Three parliamentary elections in one year (four with the presidential elections in November) and no political stability. Bulgaria, one of the poorest countries in the European Union, is in the throes of a serious internal crisis and voters seem to have lost faith in its institutions. Voter turnout is steadily declining (49 percent in April, 41 percent in July) and polls show that even the elections scheduled for November 14 could end in nothing. GERB, the center-right movement of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, is expected to win a relative majority of votes (24 percent), while the pro-European party, We Continue the Change (15.5 percent), and the Socialists (15 percent). The populists of There is a People (13 per cent), the Turkic speaking Movement for Rights and Freedom and the liberals of Democratic Bulgaria (around 10 per cent) follow at more of a distance. It is not clear if the political parties will be able to bridge their differences and form a majority government after the new elections. An overall fragmentation and uncertainty fuels concerns over the erosion of democratic standards and the effect that could have on the electorate. “In a relatively young democracy, such inability of the electoral process to produce an effective government is dangerous because it can undermine trust in democracy as a system of governance”, Dimiter Toshkov, Professor of Politics of the European Union at Leiden University told Emerging Europe.
Bulgaria is located in the Eastern Balkans and is particularly important for the history of the Christian-Orthodox religion and for the formation of the Slavic culture. It is here, in fact, that the Cyrillic alphabet was born around the 9th Century AD. But after a period of Byzantine domination, the Ottomans took control for around 500 years. Independence came in 1908 and after the Second World War the nation became a satellite of the Soviet Union. Bulgaria has had to face a slow and painful transition to a market economy since the end of the communist regime and is now part of the European Union and NATO. At times Bulgaria experienced widespread public protests against a succession of governments and in 2016 it underwent a period of political instability related to early parliamentary elections and a government reshuffle. Recently domestic security has been strained by the influx of migrants and refugees from the Middle East. This has provoked an increase in discriminatory behaviors against those people and the indigenous Roma community. According to Freedom House, a non-partisan organization based in the US which monitors democracy and civil rights around the world, ethnic minorities experience discrimination in employment, medical care, and in the allocation of housing even if attempts have been made, also thanks to the help of NGOs, to facilitate their social integration.
The economic and political influence exerted by Russia in Bulgaria is still significant. Defense and intelligence officers were arrested in March 2021 accused of passing classified material to the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Sofia. Bulgaria is highly reliant on Moscow for natural gas, with more than 90 percent of national annual gas consumption coming from Russia, although some new energy infrastructure projects, like the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline and the Greece-Bulgaria interconnector could reduce this dependence. At the same time Gazprom, the most important Russian energy company, is active in the region with competitor projects such as Turk Stream 2, a branch of the gas pipeline that connects Russia and Turkey.
The serious political crisis, marked by months of protests demanding the resignation of the government led by Boyko Borissov, accused of corruption by some protesters and of paying low salaries by the police forces, is not the only problem in the country. Bulgaria has the highest mortality rate from Covid in the world since the pandemic’s outbreak (338 deaths per 100,000 residents according to Johns Hopkins University data) yet the ongoing tragedy has not prevented demonstrations against rules and the Digital COVID Certificate, which is mandatory to enter shopping centers and restaurants. Bulgarian citizens are among the least vaccinated in Europe, with just 23 percent of the population (according to the portal CovidVax) having received the vaccine. Skepticism towards vaccines (and mistrust towards the State) derive from the period of communism but also have harmful effects on the present. A third of the population, in fact, doubts the existence of the virus. The nightmare of e-learning has returned to affect the lives of students and professors as the active monitoring system of the Departments of Health did not work and made the circulation of the virus uncontrollable. The implementation of anti-contagion rules was not enough to avoid closures and hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, and school collaborators are forced to stay at home due to the paralysis.
The current fourth wave of the virus, which reached its peak in the middle of October, has put the health system under great pressure, with the possibility of a collapse and forced doctors to make difficult choices, such as the idea of transferring patients abroad. The conditions of public hospitals are cause for concern. Public health in Bulgaria has remarkable limits due to the lack of funds, the lack of staff and the state of the facilities. Those who can, opt for private centers deemed more reliable and efficient. In rural areas, the availability of services is more limited than the one offered by large cities and the medical staff do not speak English. The Soviet era clinics present in this part of the country are so basic that family members are expected to provide food for the hospitalized.
These are the conditions in one of the most fragile countries of Europe, by any measure. Life expectancy is far below the European Union average, with 76 years for women and just 70 for men (84 and 81 years, respectively, are the EU average) and is influenced by the prevalence of alcohol dependence that affects 4.3 of men and 0.4 of women according to a WHO report. Bulgaria’s minimum wage is one of the lowest in Europe and equates, approximately, to 350 US dollars per month. Poverty reached 7.5 percent in 2017 and more than half a million people live with less than 5.5 US dollars per day. The Gross Domestic Product, after the transition to a free market in the early 1990s, has been rising constantly and the average wage has improved but not enough to avoid the creation and the persistence of extended pockets of poverty. The average pension is just 165 US dollars, the unemployment rate is above 10 percent and 34.2 percent of the population cannot heat their house.
The pandemic reversed old migration patterns in Europe and many, perhaps as many as 500,000 Bulgarians according to the Economist, have decided to return home. The prospect of a lonely, costly lockdown far from home was a strong motivation to bring people back and close to their families. These returning have specific demands, such as quality education, better hospitals, and a prosperous standard of living, which cannot be met by the region. Many, therefore, may decide to emigrate again and, paradoxically that could be beneficial for Bulgaria’s government which will no longer have to face the challenge of uncomfortable demands.
Whose fault will it be if Bulgaria collapses under the weight of its own sluggish system? Perhaps it is a collective burden to bear. Former Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov says that the European Union itself has failed Bulgaria, showing no interest in the fate of the country. As Bulgarians head to the polls, the risk that a predominantly pro-European stance be transformed into deep demoralization looms large.
Cover Photo: A worker pastes election posters of Anastas Gerdzhikov, presidential candidate of the Bulgarian centre-right GERB party, in Haskovo on November 8, 2021, ahead of the presidential election on November 14 (Nikolay Doychinov / AFP)
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