International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East and the Balkans. IFIMES analyzed the current developments in Bulgaria. We bring the most interesting excerpts from a comprehensive analysis titled “2020 Bulgaria: Bulgaria exports its problems to North Macedonia.”
In early 2020 Bulgaria entered a deep political crisis. The protests organized in the capital of Sofia and several other cities have been going on since July this year. They began after the prosecutor raided the building of the president of the state and Hristo Ivanov's spectacular action on the coast of the Black Sea in which together with two supporters he motored up to a luxurious residence of Ahmed Dogan (DPS), one of the most influential persons in Bulgaria. The goal was to draw attention to the illegal fencing of public facilities and unlawful engagement of security guards from civil service at the residence. The action triggered mass protests in Bulgaria against corruption, oligarchs and the government.
After the arrest of two of his aids (presidential commissioner for fight against corruption and security advisor), Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (independent) accused the state prosecutor of being linked with the mafia. The conflict between the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (GERB – Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) and the Bulgarian President Rumen Radev intensified.
The existing crisis in Bulgaria is multidimensional. Specifically, it is political, social, economic and includes recession, financial instability, high level of crime and corruption, institutional inefficiency, as well as a crisis of political representation and the existing political system.
Over the past 10 years the authoritarian model of management of the state has been established, whereas the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (GERB) is the symbol of that model.
The established authoritarian regime of government, which is directly connected with and serves the interests of a small circle of oligarchs established around Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Ahmed Dogan, an oligarch and honorary president of the DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedom). The DPS is an ethnic party of Bulgarian Turks.
The Bulgarian economy is inefficient, its financial resources are limited and mainly already exhausted. At the same time a strong class of around 3,000 oligarchs are waging clan wars for distribution of limited financial resources and redistribution of property and businesses. A few super rich individuals control the business and financial capital in the country. In fact, majority of tenders and resources from the EU funds goes through them. The corruption is omnipresent and has been imposed as the basic social technology for management of public funds and all public spheres. The legislation creates conditions for corrupt practices.
It is common knowledge that Boyko Borisov is a “favorite” of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU). Borisov also enjoys protection of the political-criminal circles within the European People’s Party (EPP). Furthermore, he has good relations with the Russian President Vladimir Putin and leaders of the Visegrad Group (V-4) countries. Borisov has also developed excellent relations and cooperation with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (AKP).
Furthermore, he is also trying to “curry favor” with the US President Donald Trump by investing efforts to fulfill his condition according to which defense appropriations of all NATO member countries should be at the level of at least 2% of the GDP. In this context, Borisov has purchased eight F-16 aircrafts which had been paid in advance to the US at a maximum possible price. Although it is the poorest EU member country, Bulgaria tops the list when it comes to defense appropriations. In the period between 2018 and 2019 Bulgaria increased its defense appropriations by 127%. Construction of a logistic center which encompasses eight military bases at key points in the country has been approved. This has additionally burdened the already scarce national budget. Construction of a NATO coordination center at the Bulgarian coast of the Black Sea has also been agreed.
Bulgaria will participate with 20% in the funding of construction of a new LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal in Alexandroupolis (North Greece), which will entirely serve US economic and military interests. It is expected that the LNG terminal in northern Greece will become operational in 2022. Bulgaria has also undertook to participate with 20 million EUR in the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund, which is supported by the US.
The construction of the Balkan Stream pipeline, which is an extension of the Turkish Stream pipeline towards the Western Balkans and Central European countries, is underway. The project of construction of the Belene nuclear power plant, which includes Russian participation, slowly progresses.
Analysts believe that the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović (DPS) use the same political manners/tricks in their relations with the international community. In the West, and particularly in the European People’s Party, Borisov presents himself as the only guardian and barrier against the return of communists to power in Bulgaria, which is an absolute untruth, because communism no longer exists nor is it possible to renew such a system under current international circumstances. On the other side, Đukanović presents himself to the West as the only guardian and barrier against the influence of Russia in Montenegro, which also does not reflect the truth. Russia, as well as Serbia, had agreed to have Montenegro declare independence and sovereignty in 2006. It is rather unlikely that without that (tacit) approval Montenegro would have been able to become an independent and sovereign state. The publicly declared policies and actions of Borisov, Đukanović and their oligarchies are actually a cover for crime and corruption of enormous scale.
The developments in Bulgaria are taking place in conditions of a serious demographic crisis. After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, the population of Bulgaria was in the area of nine million, and 28 years later it dropped to around seven million. Over the past 20 years the population of Bulgaria has decreased by 25%. While Bulgaria tops the global lists of average age and mortality rate of the population by countries, it has one of the lowest birth rates. In fact, within the EU it has the highest mortality rate. The projections indicate that the population will decrease by up to 50% by 2050, in comparison to the data from 1989. If the poor economic situation in Bulgaria and the associated emigration of population continues, the assumption is that the population in the country could drop to 5.2 million by 2050. More than 1.2 million Bulgarians has permanently emigrated to Western Europe and North America, while an additional 500,000 seeks seasonal employment there.
Analysts believe that Bulgaria has no true answer to the demographic disaster, because Bulgarian authorities pay more attention to criminal and corrupt activities and the abuse of public funds through public tenders and other forms of misuse of public funds than to the birth rate in the country. Bulgaria is losing its qualified manpower to the level that it is not capable to create a highly-technological and effective modern economy.
Since 2009, Bulgaria is run exclusively by Prime Minister Borisov, who has managed to depersonalize the legislative, executive and judicial branches. Currently, the only institution that is not under his control is the presidential one. It is asserted that President Rumen Radev is the leading opponent of the regime, although his constitutional authorities are minor.
Although he is not unambiguously accepted in the EU, Borisov still enjoys support of important factors in the European People’s Party (EPP) as well as tacit support from the German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally. Anyway, Borisov has openly stated that his party had been created with financial and advisory support of German right-wing foundations.
The elections held so far in Bulgaria included serious indications of election theft, mass purchase of votes, extortion of votes from employees of companies, modification of voting protocols, declaration of ballots invalid, etc.
No public debate has been organized in the legislative branch for several years already, and a better part of the laws had been openly drafted by lobbyists.
The established system of rule has seriously degraded the government and national institutions, as well as political standards and European values. Majority of decisions are made under pressure and many laws are controversial.
Furthermore, increasing inequalities are evident in Bulgaria. The income of a significant part of the population is exceptionally low. There are serious problems in the judiciary and in the main public spheres, such as health care and education, which has led to erosion of the trust not just in the ruling political coalition but also in all major political actors in the country. These processes have been further deepened by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Protests are organized in Sofia, and at a smaller scale in other major cities in the country such as Plovdiv, Varna, Ruse and Burgas. The protestors demand from Prime Minister Borisov and the government to step down. They also demand resignation of chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev, who is believed to be under the control of the Prime Minister, a group of politicians, oligarchs and media moguls (Ahmed Dogan and Delyan Peevski - DPS) and their repressive apparatus, which turns against anyone who challenges their power.
The arrogant tactics applied by the Bulgarian Government can be defined as a wait using the formula of “peaceful coexistence of government and protestors.” The protestors may protest peacefully as much as they want, but the authorities will not yield to pressure, nor will they resign or step down but will continue to work in the interest of Bulgaria, which they had allegedly been doing all the time.
Prime Minister Borisov wishes to prevent at all cost establishment of a transitional government, which President Rumen Radev is preparing. The official explanation offered is that at a time of the crisis the state needs an active Parliament. The fear from establishment of a transitional government stems from the fact that they do not want to have someone else organize the next parliamentary elections. Borisov’s mandate expires in March 2021, when, if he remains in power, he would organize the elections and, due to the already developed and tested technology for manipulations and election fraud, he expects to win at the next elections as well.
In order to avoid having to step down, establishment of the transitional government and organization of early elections, Boris resorted to the idea of the necessity to convene the Grand National Assembly for modification of the Constitution and “restarting of the political system”. If he succeeds in his idea, his Government will get at least another year in power - in a hope that the protests will be suppressed. At least so far, such a scenario seems impossible.
Analysts believe that the current Bulgarian government headed by Boyko Borisov has been exhausted and compromised and is not able to conduct serious reforms and changes to sustain stability and peace in the country. The Bulgarians want to implement European standards for democracy and the rule of law. If the EU continues to ignore the conduct and actions of the Bulgarian government and Borisov, it will demoralize the Bulgarian society.
The dominating request at the protests is that Bulgaria becomes a normal European state, that democracy is established, as well as that theft, crime and corruption are stopped. The main slogan of the protests is “Mafia Out”, which indicates the commitment of the protestors and their main focus. The main political request is resignation of the current government, establishment of a transitional government by the Bulgarian president and organization of transparent, fair and free elections.
The protests do not have an unequivocal or clear political profile. They are supported by the major opposition party BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party), although the party does not participate in their organization.
The policy pursued by the government is extremely populist and aimed at relaxing the tensions among the population. However it cannot resolve the fundamental contradictions of the economic interests of the leading business elites. The population, including social groups that have certain benefits, assess these actions as attempts of the Government to save itself and survive on taxpayers’ money. Furthermore, in the conditions of reduced budget revenues, the government is spending fiscal reserves and taking foreign loans to survive in power. It is assessed that this could lead to options that will affect the stability of Bulgaria.
Analysts believe that two scenarios are possible when it comes to the outcome of developments in Bulgaria. The first one is the withdrawal of the prime minister with preservation of the leading role of the GERB in a new broad expert government within the current Parliament, or establishment of a similar government after the early parliamentary elections. Borisov is showing readiness for this scenario. However, there are several different centers of power within the party, the confrontations in the ruling GERB party are increasing. In fact, these processes will be the most accurate indicator in which direction the current political situation will develop. The other scenario is that the protests will escalate, although currently they are not at the level and do not have the power that could lead to drastic changes. A clear political action in this direction is missing.
It is believed that in the country there is still no clearly identified political concept, platform or strategy for exist from this situation/crisis in the society and management of the state. It is expected that the protests will generate a new political leader, as had already happened in many other countries.
Despite the allegations about a significant foreign influence on the crisis, so far there has been no action by the main geopolitical factors (US, EU, Russia and Turkey). A possible explanation could be the lack of a clear political alternative to the current government. On the other hand, not all have reason to be dissatisfied with Borisov.
According to the analysts, Boyko Borisov is trying to postpone resolution of the political crisis until the US presidential elections. Borisov and his advisors expect that Donald Trump will win another mandate, hoping that in such a way geopolitics would turn in their favor. Despite the fact that they have been in power for more than 10 years they have still not learned that the US is not just one man but an entire system of strategic US national interests, which does not change overnight. Therefore, that will probably remain just at a level of Borisov’s hopes, but the end of Boyko Borisov’s era, which will lead to groundbreaking political changes in the country.
The citizens of Bulgaria cultivated hope in bigger equality and prosperity, but got much bigger inequalities with respect to social status and income, as well as rights guaranteed by the constitution, such as free education, health care and pension insurance. However, the illusions and hopes, which kept the nation united and in anticipation, were crushed.
Under such circumstances the authorities decided to export their numerous internal political problems to the neighboring North Macedonia and offered historical reasons and identity issues as a reason for doing so.
Although the Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia signed the Agreement on Friendship, Good Neighborliness and Cooperation on 2 August 2017, the developments that followed were not in keeping with the signed agreement and Bulgaria begun to export its internal political problems to North Macedonia.
Pursuant to the Agreement a joint historical commission was established to find solutions to the shared parts of the history and historical figures on which both Macedonians and Bulgaria “lay claims.”
Specifically, the historical figure of Goce Delchev, who was born in today’s Greece but in the minds of Macedonians is a national revolution hero who led the fight for liberation from the then Ottoman authorities. Both Macedonians and Bulgarians consider him their national hero. It is important to mention also the frequent Bulgarian disputing of the identity of Macedonians as a people and challenging the existence of the Macedonian language.
Bulgaria recently disseminated to EU members a memorandum officially titled “Memorandum explaining the relation between the Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia in the context of enlargement, accession and stabilization” in which it requested from the EU to include the Agreement on Good Neighborliness in the negotiation framework with North Macedonia. Bulgaria also disputes the Macedonian language and national identity.
Bulgaria hopes that the memorandum that it had sent to Brussels will block the holding of the first intergovernmental conference between North Macedonia and the EU, that is prolong the beginning of Macedonian talks with the EU.
Analysts believe that with such moves Bulgaria is exporting its internal problems to North Macedonia. At the same time, Bulgarian actions are also a test for the EU itself. Will it allow imposing of bilateral issues between countries as key issues for the negotiation process?
History has seen numerous examples of “laying of claims” on specific historical figures. Maybe the most illustrative example of dispute on historical figures, national identity and language is the example of Serbs and Montenegrins, which are two predominantly orthodox peoples, just as Bulgarians and Macedonians.
Serbs and Montenegrins are indisputably more ethnically similar and they do not dispute each other’s ethnic affiliations and national identity- at least not officially. The historical figure of Petar II Petrović Njegoš, a medieval ruler and prince-bishop of Montenegro, is present in the mythology of both Montenegrins and Serbs. Some hold him a Montenegrin, others a Serb, and some claim he is both - a Serb and a Montenegrin. When it comes to the Serbian and Montenegrin language, their linguistic similarity is far bigger than the one between the Bulgarian and Macedonian language, and nobody brings it into question or disputes it.
In fact, there is a plethora of examples of “laying of claims” on historical figures. In example, the globally renowned scientist Nikola Tesla is considered a Serb by some, and a Croat by others, while there are also theories that he is a Vlach from Ukraine by origin.
Analysts believe that the EU and USA have to stop Bulgaria in “taking it out on” North Macedonia and Macedonians as a people with its Macedonian identity and language, because any escalation of tensions could lead to conflicts and new crisis, which nobody in the Balkans and the EU needs, except for the policies and politicians who believe that through confrontation and production of crisis they can remain in or come to power. The memorandum that Bulgaria has sent to the EU must become irrelevant, because it is inconceivable in the XXI century that Bulgaria, which is a full-fledged EU and NATO member, disputes the identity and language of its neighboring people -the Macedonians.
Analysts remind that Bulgaria and Rumania had become EU members although they did not meet the necessary requirements and conditions for membership in the EU. Thanks to the intervention of the US, which traditionally has major influence in the European People’s Party (EPP), as the strongest political party in the European Parliament, Bulgaria and Rumania had become members of the EU. Stopping of the actions taken by Bulgaria would prevent possible future obstructions by other states towards countries that are candidates for membership in the EU. Bulgaria became an EU member in 2007 only thanks to a compromise and it is still below the standards set by the EU.