Change in Bulgaria will come not from hollow political parties, but from people with agency

Vladimir Mitev offers his interpretation of the recent political events in Bulgaria, related to the fall of the Denkov and government and the installment of the caretaker government of Dimitar Glavchev

Vladimir Mitev, co-founder of Cross-Border Talks, answers Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat’s questions about the upcoming early elections in Bulgaria, the legacy of the collapsed coalition government and the composition of the new caretaker government announced on 5 April 2024. Vladimir Mitev points to possible internal and external factors that contributed to the collapse of the fragile coalition between GERB and We Continue the Change & Democratic Bulgaria, i.e. a coalition between a party constantly accused of corruption and two parties that swore to fight corruption. He stresses the need to look not at what someone says they will do in Bulgaria, but at what the parties actually do. In this light, the anti-corruption record of parties that claimed to fight corruption looks very bleak. Vladimir also shares a more general reflection on how Bulgarian political life is dominated by those who have business, and how parties are not living entities with internal discussions, but leader-type parties that aim to turn power into money (and vice versa). Real change, he concludes, can only come through people, for and by people with real agency.

Hello everyone listening to Cross-border Talks. This is another edition of our podcast – our cross-border conversations about politics, social life, culture and everything that unites or divides people. And today we are going to discuss the latest events in Bulgaria with Vladimir, who is the co-founder of the Cross-border Talks project and a journalist who knows what is going on in his country. My name is Malgorzata. I’m conecting from Katowice, Poland, and I can’t help but think back to my trip to Bulgaria in 2023. I reported from Bulgaria before the parliamentary elections of April 2023. I remember the sense of stagnation and the feeling that a political game was something far removed from the problems of ordinary people. And now Bulgarians are going to the polls again in a few months’ time. Vladimir, hello. Thank you for accepting my idea for this interview. And tell us what happened.

Several things are happening at the same time. If we go into too much detail, we might lose the bigger story. But even the bigger story is not clear enough. 

Let’s say that in Bulgaria we now have a caretaker government, after the previous coalition government between the two anti-corruption formations – We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria on the one hand and GERB-SDS on the other – fell apart. So it was a government that in many ways was also supported in parliament by the Turkish minority party, which is also led by an important businessman who has influence in various state institutions, who is called Delyan Peevski. What I‌ described in just a few sentences is a very general snapshot of Bulgarian political life. 

What is happening now, or what will happen, I think, is a sort of reshuffling of ministerial positions and different balances, because we have a caretaker government led by Dimitar Glavchev. He was most recently at the Court of Auditors, but before that he was a member of Parliament from the GERB party. This caretaker government is supposed to organise the parliamentary elections, which will be held together with the European Parliament elections in June. And after that, of course, we will have another reshuffle of ministers and all the positions, including perhaps in the regulatory commissions and so on. 

If I have to look at some big pictures of what is going on, one possible hypothesis has to do with the positioning of the Bulgarian state, even if it is not clear where it is actually being governed from or who exactly is making the decisions. But let’s assume that the Bulgarian state is a subject of international relations. It is constantly resetting its political agents – the politicians, who act in accordance with various internal and external forces. So this process of resetting is taking place now.

The coalition between the two anti-corruption parties you mentioned – We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria and GERB – seemed very unlikely from the start. After all, the anti-corruption fighters and the parties that grew after the mass anti-corruption protests in 2020 allied themselves with a party that for many observers of Bulgarian politics is a symbol of corruption. What were the reasons for the collapse of this coalition? Are they internal, external or personal? And what is the legacy of the Denkov government?

I am not sure that you can point to one particular reason as being the most important. I think one way of looking at this disintegration is that at the EU level, Germany and France are having greater difficulties in understanding each other and in moving together in the same direction in the European Union. We have to bear in mind that in Bulgaria GERB is a party that has traditional links, of course, with various forces in the European Union, but above all with the European People’s Party. And we know that this party is generally dominated by the German conservative right. 

On the other hand, the party We Continue the Change gives the impression that it might be somehow open to the Macron tendency in the European Union. So that could be one way of looking at it – the so-called proxy theory. If the big brothers can’t agree, maybe the little brothers can’t agree either. Perhaps there are other ways of looking at the inability to implement the rotation of prime ministers that was originally agreed for 2023. 

There are always battles over resources and positions in Bulgaria. It has been pointed out that there has been some conflict over ministerial positions. And there have also been reports of clashes over people to be appointed as directors of regulatory commissions. So that could be another reason. 

You asked if it was because of personal conflicts. Maybe that could also be seen as a kind of reason, because we had the impression that there was some kind of conflict between the former finance minister in the government, Assen Vassilev, and Boyko Borissov, the former prime minister, who is the leader of GERB. Perhaps it has not been made very clear what the conflict is about. 

Let me say that Assen Vassilev had a very active position, really confronting certain interests. For example, he imposed a tax on the transit of Russian gas through Bulgarian territory to Serbia and Hungary, and only abolished it after Hungary threatened to block Bulgaria’s accession to Schengen. As finance minister, he was reported to have carried out some checks on Austrian chain stores after the New Year. And he also ordered, as was also discussed in the Bulgarian media, more controls at the Bulgarian-Romanian border on all lorries transporting goods to Austria. I give all these examples to show that, in my opinion, Assen Vassilev has a certain political will to act. Many people in politics have various international or local support, but very few people in Bulgarian politics really act and do something and dare to confront some interests. 

I’m not saying whether what he did was good or bad. But I just noticed that he was a person who had subjectivity. He had the ability to act and he did act in some cases. That could be the reason or a sign that he could be disturbing some order. There were some journalist investigations against him. Even now, literally this week, the first week of April 2024, there was a scandal in which the Bulgarian secret services and the Anti-Corruption Commission made searches in the Customs Agency, whose director is subordinate to Vassiliev. She was accused of smuggling. She said that she had a conflict with the current director of the Bulgarian secret service, DANS, before, when she also worked for this security institution. So I would say that there seems to be something to do with the person of the assembly who apparently dared to confront certain interests. And there was a reaction.

You said that the person who could be called one of the faces of change in Bulgaria, a person who had agency and who had the quality to act and not just talk, is now coming under fire. And at the same time, a person who used to be an MP for GERB, Boyko Borisov’s party, is going to be the head of the caretaker government. Does this mean that Bulgarians should prepare themselves for the return of Boyko Borisov and his old ways of power, and that the project of change led by Western-educated, wealthy urbanites is just coming to an end?

Time must pass to judge whether the project of “change”, or if you like, whether this party which called itself “We Continue the Change”, will continue its “change”. 

For the last ten months, it had a kind of cooperation with GERB. On the one hand, We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria had a lot of ministers and could do some political action if they wanted to. On the other hand, we have seen their efforts to reform the judiciary, which has been much discussed, as far as I can see, it has led to some constitutional changes that have recently been challenged. Perhaps some elements of them were not well thought out. We also see that the former chief prosecutor was forced to leave office, but the new one is said by many people and widely discussed in the Bulgarian media to be somehow suitable for Boyko Borissov. So I feel that We Continue the Change offers a lot of rhetoric, a lot of words. It remains to be seen how exactly their change will be implemented and what exactly it means. I think they have failed to explain in a lot of detail what change means. 

Sometimes it means being anti-Borisov and anti-Peevski. Sometimes it means being with them. I think some of their voters don’t understand very well how difficult it is to make change in Bulgaria. I have the feeling that change can also be brought about by other forces. We really lack a lot of depth in our understanding of Bulgarian society and change in it. And I think that maybe even the media that deal with Bulgaria – like the international media or, if you like, Cross-Border Talks or other media – should not be satisfied with simple labels like anti-corruption or oligarchs and so on, which we see in this government that existed until recently. The relationship between our political elites or economic elites is much more complex. 

We had a situation in 2022 when Kiril Petkov – the Prime Minister of Bulgaria – was under pressure to show that he was doing something. He literally arrested Boyko Borisov for 24 hours or something like that. Borisov was in a state of arrest. And on the other hand, we have seen that from the summer of 2023 until today, Kiril Petkov and Boyko Borissov have been making laws together, sharing the power between their political allies. So I really think that if someone wants to bring about change in Bulgaria, they need to think more complexly.

That is a very ambitious task for anyone who wants to make a difference in Bulgarian politics. I will come back to this question of change in the last question of the interview. But first I’d like to take a look at the caretaker government that was sworn in on the day we recorded this interview. Is there anyone interesting in the new team?

At first glance, I wouldn’t say there’s really a star in this government. I still think it’s a government that’s a bit of a mix. The Prime Minister, as I said, had some connection with GERB in the past. But on the other hand, uh, as far as I know from the Bulgarian media, some ministers from the Denkov government, which was dominated by We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria, will still be in the current government. 

I think that the Bulgarian political elites are constantly rearranging their internal balances. My theory is that in many cases they act with an eye on the international environment. At least I try to understand Bulgarian realities through the international context. I’m not sure how to interpret this inability to make the governmental rotation, which was previously agreed upon. The agreement between GERB-SDS, We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria failed. 

I think that maybe at the EU level there is a lack of clarity about the direction in which things should go. Maybe other important factors should be properly related to the dynamics of the war in Ukraine or other issues. But I really don’t see the Glavchev government as a government that will do much. It should have a relatively short life. Before we had moments when, after the fall of the Petkov government, there was a long period when an interim government led or influenced by the president goverened the country. We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria wanted to eliminate this possibility of presidential governments that are interim governments but make important decisions like international treaties or other things. And I think that now that these constitutional changes have been made in terms of interim governments, we shouldn’t really expect this government to be a caretaker government.

That’s my guess, of course. Maybe I’m wrong. But I think the idea of this government is, again, to have some balance of power and, above all, to prepare for the elections. And then maybe we have a new balance, which should also take into account possible changes in the world in relation to the European elections and the American elections.

Okay, so in the last question I’d like to come back to the issue of change, but real change, not a realignment or a rearrangement of influence and important positions in the institutions. Bulgaria is a country that needs social change and change in many ways. This is the impression I always leave Bulgaria with after visiting the country, and I think many international observers would share this impression, as well as many Bulgarians, including people I was able to talk to during my visit last year. But you said that real change requires complex thinking, and I’m not even suggesting that such complex thinking could emerge during this short election campaign that you’re going to experience again in Bulgaria. So where could change come from and who could make it happen? Who could build and who could be the change in Bulgaria?

In my opinion, people should be the change. Of course, it might be naive or a bit stupid to say that. Maybe it sounds very simplistic. But I really don’t want to rely on political parties. The political parties in Bulgaria are in a big crisis. I’m not sure if they even exist. You know that many parties in the world and in Europe have an internal life. They have different internal events. They have discussions, they have internal competition, etc. I’m not sure that Bulgarian parties have anything like that. As far as I read the news, we have a lot of parties that are leader type of parties. So we have leaders. Maybe there are different currents in some of the biggest parties. But in any case, there is a certain understanding that many parties may not even have any structures and they are just some formations, some machines to turn money into power and power into money. They have a political activity without really allowing ordinary people, even if that is not a good term, to grow and do something on their own. 

I think it’s obvious, especially in the recent local elections or in other cases, how Bulgarian parties, if they really have some potential for power, represent certain economic interests that exist in Bulgaria. And basically we have a competition of different kinds of economic interests through the parties. And again, because of this, we don’t really see people who don’t have businesses or don’t have the financial resources to grow very much in Bulgarian politics.

I would say that the European Union, if we imagine that the European Union is an agent of change, within its territory, I think that the European Union should find out how European money can reach deeper into Bulgarian society, to reach the common man or some people who are, let’s say, at the grassroots level, and how they can have some agency. And somehow I see change coming from those people at that level. I know it may be very naive because ordinary people are often people who are employees. Maybe they have all kinds of health problems or personal problems and so on. So of course ordinary people are not trained to be leaders or trained to be agents of change. 

But still, I really don’t see any other way at the moment for someone else to really offer something new in Bulgarian society and politics, because what we have is just an accumulation of these vested interests – the political power, the economic power. We just have some hierarchies where the people at the top have an accumulation of these things, and these people at the top rotate, and that is our system. As I said, a truly democratic system should find ways for people who don’t have money or resources to be sufficiently educated or to have sufficient integrity to participate in political and social competition and to offer something of their own. So for me, as I said at the beginning, change should be in the people, from the people, by the people. And of course I understand that every society, especially a capitalist society, has its own peculiarities. As it is said in some theories, there is a base, there is a superstructure (which is the reproduction of the economic base – note on Cross-Border Talks). I understand that. But still, you asked me about change. So for me, change should be something that everyone should be able to do, realise, understand and fight for.

OK. Thank you for that definition. I can only add from my side that when people who are not businessmen, when people who do not have wealth at the moment enter politics and articulate their needs, not the needs of business, when they articulate their point of view, that is already a kind of change. Because as someone told me during my last visit to Bulgaria, and you confirmed in one of our conversations about Bulgaria, those who are in politics in Bulgaria are mainly those who have money. So money reproduces itself through politics. And then the politicians work to generate more money, more or less. 

Thank you very much for this interview. I hope that it is a little bit clearer for our listeners what is happening in Bulgaria, a country that has gone through a lot of snap elections recently and is going to go through another snap election and unfortunately this snap election will not bring a qualitative change in politics but rather another realignment. I think we can agree on that. Thanks again, Vladimir, and thanks to everyone who is listening. Please don’t forget to subscribe to Cross-border talks. We are on various platforms, YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify, also the most important social media. So stay with us. You won’t lose any of the material we publish. Thank you and have a nice day.

Photo: The political power in Bulgaria is concentrated in the triangle on the Dondukov blvrd. (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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