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2016 in Review 30 Dec 16

Bulgaria 2016: Pile of Troubles Brings Borissov Down

Global challenges and political turmoil at home proved too much for Boyko Borissov’s wobbly coalition - and the year ended on a note of uncertainty. 

Mariya Cheresheva
Boyko Borissov. Photo: GERB

Borissov’s coalition falls apart:

The second government led by Boyko Borissov, leader of Bulgaria’s largest party, the centre-right GERB party, took power at the end of 2014 on a commitment to enact much-needed reforms.

In 2016, however, its reformist spirit subsided and, following a loss of political support at home and a variety of troubles on the global stage, the coalition fell in the middle of its four-year-mandate in November.

Borissov resigned abruptly after his party’s presidential candidate Tsetska Tsacheva was defeated by the Socialist Party-backed former airforce chief Rumen Radev in the election on November 13.

His troubles started earlier, however, in December 2015, when the Democrats for Strong Bulgaria, one of the parties in government, withdrew support over the watering down of judicial reforms.

Bulgaria’s slow progress in reforming its ineffective judiciary and fighting against high-level corruption has long been noted.

It featured again in the European Commission’s annual report issued under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, or CVM, in January. Key foreign investors in Bulgaria had made the same point.

Stalled reforms and increasing tensions caused further disarray in the government, after a second party, the centre-left Alternative for Bulgarian Revival, quit the cabinet in May following the controversial adoption of a new electoral code and what it called “harmful” policy-making by the government.

The electoral code, voted in May, limited the voting rights of Bulgarians living abroad.

Hostility grows to Muslims and migrants

The shrinking support base for GERB created an opportunity for the nationalistic Patriotic Front coalition to capitalize on its new role of a key partner in government, holding important cards in a chaotic political situation.

The success of the Patriotic Front reflected the growth of far-right rhetoric all over Europe in 2016, which did not bypass Bulgaria.

The ongoing migrant crisis and the various Islamist terror attacks in the heart of the European Union over the last two years contributed to the radicalization of public opinion in Bulgaria, where hate speech was on the rise.

Growing anti-Muslim rhetoric also sparked religious tensions in Bulgaria, where the large Muslim minority felt targeted by legal actions, such as the total ban on wearing the burqa.

This was pioneered in the central town of Pazardjk in April and the ban was adopted nationally in the end of September.

To address the increased global threat of terrorist attacks, Bulgarian MPs moved to criminalize radical Islam and introduced a new anti-terror law. Such actions were criticized by rights groups as limiting civil rights and freedoms in the country.

The backlash against refugees and migrants who had been entering Bulgaria since the refugee crisis escalated in 2013, provoked vigilante groups to go “hunting” for migrants at the Bulgarian-Turkish border in 2016.

They gained international notoriety, but were widely praised at home, where anti-refugee rallies have become regular events.

Meanwhile a riot in Bulgaria’s largest refugee camp in the southeast town of Harmanli in November ended in violent clashes with the police and hundreds of asylum seekers detained.

It was the second escalation of tensions in the refugee center after a mass fight erupted there in August which further increased fear and insecurity among Bulgarians on the subject of refugees and migrants.

Awkward relations with Turkey and Russia

Alongside internal problems throughout the year, Bulgaria had to deal with increasing tensions on a global level.

Bordering Turkey, which was shaken by an attempted coup in July, and heavily influenced by Russia - both culturally and economically - the country felt caught between a rock and a hard place.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated threat to open Turkey’s border and “flood” Europe with refugees, unless the EU kept its side of a controversial migrant deal signed in March, forced Bulgaria to embrace the role of mediator between Brussels and Turkey.

In August, Borissov travelled to Ankara and Berlin, calling on Europe to stick to the commitments it had made to the Turkish authorities in return for Turkey’s promise to keep refugees away from the European border.

But several EU governments remained very reluctant to grant Turkish nationals visa-free travel to the EU, partly because of popular anti-Muslim sentiment in the EU, and partly because they did not want to reward Erdogan for his crackdown on alleged coup plotters, the opposition and intellectuals.

As talks between the EU and Turkey faltered, Borissov’s government made desperate efforts to maintain the relationship with Ankara, deporting a number of alleged “Gulenists” - supporters of Erdogan’s exiled rival, Fetullah Gulen - to Turkey.

The deportations angered human rights advocates in Bulgaria as well as the families of the deportees.

Borissov admitted in August that the extradition of one such Turkish citizen, Abdullah Buyuk, had been an act “on the edge of the law”.

However, he justified this by appealing to the risk of a massive refugee influx from Turkey.

“We must not allow the migrant wave to flood Bulgaria,” he said in an interview, adding: “It is of great significance for Bulgaria to maintain good relations with Turkey.”

Bulgaria’s relations with old ally Russia were not much easier, either.

In June an international arbitration court in Geneva ordered the state-owned National Electric Company in Bulgaria to compensate the Russian nuclear firm Atomstroyexport with over a half billion euros in damages for two nuclear reactors produced for the nuclear project in Belene, which was cancelled in 2013.

To avert the risk of a row with the Kremlin, in June Borissov also pulled out from a proposed joint NATO Black Sea flotilla together with Turkey and Romania, raising fresh questions about the security priorities of the countries in the region.

The worsening conflict between the US and Russia also added to the confusion over Bulgaria's foreign policy, and highlighted the historic divide between fans and foes of “Grandfather Ivan”, as some nicknamed Russia.

The election of Rumen Radev as a Bulgaria’s new President in November was widely viewed as a victory for pro-Russian elements in the country, although analysts doubted it would change the fundamentals of Bulgaria’s external allegiances.

UN race turns into fiasco

In 2016, Bulgaria grabbed the attention of global diplomatic circles by joining the race for the post of UN Secretary General with not one candidate but two.

In February, Borissov’s government nominated UNESCO’s chief Irina Bokova for the job.

But, amid concern that Bokova was failing to attract support from the UN Security Council, Sofia belatedly switched its nomination to former European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, who also failed to win. Portugal’s Antonio Guterres grabbed the prize in October.

The outcome was seen as a diplomatic fiasco in Bulgaria, adding to the list of causes to be used against GERB by its political opponents.

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