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A Tale of Two Generals

The similar personalities of the two most prominent figures in Bulgarian politics could prove a valuable asset for their collaboration. by Boyko Vassilev 22 November 2017

“Power stops power”: Western democracy and constitutionalism rest on this principle. Bulgarian politics nowadays uses a slightly different variation: “a general stops a general.”  


It is not Donald Trump alone who leans on generals-turned-politicians. In Bulgaria they hold the country’s highest offices. President Rumen Radev is a reserve army general, a former fighter pilot, and an air force commander. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov is a police reserve general and a former general secretary of the Ministry of the Interior. Social anthropologist Haralan Alexandrov has even coined a term to refer to this political phenomenon, calling it a “bi-general model.”   


The two generals come, however, from very different creeds. A political newcomer, Radev was elected on a leftist ticket a year ago, with support from the Bulgarian Socialist Party. Borisov has been the brightest star in Bulgaria’s political sky for more than a decade. Elected mayor of Sofia in 2005 after running as an independent, he founded the center-right party GERB a year later and has won one victory after another. He is currently serving his third term as prime minister, a unique achievement in Bulgaria’s post-communist history. His only defeat happened when Radev beat the presidential candidate he endorsed, Tsetska Tsacheva.


However, both generals have more than one reason to be at odds with each other.


An old feud going back to communist times has been playing out ever since then: the army versus the police. Both forces were loyal to the communist party but competed for influence, balancing the system out to some extent, with neither gaining an overwhelming hand. Having joined the ranks in the last of the old days (Radev as an air force lieutenant and Borisov as a commander of a firefighting unit), they have also inevitably inherited these prejudices.


The apple of discord between them has become the Bulgarian Constitution, which is written in such a way that the president and prime minister would quarrel even if they were twins. Elected on a direct ballot, yet with limited power, the president is stuck in the position of being ambitious and backed by the popular vote, yet finding the strongest figure is still the prime minister.


There is one moment, however, when the president can play kingmaker: if a parliamentary mandate has been interrupted, he can appoint a caretaker government. That is what happened last winter. Borisov resigned after the unfortunate presidential election, when Tsacheva suffered a stunning defeat. Radev appointed a government, but then snap elections five months later brought Borisov back to the premier’s seat at the head of a GERB-led coalition.  


This interlude turned out to be a recipe for disaster. One hot-button issue was that the caretaker government swiftly decided that the Bulgarian air force should buy Gripen fighter jets. When Borisov returned, the move was stopped and re-examined. A wild debate erupted, with mutual accusations of lobbyism, corruption, and hints about the part played by Radev’s air force past. This muddied the waters, and few people could understand who was to blame for what. One thing was clear: after this scandal, the two generals entered an uneasy co-habitation.


Now, the question is: does the bi-general model work well for the country? On one hand, two strong personalities balance each other out. On the other, they can waste precious energy in these institutional conflicts. In any case, the battle has been interesting to observe. Borisov rarely attacks the president, and even forbids his party lieutenants to do so – an order they eagerly ignore at times. President Radev describes his attackers as “backup vocals” and says that Borisov either whispers in their ears, or does not control his party well. During war, this would be called a maneuver, where the first general does not want to engage directly, while the other seeks a battle with the enemy’s champion. There are some experts who see an obvious stake in all of this: Borisov and Radev could fight for the presidential post in four years.


In other words, peace is unlikely so far. Yet there is another consideration. Different as they are, both generals are also very much alike and share a quality dear to Bulgarians: geopolitical balancing. U.S.-trained Radev was nonetheless elected on a Russophile ticket; pro-Brussel Borisov, a Central European darling of German chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, famously still said that former President Rosen Plevneliev made a mistake by “playing the hawk” on Russia. They both know how to project strength, while simultaneously keeping a balance between East and West.


Do similar personalities inevitably clash, or are they inclined to compromise? We will see. The tale of the two generals will decide Bulgarian politics. Generals are supposed to fight but, as the U.S. example shows, they sometimes make surprisingly good peacemakers – nobody understands better the heavy prize of war than a battle-hardened officer. I bet Radev and Borisov know that.  

Boyko Vassilev 
is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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