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E Pluribus Unum – Helping Reform-Oriented Parties in Bulgaria Answer the Challenges of Democracy in the 21st-Century

Last weekend, I traveled to Plovdiv with volunteer trainers of our LEAP Team for the “Leadership Institute for Bulgaria”, a two-day training seminar designed to further the skills of a selection of 70 young reformist Bulgarian leaders.

Organized in partnership with our good friends and colleagues of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS), this seminar marked both a celebration of our joint successes, but also the start of a new adventure for us in helping reformists in Bulgaria  change their country for the better.

Bulgaria is a Southern European Country, and you feel it as soon as you arrive in Sofia – and even more once you have been acquainted with national politics. It is said that in Bulgaria, putting two people in a room means that you will have two political parties and three different opinions, and putting three people in a room will mean that you will end up a traitor (or, at least, one who will be portrayed as such by the other two). Although the saying is not as catastrophic in reality, it remains nonetheless true that until 2013, none of the reformist parties were able to survive a few years in power: after a few years of a remarkably transformative term, Prime Minister Ivan Kostov was defeated in the polls in 2001 and his Blue Coalition thereby started a decline that lasted 10 years and was to lead its components slowly but surely out of parliament. Kostov’s leadership was immediately followed by that of Simeon II and his the National Movement, which won in 2001 and then lost the election in 2005 before collapsing over the following years, failing to enter parliament in 2009. And then came GERB, the first professionally-organized reformist party in Bulgaria, which managed to win the 2009 elections with a landslide to govern alone during 4 years, before Prime Minister Boyko Borisov called for early elections which resulted in the collapse of the former members of the Blue Coalition (as they too now failed to enter parliament) and pyrrhic victory for GERB (as they won a plurality of the votes but could not form a government for lack of a coalition partner). In short, with such a turbulent history for political parties and considering the conditions of the day, it looked like a long period in the wilderness was about to begin for reform-minded people and politicians in Bulgaria.

That was without counting on Boyko Borisov and Radan Kanev. On the one hand, Borisov managed what nobody had achieved before him: keeping GERB as a unity despite it being taken out of government. Considering Bulgaria’s postcommunist history, this was certainly not a given, but thanks to Borisov’s charisma and wit, along with the structures created by GERB over the years – for which IRI and KAS helped through their trainings and consultations throughout the years 2010 and early 2010s, the party held together, and managed to grow, scoring a resounding victory in the European election, which was to pave the way for the downfall of the  highly unstable coalition mounted by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and fresh elections in October 2015.

Against the expectations of many, GERB held on. What remained to be seen is whether GERB would have a compatible and reliable coalition partner. And this is where Radan Kanev enters with the Reformist Bloc. Following the disaster of 2013, in which the former members of the Blue Coalition, divided, scored poorly enough for none of them to enter parliament, Kanev was elected leader of one of these historic parties. And started to get back in touch with the former allies, who at this stage were not on speaking terms any more. With a lot of skills and patience, the different components of what was to become the Reformist Bloc merged together into an electoral coalition capable of representing the most reform-oriented parts of the electorate. Since the beginning, IRI believed in the project (along with the need for GERB to have a reliable junior partner to form a stable, functioning coalition) and provided the newly-formed bloc with trainings, seminars of experience-sharing and advice from its expert team of European volunteer trainers, the LEAP Team. The process was not easy, and at some times the situation seemed desperate. But it was always in those moments that members of the Reformist Blocs surprised us to impulse a new dynamic to their project.

In the end, 2014 turned out to be an excellent year for reform-oriented parties in Bulgaria: not only did GERB win the European elections and a plurality of votes, the Reformist Bloc also managed to keep together and send one candidate to the European Parliament, before scoring a surprise 9% of the vote and imposing itself as a strong coalition partner for GERB. Here again, the process was bumpy (any coalition building effort is), but the end result was there: today, Bulgaria has a government more stable than a year ago, committed to reform and working to implement it in the best conditions.

Seeing this end result, some people may ask: are IRI, or KAS, or other NGOs responsible for the victory of these parties or their forming a successful coalition? Certainly not. As all the protagonists of this political story will be able to testify, they were the actors, and they owe their success to nobody else but themselves. What we did for them was just to share our knowledge and the knowledge of our friends from around Europe – nothing more, nothing less. In other words, if one were to resume the role of democracy-promotion NGOs in this, we provided a sparkle, we helped protagonists help themselves to resolve their problems. This may appear as a lot to some, little to others, but in the end the best sign of how strong this partnership has become between us and the reform-oriented parties is the opening of our Leadership Institute for Bulgaria, which both Parliamentary leaders of GERB and the Reformist Bloc Tsvetan Tsvetanov and Radan Kanev attended, along with Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov – people who would certainly not allow themselves to be taken in picture together just a year ago. Their presence and co-operation shows just what partnership we have built with them: one that is based on the actors, and that is aimed at helping them realize their potential.

All stories have an end, and we like it to be a happy end. So what about now? The thing is that, although things are going better in Bulgaria today, all the problems have not vanished, far from it: the country still needs to reform to face the challenges of the 21st Century, and for this the coalition needs to keep together, make the right choices, communicate with the public. There is also a whole new generation of leaders that is coming of age and wants even more than the previous generation to see Bulgaria as a country fully integrated into “the West”. All the more reasons for IRI and KAS to come together to train these young leaders, make them benefit from the experiences of our trainers from France, Germany, Norway, Spain, Ukraine and remind them that, despite their differences, their commitment to reform remains central for the European future of Bulgaria.

The Seal of the United States of America contains the latin inscription “E Pluribus Unum”. This motto could just as well be adopted by reform-oriented politicians and parties in Bulgaria. 

Surrounded by IRI Representative Thibault Muzergues (left) and KAS Representative Marco Arndt (right), Opening Speakers of our Leadership Institute for Bulgaria pose for a picture – from left to right, former Deputy Prime Minister and current Leader of GERB’s parliamentary faction Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov and Reformist Bloc Leader Radan Kanev. A year ago, a public picture of these three people together would have been unimaginable.


Posted by

Thibault Muzergues

Resident Program Director, Europe Division