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Tendencies Towards Authoritarianism:
A Comparative Analysis of Russia and Bulgaria
Georgi Dimitrov, Petia Kabakchieva, Jeko Kijossev
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V. Claims and Potential of the Political Alternatives of Transition
1. The spectrum of political options in Bulgaria
Let us first see if the establishment and functioning of a presidential republic of the French type is possible in Bulgaria - a thesis upheld by the President and certain political scientists. This thesis is not surprising considering that it was the establishment of a stable presidential institution in 1958 that helped France cope - relatively fast - with the tough problems of modernization. Let us draw a political and economic parallel between France in 1958 and Bulgaria in 1996.
1. Similarities between the political situation in 1958 France and 1996 Bulgaria.
- Constitutionally established parliamentary model of government.
- Absence of a clear strategy on the political development of the state. Everything boils down to the word "democracy."
- Frequent parliamentary and government crises that leave a negative impact on the model of government and the social and economic state of the nation. Those problems are acuter in Bulgaria.
- The institutions of state - Parliament, President, Government - lack stability. The presidential institution seems to be the most stable among them, but this is due mostly to the limited powers of the head of state. The President is not involved in the everyday parliamentary and party squabbles, which leaves the public with the impression that the institution is stable. In other words, the presidency is the most stable institution in the country not because of the policy line but because the head of state is not directly involved in politics. He is not accountable for his actions and statements.
- The headquarters of the parties that have won the elections nominate a prime minister and approve his or her cabinet.
- Slow and painful formation of a cabinet due to a number of narrow-party compromises. In other words, society needs a very strong and authoritative cabinet but gets one that is the product of endless compromise.
- Strong party fragmentation. This tendency is far more marked in Bulgaria than in France. About a hundred political formations ran in the latest parliamentary elections in Bulgaria.
- Left-wing parties are very influential in politics; in Bulgaria, the Socialists are in power and are supported by half of all eligible voters.
- In both countries, the left-wing forces are the strongest opponents of the establishment of a presidential republic. Their prevalent concept is that they would thus lose their influence in society and levers of government.
- Discrediting of parliamentarism in society due to the political inefficiency of the institution. This tendency is much stronger in Bulgaria because of the by far graver problems ensuing from the deep economic crisis. At times, the National Assembly has been supported by just 5% of the public.
2. Differences in the political situation in the two countries:
- In France, Charles de Gaulle enjoyed enormous public respect and authority - among his left-wing supporters, as well as in the centre and the right wing. Bulgaria does not have such a striking figure capable of uniting the nation. As mentioned above, only the monarch - with many reservations - could play the role of a uniting centre to the radically antagonized public.
- de Gaulle had a clear, precise and consistent political doctrine of the government of France - establishment of a presidential republic by constitutional means. At the core of his political views was the construction of a strong, effective, centralized but unquestionably democratic power. All this, however, also entails assuming full political responsibility for government. He took over power with a clear and precisely timed action programme.
In Bulgaria there are also politicians in favour of establishing a presidential republic of the French type. Those ideas, however, are latent and are the product of emulation rather than a thorough and sober analysis of the political situation in the country. There are also politicians whose purpose actually is to construct, via a presidential republic, anti-democratic parliamentary rule. Besides, there are quite a few people who will not consider the idea of a strong presidency at all.
- As a result of the long war in Indochina, and then in Algeria, the French military were furious with the reckless government policy. On the very eve of de Gaulle's return to power in 1958, there was a real danger of a coup d'etat. The top brass were becoming increasingly and dangerously convinced that they were the only ones capable of leading the country out of the severe political crisis. Charles de Gaulle's coming to power, first as prime minister and then also as president, tangibly defused political tensions in the army until they soon subsided altogether. The military were thus eliminated from big politics in France and remained confined to their constitutional functions.
In Bulgaria the top brass are still quite indifferent to politics, their prime objective being to solve the social and economic problems of the officer corps.
- France has political culture, democratic and legal traditions that are constantly improving.
In Bulgaria those factors are in the process of painful establishment after 45 years of communist dictatorship.
- Stable economic climate in France that does not constantly generate social and economic tensions.
In Bulgaria, total economic collapse. This is the ideal background for the idea of a strong arm capable of prompt and radical solution of the plethora of economic problems.
- In France, the strong presidential power ultimately improved the model of government.
In Bulgaria at present, such power could serve to stabilize personal power interests.
- In France, political development in the past two centuries has been definitely evolutionary.
In Bulgaria, there has been a revolutionary model of modernizational changes in the past 110 years, be it in the form of a "velvet revolution."
All this goes to show that the idea of a French-type presidential republic is inapplicable in the Bulgarian conditions in the foreseeable future. Even though this idea has been officially proclaimed as incumbent President Zhelev's personal agenda. Neither the country's political elite nor a large part of society would accept that model of government as normal. Nor, ultimately, do we have the striking political figure that could give this concept substance. (Cf. chart on the President's popularity). It is ridiculous to think that the model could be established by non-democratic means.
Is a coup d'etat possible in Bulgaria? We think that this is highly improbable in present-day Bulgaria. The reasons are in the situation of the officer corps itself. As a result of the 45 years of communist rule in Bulgaria, the officers have become ordinary civil servants, having irretrievably lost the high morale of their predecessors. As a secondary factor in both foreign and domestic politics, the Bulgarian Army was placed in a situation where it neither could nor did take the role of an independent actor. Four decades were more than enough to wholly replace the officer corps by people who had never assumed real public responsibility. This macrosocial framework was conducive to objective selection of the people who stayed on in the army. That is why there is no group agent in the army: an officer corps (regardless of the rank) that could play the role of national elite. Absence of a group agent is also why the army cannot produce a resolute, nationally responsible figure. To carry out a coup d'etat, the top brass should have a strong, highly sophisticated and influential political figure. There is simply no such figure.
Besides, the present way of life of the Bulgarian officer reminds one of the typological case of the "Indian peasant" whose expectations of life are so minimal that he never rebels, no matter how far his circumstances deteriorate. The social situation of the officer corps is why most of the officers who stay on in the Bulgarian army are of that type. The number of vacancies in the command of active units is growing every year. It is an illusion to think that in the foreseeable future anyone will be capable of bringing the Bulgarian officer out in the street in full combat gear, ready to carry out modernizational changes. In addition, the political culture of officers has been deliberately kept at a low level. This, plus the above facts, make things absolutely clear.
If the executive is to impose authoritative rule, it must be supported by the army. As we have seen, the army is not an actor. At the same time, however, a large part of the generals are Socialist and could back a motion for a state of emergency. As mentioned above, the army is very popular with the public - besides, part of the people would accept authoritative rule with a sigh of relief. The problem is, however, that it is the President who is mandated to declare a state of emergency. The other variant is a stronger police regime. However, considering the present state of the police - many officers have left the force, public prestige is low and corruption high - we doubt that this variant is realistic. At the same time, the Prime Minister's resolution to bring the reform to fruition in the situation of radical crisis suggests that the possibility of an authoritative regime should not be underrated - even though we believe it is likelier to be enforced by authoritarian means such as censorship, suppression of protests, overcentralization of government. However, we rule out the possibility of Bolshevik totalitarianism since that is inconsistent with the interests of the already formed oligarchy, the bulk of which comes from the BSP.
The dawn of pluralism in contemporary Bulgarian politics has generated the public debate on the pros and cons of constitutional monarchy as a form of government. Today Bulgarians are divided over that issue too. Monarchy was practically abolished in September 1944, but the monarchic idea, which was dormant for half a century, has reawakened. The best proof thereof is the enthusiastic welcome of King Simeon II in Sofia on 25 May 1996. Hundreds of thousand of Bulgarians flocked in the streets of Sofia to pay their dues to Bulgaria's last monarch. This enthusiastic welcome, however, should not prompt precipitous conclusions. The opponents of the monarchic model are certainly not few and far apart in Bulgaria. On the contrary, the anti-monarchist, i.e. republican, camp appears consolidated at face value. It appears consolidated because it prioritizes precisely its anti-monarchism. But when it comes to its republicanism, that camp is actually quite heterogeneous. Bulgaria has a number of republican parties and formations which differ by origin, objectives and ideas. They can generally be qualified as mercenary republicans and honest republicans.
The former come mostly from the communist party, suffering from incurable Bolshevik ideologemes. They continue flaunting their fight against the legitimate institutions of state in the late 30s and early 40s as anti-fascist and therefore democratic. They still uphold their thesis that Bulgaria was ruled by a fascist regime in that period. They are the people trying to drum the primitive formulas of "republican, i.e. democrat" and "monarchist, i.e. totalitarian" into the public mind. Those are their historical propaganda arguments for claims to a place in Bulgarian politics, a leading role in the democratic political formations.
The honest republicans base their thesis on National Revival ideals. They simply want to have a truly democratic republic for the first time in Bulgaria's 1,300-year history - without any back thoughts or mercenary motives whatsoever. If in the course of history the Bulgarian state has been through almost all forms of monarchy, it has practically never been a democratic republic.
The republican camp is also divided over the type of republic they want - presidential, parliamentary or simply a convenient background to the establishment of a hidden authoritarian model. The parliamentary variant, due to the deep economic crisis in the country at present, is on the way to lose credit altogether. The presidential variant still has publicly unacceptable authoritarian implications. Therefore a presumable referendum would automatically split the republican camp in two antagonistic factions. In addition, the republican idea is marred by the legacy of the totalitarian republic. Hence even though it is real and operational, the republic is certainly not as politically clear and stable as it appears at face value.
As regards the monarchist camp, it is far more homogeneous and less vulnerable to outside controversies. The main reason for that is the clear state of the monarchy as a form of government and the clear status of the Bulgarian King and the dynasty. Only the modern form of monarch, parliamentary monarchy, is possible in Bulgaria today. And another important thing - the monarch is the only figure in politics capable of uniting the nation, of blunting, albeit temporarily, the profound contradictions in Bulgarian society.
There are a number of hesitant, trading and disillusioned with the republican government monarchists in Bulgaria today. If the effective institutions of state fail to stabilize by democratic means and to start winning - instead of constantly losing - public confidence, those people and quite a few others might become triumphant monarchists.
If we look at Spanish political history, we will see that Spanish civil society unconditionally accepted the monarchic institution after the terrifying spectre of a right-wing coup d'etat on 23 February 1981. None other than the Spanish King firmly opposed the coup as supreme commander-in-chief, resolutely siding with the democratic forces in the country. In other words, we should not rule out the variant that the constitutional monarchy has enough instruments to oppose some kind of authoritarian government.
Establishment of constitutional monarchy, however, is possible only if the opposition wins the parliamentary elections and votes, by a qualified majority, in favour of a referendum on the restoration of the Turnovo Constitution. Even though a large part of the opposition's supporters are monarchists, they will hardly be able to get the appropriate number of votes.
Therefore we believe that the most probable variant is preservation of the present status quo, which practically serves oligarchic interests, i.e. is a hidden form of authoritarian regime in the form of democracy. This presupposes superiority of one part of the oligarchy over the other. The strong pressure on the Government, exerted by a large part of the elite, as well as by the general public, will practically lead to changes serving "the old" party oligarchy.
If an overt authoritarian regime is nevertheless enforced, it will be justified by the historically formed political culture of Bulgarians that is accustomed to the efficiency of strong authority and has not developed forms of civic defence of rights; as well as by the effort to defend certain power configurations. Against this background a charismatic figure is not a sine qua non for authoritarian government since it is not authority that will legitimate power but power that will impose authority.
However, the political activities of the present parties are also handicapped by a number of other afflictions that are not associated with the totalitarian political past. The parties have been restored complete with the negative aspects of their history ever since their formation in 1878. Starting with bossism, traditional in all Bulgarian political formations and genetically encoded in them. The Bulgarian parties can be strong and effective in government only when their elite is headed by strong and authoritative figures with whom they are identified. In Bulgaria the executive is stable when it is headed by a party with a strong figure. The leader of the ruling party projects his position as party leader onto his position as leader of the nation. This also creates a two-tier scale of imposition of party policies on society - via the party structures of the ruling party and via the state administration structures governed by the ruling party, both headed by the party-and-state leader. This brings us to the absurd situation where the state is as democratic as the leader of the ruling party. The future of public democracy is thus always uncertain and threatened by authoritarian methods of government.
The political parties in contemporary Bulgaria have restored their old names, their bossism, but without the social base of their predecessors. Early 20th century Bulgaria had a middle class that was the base of the liberal parties, the agrarian formation, the Democratic Party. Today there is no middle class nor - as the economic crisis has proved beyond any doubt - could one be formed in the foreseeable future. The parties in the contemporary political spectrum not only lack a fixed social base whose interests they defend and which serves as corrective to the party elite; their leaders are not striking political figures either. This, however, does not stop party bosses from having enormous authoritative claims. Given the lack of social base and absence of strong political figures, i.e. given weak parties, ambitions for strong power can materialize only through authoritative methods of government violating democratic mechanisms and principles: within the party and then in national government. The truth about party reality in Bulgaria today is not that the old parties have been restored but that new political formations reflecting the real interests of the new social strata have to be established under the names of the old parties. Unfortunately, bossism and the party-and-state principle have struck deep roots in Bulgarian politics, and this is doubtless a major obstacle to the efficiency of modernization processes in the country.
We are actually faced with a political absurdity. The state badly needs a strong executive to carry out profound changes, especially in the economy, but the legitimate political elite is incapable of providing that. Hence the tendency towards "strong-arm" government emerging not only in Bulgaria but in the whole of Eastern Europe, is a logical process. Strong central power is not dangerous per se - it is a feasible chance of stabilizing the transition to democratic society. There is real danger, however, when a socialist formation tops the pyramid of government. The case of Slovakia is more than indicative.
True, parties advocating social democratic ideas have governed and still hold the main levers of administration in certain West European countries. It is just as true, however, that they took over the helm of government in societies that already had modern economic, financial and political structures. They used democratic instruments to rule civil society but did not create either the former and, even less so, the latter. The socialist parties in Western Europe have proved that they are capable of reasonable and democratic government after other political formations have built the solid foundations of economic and public life. There is no precedent in world history of a leftist, socialist party managing to construct a civilized and effective economic-and-political model.