Codru Vrabie: Bulgarians’ “bridge identity” is able to bring change and transformation in the region

The fourth part of the podcast on social change and agency in Southeastern Europe deals with Bulgaria, its elites’ bridge identity and change

Codru Vrabie is a civic activist, trainer and consultant on good governance, transparency, responsibility, and integrity in the public sector. He has contributed to many reform measures in justice and public administration. Vrabie has BAs in legal and political sciences (Romania, Bulgaria, the USA) and MAs in administrative sciences and European affairs (Romania, the Netherlands, Spain). He has worked for various Romanian civil society organizations since 1998. In 2010, Vrabie started working with the “Leaders for Justice” programme, which was replicated in 2017 by the Republic of Moldova.

See the contents of the fourth part of the podcast with Codru Vrabie:

00:00 Given the recent transformation of Change Continues’ political rationale (formation of government and legislative activity together with political leaders it used to attack as corrupt – Boyko Borissov and Delyan Peevski), to what extent change is possible in Bulgaria through politics and political parties?

02:59 The type of coalition between progressive forces and parties that prefer the status-quo (oligarchs) was seen in the Moldovan case

06:39 Union Save Romania didn’t succeed in 2021, because it didn’t properly calculate their moves. From a political perspective Change Continues didn’t have another choice. In the case of Change Continues access to decision-making power was secured. 

10.45 Bulgarian elites’ bridge identity/aspect

16:14 What are the merits of the Bulgarian bridge identity? How could the agency of Romanians and Moldovans be characterized?

We are now switching to the Bulgarian situation. And you know that after the 2021 fall of Borissov government, a party called We Continue the Change appeared and it was a party which promised change with very specific names as status-quo. I mean, it was against Borisov, it was against Peevski, who is an influential businessman from the party of the ethnic Turks – Movement for Rights and Freedoms. And it was also against the prosecutor chief.

The “change “in Bulgaria happened after Biden came to power in the White House. And of course, I know there are different influences and maybe it’s not so simple, but I somehow believe that the fact that Biden was in the White House, maybe he had some positive role for this party to come into power. However, you know well that in recent times this party formed or now rules together with Borisov. And a lot of the legislation is also accepted with the support even of Peevski, even with his signature and his party, of course. So in this sense, Bulgarian society now no longer has this contradiction between anti-corruption and mafia, which existed before, because in a way, they are together – if you allow me some black humour with labels.

Now the contradiction is between pro-European Commission government and a souvereignist president or maybe other forces which also are souvereignist. In this way, I want to start with a small question. Isn’t the Bulgarian case, which maybe you know as well with these recent changes and realignments… doesn’t it show that change in Bulgaria doesn’t happen or will not happen through politics or through parties that may be Bulgaria is a specific case of peripheral or a little bit more eastern society, but also part of the West that needs some more complex, more specific approach than just making a party, which is called change and just this party taking power. It is not sufficient, at least from my point of view. But maybe you have your own considerations.

Is this the Promyanata Prodalzhava party?

Exactly. Change continues. It is the party of Kiril Petkov, Assen Vassilev.

Right. I think the key component in the name of the party is that it continues. And let me explain why I think that. This type of coalition, so to say, between the progressive forces – Change Continue and Democratic Bulgaria, allied with one of the old parties, that is preferring the status quo – we’ve seen that before. We’ve seen that in the Moldovan case. When Maia Sandu’s party joined forces with the oligarch Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party in order to create a government opposing President Dodon, who was supposed to be a Russian agent. So the progressive movement sided with the oligarchs to counterbalance “the Russian agent”.

They did some small reforms before that particular cabinet went to pieces and later on Maia’s party came to power in full, putting aside both the Russian agent and the oligarch. And whatever they’re doing with the reform is the new Moldovan politics.

We’ve seen that in Romania too about 15, almost 20 years ago. Then the civil society helped the nostalgic Social Democrat government of Adrian Năstase. It was probably the most corrupt prime minister Romania ever had. It helped him to succeed on the path of European accession. So sometimes you need people from the moderate center to ally with people from the other side in order to ensure that whatever change you want continues. By the same token, in Romania two three years ago change did not succeed, because they didn’t properly plan and calculate their moves.

I am not sure whether Kiril Petkov and the other people will succeed in Bulgaria. What I’m trying to say is that from a political perspective, I don’t think that they had another choice. And I applaud their courage to make that decision. And in contrast to the Romanian case of three years ago, I think they negotiated very properly. They learned the Romanian lesson and they negotiated very properly access to decision-making power. In this case, if Stelian Ion back then had the same political arrangement, he could have succeeded with that particular reform that you asked me at the beginning, because he didn’t have it. He didn’t succeed in any way. He didn’t even attend the reform. So to go back. This is why I’m saying that the key ingredient is that it continues, not necessarily that it changes.

It’s clear for me that for the Bulgarian society that the de-oligarhization Is important and needed. I think the pace of that reform is important. And I think that ensuring the success of that reform is also important and also ensuring the sustainability of that reform is important. For now, what We Continue the Change is doing, I think, is that they secure the decision to make the change, some of the resources to ensure that the change will be made. And I think they will continue to work on ensuring sustainability, but don’t see that as yet. That’s maybe a plan for the future. We’ll see how they negotiate that. For instance, I think it’s a very, very important signal also for Romanian politics that they negotiated. The next prime minister will be a European commissioner that secures ties with Brussels. That in Romania is impossible to predict. From this perspective, it looks at this point in time that Europeanization is more on the agenda of the Bulgarian government, because of the future Prime Minister. Regarding the Romanian government – we have no idea what’s going to happen after the elections in Romania next year.

We are approaching the issue of agency, which I announced in the beginning. And for me, there is something that took me a lot of time to find out. And of course, I’m still not completely sure about it, but I have the feeling that Bulgarians somehow have a bridge aspect, or at least they are elites, or maybe the successful parts of their elites have a British aspect. And I will explain now what I mean. 

First of all, internationally, maybe, you know, there are some very successful Bulgarians as figures like Kristalina Georgieva at the World Bank and Irina Bokova, who is a former Unesco head. And I believe both of them have a bridge aspect in the sense that, for example, Kristalina Georgieva, she was European commissioner, she was at the World Bank. It is generally considered she has the support of Great Britain. But she also had a period when she was in Moscow during her World Bank years some time ago.

And at the same time, Irina Bokova, when she was candidate for Secretary General of the United Nations, which, you know, is a very high ranking position, it was believed that she had the support of four of the five Security Council members. So these were the USA, France, Russia and China, and only the UK was in fact advancing Kristalina Georgieva. And now that is a curious aspect of Bulgarians, in my view. The Bulgarian Prime Minister couldn’t make a choice. He was pressed by various countries to support one or the other. In the end, Bulgaria had two candidates for the Secretary General of the United Nations. And, you know, they both failed as a result of this difficulty of Bulgarians to make a choice. 

But still, I think both persons, both Irina Bokova and Kristalina Georgieva, were the candidates they both represent, for me at least, a bridge aspect of and it is a successful British aspect. They are respected. I haven’t heard any intrigue about them. So in any case, that is one thing about Bulgarian politics or elites, this bridge idea. 

And the other thing is that now maybe you know these people because they studied at the American University as well. I refer to Hristo Ivanov and Vassil Terziev. Hristo Ivanov is maybe the most famous reformer as a politician with the label of a reformer of the judicial system. And he’s one of the main figures of the Democratic Bulgaria coalition, which is generally considered to be pro-Western. But for me, it’s curious that he is constantly accused by some people, including in his circles, that his family is having some communist or socialist origins. And in fact, I remember an interview with his mother in 2014 or 2015 when she said that she shared some parts of the family history. And she was at that time, if I’m not mistaken, the head of a local organization of the Socialist Party in Sofia. And I can go even more with the family story. It’s very interesting.

Nobody’s perfect.

No, I don’t say it’s a fault. I mean, of course, from some point of view it might be a fault. But I say that it’s exactly the bridge aspect. You know, this the idea that you have something of the modernity or of the technocratic aspect of politics, but you also have something of the older times. And I and I’m not a fan of Hristo Ivanov, let’s say I’m not promoting him, but I, I see this aspect in political roles, let’s say, or image. And the same thing about the suitor, who is now the candidate for mayor of Sofia. And there is this tendency now in Bulgaria to look for successful businessmen in the IT sector or self-made people, etcetera. This legend goes that capitalism allows for the success of knowledgeable people, of capable people and he is representative, or trying to play the role of such a successful person. But it was immediately revealed when his candidature was announced that he comes from a family who had high ranking positions in the old security before 1989.

I make this long introduction because I have the feeling that Bulgarian subjectivity or Bulgarian agency, if you wish, has to do something with the bridge aspect. And it’s not only west or east. There could be different poles, there could be different shores or river banks. But the bridge aspect somehow always appears on the surface. And I want to ask you about that. First of all, if you see sense in this theory about the bridge agency of Bulgarians, what is it good for, let’s say, or what could be its merits, not only in Bulgaria but regionally? And secondly, if there is legitimacy in this theory of the British agency, what is the agency of Romanians and Moldovans? I have the feeling you might have thought about this thing. Sorry if it’s too challenging, but maybe there is some essence in Romanians and Moldovans too.

Oh. Well, you see. I look at agency from the perspective that it implies a number of things. I think it implies, first of all, clarity about the end result. Then it implies clarity about the means and the resources. Then the capacity or the ability to bring in all of those resources and channel them into creating that end result.

So agency is a term that brings together all of these attributes and it’s important to keep them all together. With this idea in mind, when you talk about the bridge aspect, this relates a lot to the capacity of an individual to bring together all the resources and the allies that a specific project needs. Whether they get these resources or allies from family ties, from the ability to listen to the other side, from some kind of an accident maybe in their life. I really don’t see much of a difference if Bulgarians do have that capacity to bring together resources and allies in order to achieve a specific objective. Kudos to the Bulgarian people or to the Bulgarian politicians that have the ability to do that.

In Romania I am not sure that we do have that capacity, because first and foremost, we lack the ability to formulate a clear objective. Given that we don’t have clarity to what the end result is, it’s difficult to bring in resources and to build our own capacity to develop the capacity to put those resources to work in a good direction. In Romania, we sort of lack the ability to formulate clear objectives. For Moldova I think it’s a little different. What is happening now in Moldova in terms of the accession to the European Union shows me that they now do have a clear objective. Let’s see to what extent they can bring together all the resources and the allies that they need because they do have access to resources, but it’s more difficult for them to bring in allies and very seldom in life you can succeed only on your own. But I think this would be the difference between agency and our three countries, if it makes sense to you.

Photo: (source: The Bridge of Friendship)

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