Central Europe Review Call forpolicy proposals...
Vol 3, No 22
18 June 2001
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Bulgarians Vote for Food
Sam Vaknin

Bulgaria has only one political voice: the voice of the aspiration to prosperity. The lure of EU membership coupled with the need to comply with IMF and World Bank conditions served to homogenize party platforms across the spectrum. A national consensus regarding free markets, protection of property rights, civil society, EU and NATO membership, institution building and cautious macroeconomic policy renders the political parties virtually indistinguishable.

Throwbacks and reformers

Bulgaria experienced one of the most difficult periods of transition among the post-Communist countries. Poverty reached a nadir in the years 1993-1998 with food rationing and shortages of basic subsistence goods. The government of the barely reformed Communists ("Bulgarian Socialist Party") headed by Jan Videnov, wrought total devastation on Bulgaria. Hyperinflation, rising unemployment, a dysfunctional financial sector, cronyism, organized crime and an unrestructured and crumbling industrial sector brought it down in the 1997 elections, won by the UDF (United Democratic Forces) coalition.

The UDF is led by the SDS (Union of Democratic Forces) and incorporates most of the conservative wing of Bulgarian politics: the Democratic Party (DP), a few agrarian splinters and the BSDP (Bulgarian Social Democratic Party). It is led by the energetic Ivan Kostov. His appeal rested with his (relatively) clean record—but mainly with his experience in economic management. Chairman of the Economic Commission and Finance Minister in two post transition governments, he was perceived to be the right man for the job of reviving Bulgaria's moribund economic fortunes.

The UDF espouses a form of free-marketry tampered by (rather imperceptible) tinges of "social responsibility." It is ardently pro-EU, pro-privatization and, in short, pro-IMF. The introduction of a currency board was a masterstroke which served to stabilize the lev and maintain macro-economic and monetary stability. Anti-corruption campaigns enhanced the government's modernizing image.

It all had little effect on the quotidian life of the average Bulgarian and disaffection and disillusionment are rampant. But a palpable strengthening of Bulgaria's international posture (visa-free travel to the EU, accession talks) ameliorated the national mood of disappointment for a while. Recently, though, a series of corruption and wire-tapping scandals and criminal shootouts have tarnished the UDF's image. The war in Macedonia has the potential to scare away foreign investors and embroil Bulgaria in a third Balkan War. Anxiety is high.

A monarch to change your life

On the right, a new and surprising force has emerged.

Simeon Borisov Koburgotski, also known as King Simeon II, has lived in exile in Spain for over 50 years. But in 1996, he visited his homeland. He provoked an hitherto unrequited wave of messianic economic and social expectations. In April 2001, Mr Koburgotski established the "National Movement." Apart from a few unrealistic and populist promises, its economic platform is virtually indistinguishable from the UDF's and much vaguer at that:

...Three essential goals: first, immediate and qualitative change in the standards of living, by turning the economy into a working market economy in accordance with the European Union criteria for membership, as well as by an increase of the flow of global capital. I am ready to propose a system of economic measures and partnerships which, within 800 days and based on the well-known Bulgarian work ethic and entrepreneurial skills, will change your life. Second, by abandoning the political partisanship and unifying the Bulgarian nation along historical ideals and values that have preserved its glory for all its 1300-year history. Third, by introducing new rules and institutions to eliminate corruption, which is the major enemy of Bulgaria, causing poverty and repelling vital foreign investments.

[See Where is Your Majesty, Your Majesty in CER]

The Bulgarian left provides for a very disheartening political landscape.

The Bulgarian Socialist Party is now the nucleus of an emerging 16-member opposition, the New Left Alliance. The Alliance is made up of parties that
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support old Socialism, labour-oriented policies and the maintenance of a social safety net. This is closely akin to other European left and social democratic parties. The parties of the Alliance are intent on merging into a single entity after the elections, though the diversity of the group—nationalists, communists, socialists, agrarians, feminists and Roma—renders this nigh impossible.

The Turkish minority in Bulgaria (one tenth of the population) spawned the other opposition grouping, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and has been excluded from the Alliance. The Alliance's leader, Georgi Parvanov, is making distinctly pro-Western and anti-"archaic Communism" noises. This did not prevent a power sharing pre-election agreement with the unreformed Communist Party.

Many regard these astonishing twists and turns as sheer opportunism. Others simply ridicule these improbable bedmates. Yet, they may still surprise. They derive hope and courage from the Romanian precedent, where the socialists surged ahead and won the elections. To adopt Romania as a model one truly needs to be desperate, retort many Bulgarians.

Sam Vaknin, 18 June 2001

The author:

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented by the author in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgments of the author.

Moving on:

After the Rain cover

After the Rain:
How the West Lost the East

Sam Vaknin's book on sale from CER as a print book and as an ebook

Moving on:



Guzstáv Kosztolányi
Civil Rights in Hungary

Sam Vaknin
Bulgarians Vote

Georgi Kadiev
King Simeon II

Elke de Wit

Steven Jay Schneider

Štěpán Kotrba
Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Czech Republic

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