Bulgaria Monthly Digest: Prime Minister Boyko Borissov visits Washington, and the country is struck by protests5 min read

 In Eastern Europe, News, Politics

– On November 25th Deputy Director of the National Police Office Blagorodna Makeva announced that in 2018, more than 31 000 reports of  domestic violence had been received by the police in Bulgaria. Additionally, in the first eight months of 2019, police received 23 000 reports. According to Makeva, increased publicity and public discussion will make it easier for victims to report domestic violence. The official statistics of the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior show that in the last year, 33 women were murdered by their partners.

Prime Minister Boyko Borissov met with President Donald Trump at the end of November. Image source: Dnevnik

– “The United States commends Bulgaria’s leadership and commitment to burden sharing, exceeding two percent of gross domestic product for defense spending this year. Bulgaria also plans to meet its longer-term NATO defense spending pledge by 2024. Our militaries stand together in the defense of freedom and look to reinforce our defense and deterrence posture across NATO’s eastern flank, including in the Black Sea, which is critical for Euro-Atlantic security.” These words, as part of a joint statement issued by President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, highlighted the main points of the meeting between the two in Washington, D.C. on November 25th. Besides mutual praise for the good relations between the two countries, resulting from among other things in the recent purchase of eight US-made F-16 military jets by the Bulgarian state, Trump and Borissov declared readiness for cooperation in the energy sector. Currently, a “technical team” sent by the US is exploring “the possibilities for further cooperation in different areas of energy, including nuclear.”

In an article in The Hill devoted to Borissov’s visit to Washington James Pardew, a former US ambassador to Bulgaria, wrote “In 2002, the national press in Bulgaria, owned largely by international media companies, was relatively independent and somewhat aggressive in covering government misdeeds. Today, independent international media groups are gone, replaced in most news sectors by local oligarchs and “businessmen,” who use the media to influence the government and the judicial system.” 

People protesting as the government has proposed a new and unpopular change regarding sick leave for workers. Image source: Dnevnik

– Thousands of workers, organized by one of the biggest unions in Bulgaria, Podkrepa (Support), marched on the streets of Sofia on November 27th. There are plenty of reasons for  workers to protest, including extremely low salaries, low pensions, and a regressive tax system, but it was one recent proposition by the government that truly sparked public outrage: in order to tackle “the issue of abuse of sick leaves”, representatives of the two coalition partners in government Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and United Patriots suggested that the first day of sick leave should be covered by the employee. On the same day, social workers all over the country protested and demanded a 40% increase in their salaries. The average wage among social workers amounts to about 400 Euro per month. 

– On November 29th the Minister of Labour and Social Policy Biser Petkov resigned. His resignation had been requested by the Prime Minister due to reasons “accumulated over time”. Petkov reportedly had suggested a 15% increase in  pay for social workers pay, instead of the 10% raise proposed in next year’s budget. This proposal apparently brought tension between Petkov and the Minister of Finance, and seems to have resulted in Borissov’s decision to reshuffle his cabinet.

On December 3rd Parliament voted to appoint Denitsa Sacheva as the new Minister of Labour and Social Policy. Sacheva had hitherto been Deputy Minister of Education. During the appointment, she was criticized by the leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Korneliya Ninova, for advancing “gender ideology” in schools, to which the new minister replied: “I firmly believe that sex is biologically determined.”

– “There is a media civil war in Bulgaria” according to Christophe Deloire, Executive Director of Reporters Without Borders, who met with Boyko Borissov for two hours on December 3rd. Borissov has promised to familiarize himself with the organization’s recommendations, but he did not agree with the assessment that media in Bulgaria do not work freely. In 2019, Bulgaria remains at the 111th place for media freedom according to Freedom of the Press Index.

– The now-former Prosecutor General, Sotir Tsatsarov, recently replaced by his deputy, Ivan Geshev, was elected to head Bulgaria’s main anti-corruption body by the Parliament on December 11th. Support for Tsatsarov came from all parties in the National Assembly, although half of the parliamentary group of the oppositional socialists voted against or abstained, the Sofia Globe reports. Tsatsarov will serve the remainder of the term in the position left behind by Plamen Georgiev, who resigned in July in the wake of an investigation into his real estate project. Georgiev has been subsequently appointed consul at Bulgaria’s consulate in Valencia, Spain.

– In an official statement on December 11th, the Bulgarian Academy of Science declared that “the official language in the Republic of North Macedonia is a written-regional norm of the Bulgarian language”. The Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski commented two days later that “The Macedonian language and the Macedonian nation are a fact, the Macedonian language has been an elemental fact for decades and it has been established internationally. I think it is pointless to talk about something that is a fact that everyone knows not only in our country, and their country, but also worldwide.”

– A new national protest among medical workers started on December 15th. A group of nurses camped throughout the night in tents in front of the Council of Ministers building where the Prime Minister’s office is. The healthcare professionals demanded increased salaries. Earlier this year, following a series of protests, the government promised “around 50 million [Lev] to raise the salaries of nurses” (around 25 million Euro). However, that amount had been lowered eight times a month later. Over the past 10 years, around 10 000 nurses have left Bulgaria for other European countries, Dnevnik reports. The average monthly pay in the public healthcare sector (for nurses, laboratory workers, midwives, etc.) is around 650 Euro, including bonuses. 

On December 16th Boyko Borissov met with some of the nurses that had camped in front of his office. One of the suggestions the Prime Minister articulated in the meeting was a redistribution of the payment budget – less for the doctors and more to the nurses. Although no concrete agreement has been reached, the nurses have lifted their tent camp. 

Main sources: The Sofia Globe (EN), Dnevnik (BG)

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