IS CHANGES CONTINUED TO BE CONTINUED?

by Anthony Georgieff

And can Revival derail Bulgaria's 'geopolitical orientation'?

The most readily available explanation why the Changes Continued government collapsed, propagated by former Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and former Finance Minister Asen Vasilev themselves, is that because it stepped on so many corrupt toes within a short period of time the backlash from its opponents became impossible to withstand.

This is true. Changes Continued did undertake the difficult task of disentangling the mind-boggling networks of corruption, nepotism, backscratching, and personal likes and dislikes that this country has fallen prey to at all levels as a result of a decade of rule by Boyko Borisov and his GERB. Yet, the CC leadership is not telling the whole truth.

If they were to analyse honestly and in-depth why they failed, Petkov and Vasilev would inevitably come to two conclusions. Being well-educated – at Harvard in their case – may be good for your personal and professional life but is definitely not enough for the intricate political realities of what remains the EU's poorest and least free country. It is a state where the only thing that functions efficiently is the car towing services in the bigger towns. For everything else – from requesting a simple document from your local authority to having to go to a hospital or, god forbid, installing a government-endorsed digital signature on a Mac – Bulgarians have to struggle. As does a significant chunk of the population when it has to pay its electricity and heating bills. For better or for worse Bulgarians, Petkov and Vasilev have to accept, vote with their hearts, not with their minds. Common sense is immaterial. People continue to support Boyko "Big Brother" Borisov because he appears resolute in his inimitable macho way, not because they do not realise he has cheated them all along.

Secondly, Petkov and Vasilev have to accept that in a democracy – in any democracy – one vote is as good as every other vote. To put it in another way, the ballot cast by someone considering themselves pro-European intellectuals, living in the capital and regularly taking part in Facebook-organised rallies along the Yellow Brick Road in central Sofia is just as good as the ballot of an elderly ethnic Turk who lives in some nondescript village in the Rhodope and who has but a limited command of the Bulgarian language. The former may be voting for Yes Bulgaria! and the later will surely favour the DPS, the Turkish-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms. But in a democracy as a system, their ballots amount to exactly same. At the end of the day, democracy comes down to arithmetics.

If they want to be successful, Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev must pay better attention to who they appoint to positions of power and whom they ally themselves with in public life in general and in parliament in particular. Some of the explanation why there was such a severe recoil against them is in the sort of appointments they made. Even if you are not particularly interested in arts management it would not take long to see that their culture minister, Atanas "Simply Nasko" Atanasov, was a disaster from Day One. His inconsequential behaviour, his lack of competence and his proclivity for creating a mess in the paperwork department quickly became bywords even for people who had supported Changes Continued at the ballot boxes – to an extent that "Simply Nasko" became "Simple Nasko."

The moment President Rumen Radev dissolved the 47th National Assembly and appointed his caretaker government, Hristo Ivanov, a leader of Democratic Bulgaria, a junior coalition partner of CC, started pleading with Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev to accept him to join forces with them. Bulgaria needs an anti-Bolshevik bloc that will guarantee its "geopolitical orientation" and "civilisational choices" for generations to come, Ivanov intoned. Geopolitical orientation and civilisational choices are music to the ears of Democratic Bulgaria's acolytes, but they are of hardly any import to the overwhelming majority of voters in Kermen and Kaspichan. Perhaps realising this, Hristo Ivanov wanted so much to append his grouping to Changes Continued, probably because he feared the DB might drop out of the next parliament altogether.

Wisely, Petkov and Vasilev refused. Over the years too many people have been disappointed in DB for too many reasons – ranging from its failures to implement, while it could, any of the reforms it had pledged to its obsession with Bulgaria's recent past.

Unwisely, the CC leadership did not do it resolutely enough. Petkov and Vasilev asserted that DB would be a "natural ally" after the election. Bulgarians have seen this before. The You-Vote-for-Kiril-Petkov-but-You-Get-General-Atanas-Atanasov spectacle is known to them. Subtract a number of votes on this one as well.

Democratic Bulgaria is an interesting beast. It says it represents this country's rightwing intellectuals. The "urban right wing." A notorious writer once billed them "smart and beautiful." The DB has a number of linchpins it holds dear to its heart. Apart from the aforementioned geopolitical orientation and civilisational choices, it sees former agents of the Communist-era secret police lurching around every corner. The former State Security, which was disbanded in 1990, continues to live on, Democratic Bulgaria asserts. In fact it has morphed into a fearsome octopus that continues to clandestinely run the country to this day. DB's adherents just love to hear such conspiracy theories from time to time because they exonerate everyone else, including Democratic Bulgaria, from their past failures. No one has won an election in any country on a ticket of geopolitical orientation and civilisational choices. And vilifying what happened in 1977 can hardly garner significant electoral support outside the diehard "urban right wingers." Not in 2022.

Which brings on the wild horse of the 2 October election, Kostadin Kostadinov's Revival party.

Its name was chosen carefully. In Bulgarian, Vazrazhdane means "rebirth." It is the word used to signify a period of reawakening, nationalism, economic growth, nation-building and ultimately the fight for independence which led to the 1878 restoration of Bulgarian statehood from the Ottoman Empire. Locally dubbed "Bulgaria's Renaissance," the Revival Period has become synonymous with the sort of romantic patriotism that makes the eyes of many Bulgarians water the moment Macedonia gets mentioned. In any case, Vazrazhdane rings a much louder bell in Bulgarian ears than "Changes Continued" or even "Democratic" Bulgaria.

Kostadin Kostadinov has successfully capitalised on that. His agendas – his "civilisational choices" – are exactly the opposite of what everyone else wants. Kostadinov is a "Russophile." He loves Russia in general and Vladimir Putin in particular. He justifies the Russian war in Ukraine. He wants Bulgaria out of both NATO and the EU. He will administer prison terms, if not worse, for anyone caught working for a "foreign-sponsored" NGO. And of course he will never allow North Macedonia (which is in fact Bulgaria) into the EU (which he wants Bulgaria to leave anyway).

The Varna-born Kostadinov emerged into politics at about the time the Covid-19 vaccines were put into circulation. His initial popularity was steeped in his vocal antivaxxerism. The rants about Bill Gates installing microchips in anyone who got a jab were well-received in a country that continues to have the lowest level of Covid vaccination in Europe. To his antivaxxer rhetoric Kostadinov added a mixed bag of complaints and demands that were again well-received by some grumpy Bulgarians. His current popularity is not difficult to explain. It appeals to a significant number of voters who are habitually angry with anything – from their leaders to the weather, from the taxes they have to cough up to the pensions they have to receive as a result. People like Kostadinov have fared well elsewhere: from Brazil and France and from Britain to the United States. He is a radical, some describe him as a "proto-fascist." A number of particularly angry Bulgarians will probably cast their ballots for him, but even if he does well at the ballot boxes he is unlikely to be able to find anyone to partner with in the next National Assembly. And he will probably tone down his rhetoric the moment he breaks even with his investment in politics – similarly to other outspokenly radical individuals in the past like Volen Siderov of Ataka and Valeri Simeonov of the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria. The damage Kostadinov can cause is easy to overestimate, but it is not very realistic to do so. His bark may turn out to be worse than his bite.

As if to illustrate how murky things in Bulgarian politics have become it would be helpful to note that many of Kostadin Kostadinov's supporters are... Bulgarians who live or have lived abroad. It would be interesting to observe how his avowed extraction of Bulgaria from the EU, a kind of Bulgarexit, will affect those whose livelihoods depend on the jobs they have in Spain, France and Germany. 

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