2021 Elections in Bulgaria: Boyko Borisov's "Russian roulette"

The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES)[1] from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyzes developments in the Middle East, the Balkans and around the world. IFIMES has analyzed the current developments in Bulgaria in the context of the finalization of the election campaign for the parliamentary elections, which are due to take place on 4 April 2021. We bring the most important and interesting parts of the analysis titled “2021 Elections in Bulgaria: Boyko Borisov's 'Russian roulette'.”

2021 Elections in Bulgaria:


Boyko Borisov's “Russian roulette”


Regular parliamentary elections in the Republic of Bulgaria are due to take place on 4 April 2021. At the elections, 240 representatives/deputies in the Bulgarian National Assembly will be elected according to the proportional system with closed lists. The total number of electoral units is 31. Depending on the size of the electoral unit between four and 16 representatives/deputies get elected from it. The election threshold is 4%.


In 2016, the Bulgarian Parliament adopted a law on mandatory participation in the elections with the aim of increasing the legitimacy of representatives in the country. The sanction envisaged for the voters to neglect their obligation to vote at the elections is removal from the electoral roll. However, the removed voters have the possibility to be reentered into the electoral roll. Nevertheless, this does not resolve the problems. This is an undemocratic law because the right to vote implies that each voter can decide whether or not he or she would participate in the elections. Voters are not to be coerced to vote or sanctioned if they do not vote. Hence, this in itself is an indicator of ignorance/non-recognition of democracy and the undemocratic spirit of the regime in Sofia. Bulgaria has a large diaspora which traditionally does not participate in the elections. This year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic the participation in elections will be rendered more difficult even for the voters living in Bulgaria.


As there are no accurate records, it is assessed that the diaspora includes between 2-2.5 million citizens. In example, there are around 700,000 Bulgarian Turks, who had survived a calamity in the 1980-ies of the last century, living in Turkey, and around 300,000 living in Greece. Will they participate in the elections? The Movement for Rights and Freedom (DPS), an ethnic party of Bulgarian Turks, is trying to galvanize as many ethnic Turks as possible to participate in the elections.


The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) published an analysis titled: “2021 Elections in Bulgaria: Bulgarian 'assault' on North Macedonia”, link:https://www.ifimes.org/en/9995 (24.3.2021).


Identity crisis


Has Bulgaria managed to develop a European identity over the 14 years of its membership in the EU? Namely, Bulgaria is constantly faced with an identity crisis. Throughout its history the process of “bulgarization” was forcibly conducted in Bulgaria. An example are the Bulgarian ethnic Turks.


A point of concern is the present systemic stigmatization of Roma. The terms that the ruling structures use to refer to the Roma include “gypsy parasitism”, “gypsy crimes”, etc. At the same time, the authorities are striving to cover up the true number of the Roma in the population. Namely, according to official statistics the Roma comprise around 5% of the population, while the real percentage is two times higher.


Bulgarians are attempting to present themselves as superior with respect to others and as some kind of a “higher and superior nation”, particularly with respect to the Macedonians. At the time of globalization the similarities and closeness among peoples will progressively increase, identities will become intertwined- all as a part of an inevitable process. As Macedonians have a high level of national awareness and connection with the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MPC-OA), the negation of their identity and language is pointless. Owing to the circumstances, the Macedonians took Bulgarian passports in order to be able to find employment in EU member countries.  Majority of Macedonians would give up their Bulgarian passports if North Macedonia gets coopted into the EU. Taking of Bulgarian passports is in no way a reflection of their identity or identification with Bulgarians but simply an existential issue (literary a matter of fight for survival). Namely, the Bulgarian authorities have already experienced a fiasco in this respect because a negligible number of Macedonians holding Bulgarian passport, which is below the statistical error, will participate in the upcoming elections in Bulgaria.


Bulgaria has also disputed the identity of ethnic Turks. Bulgarian Turks have been stripped of their rights through the policy of forcible assimilation and the massive exile in the 1980-ies, under the regime of communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.In example, in the period from June to September 1989 alone around 340,000 ethnic Turks emigrated from Bulgaria to Turkey. This was an act of ethnic cleansing, not voluntary departure, as the Bulgarian authorities had presented it at the time.


Analysts believe that the political rhetoric of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ekaterina Zakharieva (GERB) and the controversial VMRO-BND leader and Minister of Defense Krasimir Karakachanov aimed at negation of identity and language of Macedonians reminds of the rhetoric of Italian fascists in relation to the Slovenians, in which they negated the identity of the Slovenians and the Slovenian language in the early XX century.  In Bulgaria patriotism is closely connected with the identity crisis.


Borisov has been the Prime Minister for 10 years already. In this period the Bulgarian rating with respect to the liberal democracy index has dropped. While Bulgaria became an EU member in 2007, it has still not embraced the true European values, including liberal-democratic standards. Borisov has not been in the Bulgarian parliament for a year already. Dictatorship of the “silent majority” has been established. The reporters have become the adversary, while Borisov's regime resorts to a monologue- one way communication. Withdrawing of money from the funds should not be the very goal of membership in the EU but a means to assist the states to faster and more easily adjust to the political, economic and social standards that exist in the EU and in such a way participate on an equal footing in all the activities within the EU. Integration into the EU, awareness of belonging as a country to a large community, awareness that every citizen of Bulgaria is simultaneously a citizen of the EU, a large political and economic space with 450 million citizens and the largest space in the world ruled by liberal-democratic standards – is something that does not exist with the majority of Bulgarian citizens. The absence of the feeling and perception that they are Europeans, that they have one common identity and should promote common European values of unity and solidarity, is one of the major problems that Bulgaria faces. Unfortunately, not many in Bulgaria have that feeling. Bulgaria, which has been under the scrutiny of Brussels for years already, is no longer forced in any way or given any conditions regarding the respect of liberal-democratic standards, as it had been expected to do during the process of its integration into the EU.  The situation is similar in some other countries that had earlier become EU members.


International position of Bulgaria


TheRepublic of Bulgaria is a state with numerous problems. In this most underdeveloped country in the EU citizens live at the brink of poverty. The economy is ineffective, financial resources are limited and mainly already exhausted. A strong element of oligarchy, which includes around 3,000 individuals, has been established and is now engaged in the fight among clans for distribution of limited financial resources and redistribution of power, property and contracts. The business and financial capital in the country is controlled by several superrich tycoons. In fact, majority of public tenders and resources from EU funds goes through them. Crime and corruption are omnipresent and have become the prevailing “social technology” in management of public funds, as well as in all public spheres. The laws themselves create the conditions for corrupt practices and corruption has become a social norm.


Bulgaria is trying to find a new balance between its obligations towards NATO and the traditional emotional ties with and sympathies for Russia. As a NATO member, Bulgaria is responsible for a 354 kilometer- long eastern border of the NATO alliance. The border on the Black Sear is less than 500 kilometers away from Crimea and directly neighbours with the area controlled by the Russian Black Sea fleet and the Russian air force. As Bulgaria has the obligation to control Russian military activities at the Black Sea, it is trying to find the right balance in its relations with the two sides.


Emotional ties with Russia are deeply rooted in the Bulgarian society. The historical and cultural links with Russia and the sympathies for Russia are in collision with the fear spread through the media that Bulgaria could easily be pulled into military showdowns on the Black Sea. Russian President Vladimir Putin had stated that Russia and Bulgaria have historically enjoyed close ties and that Russia will develop its relations with Bulgaria “on all tracks”.


Essentially, only two “tracks.” Specifically, one is the “South Stream – Balkan stream”, which is an important economic project and an instrument of Russian foreign policy. The other is the attempt of Russia to use Bulgaria to influence (dis)unity between the EU and NATO in order to divide both of these organizations with respect to the sanctions and the security policy, as it has partly already managed to do. That is why Bulgaria is a suitable playground for implementation of “secret activities and operations”, which is confirmed by the fact that one of the main posts of the Russian intelligence service in the region is located in Sofia. Russia has numerous supporters among Bulgarian political elites and citizens, which could be characterized as pro-Russian orientation.


State Department report critical of Bulgaria


The latest State Department report titled “2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Bulgaria[2]” of 30 March 2021 is critical of Bulgaria. The part of the report dealing with the freedom of association reads: „Authorities continued to deny registration of ethnic-Macedonian activist groups such as the United Macedonian Organization-Ilinden, the Society of Oppressed Macedonians, Victims of Communist Terror, and the Macedonian Ethnic Tolerance Club in Bulgaria, despite a May judgment and more than 10 prior decisions by the European Court of Human Rights that the denials violated the groups’ freedom of association. On October 1, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture expressed in an interim resolution “deep concern” with regard to authorities’ “formalistic application of legal requirements” applied persistently to refuse registration to the United Macedonian Organization-Ilinden and similar associations since 2006. In November 2019 the prosecutor general acted on Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) leader and defense minister Krasimir Karakachanov’s complaint about attempts by two associations, the Civil Association for Protection of Fundamental Individual Human Rights and Ancient Macedonians, to create a Macedonian minority. The prosecutor general petitioned the court to dissolve the associations, accusing them of a political agenda threatening the unity and security of the nation.”


Boyko Borisov's “Russian roulette”


Due to its geopolitical position, as well as its close spiritual and cultural relations and connections with Russia, Bulgaria was “invited” to act as a mediator and alleviate the dispute between Russia and the West. Majority of Bulgarians support such a role of the state. However, majority of politicians understand it is entirely unrealistic that a small country as Bulgaria, which is on the brink of poverty, is suddenly positioned as a major peacemaker on the international scene. Nevertheless, Bulgaria has remained divided on the issue of its policy towards Russia.


Boyko Borisov is playing with the Russians, and Russia has an interest to have its men and women in EU and NATO institutions. Borisov's mindset is that of the KBG. The recent exile of Russian agents is a kind of a farce. Russians have under control the security-intelligence and the defense system of Bulgaria. The exile of several Russian agents means nothing for the Russian position in these sectors in Bulgaria. However, it is important for Borisov to show himself in the eyes of the West as a true fighter against Russia and Russian interests. It is worth reminding that his party, the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party, was established by the CDU and under the auspices of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is also his political patron. Is she also the protector of his crimes? Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has strong connections and influence on the Turkish DPS party, is also important for Borisov.  Erdogan and Russia support Borisov. The role of Germany in the region cannot be assessed as positive. If we take into account the fact that the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is the key man for the “North stream” pipeline and Putin's man of trust, then the role of Germany in Kosovo, which is directly opposed to US interests, is of no surprise. A point of specific concern is the role of CDU/CSU members in criminal activities in Bulgaria, which has received more than 40 billion Euros from the EU just because it is an EU member. The failed attempt of imposition of Christian Schmidt (CDU) as the new high representative of the international community in BiH is a sign that one should be cautious when it comes to the German policy for the region. There is also the Germany’s protective relationship towards the Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović.


The current Bulgarian government is a hybrid of “Orbanism” and “Trumpism”, spiced up with crimes/mafia. Boyko Borisov is trying to play “Russian roulette” with all and as a result he has become an unreliable partner whom nobody trusts anymore. Because of the modus operandi and the problematic nature of the Bulgarian Government, the new US adminsitrationn will probably reconsider its relations with Bulgaria, which had openly demonstrated its support to Trump and the Visegrad Group countries (V4).


Analysts warn that Russian security-intelligence services are deeply involved in the security-intelligence system of Bulgaria, which can realistically undermine the security of NATO. This is why Bulgaria is referred to as the Russian “Trojan horse” in NATO. Therefore, inclusion of Bulgaria in exchange of highly classified intelligence can constitute a risk for NATO. Within the framework of the NATO system, intelligence is selected and differentiated so that Bulgaria has no access to important intelligence.


While Russia did not manage to prevent integration of North Macedonia into NATO, it is now trying through the Bulgarian blockade that is veto, to prolong the beginning of the accession talks between North Macedonia and the EU. Therefore, a reasonable question to be asked is does Russia exercise its interests in the region through Bulgaria. It is interesting that recently in the European Parliament representatives of the CDU/CSU had voted in favor of support to Bulgaria and against the proposal to officially criticize the Bulgarian government regarding the obstruction of the beginning of negotiations between North Macedonia and the EU. The EU adopted the report on North Macedonia, but not the amendment on “provocative conduct of Bulgaria.” The amendment by the Greens and socialists regarding the provocative conduct of Bulgaria towards North Macedonia was not accepted because of the blockade by representatives from the European People’s Party and European conservatives (EPP), where the CDU/CSU has a key role. The authorities in Sofia are doing everything possible to try to “idealize” the situation in the country, which has already become a “case country” in the EU and NATO.


Bulgaria requires thorough decriminalization and demafiaization


The coalition capacity of the DPS, which is connected with the mafia structures and is closer to the GERB, will be important for the establishment of the new government. The GERB is also cultivating relations with the mafia structures and functions as a cartel, not as a political party. The DPS has already conducted some “hygiene activities” in order to prepare for the coalition with the GERB. The removal of tycoon Delyan Peevski from the list for the parliament and the sale of his media business seems to be a part of the attempts of the DPS to prepare itself to be suitable as a public coalition partner of the GERB.


The VMRO-BND will probably remain below the election threshold, despite the transfer of people, materials and topics (“North Macedonia”), which were provided and serviced by the GERB. Even if the VMRO-BND manages to become a part of the parliament, and the three parties (GERB-DPS-VMRO-BND) get more than 121 seats, the negative trustworthiness of such a coalition would be a problem from the very start. In such a coalition the GERB would become even more vulnerable to corruption scandals of Boyko Borisov, because of the growing impression that the umbrella of DPS's prosecution will remain above it. In general, the GERB's connection with the DPS, which is already known to the public, will be clearly confirmed. On the other side, the VMRO-BND will once again get rather convincingly exposed as a pendant to the GERB-DPS tandem.  From this point of view, the open GERB-DPS-VMRO-BND coalition seems as an agreement on political suicide. Bulgaria needs thorough decriminalization and demafiaization, for which there has been no political will so far.


According to analysts, if the orchestrated attacks on North Macedonia do not stop, the EU and the US will find a political option that will represent the future of Bulgaria. Boris's attack on North Macedonia is a suicidal move, which will firstly cost him, and then Bulgaria as well, because the US will not allow Bulgaria to blackmail anyone, and particularly not North Macedonia, which became 30th member of NATO thanks to the support of the US.


Analysts believe that the upcoming parliamentary elections will therefore be an exceptionally big and important opportunity for the Bulgarian voters to turn their back to such social deformations and request democratic development of their country, towards the necessary prosperity and true respect of European values, including good neighbourly relations, recognition and appreciation of diversity and plurality of modern society, which is what the EU truly is. Maintaining the current status quo in Bulgaria is unsustainable.


Ljubljana/Washington/Brussels/Sofia, 1 April 2021    



[1] IFIMES - The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia,has a special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)/UN since 2018.

[2] Source: US State Department, Report »2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Bulgaria«, link: https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/bulgaria/