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How Bulgaria's European Path Was Almost Hijacked

Under a new coalition deal in Bulgaria, Maryia Gabriel (left) from the center-right GERB party and Nikolay Denkov from the centrist, anti-corruption We Continue The Change party will rotate as the head of the government every nine months.
Under a new coalition deal in Bulgaria, Maryia Gabriel (left) from the center-right GERB party and Nikolay Denkov from the centrist, anti-corruption We Continue The Change party will rotate as the head of the government every nine months.

After five elections in two years, Bulgaria has another government, but this one appears to have wide enough backing to at least fuel hope that the country could be on the verge of ending one of its longest political crises since the end of communism.

Amid protests outside parliament by largely far-right, pro-Russian parties and their supporters, parliament on June 6 gave its backing to the government formed by two pro-Western, pro-reform parties, We Continue the Change (PP), and Democratic Bulgaria (DB). The government crucially has the backing of the center-right GERB party, the winner of the last snap elections on April 2.

While many in Bulgaria may be heaving a sigh of relief, this outcome seemed in doubt just a week ago.

PP, the party of former Prime Minister Kirill Petkov, had been targeted by criticism and calumny from the president, head of institutions appointed by him, most of the parties in parliament, and the prosecutor's office, with the apparent aim of derailing the new government.

Boyko Borisov, a former prime minister and controversial figure, was also targeted as well due to his potential kingmaker role in any decision on whether his GERB party would back the new government or not.

The pressure was unrelenting up until the decisive vote. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, a pro-Kremlin figure who has opposed Western efforts to arm Ukraine, said the proposed government amounted to "creeping dictatorship," in comments made June 1 in Moldova, where he attended the second European Political Community summit.

One day later, on June 2, Bulgarian Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev formally requested that parliament strip Borisov of his immunity. And just hours before the National Assembly, Bulgaria's 240-seat unicameral parliament, was set to vote on the government, Bulgarian prosecutors announced they would also call for Petkov's immunity to be lifted as well for having signed a Bulgarian citizen declaration while also holding a Canadian passport.

Over a week ago, it looked like more than two years of political instability could be at an end with a viable cabinet appearing possible. It would have a clear European orientation, accelerating efforts to get Bulgaria into the visa-free EU Schengen zone, the eurozone, and engage more forcefully in Western efforts to support Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression.

Just a week later, such hopes were dealt a blow as those opposed to such a prospect amped up their attacks, with much of their ire focused on the proposed government's plan to weed out Russian influence from the country's security services.

Audio Recording

Much of the criticism was fueled by the illegal release of an audio recording of a meeting -- apparently recent -- of the leadership of We Continue the Change. In it, discussion turns to the security services and talk of "taking" it back from the control of President Radev, by appointing, one voice says, "our people who are approved by the embassies." There is also talk of "purging" Russian influence from the security services and appointing people who enjoy the trust of counterparts from NATO countries.

The release of the audio tape and its contents ignited a political storm. Radev, Vice President Iliana Yotova, senior members of GERB, the leaders of Bulgaria's pro-Russian parties, including the ultranationalist Revival party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the Prosecutor-General's Office, as well as the heads of the security services, all seemed to speak in unison that such plans amounted to "national betrayal."

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (file photo)
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (file photo)

Radev made his displeasure clear when he officially handed to Nikolai Denkov, the prime minister candidate of the We Continue The Change-Democratic Change coalition (PP-DB), a second mandate to form a cabinet at a ceremony barely lasting five minutes on May 29. Refusing to even shake Denkov's hand, Radev said if it was up to him personally, he would not hand over the mandate, but Bulgaria's constitution obliged him to do so.

On May 29, GERB and the anti-corruption alliance led by PP-DB announced that they had agreed to form a coalition government, including the unusual feature of rotating prime ministers. Under the deal, Denkov would serve as prime minister for nine months and then be replaced by Maria Gabriel, a former European commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education, and youth, who was GERB's pick.

However, this deal had its detractors. PP-DB members did not like Gabriel because they viewed her candidacy as a compromise with Borisov and a tacit understanding there would be no investigation of the corruption that was believed to have been rife during his 12-year rule and had sparked nationwide protests in 2020.

On May 21, nearly 50 people from the leadership of We Continue The Change met online to approve the deal with GERB. It turned out this 4 1/2 hour confab was recorded, however that would only come out five days later.

On May 22, Gabriel returned the first failed mandate to Radev so he could formally hand the second mandate to PP-DB. Denkov and Gabriel then announced the goals of their future government: constitutional reform of the country's justice system, financial stabilization, entry into Schengen, and adoption of the euro.

Almost as an afterthought, the two then snuck in one further goal that immediately did not grab much attention: "freeing the leadership of the Bulgarian security services from foreign influence." It was not explicitly stated that this meant Russian interference. For years, the Bulgarian security services have been criticized for failing to carry out internal reforms, including severing ties with Russia, which persisted even after 1989 when communism collapsed across the former Soviet-led eastern bloc.

None of these plans, in particular reform of the country's security service, triggered any outcry when they were announced, even among those who days later would vent their supposed outrage.

In the coming days, as the would-be government took shape, Radev remained silent, refusing to announce for an entire week when he would hand the second mandate to Denkov. This silence belied what was to come.

Bulgarian deputy Radostin Vasilev (file photo)
Bulgarian deputy Radostin Vasilev (file photo)

On May 26, PP-DB deputy Radostin Vasilev released the recording of the meeting held on May 21. Vasilev said he opposed the deal with GERB and exited the online meeting in protest at about the midpoint. He also said he recorded the meeting from this point so, he claimed, he could listen to what he had missed the next day. Vasilev added that he made the audio recording on his own tablet that he used to take part in the online discussion. However, the online platform used should have alerted all participants if someone started recording and none of the others noticed such an alert.

In the recording -- which appeared to be authenticated by PP when it released a recording of what appeared to be the same online meeting -- voices appearing to be those of Petkov and Vasilev talk about the negotiations with GERB and opined about Borisov's possible motives, speculating it could be an opportunity to "cleanse himself" of nagging corruption charges.

Angry Reactions

Many of the recorded comments provoked angry reactions from the public. Among much of Bulgaria's political elite, their ire was focused on the future of the security services and accusations that they are under the effective control of Radev.

In response to his recorded remarks that any future security service appointments would be made in consultation with "the embassies," Vasilev told Bulgaria's Nova TV that all such moves would be made by Bulgarians, but that the heads of the security services must have the confidence of NATO partners. He added that it is normal to consult with partners, many of whom are located at embassies in Sofia.

However, such efforts did not quell the rising storm of protest, as many politicians continued to focus on the intended remake of the security services. The day after the tape was released, the Revival party, the BSP, as well as the populist There Is Such A People party all spoke of "national betrayal." Revival even suggested it would urge prosecutors to investigate for possible treason. At the same time, Petkov was deflecting claims his party had coordinated with foreign embassies on any future personnel changes to the country's security apparatus.

Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov
Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov

Early on May 27, Vice President Iliana Yotova spoke of a "conspiracy against Bulgarian statehood" being hatched. Echoing those alarming remarks, Gabriel, the GERB prime minister candidate, warned of the "shaking of the foundations of statehood," before announcing she was freezing negotiations on forming a cabinet.

For his part, Radev denied any control of the security services, claimed they had been "seriously reformed," and accused We Continue The Change of plotting a "pogrom" of the security branches.

Seven days after Denkov and Gabriel announced their parties' readiness to form a cabinet, on May 29, the noose was tightening. The speaker of parliament, Rosen Zhelyazkov, a member of GERB, scheduled a hearing of heads of the State Agency for National Security (DANS), as well as foreign intelligence and military intelligence at the request of the Revival party.

In the National Assembly, We Continue The Change were upbraided by all the intelligence service heads. The director of DANS even accused Petkov's former government of working "against Bulgaria's interests" vis-a-vis with North Macedonia.

Mustafa Karadayi, the chairman of the Movement For Rights And Freedoms, a center-right party representing ethnic Turks and other Muslims, piled on as well, speaking of "creeping fascism" and warned of riots if a PP-DB-mandated government took power. And Kostadin Kostadinov, the leader of the Revival party, called from the parliamentary rostrum for the arrest of PP leaders.

Denkov faced a June 5 deadline to cobble together a viable cabinet with a huge handicap as GERB, a key party in any talks, balked temporarily at any further negotiations, citing the audio tape controversy for its reason.

With the clock ticking, Denkov did present Radev with a government that will only include Gabriel from GERB but will have no other members in the cabinet. Denkov also made it clear Radev's supposed control of the security agencies would figure at the top of the new government's agenda.

"The security agencies have to serve Bulgaria. Now their heads are appointed by one man only -- this is President Radev," Denkov said.

On the day of the vote, supporters of Revival were out in force in front of parliament, yelling their disapproval of the coalition deal, signaling Bulgaria's political rift is likely far from healed.

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