Having found himself at the centre of the controversy after the publication, last week, of proposed amendments on curtailing the rights of Bulgarian citizens abroad to vote, Bulgarian President Roumen Radev vowed to make his motives public in a special address to the nation.
But the five-minute speech on April 11, after which Radev took no questions from the assembled media, failed to provide much, if any, new insight into the thinking of the new head of state. Instead, it reiterated several talking points that the president had made over the previous week.
Radev opened his address saying that the March 26 early parliamentary elections saw an “organised attempt from the outside to influence election results”, thwarted by the “Bulgarian institutions and the wisdom of Bulgarian citizens”, echoing the comments made on April 6, in the immediate aftermath of the publication, for public debate, and subsequent withdrawal of the controversial bill.
Although he has avoided outright naming the culprit, this has widely been interpreted as a reference to the “Turkish vote” – the neighbouring country has a large number of Bulgarian nationals, many of whom left for Turkey in the 1980s as a result of the communist-era project to force Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity to adopt Slavonic identities.
This is not a new occurrence in Bulgarian politics, but it became a predominant issue in this year’s campaign, with a coalition of nationalist parties organising border blockades in the run-up to election day – and Radev referenced it, indirectly, saying in his address that “some parties called for extreme measures, breaching the current legislation, including the abolition of double citizenship, closing voting stations and borders”.
He went on to say that the topic was “buried” after the election day, but the issues remained, and these issues were not “limited to external interference in the electoral process, but targeted attempts to systematically and deeply penetrate and influence the society and political life in the country”.
Such external influences required “responsible and effective actions, legislative and organisational efforts”, which is why Radev welcomed the “courage” of the Justice Ministry to “formulate concrete proposals for legislative changes”.
This interpretation of events clashed rather starkly with the position of the Justice Ministry, which in withdrawing the bill said that it contained “imperfections” and blamed the head of the Justice Ministry’s legislative council directorate for publishing the bill without approval of the minister. The official later said that the bill’s details were discussed in meetings attended by Radev and his legal advisers.
The criticism levelled at the ministry – aside from the constitutional implications for Bulgarian nationals living abroad, who were to be denied the exercise of their franchise if they did not reside in Bulgaria in the three months prior to parliamentary or presidential elections – is that its leadership is in place on a caretaker basis, appointed by the president until the new National Assembly can vote a government, and that its main task is to organise elections, not set policy.
Radev sidestepped the issues (both his alleged involvement in the drafting process and the topic of whether a caretaker cabinet should make such proposals) altogether, saying that the wide-ranging proposals, which included changes to the religious denominations, political parties and citizenship laws, would have put “clear barriers in the path of actions aimed against our independence, the integrity of the state and society”.
His defence, if one could call it that, of the proposal’s limitations on voting abroad was to say that “the most important protection of the rights of Bulgarians abroad is to be able to return to an independent and sovereign Bulgaria”.
Radev’s address concluded with an attempt to end the continued questioning of the presidency by passing on the responsibility to Parliament, which will hold its first session on April 19. “I hope that it will find a majority that understands the stakes and will have the character needed to vote adequate legislative changes,” he said.
Bulgaria’s socialists, which backed Radev in last year’s presidential elections, finished second in the parliamentary polls, behind former prime minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB party. For the past week, GERB has held several rounds of talks with the nationalist United Patriots coalition (the same who organised the border blockades before election day) to form a majority government.
Time will tell whether Radev’s parting shot, whether meant to sour relations between prospective coalition partners or merely to deflect attention from himself, is successful.
(Roumen Radev photo: president.bg)