Bulgaria: end of a reform dream


Prime Minister Kiril Petkov's reform government falls after only six months in office. Bulgaria is facing a new internal political stagnation. At least the drama surrounding the North Macedonia veto could come to an end.

Vice Prime Minister Asen Vacilev (front left) and Prime Minister Kiril Petkov (front right) in the Bulgarian Parliament in Sofia on June 22, 2022

Bulgaria has long been one of the most politically unstable countries in the European Union. In the past decade there have been nine changes of government and six parliamentary elections, including three in 2021 alone. Accompanying circumstances were serious corruption scandals and broken promises of reform, social and financial crises, mass protests and civil revolts. In between, people kept harboring brief and quickly disappointed hopes for reform – be it through political newcomers or through interim governments that were striving for changes but did not implement them.

Now another dream of reform has burst in Bulgaria. On Wednesday (06/22/2022) the government of Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was overthrown in Sofia by a vote of no confidence. It was the foreseeable end of a long-simmering dispute in the four-party coalition. It included the two liberal parties “We are continuing the change” (PP) and Democratic Bulgaria (DB), as well as the populist party “There is such a people” (ITN) and the nominally social democratic, but in fact right-wing nationalist Socialists (BSP).

The populist ITN recently left government. Along with the opposition parties, including a pro-Russian nationalist party, she voted to overthrow the government. It was primarily about a foreign policy dispute: the relationship with North Macedonia and the Bulgarian veto against the start of EU accession negotiations with the neighboring country. In the background, however, was a conflict about the domestic political reform agenda and anti-corruption projects. The Russian war against Ukraine also divided the coalition – although the issue did not play a direct role in the vote of no confidence. For example, the co-governing pro-Russian socialists spoke out against arms deliveries to the Ukraine.

Petkov's government took office just six months ago, in December 2021, with promises of radical reform – against the background of a year and a half of severe domestic political crisis. Now the downfall for Bulgaria and at the same time for the European Union comes at one of the worst possible times in recent years: the issue of arms deliveries and sanctions against Russia has repeatedly put the EU and its member states to the test. The credibility of the EU enlargement policy in south-eastern Europe is also increasingly damaged because of the Bulgarian veto against starting accession talks with North Macedonia.

What does Bulgaria want from North Macedonia?

North Macedonia has long been the subject of domestic political power games in Bulgaria – as is the case with the current vote of no confidence. The two nations have common historical and linguistic roots. In Bulgaria, however, Macedonians are widely seen as part of the Bulgarian nation, and Macedonian as a Bulgarian dialect. In a domestic political crisis situation, Bulgaria's controversial long-term and ex-Prime Minister Boyko Borissov instrumentalized the issue in autumn 2020: Because of serious corruption allegations against him, he used a veto against the start of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia to mobilize nationalist voters.

“We will not give up Macedonia” – slogan at a demonstration of Bulgarian nationalists

The demand: North Macedonia must first recognize its Bulgarian roots and its language as a Bulgarian dialect, then EU negotiations can begin. With this attitude, Bulgaria has maneuvered itself into isolation in the EU and into a similar corner as the constant troublemaker Viktor Orban in Hungary. After Petkov's reform government took office at the end of 2021, the prime minister tried in vain to break resistance to a veto revocation. His coalition colleague, Slavi Trifonov, head of the ITN party, took Petkov's policies as an opportunity to withdraw from the government in early June 2022.

Trifonov's phantom party

The entertainer Slawi Trifonow is a populist, corona skeptic and self-proclaimed savior – and his ITN a phantom party without any consistent political program, present above all through the statements of its leader on Facebook. As is so often the case in Bulgaria, a crisis situation washed ITN to the political surface and temporarily made it the strongest party in Bulgaria because of its blanket anti-corruption promises in the 2021 parliamentary elections.

The entertainer and politician Slavi Trifonov

Now, however, it was Petkov's anti-corruption and transparency policy that Trifonov probably went too far. For example, there was a dispute in the government about the way public money was allocated – ITN blocked itself against reforms. At the same time, the Trifonov party was also unable to assert itself when it came to appointing controversial people, some of whom were suspected of being corrupt, to key government posts.

A disillusioned society

The end of the Petkov government is a heavy blow for Bulgaria. The prime minister isn't a shining light either – but for the first time in many years he and his government made a credible attempt to reform deeply corrupt, apparently unreformable structures in the country. The end of this experiment is likely to lead to even more frustration with the political class and even more lethargy in future elections in the already disillusioned Bulgarian society.

Bulgaria's President Rumen Radev addresses journalists in November 2021

Bulgaria will tread water in the coming weeks or even months. After the government was overthrown, President Rumen Radew now has to give the order to form a government up to three times. If all three attempts fail, he can call new elections. Petkov's “We continue the change” will probably be the first party to be given the mandate to form a government.

New years of reform agony?

Meanwhile, a possible solution to the North Macedonia dispute is emerging: As surprising as ex-Prime Minister Borissov once vetoed the start of EU accession talks with the neighboring country, he announced on Wednesday that his party, the right-wing conservative populist GERB (Citizens for European Development in Bulgaria), one withdrawing the veto in parliament.

One of the reasons for this about-face is that Borissov and his party, which belong to the European People's Party (EPP), are now under too much pressure on foreign policy. In view of the forthcoming new elections, Borissov may want to present himself more as the leader of a responsible political force. If he manages to jump back into government in this way, Bulgaria will face many more years of reform agony.