Protests erupt in Bulgaria over suspected plot to block pro-Western government

Protests erupt in Bulgaria over suspected plot to block pro-Western government
Former PM Kiril Pektov with protesters calling for a European Bulgaria. / Change Continues
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia May 31, 2023

Thousands of Bulgarians gathered in front of the presidency on May 30 to protest against what many see as a coordinated effort to block the creation of a pro-Western coalition government. 

“This is not Moscow,” chanted protesters, accusing President Rumen Radev of becoming openly pro-Russian and working in the interest of Moscow, not of Sofia.

Earlier that day, Bulgaria’s already deep political crisis worsened, when the prosecution and state national security body, DANS, announced they are probing several key political leaders, and asked for former prime minister and Gerb leader Boyko Borissov’s immunity to be lifted. 

Gerb had been poised to back a joint government with Change Continues-Democratic Bulgaria (CC-DB) when a leaked recording of a CC leadership meeting prompted Gerb to freeze talks. The latest developments further complicate the situation. 

There are suspicions the actions of the prosecution and DANS, as well as the leaked recording, are efforts by multiple actors aimed at preventing the creation of a regular, reformist and pro-Western government.

“This is not Moscow”

Radev reluctantly gave CC-DB the mandate to form a new government on May 29. He was required to do so by law after the first mandate failed, as CC-DB is the second-largest party in parliament. However, he said when handing it over that the party should hand it back in light of some of the comments made at the CC leadership meeting revealed on the leaked tape.

This, together with Radev’s suspected influence over DANS,  angered thousands of Bulgarians, who came out in protest on May 30. 

The protest was officially backed by CC. Its co-leader Assen Vassilev told protesters that a new iron curtain is dividing Europe and that Bulgaria must not stand on the wrong side of the curtain as it did during the Cold War. 

“We have lived on the wrong side of the curtain and we shall not allow this to happen again,” he said.

Protesters claim that Radev is openly working for Russian interests through the caretaker government he appointed. They recalled that on taking office for the first time in August 2022, Prime Minister Gulub Donev’s caretaker government tried hard to restore Russian gas supplies. It also blocked military aid to Ukraine with the support of Radev.

Politicians under attack 

Gerb and CC-DB, which agreed earlier in May to form a government with a rotating prime minister, seem to be under attack from all sides. 

Bulgaria’s Sofia City Prosecution asked the parliament on May 30 to lift Borissov’s immunity, based on evidence of money laundering related to the Barcelonagate case.

The information about possible money laundering involving people linked to Borissov was first revealed back in 2020 by Spanish El Periodico and confirmed at the time by the police. In February 2022, the government said it had received new evidence indicating that €5mn was laundered in the scandal.

The probe was then dropped, but has now been reactivated, coinciding with a rift between Borissov and chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev. 

"From the evidence collected in the course of pre-trial proceedings, it can be concluded that the former prime minister has provided third parties with funds that were acquired as a result of crime for the purchase and rental of real estate abroad,” the prosecution said in a statement.

The also prosecution decided to renew a money laundering investigation against local businessman Beyzt Yacha, who is considered to be very close to Borissov. 

Funds for “dead souls”

Meanwhile, Ivan Demerdzhiev, the caretaker interior minister appointed by Radev, accused CC co-leader Kiril Petkov of distributing funds to “dead souls” instead of Ukrainian refugees. Demerdzhiev claims this led to millions of levs in damages to the state budget.

Unnamed MPs quoted by Dnevnik news outlet forecast that Geshev will seek to lift Petkov’s immunity. 

DANS announced on May 30 it is probing Petkov’s former advisor for treason in relation with his dealings with neighbouring North Macedonia. DANS reportedly is also probing Petkov and Vassilev on suspicion of treason.

Many in Bulgaria believe that President Rumen Radev controls the head of DANS and pushed for investigations into CC’s leaders and top members.

There are also suspicions of a new alliance between Radev and Geshev after the president decided not to sign a decree that would put into force legislation to make the chief prosecutor replaceable and accountable for his or her actions.

Other politicians have also shown fierce opposition to the proposed new government. 

DPS leader Mustafa Karadayi threatened on May 30 that if Gerb and CC-DB manage to form a government, they will face riots similar to those in 1997 when hundreds of thousands of people protested against a government led by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) that had led the country to financial crisis and hyperinflation.

Karadayu threatened that people will attack parliament if Gerb and CC-DB manage to find a new formula for a government.

Gerb sets conditions for CC-DB

Meanwhile, Gerb’s candidate for prime minister Mariya Gabriel said on May 30 the negotiations are not in the “ice age”, and set out tough conditions to CC-DB for their resumption. 

Gabriel said that talks can be restarted if CC-DB reconsiders the format, composition, model and people who would enter the future government. Gerb is pushing for a technocratic government or for more of its members in the government, while the initial agreement was that the ministers will be those already proposed by CC-DB after the April 2 snap general election.

Nikolai Denkov, CC-DB’s candidate for prime minister, replied to Gabriel’s statement, saying that such important conversations must not be held via the media but in personal meetings.

The two parties have until June 5 — the deadline set in the mandate handed over by Radev — to cement a deal on a new government.