Migration, Russia are major issues for political parties ahead of Bulgaria’s March 2017 parliamentary elections

Concerns about an increased flow of migrants into Bulgaria, and relations with Russia, are among the key issues that have emerged in the runup to the country’s early parliamentary elections on March 26 2017.

This is aside from the by-now customary petty sniping among political leaders and candidates across the Bulgarian political spectrum.

While in recent days several competing parties and coalitions have seized on the political situations in other Balkan countries and the reported attempts at interference by Turkey in Bulgaria’s elections, the issue of migration is a significant theme, as it was in Bulgaria’s November 2016 presidential elections.

The campaign in October last year saw promises of a tougher line against illicit migration play a role. Notable among those who highlighted this was the eventual winner, socialist-backed Roumen Radev, and – hardly surprisingly – the nationalist United Patriots, whose emphasis on the topic helped gain their candidate third place in the first round.

This time around, all major parties seeking victory in the race for the 44th National Assembly have included dealing with the migrant crisis in their programmes.

All also have stated determination to complete the fence at Bulgaria’s border with Turkey. The Turkish border fence has been a political football in recent years – the BSP-MRF ruling axis of 2013/14 came under fire from political rivals for embarking on the big-ticket project, but in turn Boiko Borissov’s coalition government proceeded with the project, opening itself to attack from the BSP over the huge price tag.

Should most parties’ promises be honoured, there also would be an increase in spending on defence – though given overall budget constraints, it is an open question whether these promises could be fulfilled.

On the left-hand-side of the spectrum, the Bulgarian Socialist Party and its socialist rival ABC-Movement 21 electoral coalition want to see the removal of European Union sanctions on Russia. This insistence has forced GERB leader Borissov to talk about the issue, decrying BSP leader Kornelia Ninova’s pledge to “veto the sanctions” while on March 15, Borissov attempted to finesse the point by saying that the sanctions were not “against Russia” but against specific individuals and companies.

Should the BSP come to power, and as she intends, Ninova become prime minister, there would be an ally in the form of President Roumen Radev, on issues from relations with Russia to opposition to the EU-Canada CETA trade agreement.

The BSP speaks of a “balanced foreign policy”, which is code for more amicable relations with Putin’s Kremlin.

On defence spending, Borissov’s GERB pledges this reaching two per cent of GDP by the end of the four-year term of office of the next government (given recent political history and probable difficulties in coalition formation, one is moved to ask whether there will be a government, and whether it will last four years. The current writer has won small bets for predicting the resignations of recent governments).
Currently, Bulgaria’s defence allocation is about 1.2 per cent of GDP and it is not immediately apparent whether the goal of two per cent would be achievable without significant rearrangements of priorities and hard thinking on the national Budget, where other priorities – education, health care – would be competing.

GERB promises upping the strength of the military, which has significant vacancies (one trivial example is that the military recently publicly advertised for about three dozen ceremonial guards, whose most public deployment is standing outside the entrance to the Presidency in Sofia). Borissov’s party also promises increasing the pay of the military, while accelerating modernisation of Bulgaria’s armed forces.

GERB says that it would go ahead with the purchase of new armoured vehicles for the army – even though, in power between 2014 and January 2017, Borissov’s government did not budget for this.

Ninova’s BSP promises a minimum 10 per cent increase in monthly salaries of low-ranking staff in the security sector – a move undoubtedly justified given the pittance pay to private soldiers – but again difficult to see the viability of, given the other big-ticket items on the shopping list of Bulgaria’s defence sector.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms, where Mustafa Karadaya currently sits in the leader’s chair of the party founded by Ahmed Dogan, promises a total organisational, structural, material and personnel re-organisation of the defence system and armed forces, and legislating amendments that would give defence headquarters more powers.

Radan Kanev’s New Republic coalition – more or less, a splinter from the centre-right Reformist Bloc, matches both promises of GERB and the BSP. It promises upping the defence budget to two per cent of GDP and putting up officers’ and other ranks’ pay by 10 per cent.

The Reformist Bloc -Glas Naroden coalition also wants accelerated military modernisation, strengthened co-operation in Nato and enhanced training for the special forces to combat terrorism.

Hristo Ivanov’s Yes Bulgaria coalition – whose signature issue is genuine judicial reform and effective measures against corruption – also has something on defence, wanting to see more active involvement of the Bulgarian armed forces in the structures of Nato and the EU.

Yes Bulgaria says that, in power, it would work to build up a voluntary military reserve, including a “cyber reserve” (by which they mean people able to conduct cyber campaigns, not a regiment of cyborgs. Presumably).

The ABC-Movement 21 coalition would modernise the Bulgarian military through actively supporting and stimulating the domestic defence industry. It also thinks that young people should be motivated to head for the recruiting office.

On the migration issue, GERB wants a joint resolution in the EU on migration and wants Turkey to fulfill its commitments on readmission. It would also seek a change to the Dublin Regulation rule which says that an asylum application is submitted in the first EU state that an asylum-seeker enters.

GERB says that it would work to accelerate the use of the 160 million euro grant assistance that the EU gave Bulgaria while Borissov was in power, to deal with the migration situation.

A third Borissov government, if there is one, would transform the refugee centre in Pastrogor from an open to a closed one, and would do the same for part of the camp in Harmanli. There would be planning and provision for prefabricated accommodation facilities for third-country nationals by the Interior Ministry in the event of an increased inflow of migration.

The BSP sees completion of the Turkish border fence as a major priority, as well as the accelerated turn of migrants to their countries of origin. Moreover, the party says it will cancel the government decree concerning housing, pay for health insurance, financial assistance and social services for migrants.

The MRF promises to reduce illegal migration, while Kanev’s New Republic want a total and permanent tackling of the migrant crisis in the EU, and the protection of external borders with joint forces and resources.

The Reformist Bloc-Glas Naroden coalition wants the deployment of pan-European security forces at the Bulgarian-Turkish border and along the southern border of the EU.

A priority would be joint actions with the European Border and Coast Guard in order to forcibly return illegally staying third-country nationals to their countries of origin.

Persons without formal refugee status will be accommodated in gated camps on the Bulgarian-Turkish border.

The Reformist Bloc-Glas Naroden also pledges a video surveillance system and control of vehicles passing border crossings at the external borders of Bulgaria.

Ivanov’s Yes Bulgaria will also work to complete a single integrated system of sensors to monitor the border with Turkey and develop the system in critical areas on the border with Serbia.

It will also work to improve the mobility of police at the borders by improving the infrastructure and equipment of border guards with more than 450 new cars.

Yes, Bulgaria plan new powers for the military guarding the border. They will have the opportunity to check documents and make arrests until the arrival of Interior Ministry officers in a 30km zone.

ABC-Movement 21 are among fans of the fence at the Turkish border. They too want it completed. (But if you are wondering, no Bulgarian politician has said anything moronic about making Ankara pay for it. Should we add “yet”?)

All major parties state support for Bulgaria’s continued Euro-Atlantic integration, but the BSP has a nuance, in the form of “full membership of Nato, but the improvement and development of relations with Russia”.

“Foreign policy will be oriented to improve and develop relations with Russia, including taking concrete initiatives and steps for the removal of sanctions on the European Union to Russia,” is the BSP party line.

ABC-Movement 21 also advocates dropping sanctions against Russia and the restoration and development of bilateral relations.

The New Republic coalition wants an end to “blackmail and pressure from Turkey” and to this end, Bulgaria should use all the levers of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy.

The Reformist Bloc-Glas Naroden says that it categorically opposes “any attempts at interference by foreign countries, including Russia and Turkey, and their diplomatic representatives in the internal affairs of the country”.

This coalition, its platform goes on to say, intends to establish a special unit within the Cabinet office, for information analysis and to develop measures against hybrid attacks.

Yes Bulgaria said that it would counteract any attempt to position Bulgaria in a situation of “balance” or “equidistance” from other countries in the European Union’s relations with third countries (the “balance” reference being clearly to the BSP’s stated stance).

Ivanov’s coalition pledges itself to “counter attempts to revise the foreign policy of Bulgaria and tie us into the orbit of influence of countries that are characterized by a lack of democracy, violation of human rights and an aggressive foreign policy and the calling into question of the basic principles of international law and Security in Europe”.

Yes Bulgaria said that it would undertake a complete review of Bulgaria’s relations with Russia and would put them on an equal footing. “In this spirit there would be a review of unfavourable economic initiatives,” according to the coalition.

Whether it really is true that relations with Russia are a decisive factor among Bulgaria’s electorate in the March 2017 elections is an open question. After Radev’s victory in November 2016, there were several exaggerations and misinterpretations, by foreign media and by left-wing commentators in Bulgaria, that this represented an electoral yearning for warmer relations with the Kremlin.

Apart from bread-and-butter issues (no one has yet channelled Harold Wilson and his 1967 quote about the “pound in your pocket” to talk about the “lev in your pocket”, but we’re waiting), the issue of dealing with migration and refugees is one likely to resonate with Bulgarians, as it is doing with electorates elsewhere in Europe and as it has done in Bulgaria recently. Simultaneously an issue of domestic and foreign policy, it is likely to play a very significant role, but whether it would be the decisive one must remain a matter only of speculation.




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.