Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Traycho Traykov: EU Should Have a Single Contact Point with Russia

Adelina Marini, October 18, 2016

Exactly two days prior to the presidential elections in the USA, on November 6th, Bulgarians too will be voting for president. This would have hardly mattered, if it wasn’t for the competition in anti-democratism and scandalising society. Some would say that the behaviour of the Republicans’ candidate Donald Trump wins this symbolic contest, but in fact Bulgaria is way ahead in the “how to mess up the electoral process” category. Despite the presidential institution in the country having mainly ceremonial functions, this year’s elections are a turning point. They are another proof for the failure of the attempt to build a quality democracy in Bulgaria 27 years after breaking the shackles of Communist totalitarianism and close to ten years after joining the EU.

Unlike in the US, there have not been any elections in Bulgaria in recent years without changes in the election code – sometimes several times a year, and already twice during the campaign itself as well. The large surprise this year was the limiting of the possibility for opening polling stations abroad, adopted at the request of the nationalist and xenophobic party Patriotic front – a coalition partner in the government. This week, Bulgarian ex-pats in London were outraged by the limitation. In order to avoid the disintegration of the ruling coalition, the already queer month-long vacation (in a weird time of the year) of Parliament got cancelled, so the new amendments to the election code, restoring the right of Bulgarians abroad to open as many polling stations as they register for, are urgently voted on.

Right in the eye of the London storm, one of the few “normal” candidates in this campaign appeared. Why normal? This year the majority of candidates are people of, mildly speaking, dubious reputation. Among them is former Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, who got famous with his attempt to appoint the media mogul and inexplicably rich young businessman Delyan Peevski as boss of the most powerful security agency in the country – DANS - which unleashed a wave of unprecedented in duration mass protests in 2013. Plamen Oresharski was nominated by an initiative committee. Another committee nominated Bisser Milanov, a.k.a. The Stain – a man of several criminal convictions, who was thought to be employed by authorities in 2013 to organise counter-protests. A totally controversial figure in an integrity point of view.

Yet another controversial figure on the list is the initiative committee candidate backed by the leadership of the Bulgarian Socialist Party – general Rumen Radev, who can, mildly speaking, be named a Eurosceptic. He is an avid Putin-ophile, backing Bulgaria’s exit from the EU and NATO. Among the rest of the candidates there are extreme nationalists, xenophobes, businessmen with dubious affairs. The only candidate to appear in London for a meeting with the Bulgarian diaspora prior to the elections was Traycho Traykov, nominated by the Reformist Block (who also participate in the ruling coalition and are an EPP member).

Due to its specific profile and the emergence of a strong pro-Russian line in the election campaign, euinside is mainly focusing on European subjects in this interview. 

Traycho Traykov arrived on a very early flight. He looks exhausted, but finds the time to talk to me for half an hour on subjects like the future of the EU, Euroscepticism, euro area membership, relations with Russia, enlargement, Macedonia. Whether due to lack of sleep, or the nature of the subjects, he thought out very carefully his every word, being especially cautious and even unsure on some subjects like the relations with Russia, should Greece lift its veto on negotiations with Macedonia, the illiberal march in Hungary and Poland. He felt most confident when speaking about his top priority, if elected President – the judicial reform.

Bulgaria must start over with democracy

According to the candidate of the reformists, Bulgaria should start over from the foundations of the state, for in the 27 years since the beginning of the transition and nine years after we joined the EU we are once again talking about basic values like rule of law, fair administration of justice, protecting the rights of the individual, and institutions strong enough to guarantee that rules are the same for everyone. The cure is a radical judicial reform. Traycho Traykov is optimistic, because for the first time the subject extended beyond professional circles and is now in the centre of public attention. He also placed the judicial reform in the centre of his presidential campaign.

Part of Bulgaria’s economic problems, but also its demographic ones, he attributed to this failure of the transition, for, as he explained, people are not leaving the country because they have nothing to eat, but in order to “secure a life perspective for themselves and their children”. Despite seeming deeply convinced in what he is talking about, he gave no straight answer to the question of what he thinks of the march towards illiberalism in Hungary and Poland and whether he sees parallels with Bulgaria. He thinks that what is happening in the EU right now is a “sort of sliding and separation of several tectonic plates in the EU”, which in turn reveals problems in the EU, that have been neglected for years. “On one side, we have the richer Northern states, we have the Southern ones, and we have a part of the Central Eastern Europe states. And those having different problems, differing current priorities, seems completely normal to me. What is not normal is that they are not being solved adequately enough in the form of common European decisions”, he said.

The presidential candidate would not be worried by criticism from the EU on problems that Bulgaria has with justice, corruption, and organised crime. “Every criticism is welcome”, he said and added: “I note with regret, that the greatest progress in Bulgaria was marked on the subjects, which were scrutinised by our EU partners. We cannot expect this to be the permanent driving force in Bulgaria, so I believe that if there is one thing we need to start with it is the curing of the judicial system. It will cure all the rest.”

For a common foreign minister and a common euro area budget

Traycho Traykov is probably the sole pro-European candidate in the presidential contest this year. So much so, that he believes every problem must have a European solution. Moreover, Mr Traykov supports the idea that the EU should have a full-fledged foreign minister, who would have more powers than the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. He is not concerned that this is a sort of giving up additional national sovereignty, for a common foreign minister could transform the economic influence of the EU into a political one, which would reverse the paradox of former Belgian PM Marc Eyskens, according to whom the EU is an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm. Traycho Traykov also said that it is imperative that the EU has a common face in the relations with Russia – someone to deal with Russia in the name of the entire Union.

During our interview the candidate voiced serious concerns that the Brexit will make the euro area even more dominant, and weaken the periphery. “More and more important decisions are made within the euro area, which do however affect countries outside it as well.” He is, however, adamant that Bulgaria’s future is within the euro area. He did not wish to commit to a definite deadline for such accession, but is of the opinion that this depends on Bulgaria, because the country almost covers the entry criteria for the exchange rates mechanism (ERM II) and should it wish so, it could join. “And the fact that Bulgaria has not yet taken steps to join the banking union and the common banking supervision, which is a low-hanging fruit right, within grasp, and could happen very quickly, but it is not, shows that this is not a priority of the current government. This needs to change.” 

He agrees with the positions of Lithuania and Latvia, who were the last to join the euro area, even before the currency club crisis was over, that this is the last step of their integration, which guarantees them security. Traycho Traykov is no advocate to the concept of United States of Europe, but does believe that in all cases more instruments must be sought for convergence within the euro area. This includes a “something like” euro area budget, as it is provided in the five presidents’ report. Most importantly, he stressed, is not allowing disintegration of the Union along the line economic development. 

Traycho Traykov was quite critical towards the manner in which the bosses of key European institutions are appointed. In his opinion, this is happening along the line of least resistance, not only in the EU itself, but involving Russia as well. He believes this is one of the reasons why the EU is in today’s unenviable position. “Those are usually not the people with the best set of qualities for the position, but ones, who no one objects to overmuch. And not only within the EU, even Putin does not object”, he stated, but refused to name a specific person. How should people for these positions be chosen, I asked. His reply was rather general – the EU should be able to speak in a single voice on key issues with third countries.

Cautiousness towards Russia

On the subject of Russia the right-wing candidate was extremely cautious. In his opinion, Russia is not a threat yet, but could prove to be one. Otherwise to Bulgaria, as well as to Europe, Russia will always be the most important, or one of the most important neighbours. It must not be crossed out as an economic partner, but for that there needs to be equality in positions, “which Russian leaders must most categorically understand they owe to their European partners. Because it is no secret large EU countries think they can play Mr Putin’s game as equals, one on one, while it is not so with the smaller ones”. This is exactly the reason why the EU needs to communicate with Russia through a single contact point.

Traycho Traykov agreed that there is external intervention (outside the EU) in feeding Euroscepticism within the EU and especially in Bulgaria.

Greece needs to lift its veto against Macedonia

The candidate’s opinion on enlargement was quite general and he avoided going into detail. He believes enlargement must go on, but did not answer the question whether considering today’s heavy geopolitical pressure anything should change in the enlargement policy, neither what should be done with the countries, which are detaching themselves from European values. In his opinion, enlargement has not yet lost its attractiveness, the proof of that being in the fact that those, who attempt to make it look so are sending their children to study in the EU. Traycho Traykov was a little more specific regarding Macedonia. To the question was it a mistake to block Macedonia starting EU membership negotiations by levying a veto, Mr. Traykov preferred answering with the safe cliché that Macedonia has a lot of work to do until it reaches the necessary level, which would allow its quick progress through the negotiations.

Later in the conversation, however, he stated that the Greek position could be softened and in his opinion this should be the role of the rest of the European states. Macedonia, however, needs to reciprocate by following the rules, which also “includes some norms of civilised conduct between states”. It was evident in the course of our conversation, that he does not feel comfortable discussing this subject.

The Bulgarian nation includes Bulgarians abroad

Regarding the upcoming negotiations on Great Britain’s exit, Traycho Traykov was adamant that Bulgaria will not allow any violation of the rights of Bulgarians living in Great Britain. “This is absolutely certain.”

You can watch the full interview with Traycho Traykov in Bulgarian here

Translated by Stanimir Stoev