Bulgaria’s new president: What happens next?

On 13 November Bulgarians elected a new president – general Rumen Radev, the ex-commander-in-chief of the Balkan country’s air force, supported by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). In a runoff election the 53-year old Mr Radev secured almost 60% of the vote, 23 percentage points ahead of Tsetska Tsatcheva, the runner-up nominated by the ruling center-right GERB[1] party.

The landslide defeat triggered prime minister Boiko Borisov’s resignation in adherence to a promise he had made during the election campaign.  At a press conference in the election night, Mr Borisov said the GERB-led center-right ruling coalition has apparently lost public support and thus can no longer stay in power and “carry out reforms”. Bulgarian lawmakers accepted the prime minister’s resignation after some debate on 16 November.

The prime minister’s decision to resign has the potential to plunge Bulgaria in a political crisis to last until the spring of 2017. Bulgaria is a parliamentary democracy and the executive power is vested in the cabinet. The president is a largely symbolic figure, but has some prerogatives including exercising veto power over the parliament’s legislature (de facto, easy to overturn), supreme command over the armed forces, and the right to appoint caretaker governments. Mr Borisov’s resignation comes after two years in power, right in the middle of the cabinet’s 4-year term.

Most likely, Mr Borisov’s promise to resign if his candidate would fail to win the presidential race was aimed at rallying public support from all those who would fear political instability. For the ones acquainted with Bulgarian politics, it is a known fact that Mr Borisov’s favorite leitmotiv in the political discourse is the preservation of “stability” in the country.

In February 2013, Mr Borisov resigned just several months before the end of his first term in power after popular dissent was triggered by high energy prices.  He became the first prime minister to resign in Bulgaria’s post-communist history. Mr Borisov returned to power in November 2014 defeating a widely unpopular minority government led by the BSP with the support of the ultra-nationalist Ataka and the ethnic-Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). In the summer of 2013 massive protests against the ruling coalition and its scandalous appointment of an influential oligarch as head of Bulgaria’s security services led to the government’s resignation.  Boiko Borisov then rode the wave of the public’s dissent and their expectations for wide-raging reforms on the rule of law returning to power as “a savior”, a narrative he kept on using during his second term in office.

Mr Borisov’s threat to resign after the recent presidential elections was reminiscent of this episode of Bulgaria’s political history, but ultimately backfired. Scaremongering and painting bleak pictures of the alternatives were not sufficient to offset the public’s disappointment from the GERB-dominated government’s lack of reform progress and the weak charisma of their presidential candidate.

Who is the new man?

The president-elect, Mr Radev, won the first round of the elections on 6 November with slightly above 25% of the total vote, followed by Ms Tsatcheva’s close to 23%. The third place was claimed by a nationalist candidate who got about 15%. The ethnic-Turkish vote of 6.6 % was rallied behind Plamen Oresharski, the infamous prime minister at the time of the anti-government protests in the summer of 2013. About 11% went to a Varna-based oligarch who owns a network of cheap pharmacies and gas stations in Bulgaria’s northeast.  Finally, close to 6% were carried by the candidate of the Reformist Bloc, the junior conservative partner in Borisov’s ruling coalition and usually seen as a rallying point for part of the reform-oriented urban middle class.

With such a varied result, it is easy to see that the week before the runoff could have been marked by political backstage bargaining. After the final ballot results, it became clear that the new president-elect received wide-ranging public support. Polls (Gallup) show that voters from various demographic backgrounds from all over the political spectrum have seen Mr Radev as their preferred candidate. It is safe to argue that his results exceeded by far the traditional support base of BSP, which took about 15% at the last general elections in 2014 and about 13% at the local elections in 2015. Curiously enough, Mr Radev received near full support from the ethnic MRF and also about two thirds of the nationalist vote – two ends traditionally opposed in Bulgaria. It is worth noting that the MRF declared publicly its support for his candidacy and the party is known for enjoying very high voter mobilization.

It is safe to say that the general, who was running formally as an independent candidate backed by the BSP, attracted a vast anti-establishment vote. The majoritarian aspect of the presidential election in Bulgaria meant that many voters saw Mr Radev, who has no political experience and background, as an outsider to a crooked political system, mired in corruption, nepotism, influence peddling, oligarchic dependencies, and self-serving interest.

A great deal of western media reporting on the Bulgarian presidential campaign and its ensuing results described Rumen Radev as a “pro-Russia”, “pro-Putin”, and “Kremlin-leaning” candidate. Some even published joint stories mentioning the Bulgarian and Moldovan (a runoff took place the same day) presidential votes as equally “pro-Russian”.  Indeed, there was certainly a temptation to think of Bulgaria’s presidential race as a Russia vis-à-vis NATO / EU ideological struggle.

In his public appearances during the campaign, Mr Radev spoke of the possibility to review the sanctions against Russia, reclaiming lost markets and called for a dialogue rather than open confrontation. He also said the Crimean peninsula was de facto Russian, but explained that Moscow is in breach of international law. At the same time, Mr Radev also several times underlined that Russia is not an alternative to Bulgaria’s belonging to the Euro-Atlantic space.

The tension between russophiles and russophobes has been a traditional rift in Bulgarian society for the best part of the last 200 years. Today it is still nurtured domestically by the political elites and grounded in historical national mythology.

Bearing this in mind, the Socialists’ campaign team behind Mr Radev embarked on the use of populist messages reaching to their traditional and increasingly elderly electorate, usually nostalgic about the time when Bulgaria reaped benefits from its position as the closest Soviet ally. At the same time, the campaign strategy also sought the votes of many nationalist minded Bulgarians who still look to Russia as a “liberator” and an “Orthodox brother”. Mr Radev also took an anti-immigrant stance with the aim to cater to the same source of support.  He was reported by media as saying he would not like to see Bulgaria to become a “ghetto for refugees”.

All this said, one should understand that the confrontation between Russia-lovers and Russia-haters comes very handy when the political actors in Bulgaria rally their electoral bases. Very often, however, all these election statements remain lip service to some sort of geopolitical reorientation, which never actually comes. Unleashing and feeding society’s fears are utilized as banal political manipulation tools. Bringing an army-man to the presidency at the time when uncertainty is on the rise in the world certainly played a role in BSP’s strategy.

The reality

The reality in Bulgaria is as usual rather trivial – both Mr Borisov’s GERB and the BSP when in power have been playing a balancing act between Russia and Bulgaria’s western allies. I would allow myself to say that no political party in Bulgaria seriously questions the country’s EU and NATO membership. Bulgaria’s economy is extremely addicted to EU funding and EU export markets, while its national security is just an empty phrase without NATO in a destabilizing neighborhood.

At times during the election campaign, it would take a magnifying glass to find the differences in the platforms of Rumen Radev and Tsetska Tsatcheva.  Mr Borisov’s candidate also spoke of reviewing the sanctions against Russia and the “warm” welcome Russian tourists receive in Bulgaria. None of the candidates took any aggressive stance towards Russia unlike the positions expressed by outgoing president Rosen Plevneliev. Initially elected with GERB’s support, Mr Plevneliev’s fiery rhetoric about Russia’s aggressive policies in Bulgaria’s neighborhood played a role, although not exclusively, in Mr Borisov’s decision not to nominate him for a second term in office.

Closer examination of Boiko Borisov’s foreign policy towards Russia also reveals an interest for cooperation rather than confrontation. Mr Borisov was never really satisfied with the cancellation of the South Stream pipeline and sought for all sorts of ways to host a Russian gas pipe in Bulgaria. His ministers still speak of the possibility to restart the Belene nuclear power station project or build a new Russian reactor at Kozloduy. The involvement of  VTB Bank, Russia’s state controlled financial giant, in strategic sectors of Bulgaria’s economy was never really checked or properly scrutinized on Borisov’s watch just as was the case with prior governments including the BSP. Some say it was its proxies who recently bought the largest Bulgarian telecom – BTK/Vivacom. VTB was also involved in the collapse in 2014 of the Corporate Commercial Bank, a political slush fund, which brought about €2bn in losses for the Bulgarian taxpayer.  In June 2016, Mr Borisov reacted sharply against a Romanian proposal to form a joint naval task force in the Black Sea out of fears of “angering Russia”. As the presidential race was picking up steam in October, Mr Borisov also scolded the outgoing president Rosen Plevneliev for ruining Bulgaria’s relationship with Russia. Russia also recently received a € 21m contract for the purchase of 10 Mig-29 engines.

To sum up, Russia’s influence in Bulgaria does not come from formal geopolitical alliances or treaty adherences. It comes through a number informal channels as a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies claimed – giant construction projects, energy dependencies, murky investment, political party support, media propaganda. And this influence was there during the Borisov era, though the president, foreign and defense ministers were starkly EU and NATO oriented.

Bulgaria’s real problems are hidden in its weak rule of law, corrupt and dependent judicial system, involvement of oligarchs in political life, and lack of real market competition in many sectors of the economy. And worst of all, the lack of political will to resolve this situation. Russian means of influence only work best in such conditions, but the same could be said for any other actor that thrives in the absence of a rule-based environment in a given country.

Will there be a Russia vector?

Nevertheless, the question of what will Bulgaria’s new foreign policy towards Russia look like is a valid and unavoidable one in the aftermath of Sunday’s vote. Certainly, despite all his dealings with Russia on the sideline, Borisov catered to the image of a pro-European politician as many of his voters expected.

In this line of thought, some change of rhetoric and symbolic acts could be anticipated on behalf of Mr Radev’s new team. In the short term, it may be reasonable to expect that the new president’s team will pay homage to BSP’s traditional electorate by showing publicly some sort of relationship mending.

Among his opponents, the optimists hope that Mr Radev’s clean political record will allow him to emancipate himself from the BSP cloak and find ways to chase his own independent policies. The pessimists, on the other hand, say that any sort of backing from the BSP[2], Bulgaria’s “rebranded communist party” which never found ways to come to terms with its past, is never a good sign. Many are looking forward to the team of advisors the president will surround himself with – a real indication of the policies in store.

The BSP has always played on pro-Russian sentiments and called for greater economic ties with Russia. Projects, such as South Stream, the Belene nuclear station, and an oil pipeline between the ports of Burgas in Bulgaria and Alexandropoulos in Greece app picked steam while BSP was in power. At the same time, BSP was heading a coalition government at the time Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 and its government allowed US contingents to be based on Bulgarian territory.

Make no mistake, Bulgaria’s new president, Mr Radev, has received wide public support with the hope to participate in the fight against the country’s domestic malaise. The topic of BSP’s ability to control the general and actually sway his policies is now widely discussed in Bulgaria. Mr Radev perhaps owes his success partially to the portrayed lack of political affiliation, but his vice president partner is a hardline BSP insider, possibly charged with the task to keep him on track.

It is worth noting that general Rumen Radev has a master degree  from the US Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base and has after all been a NATO general for the most important part of his military career.

In any event, it is the future that will really show to what extent Bulgaria’s new president will walk the talk. The possibility that Bulgaria’s foreign policy agenda may lean towards Russia and thus hurt the country’s image in the West is not to be excluded.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has already sent a letter to Mr Radev congratulating him on his victory and calling for improved relations based on “the centuries-long traditions of friendship and cultural and spiritual proximity”. The Russian media have widely acclaimed Bulgaria’s election result describing it as a Russian victory, where “our” (Russia’s) candidate won.

In a different turn of events, Russian emotions may turn cold if Bulgaria will  boosts its Russia talk, but will do little to change the actual state of the bilateral relationship.

The only certainty is uncertainty 

The most important consequence of Bulgaria’s presidential election is, however, to be found elsewhere – in Boiko Borisov’s resignation.

Bulgarian voters seemingly caught his bluff forcing him ultimately to resign as a result of his unwise promise at the start of the campaign. Conspiracy theorists swiftly began asking themselves if the prime minister skillfully planned the whole play in an attempt to secure his stay in power faced with waning public support.  Mr Borisov has always publicly shown his unwillingness to work with coalition partners, who could demand concessions from him while having little public support, the lion pie of which belongs to him. Perhaps, calling a new election and realigning the political landscape may be an attempt to liberate his rule of such unwanted influence.

There are a few paths this new political crisis may now take.  In all likelihood, with the resignation now being accepted by lawmakers and judging by the opposition’s public statements refusing the formation of a minority cabinet, Bulgaria’s outgoing president will need to appoint a caretaker government sometime at the end of November or early December. Bulgaria’s Constitution does not allow an outgoing president to dismiss the country’s parliament during the last months of his term. This could only be done by the new president who will step in on 22 January. A new parliamentary election could then be scheduled for April.

Speaking at the presser in the election night, Mr Borisov put forward the idea of convening a Grand National Assembly to decide on electoral system changes in line with a referendum which took place along with the first presidential election round. Although the plebiscite was not valid as it needed about 13,000 votes for its turnout threshold, an overwhelming majority of voters were in favor of introducing a majority voting system and cutting down party subsidies considerably. Senior party figures in GERB have said that it would be fair if the electoral system will change before the interim general elections are called. Deputies from GERB have swiftly filed a proposal to the parliament calling for the changes to be reviewed at first reading by mid-December.

A majority voting system will give a boost to the two largest parties in Bulgaria and thus Mr Borisov may be hoping to cement his stay in power. Worrisome is the fact that there has not been sufficient public debate on the introduction of such a voting system. Making profound changes in haste and without proper discussion and analysis will bring great risks for the political system and society as a whole.

To sum up, the concrete facts show that Mr Radev earned Bulgarians’ support at the ballot, but has little political experience, an essential attribute in Bulgaria’s murky politics.  The bad news is that Bulgaria is headed for a period of political uncertainty at a time when it is most needed.

[1] GERB – Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria

[2] Many Bulgarians associate the BSP with the rise of Bulgaria’s organized crime in the 1990s and the creation and subsequent incursion of the oligarchy into political life.

Image: ©Associated Press