The Rise and Fall of Kiril Petkov5 min read

 In Editorial, Politics, Southeastern Europe
On 22 June, the Bulgarian government collapsed after members of the parliament voted in favour of a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Kiril Petkov. Coming only six months into a four-year term, it is a signal that Bulgarian politics may not be ready for more pro-Western and liberal policies, putting it at odds with the general populace.

Petkov’s party Continuing the Change came to power at the end of 2021 on the back of a strong anti-corruption campaign. The campaign particularly resonated with voters after a rule-of-law crisis in the summer of 2020 that saw thousands of anti-corruption protestors take to the streets in Sofia to demand then-Prime Minister Boyko Borissov resign. While an April 2021 election removed Borissov from power, ending over a decade-long rule by the conservative Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party, a second vote in July failed to form a government before Petkov’s win in a third election in November.

Following his party’s win, Petkov was able to negotiate a coalition with the left-wing Socialist Party, the populist and anti-establishment There is Such a People party, and the centre-right Democratic Bulgaria alliance, uniting the parties under the motto “zero tolerance to corruption.” In addition to setting transparency in public spending, anti-corruption, and judiciary reforms as the keystones of his government, Petkov also vowed to maintain Bulgaria’s pro-European and pro-NATO stance.

Over the next six months, Petkov slowly led Bulgaria towards a stronger Western direction, starting with clear efforts to lift the country’s veto on EU accession talks with North Macedonia. Though he supported the acceptance of certain historical and cultural criteria as a prerequisite for removing the veto, he made it clear that compromise was possible with a new process taking place in a limited time frame of just six months.

Petkov also put a focus on Russian influence in Bulgaria, a critical move given that Bulgaria has long been considered Russia’s strongest ally within the EU. In doing so, he transitioned Bulgaria’s political path towards a more clear EU-favoured track, thereby reflecting the changing attitudes of the Bulgarian populace following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since the war broke out, Petkov has supported sending military assistance to Ukraine, expelled numerous Russian diplomats and diplomatic staff, and even fired his defence minister for pro-Russian statements.

All of these measures and stances showed a new path forward for Bulgaria: one that was much more aligned with Western liberalism. It was a breath of fresh air for a Europe that had grown used to a corrupt and soft state.

The rosy future dims as cracks appear in the coalition

It didn’t take long for Petkov’s changes to Bulgaria’s foreign policy stances to affect dynamics within the coalition. Differing views on the North Macedonian veto were the first breaking point. The nationalist electorate — including coalition partner There is Such a People led by Slavi Trifonov — repeatedly accused Petkov of betraying Bulgaria’s national interests. The issue also led to a deterioration in relations between Petkov and President Rumen Radev, who helped Petkov launch his political career. This decline in a once-friendly relationship was further exacerbated by Petkov support towards Ukraine, which conflicted with Radev’s aim to keep Bulgaria as neutral as possible. Relatedly, the Bulgarian Socialists threatened to leave the coalition if Bulgaria sent any military aid to Ukraine.

All of this tension came to a head in early June when Trifonov announced his party would be leaving the governing coalition. Trifonov cited Petkov’s policies — namely Petkov’s aim to lift Bulgaria’s veto of North Macedonia’s EU accession talks — as the main reason for retiring from the government. In response, Petkov stated he would continue to work in a minority government.

However, just a few days later, the former ruling and now main opposition party GERB introduced a motion of no confidence in parliament against Petkov’s government, claiming the failed financial policy of the government. In anticipation, Sofia saw a series of protests in a rare show of support for Bulgaria’s government. Yet, this was not enough to stop the vote of no-confidence from passing 123-116, leading to a collapse of Bulgaria’s government once again.

Bulgaria’s political future moving forward

The collapse of Petkov’s government is worrying for Bulgaria’s liberal and pro-Western future. While President Radev is expected to hand a new mandate to Petkov’s party first, any new coalition talks among the liberal parties will likely be unsuccessful. In this case, a second mandate would go to the conservative mainstay, GERB. However, there is a strong chance any attempts to form a government will fail, which would see Bulgarians heading back to the polls this autumn, the fourth time in just over a year.

Importantly, with the removal of Petkov, Bulgaria is likely to see a return to more Moscow-friendly sentiments in addition to more general political instability. Right-wing parties, especially those with pro-Russia leanings, are expected to do well in any upcoming elections: opinion polls show that if a vote were to be held now, anti-EU nationalists would double their seats in parliament. Even if not a majority, these parties could act as potential kingmakers, strengthening the overall position of right-wing parties in the parliament.

The question of North Macedonia’s EU accession is also likely to see the return of a political stalemate, hampering EU enlargement. Petkov was the main actor towards an easing of tensions between the two countries by pushing for a resolution to the dispute. Though the Bulgarian Parliament approved lifting the country’s veto on opening EU accession talks with North Macedonia just two days after Petkov’s no-confidence vote, this is not without conditions. Sofia has demanded a guarantee from the EU that North Macedonia will include the Bulgarian minority in its constitution and sign a bilateral protocol. While North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski has accepted these concessions, the North Macedonian people have not, leading to large protests against the government, and little likelihood of parliamentary support. With conservative parties likely to hold sway, if not take the lead, in a new government, it seems unlikely that Bulgaria will work to mediate any of these terms.

It is unclear where Bulgaria goes from here: the political instability that will ensue is likely to assist Russia’s aims in the regions, with the strengthened right-wing, pro-Russian parties hampering both EU expansion and support for Ukraine. Only time will tell if Bulgaria can form a sustainable government that lasts long enough to enact real change.

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