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Reformist Block: Between Now and Then

Published on , , Zagreb, Twitter: @AdelinaMarini
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The early elections on May 12th, aside from enthroning the oligarchy, they also marked the death of the symbolic in the post-communist Bulgarian history democratic right-wing. Through the years, systemic efforts were invested, supported by individual and party egoisms, the parties that in the past symbolised the beginning of transition to freedom, democracy and market economy, joining the euro-Atlantic community and, generally, to a civilisational choice, to be pushed out of parliament. Shrunk, disunited, hated. The attempts of the first big populist party in Bulgaria, GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria), to fill in the space that was freed by the quickly retreating "blue idea", ended with a failure because their governance was not only too far from the democratic values, but it also proved itself as part of the status quo - a devastating mixture of organised crime, media and a complete lack of long-term vision about the future of the country.

Immediately after the disastrous election results that marked a new bottom of voter turnout (a little over 50%) and which left hundreds of thousands of citizens unrepresented in the National Assembly, talks began on a new alliance and about the need of a new right wing. And with the eruption of the unprecedented protests against the occupation of the state by oligarchy that have been taking place for more than two months now, the first steps toward the establishment of a Reformist Block have been made. The steps toward and of the new formation are small and hesitant, just like passing through a mine field. Aside from being subjected to strong attacks from the outside by the parties from the status quo as they have become popular in Bulgaria - BSP (Socialists), DPS (Turkish ethnic party), Ataka (a nationalistic party) and GERB - those who dared to embark on the difficult path toward unification for the sake of a common goal - feeing the state from the paws of the oligarchy - meet severe resistance from the inside. Sympathisers and members are no less vociferous opponents of the unification.

The attacks against the five parties which have for now firmly claimed their participation in the Reformist Block (RB) are being channelled in two ways - media, a large part of which are controlled directly or indirectly by the oligarchy, and social networks where the membership mass and sympathisers are racing with each other to claim their opposition, to discredit individual members of the RB, leaders, parties. In such an unhealthy and highly hostile environment, the five parties - Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB), Movement Bulgaria of the Citizens (DBG), Blue Unity, People's Party for Freedom and Dignity (NPSD), Greens - have as their first and immediate priority to ensure the resignation of the government, a change of electoral rules and immediate early elections. Their platform promises an anti-trust fight, fight against corruption, against the division of the nation, against the dependence of the judiciary. In other words, the RB and the protesters speak in one voice, but not quite.

Yes, but not quite

euinside invited for interviews the five parties. Four responded. Blue Unity did not answer our e-mails, but after this article was published in Bulgarian they contacted us and promised to provide their views on the matter. The four interviewees were asked several packages of questions whose aim was to see which are the tangential points between all of them all, what is the horizon they are looking forward with, how do they see the role and/or cooperation with the European political parties, if they are unanimous in terms of a key, according to euinside, element of the reforms Bulgaria needs - those that are covered by the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), but also those that are not. Fully conscious that the RB is just beginning to walk, the impression all these interviews left me with was that they have a common goal, but not all of them look beyond the reaching of that goal - the resignation of the government and new elections.

The main feeling the interviews left was of caution, but to various extents. Most cautious sounded Borislav Sandov from the Greens who, however, was the most specific on all questions I asked him. Yonko Grozev from the DBG was diplomatic and left his answers open-ended. Even more open-ended and vague was Korman Ismailov from NPSD. Radan Kanev from the DSB was the only one with a very broad vision about the future.

A temporary coalition or a long-term political project?

This was the first package of questions which I got quite various answers to. Mr Sandov explained that RB, at this stage, was nothing more than a formation whose only purpose is to stand against the government. The restoration of the rule of law and the basic relations between society and representative power are a part of that goal. Although this suggests a solid long-termness, the co-president of the Greens party said that a joint appearance in elections cannot be discussed unless there is a pre-electoral environment. The Greens are already getting themselves ready individually for early elections, but until the electoral rules are known a joint appearance cannot be discussed. Besides, he explained, the five parties are yet to agree on the twelve points in their platform.

Mr Sandov added that analyses are to be made and the public opinion should be tested. Yonko Grozev, secretary of the DSB, left the impression that the Movement is ready for a bold relationship, but they are not sure how far are the other parties in the alliance ready to go. "We hope that this alliance is not temporary and will possibly evolve into an electoral coalition", he said but pointed out that the talks are in a very early phase because there is no date for early elections. There are still parties that have not received decisions from their main bodies what coalition should they join. According to him, though, the Reformist Block should be able to provide an alternative to the political status quo.

The question whether the alliance is temporary was difficult for Radan Kanev too, the DSB leader. "When there are no early elections called we cannot even talk about an electoral coalition, but in my view and I believe in the view of everyone in DSB and most people who are directly involved in this, this should not be a temporary political phenomenon", he said. According to him, the caution of everyone in the block is due to the very bad experience throughout the years. He paid attention to a very important fact - the law on political parties does not provide a legal opportunity for the establishment of a durable political alliance. And this is something that has to change, he believes. He imagines the RB as a federal political object because he is aware that the voters expect a durable alliance not simply in the right wing, but for reforms. He is also aware of the deceived expectations by the Blue Coalition. In this sense, he said, it is better to act cautiously than to haste.

Most determined of the four was Korman Ismailov from the NPSD who directly said that his party participated with "the clear intention this platform to evolve into a broad as possible electoral centre-right coalition". Fear and caution are not a good foundation for doing politics, he believes. He is of the opinion that other parties that want should join the unification. Regarding GERB, however, his statement was neither clear nor firm. He said that GERB had not yet claimed adequately a desire to join an electoral coalition and he somewhat left the door open unlike the other parties who are firmly against any links with GERB.

Pessimism about a change in electoral rules

The external enemy, because in the current political environment it is impossible to talk about a rival or a competitor, is clear - those are the parties connected with the oligarchy in terms of behaviour or as its direct representatives. The four interlocutors are completely aware of their role of David before the mafia Goliath. They are unanimous in terms of changes to the electoral code, but in the same time they know very well that their only chances are to simply distribute their ideas. Among the changes the RB seeks are obligatory preferences without a threshold, a permanent but at all costs depoliticised electoral administration. "I am getting more and more a pessimist in terms of the electoral code", shared very honestly Borislav Sandov, the interview with whom can entirely be characterised with impressive honesty and consciousness. "For me this is an issue which simply keeps the power in that government and creates an impression that we are going round in a vicious circle", he added.

Yonko Grozev added that it was important to update the voters' lists. Something one of the status quo parties - DPS - recently said was not necessary. Regional counting centres are also among the proposed by the reformists changes. Mr Grozev, too, is a pessimist: "In the same time we are clearly aware that the ruling majority in the Parliament is not interested in the fast adoption of rules that would change the situation for elections in the country. Obviously, the ruling majority is interested in delaying and protracting the adoption of the amendments to the electoral code and that is why the chances these proposals to be adopted are not very big".

Radan Kanev sounded much more optimistic, although it was evident that he knows that most of the options are depleted. He often used conditionalities. The demanded by the reformists changes are shaped in a draft legislation to amend the electoral code with the participation of all the non-governmental organisations who refused consultations with the ruling majority. "I suppose that at some stage we will seek contacts with the president, too, and most probably with the social partners as well, who manifested interest although this is not their area".

Sleeping with the enemy

Resisting the status quo, no matter how strong and powerful it is, is at least clear. A serious challenge, however, is the internal resistance and the mistrust of sympathisers in the reformist parties individually, but also in their alliance. Borislav Sandov from the Greens explained this scepticism, again, with enviable clarity and honesty. "This is a very alarming process because it shows that there is no realisation among a very large part of the people of the need in certain situations to act together with opponents". He shared his concern with the huge sceptical wave not only within the Greens party, but also within the other parties in the block. His hope is that each of the parties in the block has either started or has already reformed itself, taking out new faces who have proved themselves through the years as active citizens.

Yonko Grozev was also quite aware of the situation explaining that the scepticism for the Movement is the result not of DBG's behaviour, but of the attempts by the parties from the status quo "which use their huge financial and media resources to waver the Bulgarian voters, to prevent the appearance of a real alternative to the political status quo". The lawyer was completely frank saying that the moves to overcome this scepticism are not many. The only thing that can be done is to talk, to communicate with the Bulgarian voters and to earn back their confidence. However, this can happen only through specific issues, not by talking in principle, Grozev added.

Radan Kanev assured that the DSB structures generally supported the unification. According to him, the external resistance can be seized only through leadership. He spoke about some of the parties in the block individually saying that the partnership between the DSB and DBG, generally, is well accepted because it went through overcoming personal attacks that, he admitted, were a mistake in the eyes of voters. Rather, this is about personal sediments related mainly to the personality of Ms Meglena Kuneva. But it is necessary to realise the responsibility both to the voters of individual parties and to those who did not vote due to the lack of alternative. With regard to NPSD, Mr Kanev shared that there was a sincere opposition which, however, came from beyond party apparatuses. He firmly defended NPSD, outlining reasons that demonstrate his broad vision about the future and, most of all, about

Breaking the monopoly of the DPS (the main ethnic Turkish party)

"I am the man who insisted from the very beginning negotiations to begin with NPSD and I will insist on this partnership to be maintained, because as the unhealthy relations between Turkey and Bulgaria could be born by the existence of a monopolist in the bilateral relations - the DPS as a monopolist has always been a huge impediment to the qualitative development of the Bulgarian-Turkish relations, to the qualitative economic links, to the clear distinction of national interests - the availability of a monopoly mediator is a huge problem in all these aspects. And also in terms of the fears of a neo-Ottoman doctrine in Turkey which could take advantage of the national minorities in the Balkans and the Caucasus to the direct interest of the Turkish state, such a doctrine is looking for segregated and encapsulated minorities. So, with regard to the two elements of fear from this party, in fact, it is the solution, not the problem", said Radan Kanev a week before the shocking "civil address" by the spokesman of oligarchy Nikolay Barekov to Turkish Prime Minster Erdogan.

In his "address", the symbol of the degradation of Bulgarian journalism states: "Via your weapon Kasim Dal you have put forward humiliating demands to the Bulgarian state, moreover in the ridiculous attendance of Bulgaria's head of state, Mr Rossen Plevneliev", writes Barekov in his address to the Turkish premier. (Kasim Dal is chairman of the NPSD) What Barekov refers to is an informal dinner in Plovdiv with the Turkish Deputy PM Bekir Bozdag, attended also by President Plevneliev and where only Turkish media were allowed, not Bulgarian. A situation because of which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned on August 13th the Turkish ambassador to give clarifications about the reports of the Anatolian News Agency, quoting Mr Bozdag that "Turkey will return its ownership of the Ottoman architectural works in Bulgaria".

May be here it is worth recalling a comment in the English version of the Turkish daily Today's Zaman where columnist Abdullah Bozkurt writes that the elections on May 12th had exposed the short-sighted policy of sponsoring the newly established ethnic Turkish party in Bulgaria. "There have been complaints and legitimate concerns among Turks in Bulgaria and in the diaspora about Bulgaria's ethnic Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which has represented the Turkish minority, among others, in Bulgaria for more than 20 years. Whether or not the party has indeed represented the best interests of its constituency in those years is debatable. Nevertheless, that does not fully justify the change of heart in Ankara towards the MRF and certainly does not explain why the AK Party government informally signalled its opposition to the MRF", wrote on May 24th the columnist.

Differences with regard to the CVM

One of the important packages of questions euinside had was about the views of the participants in the Reformist Block parties about the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism in the area of the judiciary, thanks to which Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU on January 1st 2007. The CVM has been in place for six years now and reforms is the last word that can be used for the work on it. Yonko Grozev described the "achievements" of the CVM most accurately. "This was one of the main instruments that did not allow this key for Bulgaria problem to be ignored and practically even discussing the conduct of a judiciary reform to be stopped. Unfortunately, it has failed to generate a political will for a real reform of the judiciary", said Mr Grozev in a complete contrast to the tens of sentences dedicated to the political will in the European Commission reports throughout the years.

He added that all parties in the RB have put a "very serious emphasis" on the problems of the judiciary. What was interesting was that he also spoke more often about the axis DSB-DBG than about all the rest. Said that both parties have very seriously developed governing measures in their election programmes, related to the areas the CVM covers and recalled that neither of the represented parties in Parliament had such measures in their programmes. "This quite clearly shows which political parties want to conduct a reform of the judiciary and which not". About whether the CVM should be enlarged to include other areas like media environment, for instance, Grozev said that the media environment was a major priority for the RB because it makes it possible or impossible to exercise real civil control over governance.

But to what extent should it be included in a special monitoring Mr Grozev was not sure. For him this is rather a technical issue. What is important is the EU to maintain "high degree of attention" on the problems of functioning of democracy in the new member states. Radan Kanev was far more determined that it should rather be a national effort and the European involvement should be rather a consequence. "The political monitoring will have the fate of the CVM. It could turn into a more severe form of giving a bad diagnose of Bulgaria, but it cannot turn into a working solution, into a remedy. The disease is more or less clear. The fact that it will be given at a higher and still not existent political level within the EU I don't think it will be a cure", he said on the occasion of the idea of a political monitoring over the countries with problems with the rule of law. Mr Kanev proposed the development of an entirely new concept for communication with the Commission on this issue.

This concept should be developed at national level first by experts and then be proposed at European level. "For me, the main problem is that ever since the beginning of the millennium and very clearly after our accession in the EU, in Bulgarian politics there was no pro-European political force. There is a political force of the type of GERB, who are ready to subordinate instead of resist, but they neither understand the EU nor do they understand the meaning of a full fledged membership in it, or it is ready, for this reason, to be cooperative", the DSB leader added and stated that if the RB did not succeed in being exactly that, then it does not live up to its ambitions.

Although he was completely aware that a broadening of the scope of the CVM would mean Bulgaria to vote against itself, Borislav Sandov firmly supported it. The CVM should definitely include the media environment because of the "extremely serious concentration of influence and ownership of media in Bulgaria, the drop in the scoreboard of Reporters Without Borders as one of the many scoreboards of freedom of speech putting Bulgaria at such low levels". Against the backdrop of the developments in Hungary, Sandov said, there should be some form of political monitoring of the type the four EU member states strive for. His statement was encouraging about the desire of the parties in the block is to be "absolutely and solely pro-European oriented organisation".

The secretary of the NPSD, Ismailov, was not very well prepared on the issue and said only that the enlargement of the scope of the CVM could be considered because the vitiating of the electoral process, the low level of trust in the judiciary, the political oligarchy are serious diseases which need adequate treatment.

Resistance or partnership with the European political families?

In view of the European elections in May next year, considered crucial, and also against the backdrop of the visible tolerance of any offences of values and rules on behalf of the big political families it was important for euinside to understand to what extent the reformists are willing and will rely on European assistance. The few attempts the problems in Bulgaria to be exported at European level through debates in the plenary in Strasbourg ended with a fiasco, consisting mainly of a blame game between the Socialists and the EPP. This led to a huge disappointment among the Bulgarian voters who relied that, at least in Europe, the main democratic values still matter and are applied equally and relentlessly to own people and to opponents. Instead, EPP chief Wilfried Martens said that it was a policy the party not to interfere in the internal affairs of its members.

Moreover, he stated his full support for the party that brings the biggest number of votes from Bulgaria - GERB - in spite of the numerous serious signals of violations not only of democratic values, but of laws. With his statement, Mr Martens made it clear that the EPP does not intend to look into itself and without interfering in the internal affairs of its members to look deeply into its own affairs by explaining to the European voters what is more important - more seats in the European Parliament or a firm defence of the values at stake. And a leader of PES is Sergey Stanishev, supported by leading faces in the party and in the parliamentary group in Strasbourg.

Precisely because of this Radan Kanev, whose party DSB is part of the EPP family, defended rather a confrontation with it than cooperation. "The unreserved acceptance of GERB by the EPP and of BSP by PES shows that exactly the political families in Europe have no serious attitude. Regretfully, they had not built a serious attitude to what is going on in Bulgaria and Romania, because they are very similar states. Not only have they no recipe, but they are not looking for one. That is why, I don't think we should seek support from them, but instead we should, in the good sense of the word, confront them and show them the problems to which they have no solution and search for one together".

Yonko Grozev was cautious on the issue saying only that the issue was discussed and the partners in Europe were always "an important and serious guarantor for the development of the country". He added that in the future, too, cooperation will be sought with them. Meglena Kuneva's movement is still not part of the EPP, but this is the family it feels natural attachment to. Being conservatives and with an orientation to the EPP are the NPSD, too. Korman Ismailov is of the opinion that support should definitely be sought. The Greens, for their part, are already in talks with their own from the parliamentary group of the Greens in the EP from where they got assurance for support, but only strictly party support for the causes the Greens have in Bulgaria. Support for their participation in RB is not discussed. Borislav Sandov said that he was impatiently waiting for the autumn when the sessions will begin, although he specified that no debates in the plenary were envisaged. He was not very specific about what was to come, but hinted that it was possible to expect a freezing of EU funds for Bulgaria which would facilitate the fall of the government.

Give the reformists a chance!

Of course, the list of questions is very long and the parties from the block are yet to answer - first for themselves and then to us, the society and voters, how do they intend to continue forward. They should know, though, that the expectations are very high which is visible from the black anti-campaign that has already been launched by the parties from the status quo. That is why, it is good the enemy in bed to turn into a partner. The reformists must be supported because of the reforms we have been waiting for for decades and which are the only way our country to finally exit the vicious circle of poverty and economic maze, no matter if you are left-wing, right-wing, centrists, greens or sceptics. Reforms do not have a colour, they have a goal.

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