Bulgaria's new coalition gets down to business, but for how long?

By bne IntelliNews November 19, 2014

Sandy Gill in Sofia -


So far, so good. Eleven days after being voted in by the most complicated parliament in Bulgaria’s post-communist history, what may be the country’s strangest ever government ever appears to be holding together satisfactorily – despite ominous rumblings among both free-market and ultra-nationalist rightists.

The odd foursome

The government – or at any rate its support – is a curious combination of four elements.

First, there’s the largest parliamentary grouping to emerge from October’s parliamentary elections, with 84 MPs out of a total of 240 in Bulgaria’s unicameral parliament, the National Assembly. That’s Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria – generally known by its Bulgarian-language acronym GERB – a right-of-centre formation with a somewhat populist style and a still-charismatic leader in the person of mouthy “action man” Boiko Borisov. A former fireman, bodyguard, karate trainer and head of a 1990s private security firm, he’s been in public office for the last 13 years. First he was interior ministry chief secretary (effectively top cop), then mayor of the capital Sofia, and finally – at the head of the party he himself founded – prime minister between 2009 and 2013, when he was pushed out of office by popular demonstrations at high electricity bills. After a period in colourfully vocal opposition, Borisov is now serving his second term as PM.

Second, there’s parliament’s fourth-largest group, the Reformist Bloc (RB), an uneasy coalition of five more conventionally right-of-centre parties. Divided by personalities, traditional party rivalries and degrees of ambivalence toward Borisov, RB had been united by the desire to avoid the electoral catastrophe that division had produced last time, when groups and parties running separately had all fallen under the threshold of 4% of the total vote needed to qualify for parliament. This time, they had cleared that hurdle comfortably, with 8.89% and 23 MPs. The RB has six ministerial seats to the 12 that were at GERB’s disposal.

Third, there’s the Patriotic Front (PF), a relatively new radical nationalist formation with 19 MPs. One of two nationalist groups in parliament – the erratic Volen Siderov’s Ataka being the other – the PF has, well, some quite forthright views on issues affecting the country’s Turkish and Roma minorities, as well as a strong line in a “patriotism” that, unlike Siderov’s, isn’t especially well-disposed to Russia. Dominated by the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria – led by the Burgas-based businessman Valeri Simeonov – the PF is also decorated by the venerably historic VMRO (the Bulgarian acronym for “Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation”). Though a signatory to the coalition agreement, the PF has eschewed ministerial office, concentrating instead on getting its elements into the programme and, it promises, keeping an eagle eye on implementation.

Finally, there’s the ABV (Bulgarian for “Alliance for Bulgarian Revival”), a breakaway from the mainstream Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) formed earlier this year by former president Georgi Parvanov, and scraping into the parliament with 4.15% and 11 MPs. Quite open about its reservations about supporting a “right-of-centre coalition” and its belief that a GERB-BSP coalition would have been a better solution, it’s supporting the coalition more gingerly than the PF, but one of its most capable politicians – former foreign minister, presidential candidate and MEP Ivaylo Kalfin – is serving as deputy premier and minister of labour and social affairs.

The excluded

Putting that combination together was partly a logical – if difficult – conclusion drawn from the fact that the remaining four formations (of a record eight in parliament) were, for various reasons, unacceptable.

Surprising most observers by qualifying for parliament with 4.5% of the vote and 11 MPs, Ataka, high on shrill “anti-colonial”, anti-Western and pro-Russian rhetoric, wanted to talk to no one – a sentiment generally reciprocated.

The BSP, with a humiliating 39 MPs following a disastrous 14 months in government, was insistent on “accepting voters’ verdict” that it should stay in opposition (and, to judge from personnel measures taken since the election, put its own house in order). Reasonably polite talks with Borisov led to speculations about a somewhat lopsided “grand coalition” – with one GERB source reporting recently that the BSP had been offered four cabinet seats – but, if asked, the BSP stuck to its “no” and the official GERB position was that the disparity in strengths was too great for a German-style grand coalition deal to be feasible.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), largely ethnic Turkish in its support base though with a fair number of ethnic Bulgarians on its leadership, had governed in precarious coalition with the BSP between 2013 and 2014 – and gained little in reputation as a result. One of its leading MPs – controversial businessman Delyan Peevski – had provoked months of anti-government demonstrations with his abortive candidacy back in June 2013 for the State Agency for National Security (DANS, loosely described as “Bulgaria’s FBI”). Pushy in government and generally seen as sleazy and over-responsive to corporate interests, the MRF (and Peevski) had, rightly or wrongly, been popularly associated with the collapse of the big Corporate Commercial Bank (Corpbank) in June.

Semi-pariah status resulted: Borisov, during the campaign and after the elections, insisted that he would form no coalition with the MRF – while accusations that he might were first rate ammunition in the RB campaign. Yet commanding a useful 38 MPs, the MRF could make tempting offers as other horse-traded. Leader Lyutfi Mestan, notably, promised 300 days of unconditional support for a minority government by GERB and RB – eventually raised to 600 – if only they would steer clear of the “un-European” Patriotic Front.

The final grouping was the coalition gathered around Bulgarian Without Censorship (BWC), a rather whimsical populist formation formed by talk-show host Nikolay Barekov. Notably successful in May’s European Parliament elections – which had diverted Barekov and most of his attention to Strasbourg – BWC and its allies did less well in October, qualifying for 13 MPs (of whom one has since defected and gone independent). Barekov’s abrasiveness and suspicions of oligarchic group control over BWC have ensured that no one is very keen to do business with it. So in spite of rather cooperative rhetoric by those left in Sofia – who now constitute a parliamentary group now known rather anodynely as the “Bulgarian Democratic Centre” – nobody has taken much notice of them.

Doing deals

Putting the coalition together was a tough and lengthy process, finalised over a month after the October 5 elections – and by no means bound to produce the outcome that it did. Consultations with all groups (except Ataka) began a week after elections, with GERB relatively polite to the BSP and MRF and somewhat dismissive of RB, which it criticised as not presenting a unified front and not following the consultation format prescribed by GERB – that of seeing how far programmes overlapped. The next week saw consultations narrowed down to the “favoured four.”

But bargaining between GERB and RB over a draft programme declaration was hard. And the PF – insisted on as a partner by RB as a means of excluding minority government reliance on the MRF – had an agenda of its own. A speech by Simeonov at the first session of the new parliament mooted measures including Bulgarian-language exams for six-year-olds, deployment of ground-to-ground missiles on the Turkish border, and demolition of illegally built Roma settlements. And, when GERB and RB had finally agreed on a declaration text, Simeonov reacted by saying that it did not reflect PF’s ideas. Renegotiation followed, and quite quickly thereafter a coalition agreement – with ABV coming in smoothly at the last moment.

But it had been a process full of bluff and brinkmanship, with some ambiguity on the part of RB figures whether Borisov would be an acceptable prime minister and with Borisov himself several times threatening to abandon negotiations, precipitating the massively unpopular option of new elections in midwinter. And, less than a week before agreement was actually reached, talks were fluid enough for the GERB side to make at least a rhetorical offer that RB’s co-chairman Radan Kanev should become prime minister. In the event, Kanev has kept out of government altogether – with the relatively hardline party he leads within RB, Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB), represented by its deputy chairman, Petar Moskov, the new health minister.

Reasons to be fearful?

Quite how long a government put together so painfully and out of such disparate elements can last is an interesting question. For now, ministers – and parliament – are buckling down to urgent tasks arising from political deadlock in the last couple of months of the BSP-MRF government and the limits to what the subsequent caretaker government could do without a parliament in place.

They’re updating an annual budget that probably overestimated revenues from the start – and now has to take account of sizeable depositor compensation costs in the Corpbank case. The conspicuously capable regional development minister Lilyana Pavlova – one of several extremely experienced GERB-aligned ministers appointed by Borisov – has been taking energetic measures to ensure that the country’s roads are ready for winter. European Funds Minister and Deputy Premier Tomislav Donchev – another GERB veteran – and various branch ministers are trying to ensure that very substantial EU funds are spent by December deadlines, while an early triumph has been registered by reactivation by Brussels of the suspended Environment Operational Programme. There are obvious things to do.

Longer term, though, is stability in prospect? Driven by competition from Ataka, the PF won’t be able – and isn’t inclined – to soften appeal to its nationalist base. Already the contentious issue of the daily Turkish-language news broadcast on national TV has come up, with former Borisov aide and current key Deputy Premier Rumyana Bachvarova apparently siding with the nationalists in demanding its removal. That is annoying the MRF, but it won’t be pleasing either to a rather smaller mainly ethnic Turkish party, the Movement for Freedom and Dignity (MFD) that’s a partner in the RB. And the PF already has the MFD in its sights: appointment of one of its members as a deputy defence minister has led to threats of withdrawal from the coalition on the grounds that he is a “Turkish agent”. The RB itself is running to divisive form: officials admit “tension” over the lack of clear criteria for choosing people to run for public office, while there have been allegations that the heavyweight DSB broke a “gentleman’s agreement” over who should succeed Meglena Kuneva, now a deputy premier, as RB co-chair.

And more than one of GERB’s appointments has been controversial. Not so important, perhaps, in the case of sculptor Vezhdi Rashidov, reappointed as culture minister. A shade more so, however, in that of Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov: undoubtedly capable, he’s also judged by some – on what seems to be very slender evidence – to be an associate of the controversial Delyan Peevski. If there’s actually an MRF link, that could annoy both RB and PF.

Meanwhile, Kalfin is preparing to fight his corner over the question of Christmas bonuses for pensioners – and ABV’s predilection for progressive taxation might eventually prove disruptive. And there’s energy: a 10% hike in household tariffs was decreed just before the elections, but may not bite for a month or two yet – as they bit in February 2013’s street protests – while PF’s faith in an “energy audit” as a means of bringing prices down could well prove troublesome in a situation where they probably need to go up if the system isn’t to be strained.

Grounds for hope

We’ll see. But perhaps the immediate prospects of instability aren’t so great. All participants in the coalition are deriving some political benefit from it, if only because forcing Bulgarians to the polls again wouldn’t be popular. Counting one referendum, one European Parliament election and two parliamentary elections, that would have been the fifth visit in two years, and record low turnout in October (48.7%) suggests that people are getting sick of voting, or of politicians, or of both. In those circumstances, one needs to think before rocking the boat. In addition, three political forces – ABV, Ataka, and BWC/BDC – are close enough to than crucial 4% to be unsure of re-entering parliament. And there’s some public scepticism of the larger opposition parties – BSP and MRF – that could limit their capacity (and taste) for extra-parliamentary rabble-rousing.

As to the PF, it might prove less prone to make waves than one might think. Listen to Vladimir Shopov, a political scientist at the New Bulgarian University. “The really drastic bits of the PF programme – missiles, testing six-year-olds, and demolishing Roma ghettos – didn’t get into the coalition’s programmatic statement,” he notes, adding that, in a lot of cases, it may be possible to finesse apparently extreme demands into quite acceptable policies which address legitimate concerns. PF ideas of a barbed-wire fence along the whole Turkish border are unnecessary, ineffective, extremely expensive and quite possibly against European law, thinks Shopov. But stricter border controls, possibly within a pan-European framework, would meet concerns nicely. Again, GERB hasn’t actually said ‘no’ to missiles, notes Shopov. It has said, “that’s interesting, but let’s consider it as part of a bigger picture – a wider evolution, rational allocation of defence resources.” Moreover, says Shopov, Simeonov appears to be in the process of ditching one of his more extreme MPs, Velizar Enchev: which may bode well for compromise.

Shopov also notes that the coalition has quite a serious structure to it. It’s no bad thing that the declaration took so long to negotiate, because the result was “a proper negotiated document – not an incoherent one consisting of unconnected bits put in by each party.” There’s also a good mechanism for resolving disagreements – a regular coalition council. “And there’s Rumi Bachvarova, whose main job as deputy premier appears to be to act as the diplomat who keeps the whole thing together. That means they’re taking the coalition seriously.”

As to the RB, Shopov admits that going into government with GERB has offended that part of its electorate that stresses “taking a moral stand” – in some cases, prosperous and independent people with no vital interest in seeing reforms improve state-provided welfare. But that, he argues, provides the RB’s ministers with a first-rate motive for cracking on with things. “Generally speaking, GERB has got the ministries with the money while RB has got those in which reforms are urgent,” he says. “If they are to demonstrate to their sceptical supporters that they were right to go into government, they’ve got to deliver reform results quickly – otherwise the purists will very soon be saying ‘We told you so.’” So it’s no accident that, where GERB’s ministers’ early statements have generally stressed competence and keeping the show on the road, those of RB ministers have often emphasised reform.

For instance, Health Minister Moskov – a practicing anaesthesiologist as well as a party leader – has been very far from putting audiences to sleep: at a press conference on November 12 he produced a list of 10 reform ideas for a sector badly in need of reform. “Obviously they don’t add up to a strategy,” says Shopov, “but actually having ten ideas before your first week is up is quite impressive!”

Shopov’s also optimistic about Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov, reappointed by RB after serving in the same post in the caretaker cabinet. “He has been dealing with judicial reform for ages and has worked out ways of getting a lot of things done at ministry level without having to involve parliament.” And a lot of it isn’t rocket science. Administrative-looking measures like implementing the system of electronic distribution of cases that is already supposed to exist will have far-reaching effects by stopping corrupt people getting the “right” judge for their case. And policy changes like having judges elected directly rather than by delegates will open things up nicely. Admittedly, constitutional changes – like amendment of the rules governing the chief prosecutor’s office – will be a lot harder: they require a two-thirds majority in parliament, which may not be available any time soon.

How Shopov feels about other RB ministers isn’t clear. Prima facie, Deputy Premier Meglena Kuneva – former Europe minister and European Commissioner, as well as head of the Bulgaria for Citizens Movement which she founded – is very good news, if not universally popular within the RB. Whether Nencho Nenchev, head of one of Bulgaria’s many Agrarian parties, is qualified as defence minister isn’t so clear – at least from his biography. And another RB party leader, Bozhidar Lukinski of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), has been widely attacked – not least by RB colleagues – as unsuitable to be economy minister. So it could be a mixed bag.

And the man at the top? Well, Boiko Borisov – used to giving orders and pronouncing on policy matters “off the top of his head” – will need to change his style if he’s going to make a coalition work. He might be getting there. Those who observe such things closely say that he’s far less prone nowadays to be mouthy and categorical on camera. Maybe that will go in cabinet meetings too. Or maybe diplomacy can be left to Bachvarova. 

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