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Hopes for a stable government in Bulgaria fade as alliances falter and leaders lock horns over North Macedonia.

No, please, not again! 

Bulgaria has entered yet another political crisis. And the threat of yet another early election looms. 

In 2021 the country broke a European record, with three parliamentary elections in a year. The first was on 4 April, when the new parliament failed to produce a government. The same occurred on 11 July. The latest, on 14 November, was a two-in-one ballot: choosing a parliament and president, with Rumen Radev reelected on a second round on 21 November. 

This means Bulgarians had to go to the polls four times.

Finally, the We Continue the Change movement crowned the year of surprises and precedents as the surprise winner. Led by Harvard graduates Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, it served as the glue to bring three other, otherwise mutually incompatible political formations into a coalition: the Socialists; showman Slavi Trifonov’s There Is Such a People; and the urban liberal coalition, Democratic Bulgaria. 

Petkov became prime minister and Vassilev his deputy. Predictions about the government’s future were cautious but mainly optimistic. The 2021 political crisis was so devastating – with protests against the center-right GERB party paralyzing the last year of its rule and the coronavirus ravaging the vaccine-hesitant population – that Petkov’s cabinet looked like a breath of fresh air.

Then, destiny struck. Worldwide inflation raised prices. Bulgaria has had a currency board since 1997 and cannot be flexible in its fiscal policy – whether to print money for instance. It depends on Russia for natural gas, oil, and nuclear fuel. When their prices jump, Bulgaria has few options. 

That said, the war in Ukraine tormented both the Bulgarian economy and society. Bulgaria and Poland were the first two countries whose gas was cut off by Gazprom because they refused to pay in rubles. And the traditional divide between Bulgarian Russophiles and pro-Westerners grew wider and more vitriolic.  

The coalition became shaky. Defense Minister Stefan Yanev, a former army general and caretaker prime minister appointed by President Radev, had to resign after calling the war a “special operation,” parroting the Putin terminology. 

Yanev then formed a new party and posed with the Russian ambassador. One of the partners in the four-member coalition, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), was softer on Russia than the others. 

And relations between Petkov and Radev, who had previously appointed him as a minister in one of his caretaker governments and thus boosted his prestige, grew increasingly strained.

One of the reasons was North Macedonia. In the last three years Bulgaria has vetoed EU negotiations with the Balkan country, with which it shares a border, common history, and heightened emotions. Bulgaria demands a formal constitutional guarantee of the rights of Bulgarians in North Macedonia. Radev insists that Skopje should fulfill this before the start of negotiations. For that, he has the support of two coalition partners, BSP and There is Such a People, as well as roughly 80 percent of Bulgarians. 

We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria offer a more nuanced approach: The veto could be lifted if there were an EU guarantee that Bulgarian demands will be met in the near future. For its part, Skopje has not altered its anti-Bulgarian tone or made any concessions.

Yet the final blow was dealt by Trifonov. On 8 June, he withdrew his ministers and his support for the coalition. 

This is not Slavi’s first killer strike. In the April 2021 election he finished second but refused to join any coalition. In July he finished first, without a majority. Then, the morning after the election, he appeared on his private cable television channel and proposed a cabinet, without consulting any other party.  

But why now? Trifonov cited one main reason: disagreement with the premier over North Macedonia. He stopped just short of calling Petkov a traitor. We Continue the Change retorted with accusations that Trifonov and There Is Such a People were “corrupt” and driven by the “mafia.” Not surprisingly, There Is Such a People returned fire. The exchange between the former partners got ugly, even by the low standards of Bulgaria’s last two years. You are corrupt. No, you are corrupt – and a liar. 

Petkov’s government will struggle to survive. He has tried to convince deputies from Trifonov’s party to turn coats, with partial success. The situation continues to escalate. The first victim was the parliamentary speaker Nikola Minchev from We Continue the Change. A new majority of Trifonov’s people and opposition deputies removed him from the post.

Many have thought that Bulgarian politics learned a lesson after the political deadlock, the high death toll from the coronavirus, and from the toxic divisions of 2021. 

Apparently, it has not. A pandemic and war were not enough to teach Bulgarian politicians a lesson in leadership. One has little reason to believe that a fifth election would do the trick. 

Boyko Vassilev is the moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.