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Bulgaria’s government faces collapse this week

SOFIA — Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s government is likely to fall in a no-confidence vote on Wednesday, removing an administration that vowed to clean up the country’s endemic corruption and took an unusually strong position against Russia.

Petkov only came to power six months ago, ending a tumultuous year of three general elections by forming a rickety four-party coalition in December. The Balkan nation of 7 million now looks liable to slide even deeper into political turmoil, with the possibility of its fourth parliamentary election since April 2021. This could derail the country’s prospects of joining the eurozone in 2024.

In a country with strong historical ties to Russia, Petkov has been conspicuous for his drive to pursue a more squarely pro-NATO agenda, and fired his defense minister when he parroted the Kremlin’s spin in the immediate aftermath of the Ukraine invasion.

In a sign of its seriousness about trying to confront corruption, Petkov’s government also made a dramatic push to arrest former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, in connection with a high-profile graft case. The arrest was, however, not only opposed by the highly controversial chief prosecutor but was marred by procedural deficiencies and was ruled illegal by a Sofia court. Borissov was released without charge.

The no-confidence vote on Wednesday has been precipitated by former television talk show host-turned politician Slavi Trifonov abruptly pulling his “There is Such a People” party out of the governing coalition. Trifonov says he has disagreements over the budget and accuses Petkov of taking too soft a line on allowing Northern Macedonia to begin EU accession talks.

Much of the political debate, however, centers on whether Trifonov is pulling the plug on the government for reasons related to Bulgaria’s powerful oligarchic mafia, who would stand to lose out in Petkov’s promised crackdown against graft. That interpretation has been boosted by a handful of lawmakers from Trifonov’s party, who are now backing Petkov precisely because they say their own party is siding with the mafia. (Trifonov himself retorts that these mafia allegations are absurd.)

Even with the defectors from Trifonov’s party, however, Petkov’s coalition remains six parliamentarians shy of the absolute 121 majority required in Wednesday’s vote.

Petkov himself is seeking to put a brave face on what looks set to be a defeat and is still vowing to try to find other sympathetic MPs by Wednesday. “We will do everything we can to find them,” he said.

The motion against the governing coalition was proposed by the opposition GERB party of former Prime Minister Borissov, which ruled the country for the better part of the past decade, blaming Petkov’s cabinet for failing to curb surging inflation and slamming its financial policies.  

Trial run

On Thursday, the Parliament dismissed its speaker Nikola Minchev of Petkov’s Continuing the Change party.

That maneuver against the speaker was conducted by 125 opposition lawmakers from GERB, the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedom party, the surviving rump of Trifonov’s party and the pro-Russian nationalist Revival party. Some experts saw the vote as a test-run for the no confidence vote on Wednesday. 

“At this point it seems unlikely that Petkov’s cabinet will survive the no-confidence vote,” said Daniel Smilov, a political analyst with the Sofia-based think tank Centre for Liberal Strategies.

Following Minchev’s ouster, several thousand Bulgarians took to the streets of the capital Sofia to rally in support of the government. “We are facing a no-confidence vote,” Petkov told the crowd on Thursday. “Let that not discourage you. It’s just a phase that we will overcome.” 

The country’s inability to make any advances against rampant graft — frequently fueled by the abuse of EU funds — is one of the main grievances of Bulgarian voters. In 2020, the country was rocked by a long summer of protests against the judiciary as well as key figures in Borissov’s party and the ethnic Turkish party.

New elections are expected to benefit Borissov’s GERB, as well as pro-Russian parties such as Revival and the newly-formed Bulgarian Rise. 

“GERB and the MRF might try to capitalize on polarization in Bulgarian society and position themselves as the anti-Kremlin alternative to pro-Russian,” said Smilov.

However, he warned that the appetite for an anti-corruption drive should not be underestimated. 

“People haven’t forgotten the 2020 protest against Borissov’s government and might use the elections to clearly state their disenchantment with the status quo,” he added.

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