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Split Heirs of Europe

Will Bulgaria follow the Visegrad group or toe the Brussels line?

by Boyko Vassilev 20 September 2018

Many Bulgarians still recall the battle hymn of Bulgaria’s transition in the early 1990s: “catching up” with the Visegrad group. Now there’s a new cover version, but with slightly different lyrics. A quarter of a century ago, catching up meant becoming more pro-Western, but today’s refrain is changing to “standing up” to the West, and Bulgaria must decide whether to follow this piper.


Bulgaria’s relationship with the Visegrad group has always been influenced by the Balkan country’s relationship with Europe. Mainly Orthodox, and part of the Ottoman Empire before being liberated in the 19th century, Bulgaria has a very different heritage to that of the largely Catholic Visegrad Four of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, which were born out of three other empires — Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia.


Paradoxically, the closest these countries came to each other was under communism, when they were bound by a common destiny. Bulgarians queued for Czechoslovak Skodas, Hungarian rock, and Polish movies, while the future “Visegrad” citizens explored Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast.


Similarities deepened but differences remained. Anti-communist resistance was stronger in Central Europe than further east, and that dynamic remained after the changes of 1989. Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs (and later Slovaks) reformed their economies and democratized their societies more resolutely. Better living standards followed. Being more pro-Western paid off. EU membership came sooner for Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and Bratislava, and European money poured into those countries. Meanwhile, Bulgaria lost years in delayed reforms and second-guessing.


First come, first served. However, this is true not just for the positives. The Visegrad Four gradually developed objections to Brussels, and now they challenge the core of the EU on a variety of issues, most importantly on migration.


Leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary, Lech Kaczynski of Poland, Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic, and Robert Fico of Slovakia have found a new way to win voters: they defy Angela Merkel, disobey Brussels, and defend narrow national interests. And the European public has learned a new term: illiberal democracy.


This culminated in a vote on 12 September for unprecedented disciplinary action against Hungary. A majority of members of the European Parliament supported a report charging that Hungary had breached core EU values, and showed that the Europe of Merkel was a little stronger than the Europe of Orban.


At a Crossroads


Which Europe does Bulgaria belong to? A substantial group in Bulgarian society, perhaps even a majority, thinks Bulgaria should follow the Visegrad line. Migrants are feared not only in Budapest but also in Sofia. Disappointment with the transition and with liberal elites outweighs gratitude for EU funds. Many Bulgarians feel an attraction to both illiberal democracy and to Russia.


In Europe's West the state has logically weakened through continuous liberal reforms and prosperity. The post-communist countries had to build a sensible state first, after communism. They are still at this stage, and care more for constructing a state than deconstructing it. They can understand the Visegrads on their insistence on a strong state vs. liberalism, and the notion of “let us finish modernity first, and then engage with postmodernity.” That also explains the sympathy that many show for strong-state Orban.


However, let us not overstate this case. The liberal, pro-European current is stronger in Bulgaria than in Hungary. Polls show that Bulgarians are among the greatest Euro-optimists in Europe. They like Brussels because EU institutions have the power to rein in their government if it gets out of control. European money arrived in Bulgaria more recently, so it is still a novelty and a source of pleasure: Bulgarians do not like remembering the times before. A traditional affiliation with Germany also helps: many Bulgarians think that whatever Berlin does is right.


The bottom line is that Bulgaria does not have the self-confidence to challenge Brussels, at least for now.


But which way will Bulgaria eventually go? Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s complicated government currently has it both ways. The nationalist coalition partner, the United Patriots, together with some vocal parliamentary deputies of Borissov’s GERB party, support Orban. Yet many other GERB members and voters are on Merkel’s side. So far, Sofia is gaining the benefits of playing on the Brussels side of the field: the EU can reward the Bulgarian authorities by admitting the country to the Schengen visa-travel zone, or by turning a half-blind eye to some domestic irregularities.


Meanwhile, opposition to “Europe” is disunited. In the European Parliament, Bulgarian socialists — defying their own European umbrella party and even their former leader, Sergei Stanishev, president of the Party of European Socialists — voted in support of Hungary. So did some GERB parliamentarians. On the other hand, the Movement for Rights and Freedom, supported by Turks and Muslims in Bulgaria, held the line of EU values, and supported censuring Hungary.


Borissov himself is painfully torn between friendship with Orban and allegiance to Merkel. Bulgaria’s recent six-month presidency of the European Council was a justification to avoid taking sides. Yet that period ended after June 2018. The Bulgarian prime minister is a notorious maverick but further maneuvering could exceed his powers.


Bulgaria’s interest is simple: for the Europe of Orban to reconcile with that of Merkel. Too great a challenge? Maybe as great a challenge as Bulgaria’s joining the Visegrad Group in the early 1990s. Bulgaria failed then, but, after all, tomorrow is another day.

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