Year in Review: Bulgaria’s 15 newsmakers of 2015
In Bulgaria in 2015, some made the news and some had the news thrust upon them. Apart from those who were newsmakers largely by the positions they held – Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov – others made headlines through their resignations or dismissals, including two Cabinet ministers and various state and government office-bearers.
Some made the news through their actions or statements: Volen Siderov, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the people of Orlandovtsi and Garmen. And some, in turn, by being at the centre of controversy: Russian-made aircraft, Bulgaria’s foreign loan. Here, then, are The Sofia Globe’s top 15 newsmakers in Bulgaria in 2015.
Boiko Borissov. The Prime Minister and GERB party leader weathered, with only minor discomfort the resignation of two Cabinet ministers: Vesselin Vuchkov (as Interior Minister, in March) and Hristo Ivanov (as Justice Minister, in November). Borissov’s GERB again was confirmed as Bulgaria’s strongest political party in the October-November mayoral and municipal elections. He navigated Bulgaria’s position amid the European migrant crisis, saw his governing coalition remain in place in spite of the melodramas emanating from minority partners the Reformist Bloc, the Patriotic Front and Georgi Purvanov’s ABC, and had the chance to boast to David Cameron that his head had been stroked by three popes.
The Reformist Bloc. A newsmaking machine for political reporters and an endless source of material for political commentators, the bloc managed to go into municipal elections as a single entity, in spite of earlier go-it-alone manoeuvres from some of its constituent parties, but plummeted into its latest crisis in the aftermath of Ivanov’s resignation. It ended 2015 in the odd position of collectively continuing to support – and participate in – the government, while one of its member parties had gone into opposition. With presidential elections due in autumn 2016 and party congresses before then, expect more melodramas.
Volen Siderov. It got to the point that the Prosecutor-General’s series of requests to the National Assembly to remove the Ataka leader’s immunity as an MP from prosecution led one member of the National Assembly to suggest that Parliament have a permanent committee on such requests, rather than just setting up ad hoc ones. Siderov was at the centre of incidents that led to charges of hooliganism and assault being laid against him. It was perhaps symbolic that one was on election night, and Siderov was on live television because of the dramatic confrontation in the streets of Sofia, not because of his electoral performance, which was dismal, as Ataka – already one of the two smallest parties in Parliament – dwindled further in significance.
Hristo Ivanov and Sotir Tsatsarov. Ivanov resigned as Justice Minister as a matter of principle after the version of constitutional amendments on judicial reform approved by the National Assembly departed from his initial vision. Tsatsarov was in the ascendancy, while also featuring in an ongoing saga about wiretapping of judges, about which transcripts, when made public, heightened already considerable public disillusionment about the judiciary. The issue of judicial reform remains, and will for a long time, among the biggest and most significant stories in contemporary Bulgaria. Bulgarians returned to the streets to protest for judicial reform, although hardly on the scale of 2013/14, while those in authority prepared for the January 2016 European Commission report on the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, expected to be critical.
Vesselin Vuchkov. The March 2015 resignation of the Interior Minister irritated Borissov for its timing (the director of the FBI and the president of Azerbaijan were in town at the time and the Prime Minister had been expecting a nicer news day), but its lasting significance was as part of the changes triggered at the ministry. Roumyana Buchvarova had the post added to her Deputy Prime Minister’s portfolio while March also saw changes of the Interior Ministry chief secretary and of the head of the State Agency for National Security. Coming in from outside the system, Buchvarova had her work cut out for her as she embarked on attempts at reform, in turn having to deal later in the year with issues such as the police protests and, among other things, the late-night antics of Volen Siderov.
The departed. Among those who were pushed out of their jobs in 2015 were the head of Military Intelligence – twice, in the latter case amid a strange saga as the governing party collaborated in a change to the law that rendered its appointment, Yordan Bakalov, ineligible to continue in office. Plamen Mollov was dismissed as head of the Food Safety Agency amid allegations of corruption at the agency (he denied any involvement in corruption). Major-General Roumen Radev caused turbulence by resigning as Air Force chief, saying he lacked the budget to do his job properly, but the same day was talked by Borissov into withdrawing his resignation. There were any number of other resignations in 2015 – the former head of the Military Medical Academy, the head of Plovdiv Airport, the head of the Sofia Municipal Election Commission after the debacle over vote-counting, but one of the quirkiest dismissals was that of the deputy tourism minister, after allegations that she had passed out in a bar.
Bulgarian National Bank. In an episode in the continuing Corporate Commercial Bank saga, Ivan Iskrov stepped down ahead of the scheduled end of his term as governor of the central bank, to be replaced by Dimitar Radev. The new BNB governor took the helm as various reforms of the central bank got underway; with things rather quiet on the CCB front in the latter half of 2015, the most prominent story involving BNB was about it replacing the two-leva note with a two-leva coin. Still, Radev is set for a place in the headlines in 2016 when the asset quality review of Bulgarian banks comes out.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The church drew attention to itself with a controversial move to refer to Simeon Saxe-Coburg as king of the Bulgarians during formal liturgies. After days of emotion about the topic, the matter was discreetly resolved by Saxe-Coburg sending them a polite letter asking them not to. The church went on, later in the year, to make news within and outside Bulgaria with a harsh position calling on the country not to accept more refugees. There has to be a special mention of the church’s resident eternal firebrand, Metropolitan Nikolai of Plovdiv, who shattered church tradition by actively and publicly campaigning for a mayoral candidate; and then there was some discomfort as the church, soon after some heartwarmingly ecumenical moments with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos, saw him spark controversy by publicly reviving claims atbout Greek valuable liturgical worship items that went missing from northern Greek monasteries in the Balkan wars.
The Refugee. Or, as some would prefer, The Migrant. More than 30 000 refugees and migrants arrived in Bulgaria in 2015, going by International Organization for Migration figures. Bulgaria made international headlines in October when a migrant, in a group from Afghanistan, was shot dead by Bulgarian Border Police in circumstances that remain disputed. Bulgaria pressed on with extending its fence at the border with Turkey, thanked that country for holding back further refugees, committed a minor military deployment at the border and faced continuing complaints from the Border Police about their working conditions at the border. Bulgaria negotiated that it would take only a small number of redistributed migrants, with the Prime Minister underlining that refugees did not really want to be in Bulgaria anyway because they preferred the wealthier west. Human rights organisations levelled repeated allegations against Bulgaria of human rights abuses of migrants and refugees, with authorities admitting only that it was possible there could be a few officials who committed such abuses.
The people of Orlandovtsi and Garmen. Summer 2015 saw tensions in Sofia’s Orlandovsti area and in the municipality of Garmen between Roma people and ethnic Bulgarians, as they are commonly described. Police were deployed in large numbers amid a series of local protests, “provocateurs” were arrested and politicians, including Prime Minister Borissov, warned against playing with fire by stoking ethnic tensions. Amid other scandals, the story largely receded by the end of the year, but as has tended to happen, as in the case of the September 2011 Katunitsa incident, could well recur at some later point, with everyone shaking their heads and agreeing that someone should do something.
Uber. The car ride sharing service, launched in Sofia in December 2014, found itself on the receiving end of the scrutiny of various state authorities and the subject of threatened protests by large conventional taxi firms. The Commission for the Protection of Competition slapped a 200 000 leva fine on Uber, later in the year upheld by the Supreme Administrative Court. Saying that it had complained to the European Commission about the matter, Uber announced the withdrawal of its services from Sofia. Whether or not it returns in some form later on remains to be seen, but apparently in response to its service, conventional taxi services added an app by which passengers could reach them.
Petko Sertov. January 2015 did, in a way, bring an end to the mystery of the whereabouts of the missing former State Agency for National Security chief, as he returned to Bulgaria after being unaccountably gone for weeks, and having become the subject of everything from an Interpol search notice to a helicopter mission to try to find him. The reasons behind his disappearance remain publicly unexplained, but did provide everyone with a good chin-wag around the winter fires, and more conspiracy theories online, although the speculation about why he had been murdered lost quite a bit of momentum when it became clear he was not dead.
The foreign loan. An eight billion euro foreign borrowing plan by the government, to cover some old debt and also provide funding for deposit guarantees in the wake of the CCB saga caused the major political controversy at the opening of the year. Even allies of the government levelled criticism at the Finance Ministry for its inadequacy in communicating about the matter. There were some ructions within the ruling coalition, as ABC’s Georgi Purvanov resigned as party leader over some of his MPs breaking ranks on the issue (eventually but not surprisingly, his resignation was not accepted). An opposition group took the matter to the Constitutional Court which, in September, rejected their complaint. The matter was one of constant complaint, however, by Prime Minister Borissov, as he regularly resentfully referred to the borrowing as necessitated by the fault of other people.
Junior Eurovision. Bulgaria hosted the 2015 Junior Eurovision Song Contest at Sofia’s Arena Armeec, with host public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television putting on the biggest live television event in the country’s history, shown in real time in 18 countries, including Germany – even though it was not competing – and Australia, competing in the contest for the first time. For the record, Malta won.
Russian aircraft. Bulgaria’s Soviet-made MiG-29s made the news as the country shifted the repair and maintenance business from Russia to Poland, though with an odd twist, even after the approval of the Bulgarian cabinet, a signing ceremony in Warsaw and ratification (over the strident objections of minority pro-Russian parties) by the National Assembly, there were reports that the Prosecutor’s Office was investigating the deal. The Kremlin harrumphed repeatedly that the Bulgarian deal with Poland was illegal because of an alleged lack of licensing to carry out the work. Meanwhile, other Russian aircraft that were in the news were the ones that Moscow claimed were carrying “humanitarian aid” to Syria, but which Western intelligence services said were carrying weapons to the Assad regime. Bulgaria refused overflight rights to the Russian air force transports, resulting in yet more harrumphing from Moscow. An anecdote by Borissov about allowing a Russian overflight rather than shooting it down for an incursion into sovereign territory led to a social network group to complain that he had committed treason, but prosecutors found that there was no case to answer.
(Main photo: Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov and visiting US secretary of state John Kerry in Sofia, January 2015.)