Bulgaria: 16 Events Worth Remembering of 2016 (Part 2)

Novinite Insider | December 28, 2016, Wednesday // 10:46|  views

Riots broke out in the migrant reception center in Harmanli in November, questioning the way Bulgaria's politicians are using the migrant crisis as part of a premature election campaign. File photo, BGNES

Novinite is publishing highlights of the year, using only one selection criteria: those which gained the biggest reader interest throughout 2016 have made it into the shortlist.

The events are ordered chronologically, according to the moment they began, even if their major development occurred over the months to come.

Click here to read Part 1 of our selection, which was published last week.

9. Building a Gas Hub, Bulgaria's New Energy Pipe Dream

Bulgaria is now after a project known as the Balkan Gas Hub, having declared its ambition to turn into a key gas distribution center in Southeast Europe. This may be a challenge as Greece and Turkey are already vying for the same position. What has been happening since this summer, however, was that investment interest in the project was shown at a state-organized conference – and that with fuels being found beneath a Bulgarian Black Sea block, one gas link being completed and another being kicked off at least at a market test phase after years of delays, Sofia has moved a (small) step closer to this goal.

10. Two Bulgarians Storming the United Nations

Irina or Kristalina?” Oddly, the question resonated among Bulgarian politicians and international diplomats both at the beginning and at the end of UN Secretary General campaign, as Sofia initially pitched one of them, the UNESCO chief, but – amid intense lobbying to replace her – changed its mind. Bokova, however, did not leave the campaign after being ousted by Georgieva as Bulgaria's official nominee. Moreover, she outperformed the outgoing EU Commission Vice President in the end, even though that did not help Eastern Europe go down in history as the first region to produce a female UN leader.

11. Rumen Radev, a Bulgarian Air Force Commander Turned Politician

The former Air Force chief Rumen Radev shook up Bulgaria's political system – a newcomer to politics defeated the presumably undefeatable candidate of GERB, to whom pollsters had predicted victory in the presidential election well before her name was announced. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the second-largest political force which endorsed (but did not nominate) Radev, is still trying to give itself credit for his success. His critics see him as pro-Russian due to his calls for an end to sanctions on Moscow, forgetting a rapprochement with Vladimir Putin is also being sought by the GERB-led government. How Radev will act as President is yet to be seen.

12. Borisov's 2nd Resignation

Boyko Borisov resigned for the second time as Bulgaria's Prime Minister after Tsetska Tsacheva, the candidate he had personally pointed as his presidential nominee, lost the election in November. That was his second (out of two) failures to serve a full term in office. His decision to step down, taken after a promise he would do so if Tsacheva lost, triggered a political crisis as early elections could not be held immediately, with the President being unable to set a date less than three months before his term expires.

13. The TV Show Referendum

A referendum in November asked Bulgarian voters if they wanted to introduce the first-past-the-post system in elections, make voting compulsory, and slash party subsidies allocated by the state. Whether one calls it “populism” or a “means to change”, it seems to be having an overarching impact on society, with more than 2.5 million people having said “yes” to each move – even though voting was already compulsory at the time of the poll. While the results were not binding (due to insufficient turnout), a number of politicians and experts have called on lawmakers to consider the proposals carefully as it is required by the law. The biggest parties are discussing the switch to a majority system, purportedly to meet the growing expectations for change in society, while an alternative bill to cut down party subsidies has already been tabled with Parliament.

14. Harmanli Riots: The Art of Locking Up 3000 People without Giving Explanations

Hundreds of migrants were hurt and hundreds were arrested as unrest broke out in one of Europe's biggest migrant reception and accommodation centers, located in Harmanli in Southern Bulgaria. Authorities had decided to lock up nearly three thousand migrants after rumours went rife that a number of the residents suffered from contagious skin diseases. While medical checks had not confirmed that, the government restricted the movement into and out of the facility to keep calm among Harmanli locals. However, the act of barring the access to the outside world for thousands of people, turning them into de facto prisoners in a compound known for poor conditions (and, reportedly, without giving a proper explanation to the provisional “inmates”) was a time bomb.

A number of possible explanations to the incident followed among experts, politicians and analysts as measures were taken to pursue deportations of Afghans (most of the rioters were of this nationality) and a change of some sections at migrant centers which will now operate under a regime of restricted movement. Neither activists' complaint of a “police crackdown” nor nationalists' claims of migrants being “aggressive” are of importance at a time new arrivals from the Middle East and North Africa are being used as a priority issue in a de facto permanent political campaign (see No. 16).

15. Hitrino: A Tragedy Briefly Uniting Bulgarians

Seven people died and twenty-nine were left injured after a dozen tanks on a cargo train derailed and one caused an explosion in the village of Hitrino in northeastern Bulgaria. High speed was seen as the main factor that caused the incident, even though other reasons, such as the state of the railways infrastructure, may also have played a part. Bulgarians stood united in the face of the incident which razed part of the village, with dozens of families having been affected, and millions were raised through donations from across the country. The incident, however, raised the issue of standards maintained at private freight transport companies. It also brought to the public eye the daily struggles of people affected by previous man-made and natural disasters, many of whom still live in temporary shelters years after the incidents occurred.

16. A Full Flown Election Campaign... Months out of an Election

Bulgaria has a government in resignation since mid-November, but a next election isn't due before the spring. Months out of the country's third snap vote in less than three years, Parliament isn't dissolved – as the President has no right to do so less than three months before his term is over (in January) and therefore cannot set a date for a new general poll. There is no caretaker administration in Sofia as the head of state refused to appoint one – which would have been his third interim government since he took over in 2012 – proposing his successor, Rumen Radev, to offer him a cabinet lineup, an offer the latter categorically turned down.

After a lengthy, somewhat protracted constitutional procedure of trying to form a new government in an exhausted Parliament for nearly five weeks, the election is inevitable – but politicians began throwing bold statements into the public well before coalition attempts were over. Pensions (a card wielded by the nationalists) and a perceived “migrant threat” (where nationalists and socialists are both “raising awareness” among the public) are among the main arguments against Boyko Borisov's outgoing cabinet. The latter is working hard to portray itself as a key stakeholder in the stability of Bulgaria and the predictability of its economy. However, as the sitting President put it himself: “In this Parliament absolutely everyone is in opposition at the moment.”

As an interim government is to be formed after Radev assumes office in January and Borisov's cabinet leaves office, this unofficial campaign will only get worse, regardless of when the election will be held, as no party will be bearing responsibility.


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Tags: gas hub, Harmanli, Hitrino, Rumen Radev, migrants, migrant crisis, Referendum, United Nations, Irina Bokova, Kristalina Georgieva, UN Secretary General, Boyko Borisov, Rosen Plevneliev, Slavi Trifonov


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