It didn't take long for the Galab Donev caretaker cabinet - appointed only a week ago by President Rumen Radev - to start revising various policies of its predecessors and moving dozens of senior civil servants across the board. On a regular day for Bulgarian politics, this would have hardly surprised anyone - it has happened time and again in the past.
But this time it was supposed to be different - at least three of the parties that composed the former ruling coalition, BSP, TIPS and WCC, were deemed to be close to President Radev. He was nominated for his first mandate by the Socialists and received solid backing for his reelection by the new reformist party of Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, who were even dubbed "Radev's political creations" by their opponents. On the surface Radev was supposed to continue their efforts, not undo them.
So the wave of personnel and policy changes initiated by Mr Donev and his team, and accompanied by unbridled criticism from Mr Radev towards everything Petkov and his team did has raised eyebrows. Just why is the President turning on his supposed allies just now? There are two main contending theories - that he is being influenced from the outside (read: Russia, as it was always alleged by his opponents). Or that he is leading a personal vendetta against his estranged former allies, advancing goals of his own. We will discuss these, but let's first turn to what his cabinet did in the space of a mere week.
There were several lines of attack by the new caretaker cabinet against their predecessors. Most ostensibly, Mr Donev launched a crisis committee to tackle the alleged "crisis and destruction" in Bulgaria's energy sector. This was largely perceived by members of the pro-Euroatlantic circles as a thinly veiled attempt by Mr Donev - and, by extension, Mr Radev - to restart Sofia's relationship with Gazprom, and resulted in a march on the Presidency on Friday evening.
Secondly, an alleged attempt by the Energy Minister to stall the launch of the Bulgaria-Greece gas connection (ICGB) through various administrative procedures only exacerbated the fears that the caretaker cabinet might attempt to dislodge Bulgaria from its path of diversification from Moscow's energy grip.
According to the caretaker Regional Minister, however, the problem with the interconnector is more prosaic than Russian meddling - it is simply not ready yet, despite Mr Petkov's claims. Ivan Shishkov told reporters on Monday that it was rather objections from various institutions, including the fire brigade, the Irrigation Systems Agency, the Ministry of Environment and Water, which have been registered at the site of the construction, and have been brought to the notice of all concerned ministers, that have stalled the process. Mr Shishkov pledged to create a roadmap for the finalization of all remaining elements of the construction as soon as possible and promised to help "the most privileged company in Bulgaria right now," ICGB, to finalize and launch the gas connection ASAP.
Aside from the key topic of energy, the caretaker cabinet made several other sweeping changes. First of all, it swapped 26 out of 28 regional governors appointed by the caretaker cabinet.
Then, the head of the National Revenue Agency Rumen Spetsov and the head of the customs agency head Pavel Tonev did likewise shortly afterwards, with information about the State Prosecution reviving a case against Mr Spetsov (over a suspicious sell-off of a bankrupt firm to a dispossessed person a few years back) that has been ongoing practically since his appointment by the Stefan Yanev cabinet in May of 2021. The heads of the Construction Control Agency (DNSK) followed suit on Tuesday of this week.
Pledges for continuity
Against this backdrop of personnel changes and strange messages, especially in the key energy sector, the new caretaker cabinet was welcomed with suspicion by the pro-Western political actors, their sympathizers and some media outlets. Fears that President Radev has been somehow "activated" as a Moscow asset - a longstanding allegation since he quickly rose to prominence and won the 2016 elections on a partially pro-Russian ticket - began to take hold, just a few months after the same parties (especially WCC) campaigned vigorously for Mr Radev's reelection.
The President dismissed all accusations: "Certain circles have pumped up lies and tension against the caretaker cabinet since its first day, even before it announced any of its intentions and actions," he noted. "Certain intermediaries and lobbyists are simply losing their nerve at the thought that they might be deprived of the opportunity to profit from the crisis they themselves caused," the head of state added, referring to speculation that the Petkov cabinet continued buying Russian gas from intermediaries at a higher cost after the formal halt on Russian deliveries in April.
What is Radev's game?
And now, onto the first question - are Mr Radev's actions (and those of his cabinet, which - as previously discussed - has been designed to be very loyal to him) designed to cater to Russian interests, or is it something else he is after? The first possibility cannot be completely discounted until we see his cabinet's intentions vis-a-vis restarting negotiations with Gazprom for a new, multi-annual contract for deliveries, and its practical actions towards diversification of sources (including negotiating new LNG cargoes and their delivery, as well as the manner in which the IGB project is treated in the next couple of months).
But, at the same time, the much likelier answer is that Mr Radev - who has been building up his ambition for the past almost 3 years - is pursuing his own goals, and is at least partially driven by personal vendetta with his former allies.
The President has long been in difficult relations with Socialist leader Kornelia Ninova, which hit their lowest point after the start of the Ukraine war, with Mr Radev indirectly blaming Ms Ninova for the continuation of arms exports through intermediaries towards Kyiv.
As for his alleged "protégés" from WCC, Mr Radev does not hide his disappointment. "Where there has been more PR than the work done, there is always a poor legacy left," the President pointed out, noting that, despite Mr Petkov's claims that the IGB project has been completed, this has turned out to be far from true. "Nevertheless, the caretaker government will do its utmost to make the diversification happen as soon as possible," the head of state assured and recalled that this had been a long-stated priority of his. Realistically, the President is likely entrenching loyalists in key positions of authority in preparation for yet another indecisive election that will likely fail to produce a viable coalition once again.