Bulgaria's Electoral Adventurism

Commentary

Bulgaria's president has campaigned for the Communist party, while MPs think that European states should learn from Azeri electoral practices.

This article was first published by novinite.com on 1 April 2009.

Bulgaria's president has campaigned on behalf of the Communist party in Moldova, while Bulgarian MPs think that European states should learn from Azeri electoral practices. In both cases Bulgaria has been quite out of the loop with the rest of the European Union. Bulgaria's electoral adventures in the post-Soviet space make it look more like a CIS state, than a responsible, democratic EU member state that acts and sings in tune with the rest of the European Union.

Azerbaijan as an example

Azerbaijan is among the least democratic European states. At the beginning of 2009 Azerbaijan banned foreign radio broadcasts, getting rid of BBC, Radio Liberty and Voice of America. On 18 March 2009 Azerbaijan also held a referendum which eliminates the constitutional restriction on two consecutive presidential terms. Over 90% voted in favour of the change. Now president Ilham Aliev can constitutionally remain president for the rest of his life. With this referendum Azerbaijan becomes the only Council of Europe state that might have a life-long president.

One of the Council of Europe's sub-structures said that Azerbaijan's membership in the organisation could be suspended as it contravenes the country's CoE commitments. The Azeri Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies center (EMDS), an NGO, said that there were "shortcomings concerning freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press" during the referendum campaign. EMDS also found that there has been: "abuse of administrative resources in the campaign process, lack of equal opportunities for all campaign organizations, destruction of campaign materials, and pressure on political activists... These violations included one person voting more than once, ... and ballot stuffing."

That was not convincing for a bunch of Bulgarian Members of Parliament who had an entirely different take on the referendum. A couple of quotes from the "Joint statement of Bulgarian Group of Parliamentarians that have observed the Referendum on 18 of March, 2009, Azerbaijan" is self-explanatory:

• "[the campaign] should be marked as an example for freedom of expression and democratic achievement"

• "...the information campaign of Central Election Commission about the Referendum, ... should serve as an example to other democratic countries."

• "...the popular vote (Referendum) was held in accordance with ... the best democratic values, international standards for holding democratic popular vote and the good democratic practices of the member states of the EU and PACE."

The team of the great Bulgarian champions of democracy consisted of the following MPs: Dimitar Gandev, Daut Osman, Ivan Ilchev, Ivan Grizanov, Yordan Yordanov, Nikola Prodanov, Petar Mratskov, Yusein Dzhemil. I wonder how many Bulgarian voters would enjoy the type of democracy advocated by these respectable members of the Bulgarian parliament.

Helping the Moldovan Communists

Moldova, EU's neighbour to the East of Romania is in full electoral campaign. President Vladimir Voronin is at the end of his second (and final) term, and much depends on who wins the current elections. Voronin hopes to retain some degree of influence in the future either as speaker or head of the Communist party faction in the parliament, or as prime-minister. But that is far from certain. The elections are a tight race. Paranoia even made the authorities refuse entry into Moldova to 245 Romanian citizens last week (some Romanian politicians and pop-stars support the Moldovan opposition, but the Communists get massive PR support from Russia).

The EU is not particularly supportive of president Voronin, who is very pro-European in declarations, but has obvious authoritarian tendencies. The EU also delayed the adoption of the mandate for a new EU-Moldova Association Agreement until after the elections. The EU wanted to see free and fair elections first, and not be seen as providing support for the Communists.

But, comme d'habitude, it is not very difficult to find a bête noire in the EU. As the entire EU is waiting to see who comes out as a winner, and presses for free and fair elections, Bulgaria's president Georgi Parvanov jumps into the fray. Less than a month before the elections, President Parvanov visits Moldova on an official visit, with a huge cohort of officials. For two days he is exploited by president Voronin and the pro-Government media-machinery for electoral purposes. The visit is obviously seen and depicted as electoral support for the Communist party. President Parvanov also visits Taraklia, a city inhabited by ethnic Bulgarians (who constitute some 2% of the Moldovan population) who would be a useful addition to the Communist's vote.

No doubt president Parvanov is in good company: as the EU stands aside, Russia offers full-hearted support to the Communists. The only other head of state to have met president Voronin during the election campaign is Dmitri Medvedev (while foreign minister Lavrov also visited Chisinau, and Russia's Patriarch Kirill met president Voronin twice).

As collateral damage, Vasile Tarlev, an ethnic Bulgarian and former prime minister of Moldova (2001-2008) currently running on an anti-Communist ticket, seems less likely to benefit from the Bulgarian vote. But the bigger damage could be done to Moldova and EU's support for democracy in the East. If after the elections, Moldova remains stuck in the declarative Europeanisation, creeping centralization, and sclerotic reform process that marked the last 8 years, the big looser from Bulgaria's electoral adventures in the East could be an entire country.

Bulgaria's responsibility in the EU

The EU has a principled position of supporting free and fair elections in the Eastern neighbourhood. The EU is often soft-spoken, incoherent and shy in pushing for its democratic agenda. It also cooperates with many of the authoritarian leaders of the East. However, it never ever supported full-heartedly authoritarian tendencies in the eastern neighbourhood. More often than not, this was the job of CIS election monitors who are quick to offer legitimacy to undemocratic post-Soviet practices. So far, Bulgaria seems to the only EU member state to behave as a CIS election monitor and supports anti-democratic trends in the region. Questions can be asked about Moldova and Azerbaijan, but the bigger moral failure is, perhaps, inside the EU.


 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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