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Bulgaria hasn’t been able to form a government. What happens now?

Here’s where the different parties stand on issues that threaten to divide the E.U. and the broader Atlantic partnership

- April 29, 2021

Bulgaria’s new legislature has six parties and coalitions — and keeps falling short on efforts to form a government. After the April 4 parliamentary elections, no party or coalition could claim 121 of 240 total seats, the parliamentary majority needed to move forward.

Outgoing Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s pro-E.U., pro-Western, center-right party GERB and its coalition partner UDF won the most seats (75) but lack other parties’ support. GERB-UDF had the first chance to form a new government, then officially gave up on April 23.

Next up was Slavi Trifonov, a popular talk show host and musician with no governing experience, whose “There Is Such a People” (TISP) party received the second-highest number of seats (51). On Wednesday, TISP refused to form a cabinet.

Figure: Nina Barzachka
Figure: Nina Barzachka

What happens now?

Bulgaria’s constitutional procedures specify that the president, currently Rumen Radev, can ask one of the other parties to lead a coalition. That leaves the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the communist successor party, with 43 seats; the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF), representing the Turkish ethnic minority (30 seats); the center-right Democratic Bulgaria (DB) (27 seats); or the left-leaning “Stand Up! Mafia Out” (SUMO) (14 seats).

Other than MRF, most of these parties reject GERB. All the various coalition options lack the numbers — or the necessary support from one or more of the larger parties.

With none of these options looking likely to produce a new government anytime soon, it is increasingly possible that Bulgarians would need to head back to the polls. In the meantime, the current government would stay on as a caretaker.

Here is how Bulgaria’s crisis could affect its relations with the West.

Bulgaria will continue to support the E.U. and NATO

Bulgaria is a member of the European Union and NATO. Its commitment to both organizations is unlikely to change.

Borisov’s GERB is affiliated with the European People’s Party, the largest center-right group in the European Parliament. During the 2015-2016 E.U. refugee crisis, Borisov erected a fence on the border with Turkey and declared Bulgaria the protector of the E.U.’s external border. In October 2020, after months of mass protests in Bulgaria, the European Parliament criticized Borisov for corruption, misappropriation of E.U. funds, deterioration of media and disregard for minority rights.

TISP supports active Bulgarian involvement in E.U. foreign policy regarding the Balkans. While its party manifesto does not mention NATO, TISP politicians in media interviews say they support both organizations.

The BSP is also pro-E.U. and accepts Bulgaria’s membership in NATO. Democratic Bulgaria, also affiliated with the European People’s Party, offers a detailed foreign policy platform that supports “deeper integration for Bulgaria into the E.U. and NATO.

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What happens to North Macedonia’s E.U. membership?

The political outcome in Bulgaria may also affect North Macedonia’s bid for E.U. membership. Any E.U. member can veto the accession of a candidate country. In 2020, influenced by its nationalist coalition partners, Borisov’s government blocked North Macedonia’s E.U. membership talks. The rationale: North Macedonia was not doing enough to resolve its historical and linguistic dispute with Bulgaria.

For the first time since 2005, no far-right nationalist party crossed the 4 percent threshold required to enter parliament. Will this help North Macedonia’s E.U. bid?

If either the Socialists or the new TISP are in power, things are likely to stay the same. For decades, Trifonov’s talk show and folklore-inspired songs presented a narrative of North Macedonia as part of Bulgarian history and language. This is in line with Bulgaria’s cultural heritage justification for blocking North Macedonia’s E.U. membership talks.

The BSP embraces the cultural and linguistic heritage argument and also supports blocking the negotiations. In contrast, DB fully supports the integration of the Western Balkans in the E.U. and NATO. The party is willing to improve communication and cooperation with North Macedonia and overcome the current roadblocks. If DB has a say, North Macedonia’s prospects of joining the E.U. could improve. Geopolitically, that would mean a win for the West.

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Balancing between the West and Russia could become more difficult

Bulgaria has historical, cultural and economic ties with Russia and relies heavily on Russian natural gas. Public opinion is favorable to Russia, and the media is vulnerable to Russian influence.

Consequently, Bulgaria traditionally has tried to balance between Russia and the West — Borisov continued that tradition. While the BSP has historically been friendly to Russia, not all parties in parliament agree.

TISP’s foreign policy platform does not mention Russia or Ukraine. Yet one of TISP’s main goals is the removal of sanctions against important economic and trade partners, which could mean Russia.

DB seeks equal and reciprocal relations with Russia, while supporting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. With Russian troops gathered along the Ukraine border, Bulgaria’s balancing act could become more difficult.

If Bulgaria’s political crisis hampers E.U. expansion in the Western Balkans, this could weaken the European and transatlantic positions in the region. Russia stands to benefit.

No progress on protecting women and the LGBTQ community

Like other E.U. members from Eastern Europe, Bulgaria has yet to ratify the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

Domestic violence is a serious issue in Bulgaria. Yet in 2018, GERB, the nationalists and the BSP opposed ratifying the convention — claiming its language promotes same-sex marriage and goes against Bulgaria’s traditional values and constitution.

Now, only the MRF and DB support the convention. Regardless of who forms government next, it is unlikely that Bulgaria would prioritize domestic violence, gender equality and LGBTQ rights. Disagreements over the convention will add to the East-West divide inside the E.U.

Nina S. Barzachka teaches European politics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

Stefka P. Yordanova is a political scientist based in North Carolina.