Financial Times: Bulgaria needs stability before uncertainty

March 25, 2013 by  
Filed under Featured, News

A caretaker government in Sofia will do its utmost to steady the tiller before May’s snap elections, following several weeks of street protests that toppled the previous administration and plunged Bulgaria into political uncertainty. But what happens after the poll is anybody’s guess. Many in Sofia’s political elite seem reluctant to grasp the poisoned chalice of leadership and their capacity to satisfy the demands of a restive and inchoate popular movement is limited.

On Wednesday, President Rosen Plevneliev ended weeks of speculation by naming Marin Raykov, Bulgaria’s ambassador to France, as caretaker prime minister until the May 12 elections. Raykov is a career diplomat and was deputy foreign minister under a right-of-centre government between 1998 and 2001 and again in 2009-2010 under Boyko Borisov, whose resignation as prime minister last month led to the political void which Raykov must temporarily fill. Raykov also served as an ambassador and a foreign policy chief under the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the main opposition force. The new premier will be backed by a cabinet including three deputy prime ministers – all women – Bulgaria’s first female interior minister and a selection of other “experts” drawn from various parts of national life, particularly academia. There are also some promotions from within Borisov’s GERB party.

Bulgarian journalists have been quick to pick up on Raykov’s family background. His father, Rayko Nikolov, was a senior ambassador in the Communist era, including to the UN, Yugoslavia and France. Nikolov’s reported close links to the intelligence services come as a surprise to no-one. But of more interest is the allegation, made by the French press some years ago, that he was responsible for recruiting French politicians to work for the Soviet Union, including Charles Hernu, who went on to be defence minister in the 1980s.

Raykov’s political career on the “reformist” right but with roots among the Communist nomenklatura have led to suspicions that he is what Bulgarians gnomically call a “hidden lemon” – someone who is not what they appear to be. But Raykov’s diplomatic record suggests that he is robustly on the pro-European, rather than pro-Kremlin, side of Bulgarian politics, according Ivo Indzhev, a well-regarded Bulgarian blogger. And after all, one can’t choose one’s parents.

Dimitar Bechev, head of the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, says Raykov is a sound choice. “This government won’t do much beyond organise the elections,” he says. “Raykov is solid – linked to the 1990s right, but with enough credibility with all parties. He brings predictability and reassurance, as well as credibility for outsiders. He is aware of European policy issues and shows that Bulgaria will play by the rules.”

With the temporary administration in place, attention shifts to the election and what is likely to be a confused aftermath. Polls suggest GERB and the BSP are level pegging, with the largely Muslim-backed DPS and Bulgaria for the Citizens, led by former European Commissioner Meglena Kuneva, also likely to make it to the next parliament. Confusingly, BSP leader and ex-prime minister Sergey Stanishev has said he will not be premier again, while Kuneva has indicated that her party will not join a coalition.
Anthony Georgieff, a Bulgarian journalist and a vocal critic of Borisov, says the most likely scenarios as the mainstream opposition backs away from government are a discredited GERB being returned to power, considerably weakened, or the strengthening of hardline left- and right-wing forces unpalatable to Bulgaria’s EU partners. The far-right party Ataka, until recently seen as on the wane, seems to be recovering, and ultranationalists have been a significant presence at many demonstrations, along with well as anti-capitalist malcontents.

“Bulgaria’s moral crisis is reflected in the mainstream politicians refusing to take part in any coalition government of the future, and in the general public voting with their feet,” he says. Bechev is more upbeat, saying that Stanishev and Kuneva’s statements should be “taken with a pinch of salt”. He outlines a number of more moderate outcomes, including a grand coalition with GERB but without Borisov, and a BSP-DPS partnership, possibly bringing in Bulgaria for the Citizens, not dissimilar to the government from 2005 to 2009.

Whether any of these permutations will have the political will, economic resources and administrative capacity to address the demands of the street protesters – and the many Bulgarians at home who have lost faith in the political elite’s ability to deliver real change – is questionable. Demonstrations that started over power prices now encompass grievances such as corruption, authoritarianism, government links to organised crime, and privatisation. Most fundamentally, they may be about low incomes and lack of prospects in the EU’s poorest country – something that Raykov has said that he will look to address, within his capabilities. But with the eurozone, Bulgaria’s main trading and investment partner, still in crisis, and the legacy of years of maladministration at home, immediate change for the better seems unlikely.

“Unlike other crises Bulgaria has had since it shook off Communism in 1989, the current one has no easy answers because there is little if anything to look forward to, Bulgaria now being a full member of the EU and NATO,” says Georgieff. The death by self-immolation of three demonstrators since protests began certainly indicates the desperation that many Bulgarians feel. But some are hopeful that the street movement can put pressure on the next government to deliver the transparency and accountability that has been lacking from its predecessors.