Cautious optimism: What Bulgaria’s new government means for Europe

After a year of interim governments, Bulgaria’s new administration has halted Bulgaria’s march to illiberalism and provided some hope for the region

epa10674067 Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (R) receives a folder with the names of the ministers from the candidate for Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov (L) during an official ceremony to accept the mandate for a new government, in Sofia, Bulgaria, 05 June 2023. The two largest parties in Bulgaria, the conservative GERB and the reformist coalition ‘Proceeding with the change – Democratic Bulgaria’ (PP-BD), have agreed to govern together with a Prime minister who will change every nine months, on a rotational formula, which should end two years of political deadlock in the European Union’s (EU) poorest country. Nine months later, he will be replaced in the post by the candidate of GERB, the former European Commissioner Maria Gabriel. Photo: picture alliance/EPA/VASSIL DONEV
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (R) receives a folder with the names of the ministers from the candidate for Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov (L) to accept the mandate for a new government, 05 June 2023
Image by picture alliance / EPA | VASSIL DONEV

After a year of successive interim governments, the Bulgarian parliament finally voted in a regular government in early June. It has the potential to move Bulgaria back towards the European mainstream and bring benefits for the wider region.

The two main political actors in the country, the We Continue the Change (PP) party with its coalition partner Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and GERB, have been unable to create governments on their own as each has just over a quarter of the MPs in parliament. And their opposing positions on the reform of the judiciary and the rule of law have prevented them from forming a coalition. The disarray in parliament had left President Rumen Radev, a former general with a growing appetite for power, in charge of appointing interim governments. But Radev’s negative rhetoric towards political parties and reluctance to hand over the governing mandate made it clear that he would not easily cede executive power back to the parliament, threatening to undermine the parliamentary democratic rule set out in the Bulgarian constitution.

This was enough to break the impasse. In order to avoid a sixth election in two years and restore the constitutional equilibrium, PP-DB and GERB agreed on a government with a majority of PP ministers, without the party leaders Kiril Petkov, Hristo Ivanov, and Boyko Borisov, but including one significant GERB figure, the former European commissioner Maria Gabriel. The agreement envisages the cabinet remaining in office for at least 18 months. Nikolay Denkov, a renowned chemist and former minister of education in the Petkov government, will serve as prime minister for the first nine months, then Gabriel will take over the post.

Bulgaria has become a worry for the European Union with its weak rule of law, a prominent pro-Russia party, Revival, in parliament, and a public discourse replete with fake news and anti-Western rhetoric. Bulgaria has not matched the strong support that many member states provided for Ukraine. The country has ammunition and defence supplies that Ukraine needs for its counter-offensive, but has only provided humanitarian aid. Radev made it clear that the interim government would not support Ukraine militarily, saying that “as long as the caretaker government is in power, Bulgaria will not provide Ukraine with its fighter jets, nor its tanks or anti-missile launchers” and equating doing so with “prolong[ing] the war”. The leader of Revival, Kostadin Kostadinov, even stated that Bulgaria’s NATO membership is a threat to its national security.

ECFR’s latest public opinion poll identified similar views among the Bulgarian public, which it found to be the weakest link of the 11 countries polled regarding condemnation of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. According to the results of the poll, only 17 per cent of respondents consider Russia to be an adversary (compared to 74 per cent in Denmark or 71 per cent in Poland), while 62 per cent consider it an ally or partner – a similar proportion was only found in Hungary (59 per cent). Bulgaria was also the only country in which a majority (51 per cent) believed that Europe should maintain a full partnership with Russia after the war.   

But the new government could bring Bulgaria back into the European fold. Denkov declared that his main priorities are Bulgaria’s entry into Schengen and the eurozone and unlocking funding for the country from the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility. Reforming the judiciary – a long held aim for the EU – is the first necessary step to achieve progress on all three issues, and GERB has so far stated that it is willing to support the process. Judicial reform would also help fight both corruption and Russian meddling in the country. A general change of tone of the political discourse would require further reforms to the media.

The game of political and legal attacks clearly signifies a high degree of nervousness in the system and a disruption of the status quo

The reform of the Bulgarian judiciary has been stuck for years, but the last few weeks have seen a series of steps forward on the issue. In late May, parliament approved a new mechanism for investigating the chief prosecutor and his deputies. A few weeks later, the Supreme Judicial Council voted unanimously for the removal of the current chief prosecutor, Ivan Geshev. It had refused to do so in the past, despite serious allegations made by a former minister of justice against Geshev. The current change of heart seems to be politically motivated and related to Borisov’s willingness to cooperate with the parties from the coalition. Geshev in turn asked parliament to lift Borisov’s and Petkov’s political immunity. This game of political and legal attacks clearly signifies a high degree of nervousness in the system and a disruption of the status quo.

The success of the government will have consequences for the wider region, where a belt of illiberalism and nationalism is threatening to engulf other eastern and south-eastern European countries in which the rule of law is weak, including Poland, Hungary, and Serbia. The government holds promise for Europe’s efforts to support Ukraine. The new defence minister, Todor Tagarev, was quick to declare on his first day in the job that Bulgaria “must do what is necessary, both to strengthen our defence capabilities and to provide assistance to Ukraine so that it can continue the counteroffensive that has apparently begun and liberate its territories.”

Finally, a more pro-European government in Bulgaria may ease some anxieties stemming from beyond the EU’s borders. Migration is high on the agenda for most Western capitals. In particular, many observers are wondering about the future trajectory of Turkey’s refugee policy after the recent electoral victory of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They will rely on a credible Bulgarian government to take care of Europe’s outer border. At the same time, North Macedonia seems to be coming closer to amending its constitution to include the Bulgarian minority, among others, as an ethnic group, which would reactivate the country’s EU accession process. Here, a constructive and measured tone from Sofia will be necessary – and a welcome change from the little cooperation across the Bulgarian-Macedonian border over the last months.

After many months of political crisis, the new government could see the country gradually move back towards the European mainstream. In his inaugural speech, Denkov expressed hope, saying, “we constantly discuss that Bulgaria is a country that has many problems to solve, but … I deeply believe that Bulgaria is a country with a bright future”. For many Bulgarians, optimism is a rare trait. But if the government proves durable and able to deliver on its domestic and European promises, Denkov’s optimism may spread.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.