PM Boyko Borisov Jumps from a Galloping Horse

Some politicians can make Bulgaria’s political volatility work for them – until they can’t

Sometimes history rides on the fastest horse, and the landscape changes quicker than you can imagine.

In early February, Bulgarians received unexpected, shockingly high electricity bills. Scattered protests erupted, then on Sunday, 17 February, about 100,000 gathered in the centre of Sofia and other big cities. The next day, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov nudged out his deputy and finance minister, Simeon Dyankov, and promised to talk to protesters. On Tuesday morning, Borisov announced measures to rein in electricity prices, while pledging not to step down five months before scheduled elections.

The same evening, however, a few protesters shed blood at the hands of police in the centre of Sofia. That was enough for Borisov to resign. On 20 February, he told the Parliament, “Every drop of blood brings shame on us. It is unbearable for me to see Parliament behind barricades.”

This was a huge surprise. Albeit a minority government, Borisov’s cabinet seemed strong. After a landslide victory in 2009, three smaller parties had chosen to support it without preconditions. And though some of them had second thoughts, Borisov and his GERB party (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) had always enjoyed a comfortable command of Parliament, good approval ratings and media sympathy.

The main hero was Borisov himself. His colourful language, a “the buck stops here” approach, and readiness to address matters directly were both his secret weapon and his Achilles’ heel; they inspired both popular admiration as well as criticism for shallow populism and even dictatorial manners.

In any event, Borisov hardly seemed like the sort to give in. Even his adversaries, mainly the Socialists, who had often demanded his resignation, looked shocked by his departure. So far, the prime minister – ex-security company owner, karate expert, security official, and mayor of Sofia – had deftly handled various protests by inviting the grassroots leaders to talk and then making concessions and compromises. That is how Borisov tamed the anti-shale gas demonstrators, the anti-ACTA activists and the Greens.

But with these protests, he lost his mojo. Here are some possible reasons why:

It was his time. Bulgaria has the highest political volatility in Europe – every election brings a new winner. So every Bulgarian government goes through a cycle of trust: in the first two years everybody loves it. In the third year some start to criticise; and at the end of the fourth year it is almost universally hated. Borisov managed to slow this cycle down, but he couldn’t ultimately beat it. In January, a referendum he opposed to build a new nuclear power station brought a yes vote, invalidated only by low turnout.

Rising anger over austerity. This popular explanation likens Bulgaria to Spain, Greece and Italy, but for me it doesn’t hold up.

In Bulgaria, Finance Minister Dyankov initially took aim at the deficit to ready the country for accession to the eurozone, delaying government payments to the private sector, which led to the collapse of some businesses. Later, he changed course, joining the prime minister, who was always ready to give money to those who yelled loudly enough. So why should anti-austerity sentiment explode now?

Failure of the ultra-liberal ideology. This is much more credible. After 1989, the pendulum moved from statist to laissez-faire ideology. The new mantra was “Privatise everything, at any cost!” In 2004, the government of former King Simeon Saxecoburggotski (Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) privatised energy distribution to three new owners, a Czech, an Austrian and a German, two of them state-run companies.

Instead of better services, privatisation simply replaced a state monopoly with a private one, so popular anger was directed against the foreign owners and their sophisticated pricing methods. Harsher critics spoke of “colonisation” and demanded “nationalisation”. Anti-globalism joined nostalgia, a dangerous mix indeed.

Dissatisfaction with the establishment. The protesters stood against everyone and everything, refusing to be led by parties, even by popular figures like performing stars or footballers. After Borisov’s resignation, their demands were many and diffuse – from disbanding the monopolies to changing the electoral system; from “reclaiming Bulgaria” to “direct rule by the people” and “new faces in politics”.

New faces arose from this cry: Saxecoburggotski in 2001, Volen Siderov in 2005, and most prominently, Borisov himself four years ago. Either the faces weather too quickly when exposed to the Bulgarian political climate or people do not know what to wish for. “This is the Bulgarian Occupy movement,” columnist Veselina Sedlarska wrote in Tema magazine, “and Bulgaria was the only country where it managed to overthrow a government.” As if to confirm that, protesters erected a tent camp in front of the parliament.

Times have changed. Borisov, with his swagger and verve, was a phenomenon of silence. He appeared in 2001, when Bulgaria was becoming increasingly normal, and politics and politicians boring. In such a landscape, a straight talker like Borisov stood out. But with the first real crisis, he stepped down with the intention to come back, some analysts claim. According to many polls, Borisov’s GERB is still the strongest party. His adversaries had hoped the protests would diminish him, until the elections in July. But his bold resignation tore up that script.

President Rosen Plevneliev will now have to appoint an interim government to take the country into early elections, now scheduled for 12 May. Even if Borisov can win again, everything will be different. In the love-hate cycle of Bulgarian politics, hate has the upper hand right now.

Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly  Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.

 

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