Sandy Gill in Sofia -
Almost four months on from its painfully negotiated debut in November, the Bulgarian coalition government of Boiko Borisov is in curious shape – but the wily centre-rightist prime minister is still getting his way.
At the end of February Borisov managed to get approved a debt management deal involving a majority of around two-thirds of the country’s 240-member unicameral parliament, including one major and one minor opposition party. Some of Borisov’s friends appear less comfortable than his foes, with one nationalist junior ally involved in lacklustre abstention and another from the centre-left engaged in a last-minute turnabout that could cause major repercussions in this relatively new formation. Borisov has prevailed for the moment: whether it bodes well for his government longer term is another matter.
Four in a bed
Formed in November last year, more than a month after elections that had produced a complicated parliament with the unprecedentedly high number of eight parties, Borisov’s government had necessarily involved strange bedfellows. There was Borisov’s party Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB in Bulgarian), with 84 MPs. And there was Reformist Bloc (RB), a somewhat precarious collection of right-of-centre parties, with 23 parliamentarians tied together, in large part, by profound misgivings about Borisov’s slipperiness and willingness to fudge reform.
There was also the Patriotic Front (PF), with 18 MPs, one of two rather strident nationalist formations in parliament, which RB insisted on having on side for the sake of a solid majority, where a minority government might allow Borisov to do side-deals. Signed up to a detailed coalition programme, the PF abstained from holding government office.
The reverse was the case with the fourth party in this crowded bed, the Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV in Bulgarian) – a leftist formation with 11 MPs which had broken away in early 2014 from the mainstream Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Under a loose partnership agreement, ABV offered the government support and one of its most capable politicians, Ivaylo Kalfin, as social minister and deputy premier.
This left four parties without the benefit of blankets. There was the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS in Bulgarian), classically the party of Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks, though increasingly popular also with its Roma (gypsy) population. The DPS had been rendered, for the moment, toxic by its recent record in government: an attempt to appoint its oligarch-MP Delyan Peevski to head a key security agency had provoked months of demonstrations, while Peevski was also widely perceived as connected with the collapse of the major Corporate Commercial Bank (KTB) in June 2014. Nevertheless, with 36 MPs it had been able to make the Mephistophelean offer to Borisov of 300 days’ “unconditional” support if he’d dispense with the “un-European” PF – precisely the sort of situation the RB wanted to avoid. Borisov declined.
Then there was the BSP, with a catastrophically low contingent of 38 MPs, the partner of the DPS in government and traumatised both by government failure and by DPS assertiveness and duplicity. There was the radical nationalist Ataka (11 MPs), combining anti-Turkish and anti-Roma rantings with an anti-EU, pro-Russian and economically leftist agenda that differentiated it from the rather pro-business PF.
And there was the Bulgarian Democratic Centre (BDC) with 14 MPs, a formation based on the whimsically populist but oligarch-backed Bulgaria Without Censorship movement of former journalist Nikolay Barekov – who had won a European Parliament seat in June and, not too long after broke with his colleagues, it having been made clear that he now lacked support, subvention and welcome in Bulgaria. Including parliamentarians backed by controversial energy magnate Hristo Kovachki, BDC was rather directionless.
Strange bedfellows the governmental parties may have been, but their capacity to avoid a falling out has been quite impressive.
Just a couple of weeks into the government’s life, the Patriotic Front threatened to withdraw when the Reformist Bloc-aligned defence minister, Nikolay Nenchev, appointed as his deputy Orhan Ismailov, a member of a predominantly ethnic Turkish party within the Bloc. Potentially an agent of Ankara and representing a party close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the PF huffed and puffed. But it accepted the compromise of leaving Ismailov in place while appointing another, PF-friendly deputy in the ministry. The PF also bore with relative equanimity rejection in December of its nominee as chair of parliament’s cultural committee, nightclub owner Slavi Binev – a figure scandalously unacceptable to the artistic community.
Maybe the PF hasn’t felt so out of place in the government. Its obsession with an anti-refugee fence on the Turkish border has been indulged. Curfews for refugees have been introduced. And remarks by RB-aligned health minister, Petur Moskov, in December that had NGOs and the DPS hopping mad will have been music to PF ears: reacting to attacks on ambulance personnel by saying that ambulances wouldn’t be sent into risky areas without protection, Moskov had observed that most such attacks took place in Roma neighbourhoods. Certainly popular with ambulance crews – and probably with a lot of ethnic Bulgarians too – Moskov got off with little more than a public suggestion from Borisov that he should choose his words more carefully.
Meanwhile, December also saw a potential bust-up between Borisov and the RB avoided – though a reminder, too, that Borisov wasn’t immune to Faustian temptations. With pension contributions for those born after 1959 divided (unequally) between a pay-as-you-go state fund and private funds, some GERB MPs moved that citizens should be able to move funds from private to public – and the unexpected motion was passed with DPS help (along with the votes of those Kovachki). Supported retrospectively (and surely sanctioned in advance) by Borisov and his finance minister, Vladislav Goranov – a GERB man widely suspected by the “chattering classes” of closeness to the controversial Delyan Peevski – this was variously interpreted. It was a commonsensical measure to give people choice. It was an attempt to ease state finances by gobbling up private funds. Or it was a move by sinister DPS-linked forces to move in on the biggest of the private pension funds. Whatever the truth, it was furiously attacked by the RB and especially its radically reformist co-leader Radan Kanev. Result: potentially creative compromise. While the measure stood, the sub-legislation needed to implement it was delayed, pending a general review by end-March of reform of the pension system – which badly needs it.
Meanwhile, the business of government has been going on fairly smoothly. Ministers have been busy elaborating reform plans and putting forward reform drafts – especially RB ministers, who have taken the portfolios most in need of reforms. And EU funds, restricted by Brussels’ displeasure with the government’s BSP-DPS predecessor, have begun to flow quite nicely again – especially in the big-spending ministries that have tended to go to GERB.
Not all is smooth flow, though. As we’ll see in our next article, there’s been quite some turbulence over the question of foreign debt in the last month or so. And it’s raising questions about who’s in the bed, who’s really providing the blankets, and who might find themselves feeling the chill a bit.
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