Bulgaria: stuck in a loop?
Bulgaria’s latest election – following three held in 2021 – made clear that political fragmentation remains the order of the day. The collapse of the four-way coalition that ruled for six months has seen a revival for the former ruling party, widely seen as corrupt, and increased support for pro-Russian parties. It’s hard to see a stable coalition government emerging, meaning yet another election could be the outcome. Meanwhile the caretaker government stands accused of softening its stance on Russia in the hope of resuming suspended gas supplies. Any government that ultimately results should commit to both acting on corruption and resisting Russia’s pressure.
Bulgarians must have thought their country’s cycle of repeated elections was behind them. In 2021 they were asked three times to vote in parliamentary elections, which repeatedly left parties unable to agree on forming a government
Finally, in December 2021, a four-way coalition government came together. It was something of a marriage of convenience: it contained two new parties – We Continue the Change (PP), formed by former members of the caretaker government, and the populist There is Such a People (ITN), founded by a TV celebrity; they worked with two more established groups – the left-leaning Coalition for Bulgaria (BSP) and the Democratic Bulgaria alliance, which brings together three centrist, liberal and environmentalist parties.
Clearly, this was a complex arrangement, but what mattered most to many of those involved was to keep Boyko Borissov out of government. The former prime minister – in office from 2009 to 2013 and again from 2014 to 2021 – has long faced accusations of corruption. In 2020 the numerous corruption allegations against him and powerful business leaders triggered a mass protest movement. A determination to have a clean break from the Borissov era, as well as a lack of willingness to go back to the public for yet another election, were strong enough incentives for the coalition government to form.
But it didn’t last: the government collapsed just half a year later. ITN pulled out in June, and shortly after voted against the government in a confidence vote. The government lost by 123 votes to 116, paving the way for yet another election.
Held on 2 October, the election showed that Borissov’s political career isn’t over. The group he leads – an alliance between his party GERB and the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) – bounced back from its 2021 performance, when its vote declined in successive elections, to finish first.
However, with 63 seats, GERB-SDS is far from the 121 needed for a majority. Once again, Bulgaria’s politicians face a choice – try to form another coalition government made up of strange bedfellows, or go into a marathon fifth election.
The context for this political deadlock is one of energy crisis, connected high inflation and disagreement over the country’s relationship with Russia. The ousted Prime Minister, Kiril Petkov, took a strong stance on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Parliament issued a statement condemning the invasion and Petkov expelled numerous Russian spies. But Russia had a powerful – if predictable – card up its sleeve.
Bulgaria doesn’t use much gas compared to other European Union (EU) countries, but almost all – 90 per cent – of it comes from Russia. In April, Russia turned off the tap after the Bulgarian government refused to pay for the gas in roubles, which Russia is insisting on to help prop up its currency.
Bulgaria has replaced one third of the gas it used to get from Russia with a supply from Azerbaijan, but must buy the rest on wholesale markets, making it vulnerable to price increases resulting from the war.
Bulgaria’s stance on Russia has softened under the current caretaker government – a non-party administration that takes over until a new government can be formed. This was appointed by President Rumen Radev, long accused of having close ties with Russia, who has said the government should avoid getting involved in the conflict.
In October, a pipeline from Bulgaria to Greece opened, enabling the country to access gas from Azerbaijan via a second route. This marked some progress in reducing dependency on Russia, but the caretaker government was accused of delaying the pipeline’s opening to appease Russia.
Winter is coming and the country has very little gas in storage. The current energy minister has said there’s no choice but to start talks with Russia, and a pro-Russian official has been appointed to a key position in the negotiations.
Now the issue of Russia looms over any attempt to form a government. The two parties with the biggest electoral gains – Revival and the new Bulgarian Rise party – are both pro-Russia. Revival is a nationalist, anti-west and anti-EU party that was also active in protesting against pandemic restrictions and spreading conspiracy theories. Bulgarian Rise was formed in May 2022 by Stefan Yanev, sacked as defence minister by the coalition government for refusing to acknowledge Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a war, cleaving instead to Russian propaganda by calling it a ‘military operation’. Between them, these two pro-Russia parties commanded over 14 per cent of the vote.
Over multiple elections voters have shown themselves willing to turn against established parties. The volatility of the vote first benefited ITN – the biggest party in the July 2021 election, but now out of parliament after falling below the threshold – and then PP at the third election in November 2021. Now the performance of Revival and Bulgarian Rise suggests that, in common with other European countries – notably the Czech Republic – dissatisfaction with the energy crisis and associated rising prices is partly manifesting in demands to appease Vladimir Putin rather than confront him.
The weight of history: the North Macedonia question
When ITN walked out of the coalition, it cited disagreements not only about the budget and fiscal policy, but also over the government’s approach to North Macedonia.
North Macedonia has been in talks to join the EU for years. But each EU member state has a veto, and for years Greece blocked its progress over concerns about a potential claim to an area of Greece, also called Macedonia, once part of the ancient Macedonian empire. In response, in 2019 the country changed its name, from Macedonia to North Macedonia, acknowledging the distinct status of Greece’s Macedonian region.
It was an incredibly politically divisive decision, with protests led by nationalist groups in both countries. A referendum in North Macedonia intended to endorse the name change in September 2018 was defeated when a boycott organised by those against the move, including the country’s former ruling party, ensured it fell short of the required turnout threshold. Parliament eventually voted to change the country’s constitution, and with it its official name.
The hurdle of Greece’s objections cleared, North Macedonia might have expected a smooth passage to EU membership. But then Bulgaria blocked its way, vetoing accession in 2020.
Nationalists have mobilised on both sides of the border. North Macedonia’s nation-building project, following the break-up of Yugoslavia, had a distinctly anti-Bulgarian slant. Bulgarian nationalists promote the idea of a greater Bulgaria, which includes much of the territory of North Macedonia, and insist that the Macedonian language is a mere dialect of Bulgarian.
There’s much disinformation in circulation that helps sustain the dispute. North Macedonia’s former governing party was a strong ally of Russia, and Russia has an obvious interest in resisting any EU expansion.
Some progress was made with negotiation of the 2017 Treaty on Good Neighbourly Relations, which has survived calls for its repeal. In August, a joint commission established under the treaty reached a compromise on agreeing some common terminology about aspects of the two countries’ shared history.
That was preceded by North Macedonia’s parliament voting to recognise its Bulgarian minority, a key Bulgarian demand, and Bulgaria’s parliament voting to lift its veto following months of talks brokered by France, which at the time held the rotating EU presidency.
But any shift attracted backlash. In North Macedonia opposition parties were against the decision to recognise the Bulgarian minority, while Bulgaria’s moves to drop its veto sparked protests – and helped bring the government down. Ancient history continues to have powerful present-day repercussions.
Rocky road ahead
The latest election results suggest the two biggest political groups would need to compromise to form a government: it’s hard to see how either GERB-SDS or PP can stitch together a coalition that doesn’t include the other, while also excluding pro-Russian parties.
Once again, Bulgaria’s politicians face a choice – try to form another coalition government made up of strange bedfellows, or go into a marathon fifth election.
When Borissov, as the leader of the first-placed group, offered talks, the other main parties refused to take part. Borissov, long seen as pro-Russia, has pivoted to the west since the start of the invasion, and says he wants to keep pro-Russian parties out of government. He’s spoken of the need to prevent Russian interference and called for a ‘Euro-Atlantic Alliance’ in government.
To try to reach a compromise he’s offered not to be prime minister or have a cabinet role in any resulting coalition. But Borissov didn’t get his reputation as Bulgaria’s great political survivor for nothing, and his continued influence can be assumed.
For PP, a coalition with GERB-SDS, as well as likely being unstable, would represent a reversal of its intent to bring a clean break in Bulgarian politics: they would be allying with a political leader they have made clear they believe is corrupt – and who in March was arrested as part of a police investigation of alleged EU funding fraud. PP voters could see any such move as a betrayal.
Under the constitution parties have three attempts to form a government – and if they fail, another election must be held, something few voters will be enthusiastic about. While turnout in the October vote was slightly up on 2021’s third election, at 39.4 per cent, it’s some way down on the already low figure of 49.1 per cent who voted in April 2021. At no stage during this recent flurry of elections have over half of voters thought it was worth bothering.
Russia’s war on Ukraine may be reshaping politics in Europe’s east. In Latvia’s recent election, pro-Russian parties did badly and pro-EU parties fared well. In Bulgaria a political divide on the issue of corruption may be giving way to one on Russia. Some potential common ground for a pro-EU coalition can be discerned: not only on Russia, but on seeking Bulgaria’s admission to the Schengen visa-free travel zone – something several western EU states continue to oppose – and to the eurozone. But should it mean sacrificing action on corruption?
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Any new government should commit to diversifying Bulgaria’s energy mix to reduce dependence on Russia.
The government should commit to continuing action to tackle corruption.
Bulgaria’s civil society should work to help develop consensus across increasingly fragmented political divides.
Cover illustration by CIVICUS