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For Bulgaria, Borissov’s comeback is no path to stability

Dimitar Bechev is a lecturer at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and the author of “Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe.”

Who won in the Bulgarian elections, the West or Russian President Vladimir Putin? Can Moscow take advantage of the chronic political instability in this Black Sea nation where pro-Russian sentiment runs deep?

These are the questions that have informed the international coverage of last week’s Bulgarian election, the fourth time the country has headed to the ballot box since April 2021.

No doubt, few will have failed to notice the surge of Revival — a populist outfit that swapped its opposition to COVID-19 vaccines for cheerleading Putin’s spetsoperatziya in Ukraine and saw its support double to 10.2 percent, making it the fourth largest faction in the next national assembly.

Yet, what’s really at stake in Bulgaria isn’t a fight between neo-imperialist Russia on the one hand and the European Union and NATO on the other. Rather, it’s all about whether voters are willing tolerate state capture and corruption, or cast their lot with reformists who have the guts and energy to wage a struggle for clean government. And to this question, the latest election failed to produce an answer.

On paper, all mainstream parties in Bulgaria strongly support membership in Western clubs: Led by Boyko Borissov, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), which came first with 25.3 percent, is a proud member of the European People’s Party (EPP); their likely coalition partner, the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which is backed by Bulgarian Turks and Muslims and is both ready and willing to formalize its partnership with GERB, has a place in Renew Europe; We Continue the Change (PP), which is co-led by outgoing Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, gravitates toward the same liberal grouping; and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which joined Petkov’s cabinet along with the center-right Democratic Bulgaria (DB) coalition, is a member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats faction in the European Parliament; with DB bringing together the EPP and the Greens.

Only Revival and, to a degree, Bulgarian Rise (BV) — a small new party seen as close to President Rumen Radev — could be classified as pro-Russian. And even if one were to add BSP to the count, as its grassroots do worship Putin, more than two-thirds of the seats in the new legislature are still going to “pro-Western” forces.

Similarly, while the Kremlin’s anti-Western narratives do have purchase in Bulgarian society, the public and most elites are pro-EU and NATO too. It’s a no-brainer: The billions in subsidies pouring into Bulgaria and the freedom of movement are the lifeblood of the country’s economy, politics and society. Meanwhile, NATO is the ultimate guarantor of national security, even for those who, like Radev, believe Sofia is better off keeping a low profile in the ongoing war.

The issue is what belonging to the West actually means.

Is Bulgaria just free-riding on NATO, or is it contributing to collective defense? In the same vein, is the EU merely a piggy bank benefiting political entrepreneurs and their clientele, or is it a force for positive change? Indeed, Petkov’s short-lived cabinet did try its hand at improving governance and strengthening rule of law, but in truth, it was rowing against the current, reckoning with a ramshackle coalition, skilled adversaries, double-digit inflation, as well as the populace’s anxiety and fear of the war.

By contrast, GERB’s likely return to power demonstrates the resilience of the status quo. Promising to restore stability, Borissov could count on friends and allies, from the prosecutor general who refused to press charges against him to the media and the EPP. The party’s control over local authorities and its de facto partnership with the president — a once staunch critic who has now cozied up to his rival — undoubtedly helped as well.

However, neither is GERB’s “win” credible nor is stability really an option, as even after teaming up with DPS and BV, Borissov will still be four seats short of a majority. As such, he might need Revival’s endorsement too and will horse-trade with that in mind. That is why he prefers a grand coalition, with PP and DB sharing in the responsibility of running the country amid what promises to be a harsh winter.

But while the idea of such a broad-based “Euro-Atlantic” government in a time of turmoil — possibly under a technocratic prime minister — is being talked up by GERB on both the airwaves and in meetings with foreign diplomats, neither party is interested in Borissov’s company, the epitome of corruption in their eyes. Neither do they want any association with DPS — the long-time associates of GERB in an informal power cartel — which looks set to dip into the billions to be disbursed through the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility. Both parties’ voters keep a a close eye on their representatives and would be sure to electorally punish any such U-turn, which is why Petkov ruled out a grand coalition from the get-go.

Instead, Borissov will likely have to cobble together a shaky coalition of his own, gathering kleptocrats, oligarchs, opportunists and far-right populists — as well as President Radev. And even though such a government could unravel in short order, with Bulgarians heading back to the polls before long, the rest of the EU will probably still breathe a sigh of relief at the country’s restored “stability,” since the alternative would be yet another caretaker administration appointed by Radev, followed by yet another snap vote.

Overall, Bulgaria seems to be locked in a perpetual election cycle, and the costs are conspicuous: Pro-Russian populists are making gains, voter turnout is falling to abysmally low levels — currently less than 40 percent — and the country appears rudderless.

But there’s a silver lining too.

For one, There Is Such A People — a populist party that pulled out of the PP-led coalition last summer and caused the current crisis — failed to clear the 4 percent threshold.

But on a more fundamental level, elections are an instrument for citizens to hold political elites to account, and in a political system so devoid of transparency and marred by corruption, frequent trips to the polls may well be a partial fix for absent checks and balances.

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