Purvanov Victory Unnerves Bulgarians

The election of a former communist to the presidency could scupper EU and NATO membership bids.

Purvanov Victory Unnerves Bulgarians

The election of a former communist to the presidency could scupper EU and NATO membership bids.

Wednesday, 28 November, 2001

An uneasy partnership between a one-time king and a former communist is leading Bulgaria into a highly uncertain future. Some believe it could threaten Sofia's attempts join Europe and NATO and lead to the resurgence of nationalism.

The elections of November 18 toppled reformist president Petar Stoyanov and replaced him with Georgi Purvanov, former head of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Although the head of state is invested with little political power, analysts believe Purvanov will find a way to sway the policies of ex-king Simeon who was elected premier in June.

Purvanov was propelled into office by a protest vote over the failure of post-communist governments to tackle poverty and corruption. But why should he pose such a threat to democracy if his role is effectively limited to rubber-stamping the premier's decisions?

Critics believe Purvanov has been disingenuous about his claim to have cast aside his old communist ways. Despite asserting that the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, which he leads, has reformed beyond recognition, it has failed to disassociate itself clearly from its predecessor, the Communist Party of Bulgaria.

International left-wing bodies have refused to accept that the BSP is now a social democrat-type party. Significantly, one of the first people to congratulate Purvanov on his election victory was former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.

Western diplomats in Sofia are watching closely to see what Purvanov's first moves on NATO and the EU will be. In spite of his pledges that membership of both will remain on his agenda, the president is not expected to try to advance these goals.

His recent record provides little comfort for reformists. A historian by training, Purvanov served as deputy prime minister under Zhan Videnov. The administration was toppled following protest rallies in Sofia in 1997.

After that he led the BSP in opposition. During the Kosovo war in 1999, Purvanov and his party condemned "NATO's aggression" against Yugoslavia and openly supported Milosevic's policies.

NATO has made it plain that it wants Bulgaria to continue the policy of supporting its peace initiatives in the Balkans, especially in Macedonia. At the presidential summit of NATO applicant countries in Sofia in October, the alliance's secretary-general George Robertson said there should be no deviation from this line.

Concerns about Purvanov have been reinforced by his running mate, General Angel Marin, a former commander of missile forces. Marin, who is also opposed to NATO, was dismissed three years ago by the then president Stoyanov for his reluctance to support reforms.

Another possible impact of Purvanov's election as president may be the

resurgence of nationalism.

During the election campaign, the president was supported by the largely Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms, DPS, a junior partner in Simeon's ruling coalition.

Surprisingly, DPS leader, Ahmed Dogan, called on his followers to vote for Purvanov instead of Stoyanov, who was Simeon's candidate. It happened, experts believe, because of a long-running feud between the DPS and Stoyanov's political allies.

Many here believe the DPS holds disproportionate power in the

country. While ethnic Turks comprise about 10 per cent of the population and their parliamentary representation is just over 7 per cent, their party has held the balance of power since 1989. It has toppled some governments and brought others to power.

Nationalists detest having their politics controlled by the Turks. And observers in Sofia note that it might be all too easy for a Bulgarian strongman to emerge on the back of a campaign against the Turks and the Roma gypsies. Neither the Union of Democratic Forces led by Stoyanov, nor Simeon's movement are likely to produce such a figure but the country has no shortage of fringe, maverick politicians, ready to spring forward with promises to "save the nation".

Anthony Georgieff is an independent journalist.

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