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May 9, 2013 | 12:02 GMT

Persistent Political Uncertainty in Bulgaria

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Protracted political instability in Bulgaria has undermined the institutional and economic reforms needed to strengthen ties with Western Europe and collaborate over lucrative energy projects with Russia. A caretaker administration has been in power since the collapse of the country's center-right government in February, and with polls indicating that no party will win a clear majority in Bulgaria's parliamentary elections on May 12, the country's unrest is unlikely to end any time soon. The uncertainty in Sofia could worsen social discontent and complicate relations with both the European Union and Russia.

Bulgaria is the European Union's poorest member per capita. In March, according to Eurostat, the country's unemployment rate reached 12.6 percent — Bulgaria's highest since February 2004, though the true rate is believed to be even higher. The country has suffered from the economic woes throughout Europe, and EU-stipulated austerity measures, while necessary to maintain market confidence and revive declining foreign investment, have compounded distrust among Bulgarians of the country's political elite.

Former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned in February in response to widespread demonstrations against rising energy prices, as well as general discontent with the government's austerity policies and the bleak economic outlook in the country. But the collapse of the government has changed little on the ground. In recent months, there have been several self-immolations by people protesting economic conditions and corruption in Bulgaria. The incidents received widespread media attention and proved valuable symbolically to the protest movements.

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Despite the growing dissatisfaction, Bulgaria's political landscape has yet to change significantly. Voters expect the political establishment currently ruling the country to essentially maintain control, even if a new party officially takes over. Recent polling projects a fragmented parliament with gains by opposition parties, especially the Socialists (the prospects of the nationalist Ataka party and the Turkish minority's Movement for Rights and Freedoms are less clear). Borisov's Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, commonly known as the GERB party, is expected to win the most seats. No party is expected to win an outright majority, thus requiring the formation of a coalition government that would likely struggle to implement the changes needed to satisfy the protesters.

Implications Abroad

In addition to exacerbating Bulgaria's domestic issues, the country's continued political instability will also likely complicate relations with important foreign powers. Bulgaria and Romania had hoped to join Europe's border-free Schengen zone this year. But accession was put on hold for both countries in March after some Schengen members opposed expansion on grounds that neither country had made sufficient progress in judicial reform and fighting corruption and organized crime. The political crisis in Bulgaria and growing anti-immigration sentiment in Western Europe likely also contributed to the decision.

With the European Union dealing with a deepening political crisis at its core and focusing on measures to address the eurozone crisis, the will to integrate Bulgaria is dwindling. Resentment against newer EU members like Bulgaria is already widespread in Northern Europe. In the United Kingdom, for example, the government is looking into ways to control immigration from Romania and Bulgaria before workers from either country gain access to the entire EU labor market in 2014, when exemptions granted to several EU countries from obligations to accept such workers will expire.

Meanwhile, Sofia's stalling integration with the West is opening opportunities for Russia. Bulgaria is a crucial element in Moscow's plans to build its South Stream natural gas pipeline, which will run through the Black Sea and the Balkans. As a key transit state, Bulgaria has already received large discounts on Russian natural gas, and in 2012, the two countries overcame a series of bilateral disputes that threatened to delay the pipeline project. However, the collapse of the government in Sofia in February has created new uncertainty in Moscow.

In April, Bulgarian interim Prime Minister Marin Raykov said he wanted to review the South Stream project to ensure compliance with EU regulations. Raykov later insisted that Bulgaria still supports the project and sees Russia as a strategic partner, but the statement signaled that construction of the pipeline could be complicated, especially if the power structures in Sofia remain unclear after the elections. Due to the increased political fragmentation in parliament and persistent pressure from the streets, whatever government is formed in Bulgaria will struggle to continue the reforms necessary to integrate more closely with Western Europe and assuage Russia's energy concerns.

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