Bulgaria poll a setback for Putin?


Bulgaria held parliamentary elections on 26 March, with preliminary results indicating that GERB, led by Boyko Borisov (left), had emerged as the largest party, says Dimitar Bechev, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Despite the Bulgarian Socialist Party building on their success in last year’s presidential election to run GERB close, the results showed the resilience of the status quo in the country, he writes for the LSE’s EUROPP blog:

The main takeaway from Sundays’ election is that the status quo in Bulgaria is very resilient. Sure enough, populists and nationalists are a force to be reckoned with, but they are not there to shake up the system, let alone tear it down. Their game is getting a bigger share of the pie. It is more of the same as regards the Turkish/Muslim minority vote, too. The challenger, DOST, failed to deal a mortal blow to the MRF, though it peeled about a tenth of its votes away. The splinter party played the part of a convenient bogeyman for the Patriots, who inflated the threat of Turkey’s meddling in Bulgarian domestic politics to boost their vote.

“Bulgarians bet on keeping the country’s pro-European direction and didn’t fully share the Socialists’ policies for change,” said Genoveva Petrova, executive director of the Alpha Research polling company. But the nationalists may prove trickier than the Reformers as a partner for Gerb and could “undermine the stability of the coalition.”

The result appeared to be a disappointment for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has sought to exploit divisions in the European Union to strengthen Russia’s influence — particularly in a country like Bulgaria, which was one of the Soviet Union’s closest allies, The New York Times reports.

“The Kremlin’s end goal is the collapse of Western democratic institutions,” says Edward Lucas of The Economist and the Center for European Policy Analysis.

But it is wrong to suggest that the elections pitted former Prime Minister Borisov’s pro-Western party against pro-Russia Socialists, Bechev said on Facebook:

Both leading parties are pro-Russia. One of them is also pro-EU. Socialist leadership is fond of EU as well, but the grassroots long for Zhivkov, Brezhnev and, sometimes, Stalin.

Bulgaria’s center-right GERB party led in a parliamentary election, scoring 32.58 percent of the vote with 89.7 percent of ballots counted on Monday, data from the electoral commission showed, Reuters adds:

The Socialist party (BSP) was in second place with 26.8 percent of the vote, followed by the nationalist alliance United Patriots with 9.2 pct, according to the latest count. Two more political parties were set to enter the Balkan country’s next parliament – the ethnic Turkish MRF party scoring 8.9 percent and populist Will party scoring 4.1 percent of the vote so far, the commission data showed.

“The campaign was highly personalized with both parties presenting it as a life-or-death clash between the two major parties. But in fact there are overlapping areas of interest,” said Daniel Smilov, analyst at the Centre for Liberal Strategies, a Sofia think-tank [a member of the Network of Democracy Research Institutes]. “Even GERB may now be willing to support big Russian-backed energy projects,” he told The FT.

In the run-up to presidential elections in Bulgaria last year, the country’s opposition Socialist Party received a secret strategy document proposing a road map to victory at the ballot box, according to five current or former Bulgarian officials. Among its recommendations: plant fake news and promote exaggerated polling data, The Wall Street Journal reports:

The source of the roughly 30-page dossier, intercepted by Bulgaria’s security service, was a think tank connected to the Kremlin, according to the officials. It was delivered by a former Russian spy on a U.S. sanctions list, three of them said. In November, the Socialists’ candidate, Rumen Radev, emerged victorious. Now, the party—which wants to end European Union sanctions against Russia and limit North Atlantic Treaty Organization operations around the Black Sea—is a front-runner in parliamentary elections to be held Sunday.

“I’m very worried,” said Rosen Plevneliev, a Kremlin critic who was Mr. Radev’s predecessor as president. “Russian activity across Eastern Europe has gone to a new level.”

There is nothing new about a Russian government seeking to exert influence in Western countries. For many decades, the Soviet Union supported Western communist parties and ran disinformation campaigns (Operation Infektion, the campaign to convince the world that the United States invented AIDS, was one of the most famous), analyst Anne Applebaum writes for The Washington Post:

After the demise of the Soviet Union, these games stopped. The KGB was in disarray; more important, a large part of the Russian establishment then wanted to join the West, not undermine it. But now we live in a different era. Russia is run not by “reformers” but by very rich men who believe that Western institutions, and Western democratic ideals, threaten their power and their stolen money. They have returned to their old tactics — but with some new twists….. We already know that social media makes it much easier for the Russian state to spread disinformation. Less attention has been paid to the Russian private businessmen who make it much easier for the Russian state to win friends and buy influence than their Soviet counterparts did.

Most “independent” Russian oligarchs are nothing of the sort: Their money came originally from the Russian state, through manipulated “privatizations” and money laundering, adds Applebaum, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. They depend upon the state in order to keep it, and if asked they will use it to do the state’s bidding. Yet much of what they do on the state’s behalf looks like ordinary business: buying and selling companies, investing in property, hiring consultants.


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