Sandy Gill in Sofia -
With quite remarkable speed, the new government of Bulgaria is unravelling.
It's less than a month since Plamen Oresharski – the socialist-aligned finance expert touted as a "technocrat" and "the Bulgarian Mario Monti" – assumed the premiership. He did so in the wake of an election campaign precipitated by protests in February over high electricity bills, and dominated by revelations about wiretapping and other alleged iniquities by senior members of the then ruling party GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria).
Less than a month in power and Oresharski has already managed to shoot himself in the foot with an appointment of spectacular ineptitude, provoking mass demonstrations that, despite the reversal of that appointment, have now continued for 12 days and prominently feature demands that the government should resign. While there's no sign of a resignation yet, few Sofia pundits are betting on this government's longevity and some think it may be gone in weeks or even days.
It was never going to be easy; not with the parliamentary constellation produced by elections on May 12. With almost a quarter of voters opting for parties that didn't clear the 4% barrier needed to enter parliament, the four that did qualify for the 240-member unicameral assembly were a problematic bunch.
GERB had the largest contingent of 97 MPs, but was regarded as untouchable by the other three. The former communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the liberal and mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) were amicable enough, and had 120 members between them – just enough to form a government, but not to ensure the parliamentary quorum needed to allow such formation to take place. With the fourth party being the ultra-nationalist and rabidly anti-MRF party called Ataka, that was a bit of a problem.
In the end, Ataka's temperamental leader Volen Siderov provided the vote needed for the quorum, on the grounds that a government, any government, was needed; that GERB had to be kept out; and that he would be watching the government's doings. With GERB talking gleefully of a "three-way coalition" and a "political Frankenstein" – and many nationalists dismayed at Siderov's actions – the Oresharski government was voted through.
Talked up in advance as "technocratic" or a "government of experts," the catchword mutated in the last few days to "hybrid" – partly expert and partly political. While a good many ministers weren't political figures, some appointments certainly were. Oresharski himself, once a right-winger, is a member of no party nowadays – and, arguably, isn't much of a politician – but he's been effectively aligned with the BSP since 2005. And, to take just one example, Economy and Energy Minister Dragomir Stoynev is not just a close associate of BSP leader Sergei Stanishev, but also has a background, not in energy, but in social policy – a sphere from which he seems to have been excluded by the claims of MRF heavyweight Hasan Ademov.
While reviews of the cabinet were mixed, however, the big personnel faux pas came a fortnight later on June 14, when the government proposed its candidate for the State Agency for National Security. Known by its Bulgarian acronym of DANS, this is often – if imprecisely – described as the "Bulgarian FBI" and had just been enhanced by a law controversially transferring the police agency dealing with organised crime to its jurisdiction. The candidate was MRF-aligned MP Delyan Peevski and the result was uproar.
It was partly a matter of Peevski himself. Aged just 33, his experience outside parliament had been as a rather junior state investigation official and, briefly, a deputy minister who resigned – though was then cleared – over a corruption scandal. But in a year where "oligarchy" has been a favourite boo-word, his oligarchic credentials were rather more impressive. Along with his mother, Irena Krasteva, he controls the powerful New Bulgarian Media Group (NBMG). And NBMG is generally assumed to have the financial backing of the Corporate Commercial Bank – a bank much criticised of late for its more-than-healthy share in state enterprise deposits. Even Peevski's looks didn't work in his favour: if a Hollywood director were seeking to cast a fearless upholder of law, it's a fair bet that Peevski wouldn't make the shortlist.
But it was partly also the way the appointment was carried out. Parliament voted Peevski into the post just a quarter of an hour after he had been proposed, with no discussion whatever – let alone public consultation beforehand – and he was sworn in immediately. This effect was admittedly helped by a GERB boycott of parliament, in which it said it has been denied its fair share of committee posts. But the uncritical silence of the government's supporters was shocking. And, duly, shocked.
The same day, protests began on Bulgaria's streets, mobilised by social media – a Facebook group opposing Peevski had acquired 58,000 members within hours. Daily protests continued, with the blessing of President Rosen Plevneliev, one of the few politicians in Bulgaria to enjoy much respect nowadays. He declared that the government had "exhausted its credit of confidence" with him – no mean feat for an administration less than three weeks in office.
Signs of a climb down began to appear almost immediately. Peevski professed himself willing to withdraw if asked to do by the governing parties. Though there were mumblings about Peevski's apparent quality of "determination" standing him in good stead and the desirability of having an "outside expert" in the DANS post, Oresharski was soon acknowledging that "we underestimated the controversial image that has been established for Mr Peevski". And so on June 19 parliament duly reversed the decision to appoint him. To date, there's been no new appointment and, ironically, there's some legal question as to whether Peevski – having been sworn in and served as DANS head even briefly – can now resume his seat in parliament.
But the retraction hasn't stopped the daily demonstrations, or reduced their size. As with February's protests over electricity prices, their scope has broadened: key demands include the resignation of the Oresharski government and electoral reform. Social observers have noted the presence of the young, the educated and the middle class among the protestors. And, though the 1990s anti-communist slogan of "Red trash" has been prominent among the chants, the atmosphere has been remarkably good humoured and peaceful, with children and even pets brought along by protestors. Dismissive remarks by a BSP-aligned psychology professor led to some protestors gleefully bearing signs identifying them as "internet lumpen."
In fact, almost the only violence reported in the course of the demonstrations reflected tensions between nationalist groups. Reliably shrill in his denunciation of "paid" protestors and GERB attempts to destabilise Bulgaria, Ataka's leader Siderov was himself denounced as a "janissary" for his role in enabling a government that included the MRF. Fisticuffs and some injuries ensued outside Ataka's barricaded HQ one evening. But demonstrators have generally heeded yet another slogan: "Ignore Volen."
Meanwhile, there has been fall-out on the left. Socialist leader Sergei Stanishev – unpopular with some comrades for excluding several BSP heavyweights from the election lists and heavily committed to the strategy of a non-party government – has come under attack from within his own party, with assailants including former president Georgi Parvanov, former interior minister Rumen Petkov and "red yuppie" Georgi Kadiev, finance expert and leading light of the Sofia BSP.
Rightly or wrongly, Stanishev has been identified as the initiator of the disastrous decision to nominate Peevski. So far Stanishev has survived, fighting off a party no-confidence motion June 20. But his position has been weakened and his embarrassment enhanced by the fact that, with ironically awful timing, the Party of European Socialism, which he currently chairs, had its annual meeting in Sofia last weekend amid the demonstrations.
With protests continuing, it's unclear what will follow. The Oresharski line is that the government has learned its lesson, but that there is serious business to get on with – for instance, negotiating European funds for 2014-2020 and ensuring cheaper electricity – and that elections soon will mean, at best, another hung parliament and, at worst, a return to power of the reviled GERB. That may or may not be so. While there's no sign as yet of a strong "protest party" emerging from the demonstrations, one or two of the parties that fell foul of the 4% threshold may be empowered by circumstances and the "conventional" right shows an inclination to sink differences that might be more than rhetorical. A few months might help these processes along.
Meanwhile, the government might well calculate that it can sit the protests out and wait for their energy to dissipate: Oresharski has just proposed an extra deputy premier, suggesting he doesn't intend to go anywhere soon.
And it's doubtful whether there's much enthusiasm for early elections in parliament. The BSP needs time to atone for the Peevski fiasco with some populist achievements, while the nationalist Siderov – recently sweetened by appointment to chair the parliamentary ethics committee – would almost certainly face annihilation if elections were held any time soon. Rival nationalists almost hit the 4% threshold in May: they would surely overwhelm him now.
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