Bulgarian finance chief gets mandate as Russia tensions soar

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Bulgaria’s president on Friday handed the mandate to try and form a new government to the country’s finance minister, four days after pro-Western reformist Kiril Petkov resigned following a no-confidence vote in Parliament.

Asen Vassilev, from Petkov’s We Continue the Change party, now has seven days to try to end the European Union and NATO member’s latest political crisis amid soaring tensions with Russia.

Before handing over the mandate Friday, President Roumen Radev warned that Bulgaria “is in a political, economic and social crisis.”

“I expect adequate solutions and the defense of the national interest to build a free, democratic and prosperous European Bulgaria,” he added.

The Harvard-educated Vassilev must submit his proposed cabinet for approval to President Radev, and would then face a confidence vote in the 240-seat Parliament. So far, he has secured support from one of Petkov’s former coalition partners, but would need much broader backing to obtain a parliamentary majority.

Petkov’s minority government lost a no-confidence motion on June 22 that was filed by the center-right GERB main opposition party. GERB accused him of poor budgetary and economic policy. Petkov had previously lost his majority after a junior partner quit his four-party coalition over similar concerns.

Vassilev was given the mandate instead of Petkov, whose party had won the most votes in last December’s elections, because another of Petkov’s former junior partners ruled out backing him due to a dispute with Russia.

This week, Bulgaria ordered the expulsion of 70 Russian diplomatic staff from Bulgaria, exacerbating tensions between the two historically close nations.

Petkov, who took a strong stance against Russia after it invaded Ukraine on 24. Feb, has claimed Moscow used “hybrid war” tactics to bring down his government.

Russia’s ambassador to Sofia, Eleonora Mitrofanova, appealed Friday to Bulgaria to reverse the expulsion decision, and later threatened that Moscow would fully sever diplomatic ties.

“I intend to urgently raise before the leadership of my country the issue of the closure of the Embassy of Russia in Bulgaria, which will inevitably lead to the closure of the Bulgarian diplomatic mission in Moscow,” she said in a statement.

The EU on Friday called Russia’s response an “unjustified threat” and said it “stands in full support and solidarity with Bulgaria.”

In 2021, Bulgaria held three separate general elections, lurching from one political crisis to another.

More than three decades after communism ended in Bulgaria, it is ranked the most corrupt country in Europe, and is the EU’s poorest member.

Daniel Smilov, a political science professor at the University of Sofia, said a government under Vassilev “would be the same politics, the same type of government, (with) the same ideas” as Petkov’s.

“If (Vassilev doesn’t) succeed with the first mandate to form a government, the second party is GERB … (but) they have already said they are not going to attempt because they are pretty much in isolation in this parliament,” he told The Associated Press.

“Overall I would say the country is moving towards a mid-term election.”

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McGrath reported from Sighisoara, Romania; Jonathan Stearns in Brussels, contributed.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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