Boyko Borissov is facing challenging times in his third stint as prime minister as he needs to satisfy the demands of his highly unstable coalition partners in order to stay on top of domestic politics, while at the same time attempting to persuade Western European leaders that Bulgaria is good enough for the EU’s A league and thereby secure entry to the Schengen and Eurozone waiting rooms. And he needs to do this while firefighting the new and bigger scandals that erupt in Bulgaria almost every day.
The country assumed the rotational EU Council chairmanship in January and since then, despite Borissov’s enormous efforts to persuade the EU that his government is stable and that problems are being resolved and key reforms implemented, several big scandals have marred Sofia’s image.
The latest and most explosive concerns the highly controversial sale of Czech energy company CEZ’s assets in Bulgaria to an unknown local firm. It has already claimed one victim; Energy Minister Temenuzhka Petkova was advised by Borissov to resign over her friendship with the firm’s owner, although both Borissov and Petkova claim she was not involved in the deal in any way.
Borissov was also not formally connected to the deal but the confusion it has triggered in Sofia has forced him to backtrack on his initial statement that it was a deal between two private companies where the state cannot do anything. Instead, he has gone full throttle in the opposite direction, putting all possible state authorities into action and ordering a full investigation of the deal. He then went even further, pledging on February 27 that the government will immediately draft legislation that will retroactively stop the sale.
Despite these efforts, the scandal around the sale of CEZ’s assets is being used by all Borissov’s opponents to increase their support at his expense.
Analysts believe that the veteran politician — Borrissov is the first to hold the Bulgarian premiership more than once in the post-communist era — might once again trigger early elections to either avoid total collapse of his political support or (if things start to go better) to allow him to benefit from possible momentum gained during the EU Council chairmanship.
Borissov said on February 27 that his government would not resign over the CEZ scandal, but he is known for his unpredictability and in the past has used early elections as a tool to either avoid facing a total collapse in popular support for his ruling centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), or to try to secure more votes.
With his junior coalition partner the far-right United Patriots increasingly riven by internal conflicts, this time he might be forced to choose between making even more compromises to get a new ally or calling early elections at a bad time. If so, this would be the fourth consecutive early election for Bulgaria.
The government is not very stable and the risk of early elections is real, Cvete Koneska of Control Risks told bne IntelliNews. “The last Bulgarian government didn’t last very long, it’s largely because of Borissov himself, so who knows what will happen.”
The United Patriots came to power for the first time in 2017, in coalition with GERB, prompting fears of a shift to the far right by Borissov’s new government. However, they have recently started showing strong signs of instability and in February Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov admitted that the alliance of three nationalist parties will most likely collapse before the next election, blaming his colleague Krassimir Karakachanov. Simeonov is the leader of the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), which makes up the United Patriots along with the Karakachanov’s Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO) and Ataka of Volen Siderov.
Meanwhile, former firebrand Siderov, who has been relatively subdued for the last few years, decided to end his silence and started attacking GERB’s decisions. He began by accusing Borissov’s right hand, the leader of GERB’s parliamentary group Tsvetan Tsvetanov, of causing conflict within the ruling coalition. This was quickly resolved at a meeting with Simeonov and Tsvetanov, after which the leader of Ataka said he was satisfied by the answers he received.
However, he then went even further, demanding the resignation of the GERB MP who said that Ataka could be easily replaced in the ruling coalition by Volya, a new party founded by controversial businessman Vesselin Mareshki.
Simeonov also provoked a PR disaster for Bulgaria in early February after publishing a statement demanding that Ska Keller, a German MEP and the president of the Greens group in the European Parliament, be deported to Turkey after she took part in environmental protests in Bulgaria. The rather racist attack forced Borissov’s government to issue a statement saying Simeonov’s comment was not the official position of the Bulgarian state.
If the patriots collapse, this would put pressure on the government, though the chances of Borissov losing the support of the parliament do not seem high as he has another potential ally in the parliament in Volya, and is unofficially supported by the ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedom (DPS). Still, these new allies might cost him too many compromises.
Borissov could theoretically benefit if he gains political momentum during Bulgaria’s EU chairmanship, and he might want to use that to end his dependence on the shaky United Patriots.
“[H]e might feel he wants to capitalise on that and then use that to again call early elections. I doubt he’ll do that, but you never know. And the government is not very stable to start with, so there’s always the risk that it will not survive its full term,” Koneska said.
However, with the unending scandals and suspicions that the government is not really tackling high-level corruption, Borissov’s hopes for a bright end to Bulgaria’s EU presidency that could reap him political dividends seem to be fading away.
“The government really has the right rhetoric. They are talking the talk, they are saying all the right things that the audience in the EU wants to hear, but also the domestic public wants to hear … A lot of the rhetoric is similar to what happened in Romania a few years ago, but the results are too few,” Koneska said.
Bulgaria initiated several cases at the beginning of the year, trying to show that it is really fighting corruption this time. The prosecution has charged a former finance minister and former deputy health minister, initiated investigations into the origin of money used to buy luxury properties and vehicles, and charged the mayor of a small town in what it said was the beginning of a series of investigations into local government officials suspected of corruption or abuse of office.
However, analysts are sceptical that these actions will really lead to results. Moreover, the EU will most likely not buy it either. In its report on Bulgaria in January 2017, the European Commission once again noted that the country had failed to make any significant progress in the battle against graft in the past 10 years. This has resulted in a lack of trust in the judicial system among Bulgarian citizens. In its November Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report, the EC noted that although Bulgaria has put a lot of effort into adopting several laws, the government has failed in terms of transparency.
The EU could still give some encouragement to the government in Sofia, Koneska says. However, this could be a symbolic gesture rather than the desired entry into the Schengen zone or lifting of monitoring under the CVM, which was set up to check Bulgaria’s and Romania’s progress in fighting corruption and organised crime.
Bulgaria also wants to apply to enter the Eurozone’s waiting room, the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM2), in the first half of 2018. But again, Sofia’s hopes of being accepted are fading away after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Bulgaria still has work to do either to join the Schengen area or to meet the criteria for becoming a member of the Eurozone.
President or bust
In this situation, Borissov has another option: he could seek political salvation by running for president. However, his chance of success depends on the popularity of Bulgaria’s current president, Rumen Radev. “I am sure that somewhere in [Borissov’s] plans there is a presidency and he is counting on that. Whether that will be the next presidential election will probably depend on how he feels Radev has done in office,” Koneska said.
Radev got significant support in the 2016 presidential election mainly because he was not a politician, although he was backed by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Since then, the former air force commander has been rather active and willing to stand up to Borissov, who he has openly criticised, and seems ready for battle. This could secure him support for next presidential election, in which case Borissov, whose initial impetus as an outsider and man of the people has been tarnished during his three terms in office, would most likely draw back from the competition.
With the constant ructions in Bulgarian politics at the moment making it hard to predict a week into the future, it’s impossible to say whether Borissov — or for that matter Radev — will still be on top of the political heap when the next presidential elections come around four years from now. Borissov has a track record of being the only Bulgarian prime minister to make a comeback not once but twice, and considering that he likes to bet only on strong cards, if he runs for president, he would most likely win.