The Balkan nexus of crises – Bulgarian government collapse spells more trouble for the region

by Anton Stoyanov

 

The Balkan nexus of crises – Bulgarian government collapse spells more trouble for the region

Bulgaria is once again on the precipice of new parliamentary elections – the fourth ones since 2021, as its progressive pro-Western coalition collapsed after barely 6 months in office. With the apparent lack of sufficient public support for any party, however, the question remains whether the ongoing crisis can spiral further out of control and complicate matters in an already troubled region.


How did it come to this?

Kiril Petkov’s government came to power after the 3rd elections of 2021 on a platform promising to fight corruption, solve many of Bulgaria’s longstanding rule of law issues and tackle the raging COVID-19 crisis. Despite coming in first, Petkov’s party “We continue the change”, came nowhere close to a majority and was forced to cobble together a coalition with the liberal “Democratic Bulgaria”, the conservative Bulgarian Socialist Party, and the previous election’s winner – the populist and anti-establishment “There is such a people”.

Together they agreed to tackle systemic corruption and combat cronyism rampant throughout all state structures – but the war in Ukraine, alongside the country’s bi-lateral dispute with North Macedonia and Bulgaria’s usually murky political background, complicated matters.


A marriage by convenience

The many crises immediately forced the new coalition to face the issue of dramatically opposing views on key questions – on the one hand, the Bulgarian Socialist Party stood firmly on the side of its overwhelmingly pro-Russian electorate who demanded the country to stay “neutral” in the conflict in Ukraine, while the populists embraced ultra-nationalist rhetoric vis-à-vis neighbouring North Macedonia.

These disputes were further complicated by the apparent intentional sabotage of any reforms by “There is such a people” ministers who took hostage of the agenda, allegedly demanding state funds to be funnelled to firms of dubious or ill repute and then pulling out of the government once their demands were refused.

Ultimately, it was not any foreign policy debacle that brought the fragile coalition down – they were merely the catalyst of discontent. What put the final nail in the government’s coffin was precisely the type of corruption and cronyism that it was attempting to fight.


Open questions

Due to the complex international circumstances, even states as small as Bulgaria could cause significant ripples. The collapse of the country’s pro-Western and liberal government spells trouble not only for the West’s somewhat common policy vis-à-vis Russia, but is also puts in significant jeopardy the accession of North Macedonia and Albania into the EU.

The rise in support for the far-right, pro-Russia “Revival” party has also led to a dramatic increase in outright euro-scepticism and even significant consideration of a previously unthinkable “Bulexit” referendum, alongside a strong anti-NATO campaign.

In the meantime, the cascade of turbulence and what appears to look increasingly like a spiral of new elections, means that Bulgaria’s adoption of the Euro in 2024 is put in significant jeopardy – especially in the context of the rise of far-right euro-sceptic forces.


The path ahead

In accordance with parliamentary procedure, the next elections will be held sometime in September or early October. While it is far too early to be deciphering polls and forecasts, it appears likely that the results will be as inconclusive as they have been for the past year. The inability of any party to rally large parts of the electorate around it puts in doubt the possibility of a sustainable majority being found and will force the parties to once again resort to shaky coalition agreements.

Furthermore, the continuous rise of anti-Western parties makes it far more complicated to find a working majority that supports Bulgaria’s EU and NATO path. This, in turn, would create an urgent need for parties that have so far been sworn enemies due to issues related to corruption and rule of law, to find a new basis for cooperation.

Yet at the moment, finding compromise on these grounds is a nigh unthinkable proposition – which makes a continuous election spiral far more likely. The ensuing instability will likely create a spill over effect creating problems for the entire region and will allow foreign actors to continue using Bulgaria as a gateway for their corrosive influence inside the EU, while simultaneously creating a potential blocker to any type of EU action that requires unanimity.

Ultimately, while an exact repeat of the crisis that took place last year appears unlikely, the business climate and the general economic outlook will continue to suffer. With another COVID-19 wave looming on the horizon, the lack of a functional government will exacerbate the current circumstances even further, likely polarizing opinions and leading to additional fragmentation of mainstream parties and lighting yet another fuse of the powder keg that are the Balkans.

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