Bulgaria: No light at the end of the tunnel

Bulgaria: No light at the end of the tunnel

Dimitar Bechev is a lecturer at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and the author of “Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe.”

A couple weeks ago, Bulgarians voted in yet another election — their fifth since April 2021.

However, as the dust settles and political parties weigh what their next moves may be, one thing is certain: Putting together a governing coalition will be a daunting task.

While former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria party (GERB) came first — as it did last October — the second largest party, We Continue the Change (PP), has ruled out any cooperation with GERB, which it casts as the personification of state capture and corruption bedeviling the European Union member country.

Borissov will thus have to look elsewhere for support, but it is far from certain whether a coalition will materialize, and Bulgaria may well be in for yet another election as early as July.

And this never-ending electoral cycle continues to have one beneficiary: President Rumen Radev.

Under the constitution, Bulgaria’s head of state gets to appoint a caretaker cabinet to oversee early elections, and Radev’s confidante Galab Donev has, therefore, been in charge of the Bulgarian government as prime minister since last August. Thus, as things stand, Radev is running the show both domestically and in terms of foreign policy, making decisions regarding Bulgaria’s energy strategy, its priorities under the Recovery and Resilience Plan and, indeed, about arms deliveries to Ukraine.

Radev’s critics, who have multiplied lately, are calling this a shift to presidential rule by stealth.

Bulgaria is a parliamentary republic and executive authority lies primarily with the government — the whole scaffolding of checks and balances reflects this setup. The president, on the other hand, faces weaker constraints, as they are elected directly, which means there’s no parliamentary oversight except for a cumbersome impeachment procedure.

Normally, this isn’t a problem since the presidency wields limited powers. But now, considering Radev’s growing role, it has become one, as he isn’t really accountable to anyone — not even voters since he can’t run for reelection after his second term.

Bulgaria’s de facto ruler was already a matter of controversy from the first day he assumed office. His detractors paint him as Moscow’s stooge, pointing to his infamous 2016 statement that Crimea is a de facto part of Russia, even though Kyiv holds the legal title. And more recently, Radev has been adamant that Bulgaria won’t be sending arms to Ukraine — despite last November’s parliamentary decision to the contrary — and he has been lashing out at parties that voted in favor of it, calling them “warmongers.”

Interestingly, back in 2020, Radev had sided with the anti-corruption protests sweeping through Bulgaria, supported by the most staunchly pro-Western part of the electorate. Furthermore, he even gave his blessing to Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, ministers in a caretaker administration in 2021, who later went on to establish PP. So, even though PP and its coalition partner Democratic Bulgaria are now at loggerheads with Radev, they used to share a cause in the not-so-distant past.

Meanwhile, Radev’s links with the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) are equally tangled. Once backed by them as a presidential candidate, nowadays he is more of a competitor for the sympathies of Putin-friendly voters nostalgic for communism.

If there’s one thing we know for certain about Radev, however, that is his unbridled ambition. The former air force commander believes he has the gravitas, values and vision to be Bulgaria’s leader, filling in the gap left by the folksy populist Borissov’s decline.

Radev also thinks he has the political skills to navigate the stormy waters of domestic and international politics, playing to multiple audiences at once by reassuring apprehensive Bulgarians they won’t be dragged into a war against Russia, while telling other NATO and EU governments that Sofia will continue delivering badly needed artillery shells to Ukraine. These shipments to Poland and Romania, which began under the Petkov government and were paid for by the United States and United Kingdom, have continued during Donev’s term — and if Radev truly wanted to pull the plug on them, he would have done so months ago.

The Bulgarian president is currently calling for a speedy formation of a new cabinet as well, and in that respect, he is in tune with public opinion, as surveys indicate that as many as 69 percent of Bulgarians are hoping a new government will materialize.

However, this may not come to pass, as the GERB may well calculate their percentage will increase if a repeat vote is held later in the year, with Borissov blaming the PP’s intransigence in a bid to chip away votes from competitors. Meanwhile, the reformist, Western-friendly DB — which signaled it was prepared to enter a GERB-led government under certain conditions — could distance itself from the PP too. Yet, even so, Borissov will still have a hard time securing a decisive victory, and the pro-Kremlin Revival party, which came in third in the election, will undoubtedly thrive thanks to populist electioneering.

This means the power vacuum in Bulgaria will persist, and Radev will remain the only pillar of stability in a country that otherwise appears rudderless.

Yet, as strong as he is right now, Bulgaria’s president still has a problem over the long run.

A man casts his ballot at a polling station during the country’s parliamentary elections in Sofia | Nikolay Doychinov/AFP via Getty Images

Once Radev’s term expires in 2027, he will find himself in the political wilderness, as no former Bulgarian head of state has been particularly successful in reentering electoral politics. And a similar fate may well befall him, when he’s no longer holding office or benefiting from lavish media coverage and popularity that comes along with it.

Thus, the clock is ticking, and Radev needs to figure out what comes after the current zenith of his power and influence. Relatively young and full of confidence, he surely won’t throw in the towel and retire. But the Bulgarian political terrain is competitive, and leaders’ fortunes can swiftly rise and fall.

Importantly, this is one reason why frequent elections also bring benefits — not just costs. In a country where accountability is in short supply, elections are the only instrument citizens have to restrain elites, and through the years, Bulgaria has seen the demise of many a populist parties and politicians.  And some instability may well be preferable to fake stability under a father figure or predatory coalition