Bulgaria is preparing to take over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU from 1 January. What are the internal risk factors during the 6-month stint?
It is unlikely that a cabinet crisis or early elections would be held during the EU Presidency. There is indeed an ongoing series of corruption scandals involving mainly officials or politicians from prime minister Boyko Borissov’s GERB party. But Borissov has been consistently successful in defusing scandals. His trademark is to fire his own people, once their names become tainted. The backside is that many in GERB are becoming nervous. Borissov’s control of his own political force is eroding, but not to the extent of him being evicted from power in the middle term.
Under its new leader Kornelia Ninova, the main opposition force, Bulgaria’s Socialist Party, is increasingly critical of Borissov. But Ninova needs to worry even more from internal dissent in her own political force.
Regarding the nationalists in government, Borissov has largely succeeded taming the shrewd.
President versus Prime Minister
The main political risk comes from tensions between Borissov and Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev. A newcomer to politics, last November Radev won the presidential election by a landslide, obtaining close to 60%. The GERB candidate Tsetska Tsacheva obtained 36,1%. This is the first election Borissov lost in his nearly 10-year rule.
Radev, 54, entered Bulgarian politics on a wave of discontent with Borissov’s era, during which corruption remained deeply entrenched in society, as well as of concerns among voters over the refugee crisis and the situation in neighbouring Turkey.
A former fighter jet pilot and air force commander, Radev has argued Bulgaria needs to be pragmatic in balancing the requirements of its European Union and NATO memberships while seeking ways to benefit from a relationship with Moscow.
Although he was elected on the ticket of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Radev has succeeded in maintaining his independence, as the Bulgarian constitution requires from the president.
The prerogatives of the president are limited under Bulgarian constitution, but Radev is making use of his moral authority, but also of the Consultative Council for National Security, an instrument of the presidential institution, to impact on major issues, much to Borissov’s distaste.
New anti-corruption body
Bulgaria is trying to put in place a new anti-corruption body, in an effort to get rid of the so-called “Cooperation and Verification Mechanism” (CVM).
Bulgaria and Romania are the only EU members under such a monitoring mechanism, which was put in place since their accession in 2007 to help address deficiencies in their judiciary system, and in the case of Bulgaria, the problem with organised crime. Ten years after, the situation has improved, but not to the extent of lifting the monitoring.
In 2015 Bulgaria failed to pass a law foreseeing the creation of a single body for analysis and investigation of assets and conflict of interest of persons occupying high state positions. The fears of the political class were that such body could become an instrument for political revenge or simply too powerful.
A repeated effort is ongoing, with the President and the Prime minister in major disagreement. The President insists that the new body would have the capacity to investigate, instead of only having a preventive function, as the government draft foresees.
A recent meeting of the Consultative Council for National Security (CCNS) dedicated to the new anti-corruption body on 9 October failed to materialize for the lack of quorum, with all three nationalist leaders absent and the leader of the parliamentary group of GERB Tsvetan Tsvetanov who left, saying he has a meeting in Brussels. Borissov arrived at the CCNS meeting an hour and a half late, but anyway, the session could not take place. This is the first time in the recent history of Bulgaria that a CCNS meeting could not take place.
Another CCNS meeting took place on 17 October, but its results disappointed Radev. Pundits say GERB will force its draft legislation through parliament, with a small gesture to the President: the head of the new body would be elected by a majority of two thirds of the 240MPs and would be confirmed by presidential decree.
Ninova, the leader of BSP, said after the meeting that the President’s proposal that the new anti-corruption body would have functions to investigate, received only two votes: hers and the president’s, and 12 votes against.
The political class has no wish to investigate corruption, because it is part of it, she said.
Supreme judiciary bodies
Bulgaria’s High Judiciary Council has also overruled Radev, who opposed the appointment of Georgi Cholakov as head of the High Administrative Court. Cholakov has largely symbolized the status quo in the Bulgarian judiciary system and the opposition to any reform.
Just 22 days before the mandate of this Supreme Judicial Council expired, this body elected a new chairman of the Supreme Administrative Court – Georgi Cholakov. The choice is extremely important because it is the Supreme Administrative Court that controls the acts of powe and has the duty to protect the citizens from the decisions of the administration.
Radev stopped the appointment and insisted that the new Supreme Judicial Council returns to the matter. However the new highest judiciary body reconfirmed Cholakov with a large majority. Lozan Panov, a reformist member of this body who voted against, called this “a vote for the silence”.
GERB has fought back by indirectly accusing Radev of corruption over a plan to buy eight Swedish-made Gripen fighter jets.
Bulgaria is looking to replace its ageing Soviet-designed MiG-29s, but plans to buy the Gripen warplanes were put on hold last month after lawmakers questioned whether all bidders for the contract had been treated equally.
In June, Bulgaria said it would start talks to buy the Gripens from Swedish manufacturer Saab, in a deal estimated at 1.5 billion levs (€750 million). The country also received offers for second-hand US F-16s and for second-hand Eurofighter Typhoons.
Borissov has voiced doubt that Gripen was the best choice for the new fighter jet for the country’s air force.
The country’s Defence Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, from the nationalist “United Patriots”, has strongly insisted that if Bulgaria buys airplanes, they will have to be new.
The question of which warplanes Bulgaria should buy has been vexing successive governments for more than a decade and remains open. Bulgaria has said that between 2018 and 2022 it wants to upgrade to bring its fighter jets closer to compliance with NATO standards.
Over his Brussels visit on 19 October Borissov spoke to the press, arguing that Bulgaria and other EU members should purchase military equipment, including warplanes, as part of a coordinated and coherent European policy, which would take account for the risks of the entire Union. This could be seen as an olive branch, as such position is very close to what Radev has advocated.
On 9 October it was reported that Borissov has forbidden to his GERB fellow politicians to mention Radev’s name, in an effort to keep the situation under control and preserve the authority of the institutions.
Dixit Radev on 4 October: “The Prime Minister in front of the cameras gives me his hand and he has my hand, but his party fellow under the table continue the outrage. It must be clear – there can be no compromise for the sake of the corrupt comfort of those in power, whoever they are. Resignations of deputies, mayors, municipal councilors are an emergency exit that until recently defused the problems, but this strategy no longer works. We need a deep, serious investigation by an independent investigative body to get to the bottom of the [corruption] schemes and models. Moreover, in this whole situation, the parliament does not control the government as it is is required, but rather it is used as a tribunal against the president. This is unacceptable.”