Year in Review: Politics in Bulgaria in 2015
Politically, the year 2015 was in the main a good one for Bulgarian Prime Minister and GERB party leader Boiko Borissov, as opinion polls showed that he alone among party leaders in seeing a consistent increase in his approval rating – and that in spite of the fact that two of his Cabinet ministers resigned on matters of principle, or that his party did not quite keep to the promises with which it began the year.
When the National Assembly resumed in January, GERB’s key promises included “supporting reform in the judicial system” and, parliamentary group leader Tsvetan Tsvetanov told the House, the party had been having “serious discussions about compulsory voting”.
By the end of 2015, the record showed that the record on judicial reform on the part of the party that is Parliament’s largest and that is the majority partner in the coalition Cabinet was debatable, while for a party that had been having serious discussions about compulsory voting, apparently these had not been serious enough to include – as President Rossen Plevneliev had proposed – the issue being put to a national referendum at the same time as the October municipal elections.
At the same first sitting of Parliament in what was then the new year, Reformist Bloc parliamentary group co-chairperson Radan Kanev said: “We must make an effort to put Bulgaria back on the track of reforms and turn promises in our program into activities and measures”. He laid especial emphasis on judicial reform, a fact that – like the statements made throughout the year by then-Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov – presaged the political drama that would send ripples through the Reformist Bloc by the year’s end.
Ivanov, in a comment in early February on a report by the European Commission on Bulgaria’s performance under the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism – meant to bring the country up to EU standards in the judicial system and the fight against corruption and organised crime – said, “this report should be interpreted as a very careful expression of trust,”
But, he told public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio, “we have to bear in mind however that the interest on this ‘credit of trust’ is extremely high. If we fail to make good use of the time we have been given to carry out enough visible and substantial reforms, we should by all means expect a strongly critical report next time.”
Ivanov noted that at the end of January, 200 out of the total 240 members of the National Assembly had voted in favour of the Cabinet’s updated Judicial Reform Strategy – which Ivanov, a holdover from the autumn 2014 caretaker cabinet, had been involved in finalising and piloting.
In a comment that no one wanted to be seen opposing judicial reform, Ivanov said that a “coalition of the unwilling” had formed in Parliament on the issue.
“This makes clear there is nothing standing in the way of a constitutional majority emerging in Parliament needed to pass part of reforms of the Supreme Judicial Council. Is a coalition of the willing to carry out reforms likely to emerge? We have seen there is no reason not to have a constitutional majority. The question is to focus on nationally relevant issues and as far as they are concerned it does not matter who is part of the majority and of the opposition. Can we make judicial reform a national priority regardless of what party rules the country? Time will tell.”
Time did. As efforts were made to block, dilute and rewrite Ivanov’s reforms, he spoke in a television interview of a “really powerful mafia acting in Bulgaria – the one of the eternal court chiefs”.
By the summer, the time of what would eventually be called – by Kanev himself – the “historic compromise” was to come on the matter of the amendments to the constitution regarding the judicial system.
In July, it had become clear that the amendments as proposed in their original form would not get the votes required. Borissov took a direct hand in making a deal, and one was achieved that involved GERB, the Reformist Bloc, the Patriotic Front, ABC – the four parties to the coalition government deal – as well as the opposition Movement for Rights and Freedoms and minority party the Bulgarian Democratic Centre.
The deal was on the distribution of quotas for appointment to the two bodies of the Supreme Judicial Council.
But by December, refashioning of the constitutional amendments on the dividing of the SJC into two colleges were to lead to Ivanov’s resignation, after the approval by the National Assembly of the second reading of the bill.
The amendments divide the SJC into two colleges – one dealing with matters of courts and one on matters of prosecution. Splitting the council, which has been a thorny topic and faced strong opposition in the months before the bill was tabled, was approved by Parliament, but it is the way in which SJC members are appointed that became the biggest stumbling block.
As approved at first reading, the bill envisioned that the judges college would be made up of 13 members – five elected by Parliament, six elected by the judges themselves and, ex officio, the two heads of the country’s high courts (which are elected by the SJC and appointed by presidential decree). The prosecutors college would have 12 members – six elected by Parliament, five elected by prosecutors (including one going to investigative magistrates, which rank below prosecutors in Bulgaria’s judiciary) and the prosecutor-general ex officio.
Amendments tabled between readings, however, made changes to the quotas: the judges college would have six members elected by Parliament and five elected by the judges themselves, while the prosecutors college would have five members elected by Parliament and six elected by prosecutors.
The changes were endorsed by the constitutional amendments committee ahead of the second-reading vote, but drew criticism that they would weaken, on one hand, the independence of the courts by increasing the number of political appointments in the judges college, while at the same time strengthening the hand of the prosecutor-general in the prosecutors college.
Under current legislation, there are almost no checks and balances on the prosecutor-general, so the office-holder would have a constant majority in the college, critics say. Prosecutors elected to the SJC would be encouraged to toe the line of the prosecutor-general, or face the prospect of damaging their career prospects by opposing the prosecutor-general, according to this argument.
Ivanov, the former programme director for the Legal Initiatives non-partisan NGO advocating reform in Bulgarian judiciary, made clear that he agreed with that line of reasoning.
“This vote is a big symbolic step to [sow] the doubt that in Bulgaria one can increasingly speak of the rule of the prosecutor-general. Which is why, with great relief, I can announce that I will no longer exercise the duties of the Justice Minister and will take every possible measure to step down,” he said.
Borissov was quick to accept Ivanov’s resignation (almost as quick as he had been in March when Vesselin Vuchkov told a Cabinet meeting he was resigning as Interior Minister over a dispute about personnel changes at the top of the ministry) and seeming stayed out of the ensuing drama in the Reformist Bloc prompted not only by Ivanov’s departure but also by Radan Kanev’s Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria going into opposition.
After a few days, it emerged that the bloc would continue participating in and supporting the government (with even the DSB’s remaining minister, Petar Moskov, staying on even though Kanev said that Moskov now was no longer a representative of the DSB).
Kanev, whose party was now in the anomalous position of being in opposition while the bloc of which it remains a member is in government, was sharply critical of the flow of events: “Most of the decisions taken by GERB, MRF, ABC and some other peripheral forces orchestrated by chairman of GERB party Tsvetanov, were decisions in favour of the status quo and solutions against reforms. This means that the greatest danger for the Reformist Bloc to become a cover for GERB has become a reality. We cannot participate in something like this,” Kanev said.
Borissov, meanwhile, agreed to a call from the Reformist Bloc for an annexe to the agreement between the bloc and GERB providing for the bloc to take part in government.
In explaining why the Reformist Bloc wanted a new coalition agreement, Naiden Zelenogorski said, “for us it is more realistic to sign a new coalition agreement and to try to refine the machine so that it works better for society and meet expectations for reforms.”.
Against a background of MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan calling for early elections and Kanev saying that the appointment of twice-former caretaker minister and until-then chief of staff to President Rossen Plevneliev, Ekaterina Zaharieva, as the new Justice Minister made early elections inevitable, Zelenogorski said, “If there are calls for early elections, I can tell you that I’ve seen this scenario several times and I know it ends. The end is that no part of the fragmented right will be in the Bulgarian Parliament, and probably GERB will achieve their own majority.”
Certainly, by the end of 2015, it had become a popular topic for speculation that this was just what Borissov had in mind – precipitating early parliamentary elections in autumn 2016, when presidential elections are due, and riding the growing strength of his party and his own personal popularity to an even stronger position in government, while seeing some of the lesser parties unable to return to a new Parliament. But that, unless if ever events prove otherwise, has no value other than as speculation, and speculation has no value.
After Vladimir Putin’s elaborate theatre of attempting a dignified exit over South Stream, and trying to put the blame on Bulgaria, one of Borissov’s pet topics became a proposal for a gas hub in Bulgaria to serve the South Eastern Europe energy market.
As sketched in February, at a meeting in Sofia of the Gas Connectivity Group in Central and Eastern Europe, the project would cost about 2.2 billion and involve building about 844km of new gas pipelines and related infrastructure.
So frequently did Borissov talk about the hub issue, and – among other psychological boosts – got political support for it in May when the EU Energy Council met in Luxembourg – that a Bulgarian cartoonist satirised him in a Tolkien setting, depicting Borissov in a scene from “The Hubbit”.
Borissov also weathered the political storm around the issuing of foreign debt to borrow eight billion euro, to cover much older (long pre-Borissov) borrowing come due as well as monies paid to cover demands on the bank deposit guarantee fund as a result of the Corporate Commercial Bank saga.
Criticisms were much sharper towards Vladislav Goranov’s Finance Ministry for a failure to communicate with parties about what was seen as the necessity for the borrowing, about which the first information emerged at a weekend and which was seized on, somewhat hysterically, by opposition parties as tipping Bulgaria towards unsustainable debt and ultimate bankruptcy.
In the end, by February, the National Assembly voted in favour of ratifying an agreement with four banks on the handling of the foreign debt issue, with support coming from Borissov’s GERB, the Reformist Bloc, the opposition MRF, part of the ABC and the Bulgarian Democratic Centre. The nationalist Patriotic Front, a participant in the coalition government deal without having seats in the Cabinet, remained unpersuaded and abstained during the voting. Votes against came from the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party and Volen Siderov’s Ataka, one of the two smallest parties in Bulgaria’s Parliament.
The foreign debt issue caused a minor political sideshow, as Georgi Purvanov resigned as ABC leader because some of his MPs broke ranks over the issue. In what was hardly a surprise development, some months later his party formally decided to not accept Purvanov’s resignation.
Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov and Deputy Prime Minister for European Policies Coordination Meglena Kouneva were among those, apart from Borissov himself, who repeatedly raised the issue of more solidarity on the part of Europe to assist Bulgaria deal with the inflow of refugees.
In 2015, and especially after the peak migration flows of the summer, Bulgaria received about 30 000 migrants and refugees, which may sound insignificant compared to the million overall who arrived in Europe this year, but nonetheless was triple the total number of the years 2013 and 2014 combined.
Bulgaria was not on a main route inwards to Europe, for reasons ascribed to the country’s own less affluent place in Europe to allegations that migrants and refugees tended to be harshly treated by Bulgarian police and officials. The country made international headlines for an October incident in which a refugee from Afghanistan was shot dead by Bulgarian Border Police in circumstances which remain disputed.
Bulgaria agreed to the European Commission’s scheme on the reallocation of migrants among most EU member states, but after underlining that it wanted the economic status of member states taken into account, and negotiating a reduction of the number put in the initial proposal. Bulgaria made no policy statement, unlike some others in the EU, about only wanting to admit refugees who were “Christians” – but the Bulgarian Orthodox Church came up with its own statement, calling for no further migrants to be admitted and hinting that to do so would mean the downfall of a state that “God had set aside for Orthodox (Christian) people”.
When head of state President Rossen Plevneliev convened a meeting of the Consultative Council on National Security in November, to discuss “changes in the geostrategic environment and the resulting risks for Bulgaria”, the meeting agreed that the most serious threats to Bulgaria’s security included migration pressure and cyber attacks (there had been a number of the latter, on the websites of a number of state and government institutions, at the time of the October-November municipal elections and national referendum).
Though reports at the time about the numbers involved were rather exaggerated, against a background of mixed messages from various people in government, Bulgaria deployed small numbers of military personnel to back up Border Police. It also set about extending the fence at the Turkish frontier, which Borissov showed off to his guest David Cameron, with the UK prime minister praising Bulgaria as a model of border control – in turn drawing on the visiting head of government criticism from those who take a dim view of some of the alleged means that Bulgaria uses to control its borders.
Bulgaria continued to back sanctions against Russia because of Moscow’s actions against Ukraine. In March and December EU summits, EU leaders extended sanctions against Russia. In Bulgaria, the issue of relations with Russia continued its customary complexity.
There were any number of issues and incidents to demonstrate these complexities, from Bulgaria’s decision to award to Poland instead of Russia the business of maintaining the Bulgarian Air Force’s ageing Soviet-made MiG-29 jet fighters, to Bulgarian endorsement of Nato inviting Montenegro to join the alliance, to the dispute about a Russian application to Bulgaria to allow military aircraft to transit its airspace on the way to Syria (Bulgaria said no, citing suspicions that Moscow was not being truthful in claiming the cargo was humanitarian aid), and, of course, to the issue of EU sanctions.
While Bulgaria discreetly said very little after Turkey shot down a Russian bomber near the Syrian border, residents of Sofia may be surprised to learn that they streamed into the streets to protest at the Turkish embassy after the shooting down. That, at least, was the way that one Russian “media” outlet portrayed a protest at Ankara’s mission in the Bulgarian capital, which was in fact organised by Siderov’s pro-Russian Ataka party, and which was a rather modest affair.
As a Nato member, Bulgaria has commitments about air defence, and Defence Minister Nikolai Nenchev was keen on pushing for more money to be actually able to meet them, with Plevneliev as an effective ally in this but with Borissov generally reluctant, and wont – whenever the question of greater spending on almost anything came up – to grumble publicly about his government having had to undertake the eight billion euro foreign borrowing plan.
Nenchev did manage to secure a commitment towards increasing, as of 2016, defence spending, following a large degree of consensus on the matter at an April meeting of the Consultative Council on National Security.
As regards Russia, one of the most bizarre episodes involving the names of Russia and Bulgaria in 2015 came against the background of an armed exchange in the Republic of Macedonia’s town of Kumanovo and subsequent concerns about the stability of the former Yugoslav republic.
Russian foreign minister, speaking in the Russian parliament, said that the West wanted regime change in Skopje to counterbalance Russian influence in the region, and referred to a theory about a plot to divide up Macedonia between Bulgaria and Albania. Bulgarian Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov responded sharply, rejecting attempts by countries outside the region to destabilise it through such suggestions.
While it is questionable to what extent the Russian foreign minister may worry much about what his Bulgarian counterpart thinks, it became increasingly clear in 2015 that there were differences in approach when President Plevneliev spoke about Russia and when Prime Minister Borissov did.
In July, for example, during a joint news conference in Kyiv with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, Plevneliev underlined his support for continued EU sanctions against Russia, referring to Russian annexation of Crimea and saying, , “Bulgaria does not recognise and will never recognize this illegal act”.
Plevneliev added: “For us the Crimea is Ukraine, and Ukraine is Europe!”.
Borissov generally was milder, putting out the message that given that Bulgaria was a small country, he prayed for the big powers to resolve such issues, while he also emphasised that as a loyal member of Nato and the EU, Bulgaria supported sanctions on Russia. Borissov and his prayers for big powers to resolve issues also seemed in counterpart to Plevneliev’s repeated public statements that international affairs should not be run along the lines of the Great Power politics of the 19th century.
Politically, it was not a good year for Plevneliev, as his proposed three referendum questions were cut down to just one, about electronic voting, and even then he ended up among those who suggested that the national referendum was largely ignored by major political forces – some suggested, even sabotaged, by the hacking attacks on state websites, designed to discredit online voting even though the issues are unrelated.
In a November interview with a UK newspaper, Plevneliev was quoted as accusing Russia of pursuing a hybrid war in the Balkans, aimed at destabilising Europe, and as calling for the EU and Nato to strengthen forces against a “threat of growing Russian aggression”.
The year’s end brought, at a time when political life customarily would be winding down, one of the most spectacular melodramas in Bulgarian politics in recent times, as Movement for Rights and Freedoms founder and long-time leader Ahmed Dogan deposed his successor as party leader of the past two years, Lyutvi Mestan.
The matter once again was one directly linked to Russian-Turkish tensions. The catalyst was the declaration in the National Assembly by Mestan after the Turkish downing of the Russian military bomber.
“The fact that in the past month the Russian military aviation has been violating the Turkish airspace is indisputable. The violation of the airspace and the sovereignty of any Nato member state are equal to the violation of the airspace and the sovereignty of the North-Atlantic alliance itself,” Mestan told Parliament.
This was followed by the posting, on the official MRF website, of an attack by Dogan on Mestan, his former protege, describing the declaration in Parliament as a “gaffe”.
On December 24, a public holiday on which most Bulgarians retreat to private life to mark Christmas Eve, a special meeting of the MRF central council was called, resulting – after proceedings of about two hours – in Mestan being deposed as party leader, dismissed from all other party positions, and expelled not only from the MRF parliamentary group but also from the party itself. A triumvirate was handed stewardship of the top party positions pending a national congress, expected in March.
Mestan argued, probably in utter futility, that the central council meeting that dismissed him had not been properly constituted. Media reports made much of reported contacts between him and Turkish diplomats, with Mestan saying that for some time after the meeting that expelled him, he and his wife had taken shelter in a “foreign embassy”, while informed observers underlined that through Dogan, Mestan had paid the political price of going up against Russian interests. After the central council meeting, a spokesperson for the MRF told reporters that Dogan had said that Mestan had met the fate of all who opposed “Bulgarian national interests”.
A few stayed loyal to Mestan, sparking speculation of a breakaway rival party, as five MPs were reported to be leaving the MRF parliamentary group to follow Mestan. Few things were clear as the year ended regarding the MRF, beyond the obvious fact – that few ever would have disputed anyway – that Dogan remains the real decision-maker in the MRF. A split between those aligning themselves with Russian and Turkish perspectives, respectively, also was apparent, but whether this would turn into an enduring split with a viable alternative party remained to be seen. Of any development in a party other than GERB, it was a political event of 2015 certain to be ramifications for years to come.
As has become customary in recent years in Bulgaria either for reasons of schedule or a political crisis, Bulgaria held elections in 2015 – this time around, scheduled ones – mayoral and municipal elections in October, with a second round in November. The add-on was the, as noted, national referendum on online voting, which resulted in a turnout sufficient to require the National Assembly to follow up on the yes vote.
Borissov’s GERB swept most cities, in some cases with decisive first-round victories, while there were reverses for opposition parties such as the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the MRF, even in some of their traditional strongholds.
In the final analysis, however, the national trend, read together with Alpha Research polls, showed that while GERB had made positive gains, they were not sufficient to indicate that were a national parliamentary election to be held, Borissov’s party would necessarily win sufficient support to be able to govern alone.
None of these factors, however, prevented 2015 ending with chit-chat about early elections. The beleaguered BSP, increasingly obviously a much-diminished political force, said at the end of 2015 that it was starting consultations with other parties in the National Assembly about tabling a vote of no confidence in Borissov’s Cabinet. At this writing, it was not clear about what, but BSP leader Mihail Mikov did make several references to energy policy.
Another subject of speculation was whom GERB would choose as its presidential candidate in autumn 2016, whether it would again support Plevneliev – should he want to stand for a second and final term as head of state – or whether it would opt for someone else. Before the Ivanov resignation that precipitated the ripples in the Reformist Bloc, there also had been idle chatter about whether the Reformist Bloc might negotiate with GERB on a joint presidential candidate; but as ever with the Reformist Bloc, perhaps the first question might be whether the bloc’s parties might achieve internal agreement on the question of a presidential candidate. But this, unless if ever events prove otherwise, has no value other than as speculation, and speculation has no value.
The outcome of political year 2016 will be known only a year from today, and we shall meet at this time and place to discuss it.
* For those with an interest in Bulgaria’s politics, the year 2015 also saw the launch of Clive Leviev-Sawyer’s book Bulgaria – Politics and Protests in the 21st Century.