Bulgaria: 16 Events Worth Remembering of 2016 (Part 1)
Novinite is publishing highlights of the year, using only one selection criteria: those which gained the biggest reader interest throughout 2016 have made it into the shortlist.
The events are ordered chronologically, according to the moment they began, even if their major development occurred over the months to come.
1. The Slow Rise of Lyutvi Mestan
Accused of being a “traitor” by the DPS party, formerly let by him, Lyutvi Mestan set off to a new political start. What he actively began working on in January, after his dismissal late last year, drew fire from across the political spectrum, ones labelling him “Ankara's fifth column” and others a proxy of Boyko Borisov's party, GERB, the conservatives who have dominated Bulgarian politics since 2009. While many dismissed his baby steps out of the DPS as yet another political career brought to ruin, they apparently yielded fruit. At the presidential election many months later, DOST party – the acronym being spelled like a word for “friend” in Turkish – showed it was already wielding influence on the vote among Turkey-based expats, who overwhelmingly backed the candidate Mestan had endorsed, even though the DPS, until recently the dominant force among expats, had their own candidate. DOST's big test, however, is yet to come at the election this spring, with pollsters not being too optimistic.
2. 'Counter-Blockade' at Bulgaria-Greece Border
Bulgarian truck drivers sealed off most of the border crossings with Greece in response to a blockade on the other side, set up by disgruntled Greek farmers. Road haulage workers were resolved not to withdraw unless farmers ended their own strike action. Sofia angrily lashed out at Athens, with Borisov saying Greece should bear the consequences of "populism that brought Syriza to power” and Transport Minister Ivaylo Moskovski, asked if bilateral ties should be cut, suggesting: “We should cut everything.” At a point, the blockade started to look like “Bulgaria's fault.” What mattered more was that both economies incurred millions in losses.
3. The Migrant Hunters
The flow of migrants into Bulgaria went slightly up after the Western Balkans migrant route was declared practically closed by the country's western neighbours. The so-called vigilante migrant hunters stepped in, purportedly “lending a helping hand” to border police to protect the border. The Bulgarian government's official position was ambiguous – until a video showing “citizen's arrests” of Afghans done by a controversial nationalist sparked international public outcry. In time, Bulgarian migrant hunters turned mainstream as nationalists from Germany, the Netherlands and the UK followed in lockstep.
4. How to Amend Election Rules before Elections
The Bulgarian public had mixed feelings when Parliament began amending the electoral legislation less than six months out of a presidential election, making it compulsory to vote and curbing the number of polling stations abroad, supposedly to manage “uncontrolled voting” of Turkey-based expats. To make matters worse, yet another set of changes was passed weeks before the vote took place, mostly pushed by calls from Bulgarian nationals in Western Europe and by the need to do away with the headaches caused by a newly introduced protest vote option called "I Do Not Support Anyone."
5. 'The Burqa Ban'
Nowadays one could still hear the expression in a reference to a nationwide ban on face-covering veils imposed in the country, under pressure from the nationalist Patriotic Front coalition which backed the then ruling minority government, keeping it in power. The move left the public divided as some argued it infringed on religious rights and feelings, but others cited security concerns, with the law thought to mitigate risks of a terror attack. In a funny twist, the draft had to be amended swoftly in between readings to avoid banning carnival costumes and outfits such as Mickey Mouse in the streets of Bulgaria as the early draft comprised all kinds of clothes covering the faces.
6. Belene 2.0?
Bulgaria lost an arbitration suit filed by Atomstroyexport this summer, being forced to pay more than EUR 600 M in compensation to the Russian nuclear giant's subsidiary over the demise of Belene nuclear power plant project. What the loss triggered was of wider consequences for the country, though: it revived the idea of building the Belene NPP (albeit as a private venture). The reason was that upon paying off its debt Bulgaria receives the reactors and all other equipment designed for the project. “One cannot take a reactor and put it into a museum,” then PM Borisov noted and first tried to sale the pieces – to no avail. No privatization procedure has yet been launched - but a Chinese company is reportedly eyeing the project.
7. Bulgaria's EU Presidency Coming Early
The Brexit referendum's first impact on Bulgaria was the decision that Bulgaria should assume the rotating Council of EU presidency six months earlier – in January 2018. For a country like Bulgaria, caught in political turmoil and still figuring out how to catch up with the rest of Europe, this may be a daunting challenge. (Another immediate effect of Brexit may have been that some Bulgaria-based British expats surely felt more than welcome after Borisov extended an outright invitation.)
8. Expelling a Gülen Supporter
Bulgaria sent back to Turkey Abdullah Büyük, an outspoken supporter of US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen whom Ankara blames for the failed military coup attempt in mid-July. It was not, however, the mere approach of Sofia to the expulsion that right human rights activists and many social media users. Büyük had been in Bulgaria since early this spring, having asked for political asylum. His request was turned down just days after the coup attempt, nearly coinciding with a second extradition request from Turkey (the first having been turned down by Sofia). Days later, he was hastily escorted to the border, with authorities struggling to explain what they did was no extradition at all.