In the past few weeks the nominally liberal, but, in reality, ethnic corporatist Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) has appeared tangibly nervous. The movement's main target seems to be Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who was first blamed for "threatening" members of MRF with new sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, and then the subject of renewed, serial attacks on him and his We Continue the Change (WCC) party in Parliament.
The campaign against the prime minister followed concrete rumors that the US is expected to announce an expanded list of sanctioned persons - including other MRF members - under the Magnitsky Act, under which notorious mogul and MRF MP Delyan Peevski was sanctioned last year. Additionally, the movement appears to feel its European positions threatened by the invitation, extended by the European liberal political family Renew Europe, to Mr Petkov's WCC. Such prospects could threaten the European legitimacy of the MRF (also part of the family) given the expectation of a unification of European liberals under the aegis of French President Emmanuel Macron. MRF's image in Europe is currently dented, mostly because of its persistent attempts to exculpate their most valuable member - Mr Peevski - from accusations of corruption leveled by the US authorities last year.
Is the European legitimacy of the MRF threatened?
The movement's attack on Mr Petkov coincided with a visit from the leader of the European Parliament Renew Europe group, Stéphane Ségournet (a confidant of French President Emmanuel Macron), to Bulgaria last week. According to the Brussels edition of Politico, he has been courting Mr Petkov to join the faction for some time. Simultaneously, the country was visited by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose party is also a member of the European liberal family. The visit by Rutte, until recently an outspoken critic of Bulgarian politics and opponent of the country's entry into Schengen area, as well as Kiril Petkov's close ties to French President Emmanuel Macron, are a clear sign that WCC's inclusion in the liberal European political family is inevitable. These events also indicate that MRF's participation in it would not be an obstacle.
Renew Europe is not a European political party but a parliamentary group in the European Parliament. It includes politicians and national parties who are either members of ALDE (the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, whose member the MRF has been for over two decades), the EDP (European Democratic Party) or other non-affiliates. This is the case, for example, with Mr Macron's En Marche, recently renamed Renaissance, or with Poland's Polska 2050, whose MEPs have a seat in the parliamentary group and whose leaders participate in traditional pre-Council meetings. The MRF has a strong position in ALDE, where MEP Ilhan Kyuchyuk is co-chair of the European formation. He took up the post after long-time chairman Hans van Balen passed away last year and a congress to elect a new chairman could not be organized due to the Covid-19 crisis. But Mr Kyuchyuk has a chance to defend his position at the upcoming ALDE congress in Dublin on 3-4 June, where he is again a candidate for co-chair along with Ireland's Timmy Dooley.
To join the European liberals, WCC does not need to become a member of ALDE, where MRF can theoretically try to block the party's membership. "Prime Minister Petkov can be considered a member of the board of Renew Europe once there is common agreement between him and the group's leadership in the EP. In this particular situation, no formal process of accession is required. Renew Europe's chairman in the EP, Stefan Sejourne, has already publicly stated that "we are ready to consider PM Petkov as a full member of the Renew Europe political family," Sejourne's team told Capital weekly last week.
Is the wind of change coming to the Euro-liberals?
The real threat to the MRF, however, could come from the potential implementation of French President Macron's idea to unite all liberal European parties, which are members of Renew Europe - ALDE, the EPP and Macron's party, into a single European formation. Such a move could not only endanger the position of the MRF in the liberal family, but also place specific conditions for the party to continue its membership in the new formation.
Prime Minister Petkov hinted at such a prospect after a meeting of Renew Europe, which preceded the summit of EU leaders last week in Brussels, where he confirmed that WCC had received an invitation to join the faction. He said that the decision would largely depend on the standards that the liberal political family would adopt. "It is very important to me that when we talk about zero tolerance for corruption, this should extend from the local level to the Brussels level. This means that we would set new standards for the European political families so that we do not close our eyes to local corruption and pretend that everything is fine at a European level," Mr Petkov said.
When asked how he sees his WCC in the same political family as MRF, he answered that "the question is who are the people in MRF and what standard MRF will set for itself to be part of this new formation. [They] should ask themselves how is having people [sanctioned under the] Magnitsky Act remain on the front row in parliament justified when we are talking about higher anti-corruption standards," Mr Petkov said.
Petkov vs MRF
The clash between MRF and the Prime Minister, however, began two weeks earlier, after the prime minister's statement that he would order an investigation into allegedly corrupt practices linked to the construction of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline during the reign of his predecessor Boyko Borissov (GERB). Although Mr Petkov did not name names, the MRF asked the prime minister the following day during the Parliamentary Q&A how he had concluded that Delyan Peevski and MRF had something to do with Turkish Stream. "During my meetings in the US Treasury [which happened in early May - editor's note], they told me that the Bulgarian sanctions under the Magnitsky Act are the biggest to date. One of the three people in the Magnitsky list is Delyan Peevski. The US Treasury Department specifically said his name," Mr Petkov replied.
The dialogue between the Prime Minister and the MRF continued last Wednesday, when, surprisingly, the movement gave a briefing in parliament and again brought up the issue of Turkish Stream, announcing that they had submitted to the National Assembly a proposal for the creation of a temporary commission of inquiry to establish all the facts and circumstances of "everything that has happened about the so-called streams." This preemptive strike tactic has been utilized by the party quite often - for example, last year, just before the US announced the inclusion of Mr Peevski in the Magnitsky list, the mogul divested media outlets he owned, hoping that this would be enough to dodge sanctions.
The MRF also used the occasion to blame the Prime Minister for threatening them. Stanislav Anastasov MP, who is also deputy chairman of the movement, related how, as he walked past Mr Petkov in the plenary, the latter told him he would "fix them" and added: "James O'Brien is the man. (Mr O'Brien is the head of the State Department's Office for the Coordination of Sanctions with the rank of ambassador.) However, no MP from another parliamentary group confirmed the words of Mr Anastasov, which, by the way, came two weeks after the alleged incident took place.
These developments not only explain the nervousness of the MRF, but also make it clear that tensions are unlikely to ease soon.