proper standards.
Notably, while Borissov said that he himself would be announcing the nominee to be the new chief of the State Agency for National Security, he said that Buchvarova would come up with the candidate to be chief secretary of the Interior Ministry. At the same time, only the most gullible would believe that any name would be made public without Borissov’s say-so.
Buchvarova goes into the Interior Ministry portfolio – it is already clear that there is sufficient support in Parliament for the nomination to win a vote of approval – from outside the system. It is not difficult to imagine a contest between those long embedded in the system to undermine her, with Buchvarova in turn bringing her own personality to bear to get what Borissov wants.
Further, it is not just a matter of a jumble of events of recent days giving Borissov the chance to change the ministerial incumbent and the chief secretary at the Interior Ministry.
Parliament already has rolled back the changes effected by the former ruling axis regarding the Interior Ministry and SANS, including shifting back the anti-organised crime directorate to the ministry. Borissov should have all the tools at his disposal to shape these law enforcement and security agencies as close as possible to the shape that he envisions.
The recent days also have been a demonstration, unfortunate from the point of view of the governing coalition, of a lack of communication.
The Interior Ministry melodrama came a few days after the ructions over the Bulgarian government’s foreign borrowing plan, an episode that made clear that coalition partners were not being kept in the loop, a matter about which they expressed their frustration publicly.
Similarly, it was clear – even allowing for fast-moving events – that even ministers and Borissov’s own parliamentary group had hardly been kept apprised of his plans for the future of the Interior Ministry portfolio.
Predictably, reaction to the changes followed well-worn political lines.
The Bulgarian Socialist Party, battered and long in disarray, has no strategy but to doggedly oppose everything with which it is presented – and most certainly in cases involving top appointments that it was instrumental putting in place when it was the holder of the mandate to govern.
The Movement for Rights and Freedoms, as ever, plays a more complex and subtler game, one that lends itself to continuing suggestions by detractors of the entire Bulgarian political set-up of covert deals between Borissov and the MRF – much denied by both sides, with the MRF insisting that it is an opposition party.
There was much political chatter over the Vuchkov matter regarding supposed behind-the-scenes deals with the MRF. The theory was that Vuchkov had been allowed to go as a trade-off for having not stood in the way of the foreign borrowing plan which Borissov has presented as a buffer against future fiscal disaster. In return, so this theory goes, Vuchkov fell instead of Interior Ministry chief secretary Lazarov and SANS chief Vladimir Pisanchev, leaving two key appointees of the former ruling axis in place.
But now Lazarov and Pisanchev have gone, and all eyes will be on who succeeds them. Depending on who is put forward, it is not improbable that there will be voices – including from those who are by no means supporters of the former ruling axis – that Borissov holds in place a political cartel rather than breaking it.
The changes at the Interior Ministry and SANS also are obviously no mere matter of domestic politics.
The European Commission is expected to keep in place the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism for the foreseeable future. The mechanism is intended to bring Bulgaria up to the standards of the EU in judicial and law enforcement matters, specifically against organised crime and corruption.
By convention, the EC would not comment in one of these reports on individual personalities, but should it be unimpressed by events from March 2015 onwards, there can be no doubt that this would be made clear. In Sofia, a group of EU ambassadors made a public call on the government to implement in reality its updated plans for judicial reform, adopted by the cabinet and endorsed by Parliament.
If his governance is to prove to be credible, Borissov has to take the power that the country’s laws and personnel changes now effectively give him, and move so as to be able to say – truthfully and plausibly – “we catch them, and they don’t let them go”.
(Photo of Borissov, addressing Parliament on March 5: gerb.bg)