Bulgaria has been treated to the spectacle of a reverse custody battle, as the country’s Prime Minister and its President have each sought to associate the other with the controversial figure of Delyan Peevski.
Peevski is noted for, among other things, having been the appointee in 2013 to head the State Agency for National Security, a move that led to widely-supported public protests that contributed to the fall of the “Oreshaski” government the following year.
Having formerly denied that it was correct to call him a “media mogul”, Peevski later confirmed, in formal declarations, media ownerships. In the battlefield of the Bulgarian media landscape, he has lately initiated legislation on sources of funding for media, a move largely seen as directed against his rivals, in particular those backed by foreign-funded foundations.
The current clash between President Roumen Radev, in office for more than a year following his election on a ticket backed by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, and Prime Minister Boiko Borissov followed comments in a television interview by Borissov that effectively linked the president’s administration to Peevski.
Borissov, without naming the individual, said in the television interview that there was a person in Radev’s office who wrote his speeches, and whom Borissov said he remembered from when this individual worked for television station BBT, “Peevski’s television”. Borissov blamed this individual for the tensions between the president’s office and the government.
Bulgarian media were quick to identify the person as former journalist Ivo Hristov, now Radev’s chief of staff. On Facebook, Hristov said that Borissov had his chronology wrong, saying that he had been employed by BBT before Peevski acquired it. (BBT underwent a name change into a channel that backed the 2013/14 ruling axis; it, like that ruling axis, is now defunct).
In vitriolic comments to journalists on February 15, Radev laid a number of charges against Borissov, accusing the prime minister of a “gross manipulation” to link people in the presidential administration to Peevski.
Radev said that Borissov had, in December, effectively received “full and unconditional support” from Ahmed Dogan, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms founder and honorary president, the party for which Peevski sits as an MP. At the time, Dogan said publicly that the idea of early parliamentary elections was not a good one.
Radev said that Borissov’s party had supported legislation – tabled by Peevski and others in the MRF – on the aftermath of the failed Corporate Commercial Bank (of which the majority owner is Tsvetan Vassilev, a former Peevski ally who is wanted for extradition to Bulgaria to face numerous serious charges, while Vassilev denies wrongdoing).
The president asked whether Borissov had and still has meetings with Peevski – an apparent reference to continued speculation in certain circles in Bulgaria that the prime minister and the controversial business person collude behind closed doors. Radev asked whether Borissov had handed out, and continued to do so, lucrative public procurements to the benefit of Peevski.
Radev went on to apparently scorn the forthcoming meeting between EU leaders and Turkish president Erdogan in Varna, a summit that Borissov and his government have been adamantly pushing for. The president said that it was “important for Bulgaria’s role as host go beyond serving refreshments”.
According to Radev, the real reason for the tensions between the government and himself included the “downplaying” of national security problems, the semi-stalled fighter jet acquisition process and military modernisation process, the dispute over the anti-corruption body legislation (Radev vetoed the ruling majority’s legislation and the ruling majority overruled his veto), while Radev’s litany of other complaints included inadequate public consultation on legislation, “collapse” of foreign direct investment, and, among other things, that Bulgarians’ income continued to be low in spite of Borissov’s government’s boasts about economic growth.
Borissov hit back with a description of Radev’s comments as a “treacherous” attack on the government.
The prime minister dismissed the president’s comments about the Varna meeting as sounding “somewhat jealous”. Borissov dismissed as a lie that he held meetings with Peevski, and challenged Radev to approach the Prosecutor’s Office if he had evidence of wrongdoing.
Borissov said that the MRF consistently voted against his government, and that GERB had never been in coalition with the MRF – a party that more than once had been coalition with the BSP, the party that backed Radev’s election campaign.
Borissov said that he could ask similar questions, such as how much Radev’s presidential campaign had cost him and whether there was a deal with the MRF (which in 2016 did not field its own presidential candidate): “Maybe through Delyan Peevski?”
Amid the acrimony, Peevski issued his own statement, saying that Borissov and Radev should sort out their differences like “big boys and generals” (a former Air Force commander, Radev has that rank in the military; Borissov, when he was Interior Ministry chief secretary in the early 2000s, was given the rank of general).
But, Peevski said, it was wrong to drag his name into the squabble. Peevski denied ever having had business or other ties with Borissov, and said that he did not know Hristov, saying that Hristov had never worked for him.
“I believe that it is frivolous for the prime minister and president, from the height of their positions, to use me in an attempt to resolve the problems that exist between them or between their administrations, and to exercise my name, especially with rhetoric that is unacceptable for the institutions that they represent,” Peevski said.
“Whatever problems the Prime Minister and the President have between themselves, whether personal or institutional, they should resolve them like big boys and generals without the intervention of an opposition MP, because I do not have any relation to their disputes about aircraft, tanks, auctions or miscellaneous committees,” he said.
The current squabble between Borissov and Radev is hardly the first, but certainly the most publicly vitriolic. Borissov’s GERB party has been consistent in painting Radev as politically partisan, while Radev has gone further than his predecessors as head of state – even Georgi Purvanov, the former BSP leader who had two terms as president – in openly criticising the government of the day.
A pattern has emerged of Radev vetoing a succession of legislation approved by the ruling majority, only consistently to see his veto – limited by the constitution – overruled by the simple majority that GERB is able to muster in Parliament.
Radev, who rates highly in public opinion polls, need face an election again only in 2021, should he seek and have the backing for the second and final term that Bulgaria’s constitution allows a head of state. Even should GERB see grounds to seek his impeachment, it would lack sufficient support in the National Assembly to get such a vote approved.
Borissov, in turn, is at the head of a government formed in the first half of 2017 and which theoretically has a four-year term of office, which would mean elections in 2021 (before then, Bulgarians would go to the polls anyway, in the May 2019 European Parliament elections).
Borissov currently has a working majority in Parliament, through the co-operation of the nationalist United Patriots, the minority partner in his government. That nationalist coalition, though, is being keenly observed because of its own internal tensions, and its warnings to GERB should Borissov’s party try to push through parliamentary ratification of the Istanbul Convention, the anti-domestic violence instrument that the United Patriots, among other conservative and nationalist forces, opposes.
The very public squabble between Borissov and Radev comes as Bulgaria holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, though that does not mean much given that domestic political melodramas are hardly unprecedented in EU countries that previously held this post. The question that remains is whether the current Borissov coalition will last its full term, at least beyond the end of the EU presidency, when in the event of a government resignation and the failure to form a new coalition cabinet, Radev would be entitled to appoint a caretaker administration to take the country to early elections.
That is the subject of mere speculation. In the past, Borissov and Radev have made public shows of unity, including on the question of military modernisation – the very subject that Radev now has raised once more. The tensions, however, appear likely to endure thoughout whoever’s term ends first, and the issue of the place of Peevski in Bulgarian politics will, similarly, endure too.