A conversation with Nikolay Tsonev, a prominent Bulgarian politician, former Bulgarian Defence Minister and founder of the New Alternative political movement.
DIMITAR BENEVRESHKY: What are the key problems today in Bulgaria? Where do you think the major political challenges lie in the upcoming months?
NIKOLAY TSONEV: Here, I can answer without any hesitation – unemployment and the related poverty, which resulted from the crushing of small and middle-sized companies in Bulgaria. All this was done under the management of the political party which stepped down from power on the March 13th. That’s the simple truth of it. Common people are in complete deadlock, which you can feel by what happened in Varna, Plovdiv, Veliko Tarnovo – social drama grew into personal tragedies. At the same time, we only witnessed profanity and irresponsible behaviour on behalf of the people who used to be in government. The same people who pretended to only rule in the interest of the people showed their real face. People like Boyko Borisov, who now ask forgiveness from the people, and the next day drove his fancy car past the protesters and the crowd that booed him … Who can doubt than that for a man like Borisov, morality is just a fictitious category? The main challenge for policymakers in the coming months will be a fundamental one – to find the optimal way of ensuring that the decision-making power comes back into the hands of the people. New Alternative has presented a solution – to permit NGOs to effectively take part in the elections on equal footing with political parties; we need to have a minimum 20 per cent NGO-quota in parliament, which is to be filled with representatives elected by the people who voted for these civil society organisations.
What do you think about the protests that filled the streets? What made the people take to the streets?
Twice – once in October and once during the protest of Nikolay Kolev “The Barefooted” – New Alternative warned about the forthcoming hunger riots, and the looming reiteration of the 1997 events. Our warnings fell upon the deaf ears of those in power, not least because the public agenda was and still is defined by the media, which is firmly under government control and openly used as a pro-government propaganda tool. In this way, the government’s chance to start a dialogue with the common people was lost, and the options evaporated when the police started beating the protesters, which further ignited the riots. This happened during the time when Boyko Borisov and his clique had already tested the different manipulation techniques of the coming elections, and saw themselves as winners in July when the elections were bound to happen. The reality wake-up call manifested itself in the worst possible scenario – through angry mobs on the streets, where hungry and desperate people demanded something to be done. Those hungry and desperate people are just one step away from the streets as we speak. The electricity and heating bills were just the last drop in a cup filled with years and years of poverty and bitterness. Dissatisfaction with the antisocial agenda of the ruling party and the fear of repressions grew strong and extinguished any hope that the crisis could be dealt with through political means. No one was looking for an alternative in those days, and all rational thoughts were put aside in favour of anger. Now people do not just want to see new faces in politics – people want to see results that directly favour them and will make their lives better!
Why do you think Bulgarians are moving in such a vicious circle – governments come and go, but people live in deteriorating conditions and the quality of life is worsening?
Because the Bulgarian political system has become similar to a carousel, and every four years there are parties waiting for their turn to have a ride! There is no way for the common people to live any better as the primary function of the state has become to rob people and businesses that are not close to those in power. An ugly and disgusting fact is that the GERB-led government (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria – editor's note) has damaged one of the few existing lifelines – EU funding. Because of the major mismanagement of the funds we now face the danger of losing billions of dearly needed euros. The highways and other public infrastructure projects made couple of fat cats fatter, at the expense of the budget, funded by the taxpayers. Boyko Borisov robbed workers of their taxes, people of their retirement money, and sick people – of their health insurance rights and so one – it will all become evident after the next elections. The caretaker government is actually the "B-team" of GERD and in three months time will leave nothing but traces of further abuse of power.
You are going to lead your own party in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Does your party possess the appropriate experts and know-how in order to to participate in a future government?
Yes, we are going to participate in the elections, and yes – we don't just have the experts, but experts with morals and principles! This has so far been the largest deficit in Bulgarian politics and we are aware of the responsibility to bring lasting morality in politics. New Alternative is to be a constructive political power and will hold responsibility in governance through the people involved. Experts want to be sure that they will have a predictable political environment to work in. GERB fired or forced out a lot of administration experts who had worked for decades in public service. After getting rid of trained professionals, the ruling party appointed the so called “ladybugs", their concubines. The resulting destruction of the public services' administrative capacity is among the worst political sins of this government. We recognise that our eventual entry to power will involve tough decisions, but unlike GERD we won't complain!
What political course will you take once installed in parliament? Will you take a liberal, conservative or leftist political stance, or perhaps “balance” between the other parties represented in the next national assembly? Will you encourage the government to spend more or to stick to its restrictive fiscal policy?
“Balancing" is bad and inaccurate term about staying at the political centre. Centrism is gaining momentum across Europe and will provide the necessary breathing space needed to restore the confidence of all European citizens that policy-makers actually work in the people’s best interests. The conflict between the left and right always intended to manipulate voters in the centre, those who sociologists and political scientists conveniently call “volatile." If there is hesitation in these voters, it is whether to allow themselves to be used not as an end but as a means for a government that wants to rule them. The state has currently abdicated from its social functions and we will work to return it to where it belongs. As for spending – we recognise the fact that society has to incur costs that are socially oriented! And we know very well where the money will come from – the suspension of political appointees in the administration and related bonuses and abuses, from the collection of taxes and duties, some of which are hand-fed by GERB etc. There’s a major leakage of tax-payers money and we know how to fix it. That money belongs to welfare and we will use it in every way possible to make Bulgarians’ standard of living rise.
Do you see possibilities for compromise and alliance with some of the major political parties?
Currently, no. Coalitions are bound to be very unstable in the short-term because they are not based on principles. We put the cause of Bulgaria as the first and only condition for a coalition. Otherwise we will immediately become like those against whom we fight! We see potential support in civilian and military-patriotic organisations, and are open to include their representatives in our crusade for a new alternative of governance.
According to political analysts, you enjoy the support of the military. What you are willing to promise them?
New Alternative can not give any classic political promises – this is a pretty immoral act in politics, especially at the moment! We have prepared a package of measures that will bring in the military much deserved and desired social benefits, and will thus make military service more appealing. We will revise the previous government transactions and seek opportunities for real modernisation, not backroom lobbying deals. One thing is for sure – we are not going to use military aircraft for free transport services, as Boyko Borisov’s cabinet was notorious for. I will not say much more, because all the other parties will plagiarise me. Only one thing – the Army knows me, and I know them – so both sides know very well what we can achieve together. The Army does not believe promises – they appreciate professionalism and good management. I believe that we will soon live up to their expectations.
What would you change in the state policy in the field of national defence and national security?
Basically – the approach to decision making. National security is a strategic activity and we can't be thrifty about it! I will work for the integration of the ministries and agencies that are part of the system – the Police, the Fire Brigade, Special Forces, Intelligence, etc. But here I remain short because the elections, which is yet to take place, are a test of our ideas !
You have repeatedly shown that you take to heart the issues important for Bulgarian mothers. What are you going to do for them if your party comes to power?
There is no way around what must be done – a 100 lev state-provided welfare benefit for each child up to the third – with no negotiations on this issue! In order to fight the current demographic crisis we must rely on Bulgarian mothers who choose to have at least three children. I will see to it that they will have the right to maintain mandatory supervision in the social ministry and the other related institutions. I will try to provide the stimulus for banks to lend money to young families, alongside some additional tax exemptions. Here I’m just briefly sketching these measures, but a party which does not take care of families who have or want to have children will be punished at the next elections.
You have sounded the alarm on the situation with respect to the growing number of people in debt? What are your ideas on how to help people and businesses?
Our package of measures include a moratorium on evictions following mortgage foreclosures for one year, the introduction of tax deductions for high-income individuals, and ongoing anti-monopoly measures in the economy conducted by the regulatory authorities. The regulation will provide that certain thresholds might be placed on profit margins of such companies that enjoy monopolistic and oligopolistic position. We will try to put together a state programme with heavy sanctions for mediation in speculative trading in the agricultural field, and the establishment of a State Commission for Fair Trade with supervisory functions.
How do you rate your chances of success in the upcoming elections?
I rate them as excellent. In fact, I feel that sociologists who follow orders not to include us in their polls will have a lot to explain after the elections!
Nikolay Tsonev is a prominent Bulgarian politician, former Bulgarian Defence Minister, and founder of the New Alternative political movement.
Dimitar Benevreshky is a Bulgarian journalist, columnist and author, who covers business and political topics from Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and FYROM. He received his BA in Journalism from Sofia University in 1994 and his MA in Political Sciences from Central European University in 1997. He also writes a weekly op-ed column for various Bulgarian websites, and co-authors several political commentary blogs on Southeast Europe.