Can Europe Make It?

Bulgaria: leaving no man's land behind for the EU open door

One lesson we are learning is that although Brussels is important, it is not a universal solution. Brussels is used as an excuse in Bulgaria so that we do not worry about political lobbying, the judicial system, and the media, because somebody else has the big stick. An interview with Dimitar Bechev. 

Dimitar Bechev Dessislava Hristova Kurzydlowski Alex Sakalis
11 April 2014

Bulgarian political scientist Dimitar Bechev and lawyer and centre-right politician Radan Kanev were in London to discuss Bulgaria in the upcoming EU elections, the role of Russia in eastern Europe and the Ukraine crisis, before the following interview with Dimitar Bechev on April 1, 2014.

Dimitar Bechev at a meeting of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Flickr/Stephan Rohl. Some rights reserved.

Dimitar Bechev at a meeting of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Flickr/Stephan Rohl. Some rights reserved.

oD: In last night’s discussion, you suggested that in Bulgaria, the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ denote something different from their meaning in mature democracies. Could you elaborate?

Dimitar Bechev: This is an important point to hammer out. The ‘Left’ in Bulgaria is understood as an attachment to the ex-communist party, regardless of its contemporary politics. But that party was never held accountable. On social issues their base is conservative. If you ask them about gay rights, for example, I am sure they will give you the same answer as the conservatives in western Europe will give you. But this is a separate paradigmatic divide: this party is nostalgic about the pre-1989 period and of course they have a soft spot for Russia. By implication, the centre-right are the opposite trend, stemming from the 1990s anti-communist opposition. In a word, the two ‘sides’ are defined according to one’s own relationship with the communist past.

Now, there is something called the ‘new left’, but it is mostly a Facebook phenomenon. They were unable to mount any viable electoral challenge to the status quo. These are people who acquired their left wing politics from exposure to the west: they went to the Central European University and are George Soros types of lefties. The Moscow type of ‘left’ is prevalent and dominant.

The left/right division in mature democracies is about the balance between equality and freedom, both in terms of the market versus the state and social issues such as conservative versus more human rights, empowerment, and cultural rights. This is not the case in Bulgaria. Very often it is about pre-1989 politics and also about the relationship with the Kremlin.

I think the real divide in Bulgaria in many ways is between people who want some sort of deepening of democratic governance (those are usually to be found in the centre right, but also in the centre left, in the European sense) versus people who are happy with the status quo. 

That is the deep divide, in the sense that we are now still in the early stages of dealing with issues of foundation: what is the state about and what is the market? We haven’t evolved to the state where we can raise those fundamental issues about the balance between market and state, because the state is captured and is dysfunctional, exposed to cronyism and oligarchic models of governing. That is why the market is also dysfunctional. This is the core struggle in many ways.

This is why we had the protests in Bulgaria trying to reassert or deepen our democracy. On paper, we have all the vestiges of democracy – free elections, various political parties, media outlets, and so forth. But if you scratch at the surface, you see that media freedom has been declining in Bulgaria since 2006. There is a lack of transparency; there is political influence, (self) censorship and propaganda. The whole idea of the political sphere as a level playing field is beyond our reach. 

The judicial system is not functioning, so there is no properly functioning rule of law. Political parties are turning into clientelist machines, so ideology is not very important. Democracy exists in a minimalist sense because people’s votes decide who runs the country. But not in a more substantial sense: i.e. in terms of media freedom, civil society, a powerful judicial system and rule of law.

This is what is really missing and it is difficult to proceed without it. Yet, you cannot say that nothing has changed in the last ten years. If anything, we see now that civil society has become a voice, an actor on various issues. And by civil society I don’t necessarily mean NGOs, or the professions. It is rather people coming together. It might be a generational phenomenon with more educated young people, but it is not what it used to be.

Ten years ago, if you had a big project with huge environmental impact, nobody would rally in Sofia. Now, when legislative lobbyist amendments to laws are passed to benefit some network of political interest and business, you will have at least some civic backlash. There you see a kind of gradual improvement. The question, then, is what does it mean in terms of politics? These issues are resolved at the ballot box. It is a big question mark still.

oD: What have the protests achieved so far in your view? Do you also see any potential in this movement developing into something more substantial? 

DB: A lot of people are cynical and they look at the central demands of the protests, which from last summer onwards revolved around ‘the government should resign’. And as the government is still in power, of course they see the protest as a failure. The government dug itself in, just waited it out and ignored the protests, which is a very different strategy from what we have witnessed elsewhere around the world, where governments are cracking down hard on protest movements. What they did in Bulgaria is just to ignore it, launching a smear campaign in the media against the main activists.

But I think we should be looking at the more long-term impacts: the growth, no matter how difficult and slow, of civic culture is happening, which is also embedded in generational change.

Previously, individual strategies for coping included things like going abroad, locking yourself in your own private sphere or escaping into the internet. So, disengagement was the main mode of behaviour for many people.

Now, I think politicisation, in the right sense of the word, is happening. So there is something positive to celebrate with regards to the protests. People are gradually developing a sense of civic spiritedness, that their voice matters, that they have an obligation to say what they think, to respond to blatant episodes of state capture and the abuse of executive power.

This ideological and normative change in society, however narrow it may appear, is something to be happy about in Bulgaria and I would underscore it as an achievement, the creation of a protest culture, if you will.

oD: So you are optimistic that this kind of social change and the emergence of an active civil society could lead to political change? 

DB: The Reformist Bloc is a good example of a coalition being born out of the protest movement. Had it not been for the mass civic rallies in Sofia and elsewhere, those parties wouldn’t have come together. There was a signal from society.

I am yet to see such an attempt at openness and responsiveness from other parties. They often talk the talk of being open to civil society but what happens is if you are a governing party, then you set up your QUANGOs. When they want to adopt a policy they engage in a consultation but this consultation is like white-washing the policies. They come to the decision a priori and then invite people who agree with them or who are close to them to comment. It is a game of smoke and mirrors. And of course the current coalition does the same kind of picking and choosing. But there is no attempt at being open.

There is another episode in Bulgarian politics though that indicates that there is some political impact to the protest movement. If you look at the split within the socialist party: the group that split ABV, led by the former President Georgi Parvanov, the line of argumentation they used against the incumbent leadership of the Socialist party drew heavily upon the language of the protests, which suggests that there is some trickledown effect in political discourse, even if the political actors are not really interested in changing their ways or changing their mode of engagement, which for these clientelist parties is a business mode of operation.

oD: You were considered as a candidate for the European elections with the Reformist Bloc but you withdrew, is that correct?

DB: Yes, that is right. There were two different ways you can look at the Reformist bloc at the start: one was to be a bit more innovative and say it is a constellation of parties but also of civil society. I think this would have been a good role.

But harsh political realities showed us that the European elections will be about mobilising the core supporters and networks of the parties. To be in politics you have to go down and engage with local structures not just appeal to the Internet savvy. You have to be present on the local level, have party apparatus, mobilise more supporters and voters. The classic paths of electoral politics.

And the Bloc evolved into being a classic coalition. At a certain point most of the civil society people involved in the Reformist Bloc felt that we had done our job of being the glue, sticking them together, but now it is up to the politicians to transform that into a political message, mobilise their supporters, mobilise their party members and make it a viable effort. Because it is an important threshold for the Reformist Bloc, it’s make or break. And we do have to keep and consolidate our gains so far in order to start developing our capacity in the future.

Some of the people on the list beyond the current member of the EP, Malinov, and Meglena Kuneva who has her credentials as a Commissioner, are very good possible candidates. Korman Ismailov is a good choice, I think, because if the Reformist Bloc is sincere about reform then it should be open to ethnic minorities. Having Turkish people in high positions in the list is something really positive in my book, for the reasons we discussed yesterday regarding the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and the fact that hitherto, the community of Muslims and Turks was isolated and almost hermetically sealed off as a legacy item of just this one party. The problem is also with the Bulgarian majority parties, which have never consistently campaigned for these votes and didn’t offer much choice to ethnic minorities. But I think the Reformist Bloc is sending the right signal by having these people in the list.

oD: To what extent could the upcoming European elections change the situation in Bulgaria? 

DB: I think it can change things to a great extent on the tactical level because the European elections are not about Brussels really, but about domestic politics in the member states. They are something like a vote of confidence. The government shows clearly that they do not have the support of a majority. That could set new dynamics into motion and lead to the downfall of the government, which at the end of the day is what the protests wanted from the start.

But of course the question is not only about how to get rid of this government in the short-term. The real question is how we govern and change the main framework in the Bulgarian political system. It is not an easy battle. It won’t happen tomorrow. It might not happen in five years.

It is a long-term project. What is important is to have somebody espousing this agenda, shaping the conversation. Because right now the two major parties on the centre-right and the centre-left don’t even pretend they have an agenda to change the judiciary and the way it operates, to change the rules of the game in the civil administration, or change how the media sector operates. They depend on all that to remain in power: they benefit from this system.

Of course they suffer when they are in opposition because they become the victims of this nexus of oligarchic politics and dysfunctional judiciary. But once they get into power through the ballot box then they make full use of it because this the way to entrench your influence, to generate rent for your clientele and so forth. I don’t think it is in the interest of either party to change this.

Maybe having the Reformist bloc (RB) as a minority party and in a minority position (I don’t think anyone in Bulgaria at this stage will ever rule alone. This is something we left behind us in the 1990s. The time of majorities is over in Bulgaria. It is certain we will be run by coalitions) as a junior partner but with a strong voice and a clear vision, and an honest political message and programme, can make a real difference. Of course, provided that there is a sufficient degree of cohesion and unity and it moves forward. That is why I really hope that there will be a good outcome at the European elections.

And this brings us to the EU. The message to push forward here is that we need more EU influence in Bulgaria because that is how things happen. Unfortunately, there is no critical mass in Bulgaria and we need some external push to get things done.

There is resistance; there is a way to diffuse this influence. But unless Brussels intervenes, the political class and the political inertia in Bulgaria leads to a ‘nothing gets done’ approach. Therefore we are talking about the need for a kind of catalyst for greater Europeanisation in Bulgaria, so that it doesn’t drop off the track when the EU is so differentiated, and very diffuse.

You might be a member on paper but remain really excluded, which means that the less you are part of the EU, the less you have leverage to change things. That is one part of the message.

Second, a more idealistic view is that the dynamics could unleash and unlock the process of becoming more mature. One lesson we are learning is that although Brussels is important, it is not a universal solution. Brussels is used as an excuse in Bulgaria so that we do not worry about political lobbying, the judicial system, and the media, because somebody else has the big stick.

And the excuse works, but in a minimalist sense. To make change really happen, it has to commence from within – in civil society, but also in the political spectrum. I think this is the bigger meaning of what is happening in Bulgaria – of taking responsibility in our own hands and not relying exclusively on this external push, which is there but we cannot just assume it will do the job for the country.

oD: What does being ‘in Europe’ mean for Bulgaria?

DB: At the very basic level it is a cost-benefit ratio. Even though the EU is in crisis still, without the funds from Brussels, Bulgaria would have been in recession. EU money is keeping the economy afloat in very difficult times. The support regarding our membership has stayed pretty stable, roughly around 70%. Because they do know that we are much better off inside than outside, even in times of crisis. We joined just before the biggest economic crisis experienced in the Union.

It was bad historical timing. Still there is a clear realisation that unless Bulgaria is part of something bigger, embedded in the larger regional dynamics, it is very difficult to rid the country of the kinds of legacies and problems we inherited. The pull of the EU is really important. It means better living standard all across the population.

The EU opens its doors to people who are entrepreneurial; people who want to do something for themselves. This is quite EU-bound. Of course now, with the crisis and the deep-seeded populist political culture that we have in Bulgaria, we are bound to hear Eurosceptic messages along the lines of: ‘we were promised prosperity in 2007 and look what happened. We are victimised.’ But that is an argument that is very easy to refute because at the end of the day, the EU is not a charity. It gives you opportunities. But it is up to you make the most of these and this expectation that somebody will do it for you and provide for you is deeply flawed.

That is why the argument doesn’t resonate that much. It is certainly not the EU that is to blame for the dysfunctionality of the Bulgarian economy. Of course Bulgaria is a very poor country but without the EU, it would deteriorate. If anything, the EU is a way to converge. I don’t think Euroscepticism has much of a future. It might increase its base, it might have greater support, but it still remains a position only shared by the few.

The real question for Bulgaria is: what kind of membership do you want? Do you want a membership that can work and deliver the goods or do you want a quasi-membership? The latter, sadly, is the case thus far. We are formally part of the institutions, the policies. We enjoy freedom of movement but we are not making the most of it in the sense of changing the country into a more prosperous one. So we are lingering on the periphery. If nothing happens and this scenario becomes the default scenario, it will be really bad because people will start blaming the EU for the problems.

Then again, of course, the EU is changing itself. The eurozone members are moving into a deeper union, which means less solidarity, less political interest in the less well-off, less dysfunctional states on the periphery. These are two reinforcing logics and it is up to politics on the domestic level to change the direction in which the EU is moving.

And this is really something we should be working towards. At the end of the day, we don’t want third-class membership. But third-class membership is not a result of an international conspiracy theory, but the result of our own limitations. I think this is the fundamental understanding of people, of civil society and of the Reformist Bloc, and us. It is up to us to resolve this in Sofia, Plovdiv and so forth, not so much in Brussels.

oD: You spoke yesterday about the idea of Bulgaria being a bridge between Russia and Europe. Can we speak about Bulgaria being Russia’s foot in the EU door? 

DB: We often use the metaphor of the ‘Trojan horse’. It is certain that Bulgaria is exposed to Russian influence and a certain number of Bulgarians, for historical reasons, have a soft spot for Russia. But in a funny way this leads to a pushback and a backlash among other Bulgarians. These are two poles. Fundamentally, I think there is no problem in having Russians buy property in Bulgaria or Russian companies doing business in Bulgaria, as long as they play by the rules. It is a good thing that Bulgaria has this historical closeness.

The problems arise because the way Russia is run today is precisely on the model of state capture - a corporate crony model has been put in place which leaves no space for the rule of law. The regime in Russia is a problem because it entrenches, deepens and advances the same deficiencies we see in Bulgaria. The corrupting influence of the current regime is profound. The best way to pin it down is to look at the energy sector, where grand projects are sucking out public resources – the nuclear power plant in Belene and the South stream are now instrumental in enforcing the clientelist and corrupt nature of politics in Bulgarian parties.

So it is on this level that Russia poses the greatest danger. At the level of the economy, there is a lot of wishful thinking and this is where cognitive dissonance steps in. Bulgaria is almost 100% dependent on Russian gas supplies and highly dependent on oil and nuclear fuel, and looking at gas in particular because it is more specific than other commodities, Bulgaria pays really high prices.

There is no sentiment there. It is just the market logic. Gazprom charges prices it can get away with. And it is only rational for Bulgaria to diversify relations away from Russia. We need other suppliers just to lower prices, which means better economic chances for growth, lower households prices, etc.

That is the real danger in this talk of bridge, culture, brotherhood, etc. - it is misleading because it obscures the larger picture, which is a bit more complex with regards to corruption, influences, but also dependency on energy supplies, especially gas.

The leader of the far-right Ataka party protests outside a mosque in Sofia. Demotix/Johann Brandstatter. Some rights reserved.

The leader of the far-right Ataka party protests outside a mosque in Sofia. Demotix/Johann Brandstatter. Some rights reserved.

oD: What can you say about allegations that the Kremlin is involved in direct financing of several Bulgarian parties, including the far-right ATAKA?

DB: This seems highly likely if you look at how they function - they pretty much mirror the Kremlin talking points, which is even more worrying in the case of a populist and xenophobic party like ATAKA as they have taken on board the anti-democratic rhetoric of Moscow. Their latest rally put up a banner reading, ‘We were liberated by Russia, not the EU homosexuals’. The whole issue is genetically tied to this historical discourse of unity with Russia, of being part of Russia.

You can understand ATAKA because they are fighting for their political survival in a tougher environment where their chances of passing the threshold are very limited. They benefited from their position in the current Parliament, in which they hold the balance - which is a great way to generate income in exchange for support.

But they are struggling to survive and their rent-seeking opportunities might evaporate in the near future. Russia becomes more important when it is the survival of the leader and the party in the face of the electoral dynamics that is at stake, since ATAKA is no longer the sole provider of the nationalist vote. There are others as well, trying to turf them out and get their votes and be the new kingmakers in Bulgarian politics.

oD: Looking at the different political parties, it was interesting to see a Bulgarian party sitting together with UKIP in the European parliament – the Union for the Salvation of Bulgaria?

DB: These are splinters from ATAKA, elected with ATAKA votes. Of course, ATAKA is a one-man show. The person who sits with UKIP was an ally but he decided he could go it alone. When he split from ATAKA, he looked for associates in the European Parliament. It was purely tactical  - a desire to find some sort of international legitimacy; to find an umbrella. But it will be interesting to see what happens in the next European elections. The chances of ATAKA securing MEPs in the next European elections, as well as in the next parliament, are pretty low, if you trust the polls. There will be a reshuffle.

oD: Which parties do you expect to do well in May and which do you expect to do worse than in 2009?

DB: The big contest is between the centre-right GERB, on one hand, and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). If GERB comes on top, which is very likely, then they will have a strong argument to say that ‘we beat you once more, as we have done so many times’. Even in the last election they got more votes than the Socialists. So it is time for them to return to power.

Those two are the two major contestants. The Movement of Rights and Freedoms will gain seats in the European Parliament through the ethnic vote. But I am sure that the Reformist Bloc will do strongly also. It has the potential of getting 2 MEPs out of 17. What is left are two other parties – one is the splinter from the Bulgarian socialist party, ABV; and the other one is new. It is called Bulgaria without Censorship, led by a famous TV anchor and it represents yet another attempt at a new populist outfit that tries to speak on behalf of the victims and against the political establishment. It’s linked to one of the key banks that supports this government, which is owned by dominant pseudo-businessman Tsvetan Vassilev.

It is a totally made-up party. If you go into their offices, you see mostly PR and advertising people. They just want to capture the vote and get into the next parliament. The question is how well they will do. There is a chance they will be in parliament as well. If the national parliament consists of four parties, at the European elections, we will discover we have as many as six parties, which is also indicative of what might happen next time we go for national elections. 

oD: When do you expect the next national elections to take place? 

DB: Constitutionally, the next ones are supposed to take place in 2017, as preliminary elections were held in May 2013. Normally they should be in 2017. But from the outset we know this government, consisting of a patchy coalition of socialists, ethnic Turks, and supported covertly by the ultra-nationalists, who on paper ethnic Turks view as their enemies, is highly volatile.

We know that this government is hanging on by a thread and protests have undermined them to a great degree. Now if the results from the European elections suggest that they are in minority, that will put them in a tight spot.

It is not unrealistic to expect elections in the fall, given the other issues in the political game. They are fighting for their political survival day by day. I don’t think anybody expects them to last until the very end of their term. Their majority is very precarious. But we will see. Of course, we wanted national elections to take place alongside the European elections. This scenario is no longer viable. But I think the next threshold will be in the autumn. A lot depends on what happens in the European elections. 

oD: More broadly, what are the implications for Europe and Bulgaria in particular of the crises in their neighbourhood – Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Syria? 

DB: These are all big questions and it is difficult to put them in one basket. It is an unstable neighbourhood. Things are moving at a fast speed, which is also a good reason for the political elite to push very hard for Bulgaria’s inclusion into the EU. The risk is that lingering on the periphery and not being serious about changing yourself - you can become a kind of no man’s land. All these negative events have a lot of potential for a spill-over effect and Bulgaria can backslide even further on its democratic path because around us there are a lot of examples of how things can go wrong.

You don’t need to look at Russia, look at Macedonia. They are stuck in this cycle and there is this party that has colonised the system and seems irreplaceable. There are parliamentary elections every two years, which undermines the institution of elections. Isolation becomes a self-fulfilled prophecy and it is not necessarily a bad thing for the leadership as they can portray themselves as defendants of the national interest.

Across the western Balkans you have plenty of negative examples – Serbia – the government is serious about the current reform regarding Kosovo but on the other hand you have one individual concentrating so much power after the last elections. If anything, we don’t want Bulgaria to move in this direction.

If you take a wider look at the region and think about what the trend should be, I am a bit worried about alternative paths for Bulgaria and we have to try even harder to push forward the positive change and keep the European location no matter how clichéd it sounds. It does have a meaning in a country like Bulgaria.

oD: Do you think the EU can gain momentum out of these crises – both from the outside and in?

DB: I am optimistic. The EU is slowly moving forward but once it makes a move, it is hard to stop it. It is very hard to speculate on a macro level what implications this may have, but I really hope that it will impact on politics.

For example, common energy policy will become much more coherent and robust; helping countries to diversify gas supplies; investing in cross-border infrastructure – the intra-connectors with Greece is an important project.

These will boost energy independence and also the rule of law in the case of Bulgaria because the more you are exposed to this kind of pressure, the more it challenges political corruption. This is one area where we can be cautiously optimistic because things have already been happening since the Ukrainian gas crisis in 2009. It is not very visible yet, but steps have already been taken.

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