Skull Signals a Warning for Bulgaria’s Borisov

Photo: Boyko Borissov, Prime Minister of Bulgaria in Sofia June 18, 2020. Credit: xThomasxImo/photothek.netx via REUTERS
Photo: Boyko Borissov, Prime Minister of Bulgaria in Sofia June 18, 2020. Credit: xThomasxImo/photothek.netx via REUTERS

The last two years were not easy for Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria’s long-serving prime minister.

Firstly, his government destroyed one of the richest Bulgarians and gambling boss Vasil “The Skull” Bozhkov. In response, the media were flooded with details of Borisov’s alleged corrupt practices (which Bozhkov must have collected meticulously over the years.) This, together with the live-streamed proof by former justice minister Hristo Ivanov showing of the oligarchs’ practices of privatizing public spaces (in one case a beach), seeded the roots of months of political protests, not only against him, but also against the “captured state” in Bulgaria.

Since the last Bulgarian tsar Simeon Saxe Coburg Gotha, became Prime Minister in 2001, Bulgaria has faced a consolidation of the post-communist system. Behind the democratic political rituals, the country has been divided among powerful economic and political individuals, who have thus captured the state. This is why the attack on Bozhkov constituted a serious attack on the status quo. And it raised the question — will Boyko Borisov, as an “honest broker” of these circles, be able to survive the aftershocks of this political earthquake, given that he faced the anger not only of the ousted oligarch, but also of public opinion.

For over a decade, Borisov has been the face of Bulgaria’s stability, but his foreign policy is much more questionable. Rhetorically, Bulgaria is a loyal and reliable NATO and European Union (EU) member. However, during Borisov’s last term, Bulgaria became more dependent on Russia through the completion of the TurkStream gas pipeline on its territory. Meanwhile, the interconnector gas pipeline with Greece, an EU-backed initiative, is still not completed 12 years after the project was initiated. Add to that the EU concerns corruption, a politically influenced judiciary, and rampant organized crime, Bulgaria is a very special EU member. Also recall, as some do, that Borisov was a Ministry of Internal Affairs employee before 1989 and became a bodyguard to its last leader, Todor Zhivkov.

NATO membership is also a story of contradictions. Although the Bulgarian parliament decided to purchase F-16’s from the U.S. and the country hosts an American military base, Bulgarian politicians were not eager to join the Romanian-led naval initiative in the Black Sea, and the country is exposed to cyclical spy scandals with Russia (most recently, six defense ministry and military intelligence officials were arrested on March 21). Add to the equation the statements of the Bulgarian president Rumen Radev, concerning sanctions on Russia and nationalist rhetoric against North Macedonia, the contours of Borisov’s precarious balancing act between the West and Russia become apparent. Bulgaria’s ruling elite describes this ambiguous positioning as a “pragmatic” foreign policy.

Borisov took a backseat in the conflict with Northern Macedonia, leaving his nationalist coalition partner Krasimir Karakachanov from VMRO to take the offensive. At the same time, Sofia’s veto has stymied the EU enlargement perspective again and has the potential to become a continuous obstacle on Northern Macedonia’s road to membership. Indeed, even if Bulgaria’s actions are driven by a deep sense of historical injustice, it is very likely to create an unstated alliance with Russian efforts to prevent the enlargement of the EU to the Western Balkans.

The changes in Bulgaria’s political equilibrium over the last two years were largely triggered by Borisov’s far-Right- coalition partners. The attack on “the Skull” was an opportunity to seize larger pieces of the state pie and the North Macedonia issue was hoped to secure them a place in the next parliament. Today, the polls show that his nationalist coalition partners registering support around the 4% election threshold, indicating they might pay a heavy political price. In the heat of the protests against his government, Borisov also came up with an idea to change the Bulgarian constitution. This was not one of the protesters’ demands, but Borisov used it as an opportunity to endure in power until the end of his term. He used the last half a year to consolidate his power and secure the best possible position prior to the elections.

Today the paradox is, as a Gallup survey reveals, that while the level of public trust in the government is below 20%, Borisov’s GERB is estimated to get around 25% of the votes. Although allegations against the premier dominate the campaign, his opponents are splintered. At the same time, his party apparatus and the established networks of party-administrative dependence secure a continuous and dominant position for GERB in Bulgarian politics. So, there is little chance that Borisov’s GERB will lose its pre-eminent position. The best the anti-Borisov forces might hope for is that he is unable to establish a coalition and Bulgaria might have a new Prime Minister. The real concern is that although “state capture” is no longer an open secret, but an identified and contested reality, the systemic grasp on power and the colorful opposition of largely populist contestants have little potential to bring about genuine change.

Although the elections will not have an impact on Bulgaria’s membership in the EU and NATO, the results may have small, yet painful implications for the EU. The second-placed party in the polls, the Bulgarian Socialist Party makes similar populist claims, but its international exposure is much more pro-Russian. The third constant in Bulgarian politics, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, representing the Turkish minority, is the most moderate on North Macedonia, but as a party protecting the oligarchic status quo, will do whatever it takes to maintain it. The main question remains the impact of the television anchor Slavi Trifonov and his pro-protest ITN party, and where he will position himself after the elections?

Borisov’s departure from office would not necessarily mean an immediate improvement of the quality of democracy, especially since the only genuinely liberal and pro-western party (Yes, Bulgaria) can at best only aspire to become a junior coalition member.

The country lacks charismatic political figures and any possible coalitions without Borisov will follow a similar “pragmatic” course. Still, in a populist-dominated political environment with overwhelming public support for a tough nationalist position towards Northern Macedonia, the elections are likely to secure a continuation of the existing order. The EU will continue to expect rule of law reforms, the U.S. will pressure when necessary and Russia will benefit from the muddy waters of the captured state in Bulgaria.

Spasimir Domaradzki Ph.D. – assistant professor at the Department of European Law and Institutions, University of Warsaw. Member of the editorial board of Res Publica Nova. Visegrad Insight Fellow since 2019.

 


Photo: Boyko Borissov, Prime Minister of Bulgaria in Sofia June 18, 2020. Credit: xThomasxImo/photothek.netx via REUTERS

April 1, 2021