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'Pro-European mood in Bulgaria'

Alexander Andreev
March 26, 2017

Bulgaria holds parliamentary elections on Sunday. Whatever the outcome, the next government would be well advised to continue the European course, says German Social Democrat politician Gernot Erler.

Bulgarien - Wahlplakate im Dorf Kovacheviza
Election campaign banners in a Bulgarian villageImage: BGNES

DW: Mr Erler, what are your expectations for the parliamentary elections in Bulgaria on March 26?

Gernot Erler: I hope very much that this election will give Bulgaria the chance to form a stable government again. The last couple of years were not a good era in Bulgarian politics, with three resigned cabinets and three transitional governments in the last three years. This is some kind of unfortunate record in the Balkans. In this regard it will be important that this is the beginning of a period in which an elected government can remain in office and govern successfully for the term of four years.

What kind of government would you like to see in Sofia after the election?

I'm quite certain it'll have to be a coalition government. When we look at the polls, we have at this point a stalemate situation between the two major parties, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and Boiko Borisov's GERB (Editor's note: a member of the European People's Party), which had run the country until recently. This is a challenge as both have said so far that they don't want to govern with each other.  So the question is, how can a government be formed? In principle, an attitude like that is unsuitable for a democracy - democratic parties saying "No, we don't want a coalition under any circumstances."

Speculation is rife as to the direction of foreign policy the new government may take. Some have mentioned Moscow's growing influence on Bulgarian politics. What do you expect in this regard?

I'm very glad that the EU approval rate in Bulgaria is among the highest in the whole region. I also believe that, until now, Bulgarians  have benefited from their governments' pro-European politics. This should continue by all means. Bulgaria is a key stability factor in the region and endeavors to have good relationships with all neighboring countries. Since we currently have great problems in some other regions of the western Balkans, it can be very important how Bulgaria performs there, how capable it is to act in order to advocate and strengthen the European idea there.

Gernot Erler , der Russlandbeauftragte der Bundesregierung
Gernot Erler, Chairman of the German-Bulgarian ForumImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P.Seeger

What are the main problems that the new Bulgarian government must tackle?

Regrettably, they haven't changed. First on the list is the fight against corruption and organized crime, along with continuing the reform of the judicial system. Simultaneously, Bulgaria has to regain trust, and this applies to the economic sector as well. Last year, foreign investment in Bulgaria plummeted by 60 percent, which indicates that there's a confidence gap on European markets when it comes to Bulgaria. Moreover, this view is shared by Bulgarian business representatives as well. Therefore it'd be very important to restore that confidence.  

Several political parties and politicians in Bulgaria recently tried to exploit an alleged danger posed by refugees and Turkey interfering in Bulgarian internal affairs for election campaign purposes. What's your view of that approach?

We could indeed observe that sort of interference. For example, the Turkish ambassador in Sofia made an appearance during a campaign rally organized by one of the Turkish parties in Bulgaria (the DOST party), whose views are akin to those of the AKP and President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. On that account, the ambassador was summoned quite rightly - this was regarded as meddling with Bulgarian internal affairs. I can understand the Bulgarian side, especially since Ankara has issued clear recommendations to the Turkish population in Bulgaria as to who they should vote for. This is very close indeed to outside interference, and I understand very well that Bulgaria refuses to tolerate that. My understanding, however, has its limits when Bulgarian nationalists gather at the border and try to prevent expatriated Bulgarian Turks (or Turkish Bulgarians), who had fled communist Bulgaria prior to 1989, from entering the country. That is, of course, against the law.

Bulgarien | bulgarische Nationalisten blockieren die Grenze zur Türkei
Blockade: Bulgarian nationalists don't want ethnic Turkish citizens to voteImage: Reuters/S. Nenov

As far as the refugees are concerned - this issue should not be exploited for election campaign purposes. According to the latest count, there are now some 4,500 refugees in Bulgaria. If you compare that to other countries, also taking the country's size into account, this is a challenge that can be handled. And when you look at refugee routes, you'll see that Bulgaria is situated slightly remote from them, and that includes the famous Balkan route. Of course, we still need a functioning government in Sofia, also as a partner in a prudent refugee policy.

How would you explain that, in contrast to other countries in central and Eastern Europe, a vast majority of Bulgarians endorse the country's EU membership?

Bulgaria had to fight - as Chairman of the German-Bulgarian Forum in Germany I was right in the middle of it when we worked together to achieve EU membership. There was the fortunate decision to grant Bulgaria full membership status from 1 January 2007; however, that was not the end of the debate. We then had to establish the EU's Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), because some pledges and assurances were not implemented quickly enough by the Bulgarian side. This mechanism is still in force, and we continue to receive reports which are detailing the implementation of those measures. However, Bulgaria has benefited from EU accession. There has always been a pro-European sentiment in Bulgaria, which was a good basis for coping with the difficult path to EU membership. Although minor anti-European parties (the United Patriots, for example) exist in Bulgaria as well, it is gratifying to see that there's a vast pro-European majority in Bulgaria - something that is far from natural these days.

Gernot Erler, of the center-left Social Democratic Party, is a member of the German parliament. Between 2005 and 2009, he was deputy foreign minister. Since January 2014, he has been the German government's representative in charge of relations with Russia. He is also the Chairman of the German-Bulgarian Forum.

The interview was conducted by Alexander Andreev.