Bulgaria Diplomacy

‘Harvard Boys’ promise new Bulgarian era

| 2021-12-15 2 min read

‘Harvard Boys’ promise new Bulgarian era

Reading Time: 2 minutes

“I am convinced that Bulgaria will be a totally different place four years from now,” Kiril Petkov pledged on Monday, when he was sworn in as prime minister. Petkov, who served as minister of economics in the recent caretaker government and then ran on a “zero tolerance for corruption” election ticket, also promised transparency of public money, and constitutional and judicial reforms.

“I will insist that corruption is exposed – from the lowest to the highest levels,” Petkov told MPs. He also promised pro-European and pro-NATO orientation, lower electricity prices and the ousting of Bulgaria’s chief public prosecutor Ivan Geshev. Another priority will be the “Greek gas connection”, Petkov said, referring to the construction of a gas link with Greece.

The inauguration of Petkov’s cabinet ended an eight-month political crisis in which three general elections each delivered a different winner and the April and July ballots failed to result in a cabinet formation. However last month that deadlock was broken, as the centrist Change Continues (PP) emerged victorious over Boyko Borissov’s right-wing GERB party, which had ruled for nearly a decade.

The EU’s poorest country is also frequently ranked as having its highest corruption rates, but after months of political limbo, COVID is the most pressing issue. With only 26% of adults fully vaccinated – compared to the EU average of 70% – and the world’s highest COVID death rate per capita, Bulgaria’s health care system is at breaking point. Petkov said he plans to keep coronavirus vaccination voluntary, but will launch information campaigns to convince sceptical citizens to get jabbed.

The entrepreneur’s rise to the premiership comes only three months since he co-founded PP with fellow Harvard alumnus Asen Vassilev on 17 September, after which their party won the most votes in last month’s election. The PP now has a clear majority in coalition with the Bulgarian Socialist Party, centre-right Democratic Bulgaria and the anti-elite There are Such People, founded by singer Slavi Trifonov. 

Vassilev will serve as deputy prime minister and finance minister. Collectively the pair have become known as the ‘Harvard Boys’. “We will work in the next four years, Vassilev said on Monday, “to ensure a decent life for Bulgarian pensioners, well-paid jobs, education reform, and the building of a country that is not on shameful lists such as the ‘Magnitsky list’,” referring to the US blacklist of Kremlin-linked human rights violations.

The new coalition will also fast-track a procedure of “just six months” to clear North Macedonia’s way for opening EU accession talks. Petkov told Bulgaria’s BTA news agency that he and North Macedonia’s outgoing prime minister Zoran Zaev had agreed to set up working groups to over culture, infrastructure and the economy, as well as the existing committee on history. Bulgaria’s neighbour became a candidate for EU membership in December 2005 but has yet to open discussions, and Zaev is keen to cement his legacy in his last weeks in office. However, Petkov will not attend Bulgaria’s European Council meetings: instead President Rumen Radev, who is more hawkish on North Macedonia, will represent Bulgaria at the regular summits.

The coalition is “a culmination of the revolt” of last year’s anti-corruption and anti-Borisov mass protests, Gallup’s Andrey Raychev told AFP. “Bulgarians understand that time is needed to restart growth and boost incomes (but) would not forgive a lack of will to fight corruption,” analyst Kantcho Stoychev told Reuters.