LIARS OR BEING LIED TO?

by Anthony Georgieff

Changes Continued may have but limited political future

bulgarian politics 2024.jpg

Тo understand the current predicament of the Changes Continued political party, one of whose leaders, Kiril Petkov, was prime minister in 2021-2022, one needs to consider the characteristically complicated background.

Kiril Petkov and his mate, Asen Vasilev, are both Harvard-educated economists who returned to Bulgaria and started their own businesses. Their ascend into politics was somewhat unexpected. They were put forward by... President Rumen Radev.

In 2021, Petkov and Vasilev were installed as economy and finance minister respectively in one of the caretaker governments appointed by the president in keeping with the Bulgarian Constitution. But both Petkov and Vasilev were quick to distance themselves from their original benefactor. Before too long, they turned against him.

In the autumn of 2021 they founded their own political party which they called Changes Continued, or CC. Top of their agenda was to dismantle the "Boyko Borisov model," which they saw as the epitome of political corruption, nepotism and the amalgamation of the agencies of the state with organised crime.

On that agenda they took part in the November 2021 snap election, which they won, garnering over 25 percent of the vote. Translated into real ballots, this meant that 673,170 Bulgarian voters cast their votes for the CC. The new party, which had had trouble registering itself with the Central Elections Commission because it did not have enough time to fulfil all the Constitutional requirements, emerged as the largest party in the National Assembly. Significantly, it managed to achieve what had theretofore been seen as unthinkable. The CC beat Boyko Borisov's GERB into the second place. Many Bulgarians, who had put their trust in Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev, saw a beam of hope on the horizon. They perceived the CC victory as the beginning of the end of Boyko Borisov.

Over 25 percent of the vote was enough to sidetrack GERB, but it was short of enabling the CC to form a self-sufficient government. So, Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev were quick to find out that in a parliamentary democracy arithmetics, in the long run, was all that counted. Consequently, they had to look for partners. They found them in the leftwing Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP; the rightwing DB, or Democratic Bulgaria; and the seriously populist There Is Such a People party, which had been founded by Slavi Trifonov, a TV entertainer.

The first warning lights that there was something wrong with the CC started blinking at that time. How could the CC, who swore allegiance to "Western values," partner with the obviously leftist BSP, the formal if not spiritual heir to the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1944-1989? How could they do business with the likes of Gen Atanas Atanasov, one of the leaders of the DB, whose anti-Communist rhetoric and incessant preoccupation with the recent past sounded as if it belonged to 1991 rather than the 21st century? And what was Slavi Trifonov doing there at all?

The Kiril Petkov government survived just a few months. Its house of cards collapsed as Slavi Trifonov withdrew his support. Kiril Petkov was voted out of office in June, 2022.

The second set of warning lights blinked then. Many Bulgarians, including some who had genuinely and wholeheartedly supported the CC, got cold feet owing to the glaringly unprincipled alliance of the CC with the BSP, the DB and the ITN. The CC would not think twice before entering even more grotesque scenarios, they reasoned.

The critics were right. Realising that the election arithmetics worked against them, the CC allied themselves with the DB of Hristo Ivanov and Gen Atanas Atanasov, the political leaders whom they had competed with at the previous election. Many saw the move as being logical. The DB, itself an alliance of three small parties, had been representing itself as an association of pro-Western intellectuals, the only ones that could maintain this country's "geopolitical orientation," to use one of the most beloved catch-phrases of DB's activists. The CC and the DB were the two sides of the same coin.

But many others used the same argumentation to turn away from the CC. We voted for Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev, what we get now is Hristo Ivanov and Gen Atanasov, they argued. The DB, and especially one of its leaders, Hristo Ivanov, is the grouping that usually organises the street protests in Sofia. They have a small but religious following of like-minded "pro-Western intellectuals." To those who like them, they are "smart and beautiful." To the others, they are a bunch of arrogant Sofia city kids, Yellow Brick Roadsters, who cause huge traffic jams in the capital and are totally removed from the problems of ordinary citizens outside central Sofia.

Even though they joined forces with the more politically established DB, the CC scored much lower at the 2023 general election. The CC-DB alliance emerged 2 percent behind Boyko Borisov's GERB. The Bulgarian voters realised that, to paraphrase the great writer, the rumours about Borisov's political death had been rather premature.

Following many bouts of wrangling, hand-twisting, mudslinging and horse-trading, the CC-DB did what they had been swearing was unthinkable. They formed an alliance with Boyko Borisov, whom they had represented as the godfather of all evils in Bulgaria since 2009. They justified that move with just one thing. It was high time to "restore" Bulgarian parliamentarism, as Hristo Ivanov put it. Better rule with Boyko Borisov than let President Rumen Radev, whom the DB see as a pro-Russian figurehead, appoint yet another caretaker government.

Enter the government of Nikolay Denkov. From the very beginning the CC-DB, to which Denkov belongs, insisted on not calling itself a government at all. It was just a convenient "fixture," a "non-coalition" designed to attain several aims: ensure Bulgaria was fully accepted in Schengen, adopted the euro and continued to support Ukraine in the face of Putin's aggression.

Nine months later Bulgaria is not anywhere nearer either Schengen or the Eurozone, but the "fixture," with the support of the Turkish-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which the DB usually reviles, rushed to... make amendments to the Constitution. Kiril Petkov, Asen Vasilev, Hristo Ivanov and Gen Atanasov hail the amendments as a political breakthrough, a prelude to the much talked-about judiciary reforms. However, critics point out that the pith of the amendments dangerously tilts the balance of power and removes some important checks and balances to favour whoever happens to be in power at any given time.

The non-government of Nikolay Denkov introduced some completely new terms into Bulgarian politics. In addition to the notorious "fixture," it brought on "rotation." To the unenlightened, rotation was supposed to mean Nikolay Denkov would resign after nine months. He would be succeeded by Maria Gabriel, GERB's appointee for foreign minister and a former EU commissioner. After another nine months, the "rotation" would continue.

As the first nine months expired, the CC-DB publicists produced a self-congratulatory video about what they claim were their achievements. Except for their hardcore supporters, however, the general public was unimpressed. The aftertaste of nine months of the "fixture" is that they – the parties in the non-coalition – are only interested in clinging on to power. To do that, they are prepared to enter all kinds of unprincipled alliances and consume any kind of "marriage of convenience" by going to bed with their sworn enemies – and enjoying it.

The DB, which is better established politically, may survive the mess the fixture of Nikolay Denkov and Maria Gabriel have created. But the CC of Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev has a rougher time ahead. It may as well follow the countless political groupings, associations and "projects" in post-Communist Bulgaria – the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, the New Time, the Republicans for Bulgaria and of course the Simeon II National Movement, to name just a few – and just recede into oblivion. Greenhorns that were never able to rise themselves sufficiently above the day-to-day spats to leave the grotesquely elongated shadows of Gen Atanas Atanasov and Gen Boyko Borisov.

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