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Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Critical juncture? Bulgaria after the Snap Poll

The Conference Organising Committee: Rumena Filipova, Ivo Gruev, Ivaylo Iadjiev, and Stanislava Topouzova

On Wednesday, December 3rd 2014, the South East European Studies at Oxford (SEESOX) programme at the European Studies Centre (ESC), University of Oxford, hosted the first annual Oxford – Bulgaria Conference. The Conference, 'Critical Juncture? Bulgaria after the Snap Poll: Change and Continuity in Politics, Foreign Policy, and the Economy After the 2014 Elections’, was held in the immediate aftermath of the Bulgarian parliamentary elections on October 5th, at a time when Bulgaria faced a period of deep reflection on future reforms in the country. The Conference facilitated three specialised panels in the fields of international relations, domestic politics, and energy and economy, and included discussions on core topics of concern, including: the challenge of devising a coherent foreign policy, the outcome of the parliamentary elections, the role of civil society movements in Bulgaria, and the salience of structural and legal reforms in the energy sector. Over the course of the day, researchers, practitioners, professors, and experts alike, assembled together to incisively examine the core issues presented in each panel.

The first panel of the conference, ‘Bulgaria in the International System: Divided Loyalties?’, aimed to identify some of the main challenges and tasks ahead of Bulgarian foreign policy in what is now an increasingly volatile regional and international context. The extent to which Bulgaria exhibits ‘divided loyalties’ between East and West, which prevent it from pursuing a coherent foreign policy, was the overall background of the discussions. The first panellist, Mr. Kyril Drezov of Keele University traced five challenges to Bulgaria’s foreign policies, including the crisis in Ukraine, the unstable situation in Moldova, control over the Turkish border, instability in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia’s (non-)progression towards EU membership. Dr. Dimitar Bechev of the London School of Economics focused his analysis on the EU by looking at both the role of the Union as an ‘anchor’ of domestic transformation and as an arena where national ideas and interests about international relations could be projected. In terms of the EU as a forum for policy projection, Dr. Bechev argued that the country has exhibited very limited success. The initial declaration after accession in 2007 that Bulgaria would try to act as a champion of enlargement especially in its South-East European region has not come to fruition both because of the insufficient power of example and because of a lack of clear conception of Bulgaria’s added value in dealing with its immediate neighbourhood. Last but not least, Dr. Diana Bozhilova of King’s College London and the New College of the Humanities focused on Bulgaria’s energy security. She highlighted the importance of pursuing a proactive rather than reactive foreign policy that can prevent a situation in which Bulgaria is ‘manned’ down in a long energy chess game in its immediate region. She also suggested that the new government ought to focus its attention on understanding both renewable and shale gas technology costs and environmental viability in order to find the most feasible sources of alternative energy.

The second panel, ‘Domestic Politics, Rule of Law, and Legal Reform’, dealt with the domestic politics and the internal situation in the country in light of the parliamentary elections from October 5th 2014. The modern Bulgarian history is marked by political instability and the longest-running consecutive protests in the country, resulting in four changes of government in the course of the last two years. The panellists approached the topic from different perspectives. Dr. Dimitar Bechev convened the discussion with an analysis of the mandate of the newly formed government and the challenges, which it is facing in the realm of the political crisis. Dr. James Dawson from the University College London presented a comparative study of the public spheres of Bulgaria and Serbia, critically focusing on the state of liberalism in Bulgaria and stressing the role of politics, the media and the discussions of citizens, when shaping the democratic culture of the country. This served as a transition to the presentation of Dr. Gergana Yankova-Dimova, Cambridge University, which analysed the type of democracy in Bulgaria and the judicialisation process, linked to its possible extra-electoral elements. Ms. Maria Spirova, a freelance journalist, affiliated with the University of Oxford, closed the panel with a discussion on the protest culture and the change in civil society’s attitudes towards statehood, legitimacy, and power, also approaching the role of media from a consumer-relationship angle. By presenting different takes on the internal politics of Bulgaria, the panel tried to give a comprehensive overview of a broad variety of problems, facilitating a critical discourse of the present domestic situation in the country.

The third panel, ‘Speeding-Up Convergence: Key Economic Reforms and Prospects for Change’, tackled economic challenges and the prospects for reform, with a focus on two of the biggest issues facing the country: the management of EU funds and energy policy. This was a more practice-oriented panel, with Ilyana Tsanova, former Deputy Prime Minister for EU Funds Management, Julian Popov, Former Minister of the Environment and energy expert, and Maria Mihaleva, lawyers specializing in energy issues. According to Ms. Tsanova, the next financing period for EU funds (2014-2020) has the potential to be a game-changer, as the 7.6 billion euros available to Bulgaria will only be accessible on the condition of completing a number of reforms. This is the first time ex-ante and ex-post conditionality is introduced in EU cohesion policy and will make it very difficult for politicians to delay key reforms in public procurement, healthcare, administration, water management, and other areas. In the domain of energy, Bulgaria is embedded in a broader European context, as highlighted by Mr. Popov’s discussion of how proposals for EU energy union undermined the Russian-backed South Stream gas pipeline and can lead to further development of an EU-wide energy market. However, Ms. Mihaleva highlighted that domestic challenges loom large, particularly due to large and frequent swings in the regulation for renewables and foreign-owned end-suppliers due to the accumulation of deficits in key public providers in the energy system.

As the discussants in each panel highlighted, whether it is a matter of tackling particular challenges to foreign policy, addressing processes of judicialisation, or efficiently utilising EU cohesion funds in Bulgaria, the issues of concern are intricate, complex matters that require incisive analysis, critical evaluation, and further deliberation. In the forthcoming year, an in-depth conference report will be published and podcast recordings will become available online at: We invite you to learn more about these issues and to take part in the discussion.

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