Bulgaria’s changing of the guard: The big picture

Bulgaria’s changing of the guard: The big picture

Sofia, March 6, 2015/ Independent Balkan News Agency

By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of The Sofia Globe

The decisions by the head of Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security and Interior Ministry chief secretary to give way to the inevitable and resign on March 6 are part of a broader process of personnel decisions in top posts by the centre-right coalition cabinet in office since November 2014.

Ahead of the early parliamentary elections last year, GERB party leader Boiko Borissov – then already seen as certain to return to the office of prime minister he had vacated in 2013 – campaigned on a platform of stability.

There are levels of meaning to that pledge, made mainly against the backdrop of the turbulence that the country had experienced after the early elections of 2013. Those elections indeed did see Borissov’s party get the most votes and the largest share of seats in Parliament, but in a National Assembly in which he had no allies, Borissov had to stand aside so that the mandate to govern could be handed to the second-ranked Bulgarian Socialist Party.

That BSP, then under the leadership of Sergei Stanishev – already so often trounced at the hands of Borissov – moved swiftly with a deal with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and with the support of far-right ultra-nationalists Ataka, presented the country with a ruling axis that was determined to eradicate the legacy of the 2009/13 Borissov government.

Stanishev spoke of, among other things, what he called the lifting of a “climate of fear” that – by his lights – had prevailed under Borissov’s rule. The ruling axis also embarked on a sweeping series of changes in top positions.

The cabinet dismissed large numbers of regional governors and changed the heads of several state agencies and other bodies. That cabinet was supposedly made up of “experts” – a claim that as soon as its members were announced proved somewhat implausible, and so too the new appointees at state bodies also were proclaimed to be experts, in comparison with what the ruling axis claimed had been the political appointees put in place under Borissov.

In the ranks of regional governors alone, the decisive influence of the MRF became clear. Those appointees alone prompted local protests. But it was in the abortive appointment of controversial figure Delyan Peevski, then sitting as an MRF MP, that was to sow the seeds of the ultimate political destruction of the ruling axis.

The BSP parliamentary caucus had to be whipped into line to back the election of Peevski, commonly described as a media mogul. The evening of the day of the parliamentary vote saw crowds of several thousand Bulgarian turn out in spontaneous protest against the Peevski election. The Peevski appointment was withdrawn and it was left to Plamen Oresharski, occupant of the prime minister’s chair in the BSP-MRF cabinet, to tell the public that the SANS appointment had been a “mistake”.

But the indignation on social networks and the streets could not be contained. It was indignation laced with skepticism, as each new change was unveiled – at the Customs Agency, InvestBulgaria Agency, Archives State Agency, State Agency for Refugees, State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, among others, and of course, at the Interior Ministry and SANS.

Svetozar Lazarov, who resigned on March 6 2015, got the job of Interior Ministry chief secretary after the appointee from the previous GERB government stepped down in June 2013. Similarly, after the Peevski debacle, there was a vacancy at the head of SANS. That post was handed to Vladimir Pisanchev, who had been deputy head – an appointment made, notably, when Borissov had been in power previously.

At the same time, the ruling axis made one of its first major moves the rewriting of legislation to remake the workings of the Interior Ministry, among other things to shift the Chief Directorate for Combating Organised Crime into SANS – the latter an entity that began operations at the time that Stanishev had been prime minister in the 2005/09 tripartite coalition that also had included the MRF.

Further, the changed legislation also shifted power over the SANS appointment from the President to the cabinet – a directly political move given that the ruling axis perceived head of state Rossen Plevneliev as the marionette of Borissov, and an incumbent in the Presidency that could not be got rid of, only marginalised.

For a government supposedly riding on pledges to reverse what it portrayed as the disastrous governance of Borissov in economic, social and security terms, the administration seemed more keen to remake the security sector in its own image and sweep away anyone perhaps – or perhaps certainly in some cases, such as at the Customs Agency – subject to suspicions about their loyalty because of allegiances to Borissov or his closest lieutenants.

Meanwhile, while all of these political manoeuvrings were going on, the promised improvement in quality of life of Bulgarians hardly came to pass – anything but, as in the first months of the ruling axis, unemployment worsened, foreign investment slowed, business confidence waned and – as has been estimated unofficially – emigration increased.

It is clear by now that when Borissov promised stability, he did not mean that to include job security for appointments made under the BSP-MRF cabinet.

Having built what those with no taste for continuing political melodramas might hope to be a government that could last a full term, through allies with a centre-right coalition, a socialist minority party and a nationalist coalition, those now in power have been engaged in a continuing process of reversing appointments.

In the key energy sector, against a background of electricity prices being established as a livewire and potentially fatal issue in the political sphere, not only has the head of the energy regulator been replaced but more power in this arena has been shifted to a National Assembly where Borissov – albeit sometimes with difficulty – can muster a majority.

In the case of some appointments, there have been simple reversals. At the Customs Agency and at the State Agency for Refugees, for example, those who had been axed by the 2013/14 ruling axis were reinstated. In other cases, such as at the InvestBulgaria Agency, new people were put in without the former incumbents returning.

In some cases, Borissov has little room to manoeuvre. Amid the continuing furore over the Corporate Commercial Bank affair, which saw the country’s fourth-largest lender go under because of alleged large-scale criminal draining of funds (majority shareholder Tsvetan Vassilev, being sought by Sofia from Belgrade to face criminal charges, denies wrongdoing), there were widespread political calls for the head of the governor of central Bulgarian National Bank. However, BNB governor Ivan Iskrov remains in office, and by law anyone in that post is nigh-impossible to dislodge.

At SANS and the Interior Ministry, matters are somewhat simpler, and close observers of the political scene have been watching with keen interest what would happen with these posts.

Similarly, Bulgaria has been under pressure – especially from Brussels and other important Western capitals – to finally get underway genuine and far-reaching reform of the judiciary. Constitutionally, remaking the judiciary is a prickly issue. And while from the West, calls – some of them very open and frank – to reform the judiciary run in parallel with conspiracy theories domestically that the MRF has undue influence over the judiciary. These calls are rejected as inaccurate by all concerned.

So Borissov promises stability, but it seems that part of securing this stability involves a lot of top personnel changes. The extent to which the changes are made for political reasons, not dissimilar to perceived issues of loyalty as was the case with the BSP-MRF government, and to what extent changes are being moved for the sake of removing obstacles to legitimate reform, always will be a matter for lively, if frequently inconclusive, local political debate.