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European Western Balkans
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Third Bulgarian election lays groundwork for the lifting of the veto, timeframe unknown

Largo square in Sofia; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The third election in Bulgaria this year took place on Sunday, producing a parliament that will, analysts believe, finally be able to agree on a new government. For North Macedonia and Albania, the most important question is whether there will finally be a breakthrough regarding Sofia’s veto that blocked the first Inter-Governmental Conferences with the EU.

The winning list, “We continue the change” (PP), received around 26 percent of the vote, three points ahead of the, until recently, the country’s largest party – GERB, led by former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.

PP, formed only in September this year, joined the ranks of the new parties formed on the anti-corruption sentiment of the electorate. Its leader Kiril Petkov, Minister of the Economy in the caretaker government appointed in April, announced cooperation primarily with other similar parties.

“As it stands, the most probable political reshuffling is that the ‘parties of the change’ (‘We continue the change’, ‘There is such a people’, the coalition Democratic Bulgaria) will manage to form a coalition government in case supported by the socialists (BSP). If this materialises, they will surely secure a majority”, assesses Maria Simeonova, programme coordinator for the Wider Europe programme and European Council for Foreign Relation’s Sofia office.

Presidential election also took place, with the incumbent Rumen Radev securing almost an outright victory, winning 49,45 percent of the vote. Second round against GERB-supported candidate Anastas Gerdzikov will still be required.

Radev has also been involved in the dispute with North Macedonia, most recently during the October Brdo Summit, where he met with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. Pledges were made at the time to continue the dialogue on the disputes over Macedonian history and language, as well as the position of Bulgarian national minority, though no serious commitments were made.

Will it be more easier to lift the veto now, with a potentially new government in place? Dimitar Bechev, Lecturer at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies and a Visiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe, think this is possible.

“The winner in the elections, ‘We Continue the Change’, has a more positive rhetoric towards North Macedonia compared to GERB and BSP. I think they and their likely partners from Democratic Bulgaria would probably want to get rid of the veto but they have to pick their battles and this one is probably not worth it, from a domestic political perspective. Kiril Petkov will have other priorities –  rule of law, EU recovery plan, COVID”, Bechev, a member of Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), says for European Western Balkans.

The first opportunity for the veto to be removed will be at the General Affairs Council Scheduled for 14 December, with EU affairs ministers having to adopt the Negotiating Frameworks for North Macedonia and Albania. Maria Simeonova believes there is one scenario where this is possible.

Meeting of the Zoran Zaev and Rumen Radev on the sidelines of the Summit on 6 October; Photo: Twitter / @eucopresident

“The scenario evolves around President Rumen Radev, who is an important factor not to be overlooked. Radev appointed the current caretaker government which will function until the formation of a regular government by the parties in the new  Parliament. Radev won almost half of the votes this Sunday and is expected to secure a second mandate. His role proved quite significant in the past months. Radev will have a say until there is a caretaker government in place so a small window for a potential lifting of the veto is created between the presidential runoff on 21 November and the General Affairs Council meeting on 14 December”, Simeonova says.

If, on the other hand, the Bulgarian veto remains after 14 December, the new government will inevitably have to address the issue in 2022.

“This is a likely scenario due to the short period of time for the parties to strike a coalition agreement and the urgent pending internal issues such as the future of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan, the management of the health crisis, as well as the negotiations for the 2022 state budget”, Simeonova says.

A new approach

Even if the lifting of the veto ends up requiring more time,  a reformist Bulgarian government can still apply more pragmatic approach that can little by little wane the accumulated negative talking between the two sides, Maria Simeonova adds.

“The economic profile of Petkov and (PP co-founder Assen) Vassilev was translated into the position of their party on North Macedonia’s start of EU accession talks. It was repeatedly stated that Bulgaria and North Macedonia should establish working groups comprised of not only historians but academics, experts in culture, infrastructure, trade. With a reformist government in Bulgaria, the tone of the negotiations will be more constructive, Simeonova says.

She adds, however, that this approach will nevertheless take some time as the issues between Bulgaria and North Macedonia stand pending and it is well known that the framework position of the Bulgarian Parliament enjoys wide societal support.

Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, founders of the ‘We Continue the Change”; Photo: Ministry of Finance of Bulgaria

Kiril Petkov outlined his approach to resolving the Macedonian issue in an interview for EURACTIV taken a week before the election, stressing that, in order to solve problems, historians were not enough and top businessmen should also be included.

“It is not enough once every six months to throw stones at the other side of the village and wait for the stones to be thrown back. We want to see every two months what has been achieved, with KPIs, with analysis of what the hurdles are, with maximum communication, to have real negotiations, which we didn’t have before,” he said

Georgi Gotev, Senior Editor of EURACTIV.com and the author of the interview with Petkov, points out for European Western Balkans that he did not, however, provide a timeframe for a possible lifting of the veto.

“My take is that Petkov, who is very close politically to Radev, is not going to do anything unusual or unexpected vis-à-vis North Macedonia. Most probably he will be personally following the progress of the bilateral talks”, Gotev says.

While step-by-step approach might be the preferred option of the new Bulgarian government, it will still be at odds with the increasing disappointment over the blockade of the progress expressed more and more vocally by the leaders of North Macedonia and Albania.

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