“In 1997 many people were joking about our ambitious ten year plan to join the European Union.”
Ivan Kostov was Bulgaria’s most important reformist prime minister and held office from 1997 to 2001. The trained economist, born in 1949, was an associate professor at the Sofia Technical University before he entered politics after the collapse of communism. He was elected to parliament in 1990 for the newly formed anti-communist party, the United Democratic Forces (UDF), and was finance minister in two cabinets from late 1990 to late 1992. After taking over the UDF party leadership in 1994, he was in charge of the major opposition party when Bulgaria was hit by the worst post-communist crisis in winter 1996/97. There was hyper-inflation and the average monthly salary in December 1996 stood at US$ 28. There were bread queues and popular dissatisfaction with the socialist government had reached an all-time high.
“Everybody was aware that there was a call for immediate, speedy reforms which should not be postponed anymore. But they [the socialists] were afraid. Because all the politicians knew they will lose their popularity, if they implement the reforms. That’s normal, you know, it’s like everywhere in the world.
So that that led to protests which were every day. We sort of invented those street protests, maybe we borrowed them to a certain extent from Serbia, to be implemented in a more radical manner in Bulgaria. And we went to the end, to the very end, until the government collapsed. It was quite a savage manner of protest, people were, you know, seized by anger. And it was in the cold, because it was January.
It was on the verge of getting out of control. People were throwing stones to members of parliament, the police beat members of parliament who belonged to the opposition. There was violence. However, the immediate reason for the socialists giving back the mandate, the authorisation of setting up an interim government, was a national protest strike which blocked the whole country. All the key means of transportation were blocked. The city was blocked, Sofia was blocked, Varna, Plovdiv, all the big towns. We blocked the railways. At one place the police tried to fight us, where most hardliners were, 60 km away from Sofia – it’s called Dupnitsa, and they were unable to control our people. There was a clash between people and the executive. One policeman permitted himself to smash the leg of a girl. And then the anger which we’re talking about just poured on his car, the policeman. And actually the barricades forced the Bulgarian Socialist Party to step down from power.”
After a care-taker government under Stefan Sofianski was established and elections won by the UDF, a new government under Kostov came in. Against the background of the crisis, Kostov declared that one of the goals of his government was EU membership within 10 years.
“From the strategic point of view, we had to propose some serious goal, an alternative which is positive for the nation. And on the other hand, European membership was a symbol of our real orientation. Bulgaria would become, instead of a satellite of the Soviet Union, a European country. So, in this way, the European Union was a very important message, because it was: we would not be like we used to be, we will be very different.”
This extremely ambitious goal, against the background of a collapsed currency and economy, raised many eyebrows.
“Actually everybody was of the same opinion: this candidacy of Bulgaria, it didn’t look very serious in the eyes of Europeans. It was a common joke, you know, because of our disastrous position. (…) To be witty or to be mocking that someone is not ready, but is making effort – I was not impressed, I didn’t pay any attention to these jokes.”
However, the European Council decision taken in Berlin in summer 1997, when Bulgaria was included into the accession process along with 7 other former communist East European countries, was crucial for the credibility of the government’s ambitious reform drive.
“In 1997 many people were joking about our ambitious ten years plan to join the European Union. And I think that we were just formally put on the agenda of the accession process. We knew it was like that [that we were serious], but that was an advance, it was an advance gesture.”
The Kostov government had to meet many challenges: macro-economic stabilisation after the crisis, privatisation, attracting FDI and stimulating economic growth, starting approximation with EU laws and practices, administrative reform, to name but a few. But the most difficult moment for Ivan Kostov, where he was sandwiched between the EU and popular opinion in Bulgaria, was the Kosovo crisis.
“The most difficult time was the war in Yugoslavia. The year ‘99, the years 2000 and 2001 would have been fantastic years for Bulgaria. But they turned out to be much more difficult than we expected. Because of the UN embargo on Yugoslavia, and because of the involvement of Bulgaria on the side of NATO, which hit the Serbs. So this was the most difficult time.”
In this period, Kostov and his government took a delicate decision, closing Bulgaria’s airspace to Russian aircraft, meaning that the Russians could not sustain their position at Pristina airport (which they took up in June 1999, when NATO’s bombing campaign ended and before NATO ground troops arrived at the airport).
“If they would have landed in Pristina, no solution would be found afterwards. Any type of solution would be impossible to be made. Bloody war would erupt [again] at the very border of Bulgaria. (…)
Something else you have to bear in mind is that Bulgaria assisted the Albanian renaissance. We printed their first text books – in Sofia. Their intelligentsia was educated in Bulgaria. We helped them in establishing their state. (…) And at that time we still felt a high responsibility to Albanians. Because what Milosevic permitted himself to do was a nightmare.”
But the decision was very controversial inside Bulgaria. A majority of citizens sympathised with orthodox Serbs and not with the – mainly Muslim – Kosovo Albanians.
“People couldn’t understand why we sided with the Albanians. People couldn’t realize why. (…) This is very difficult to be communicated, but for us it was completely clear and there was no other way. We had to make this decision. (…)
But you are right, it was so unpopular, the only possible way, but very unpopular [laughs]. And it was the same with reforms. The only possible thing was to implement reforms, with the clear awareness that they are not popular.”
At the December 1999 European Council in Helsinki EU leaders decided to open accession negotiations with Bulgaria, along with Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia.
“It was a very difficult year, 1999. But when the decision came to start negotiations, we knew that we had well deserved it. We knew that we merited it, that we had worked for that.”
The latter half of Kostov’s prime minister-ship was marred by corruption allegations against some of his ministers, who subsequently resigned. The bill for tough economic reforms came in the form of rising unemployment and social discontent, leading to the defeat of the UDF in the parliamentary elections in 2001. Kostov resigned from the party leadership. In 2004 he left the party and established a new party, the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria. Though his new party obtained only 7 percent of the votes in the 2005 parliamentary elections, Kostov can take credit for putting Bulgaria firmly onto the path of EU accession. While the subsequent governments were led by ideologically very different personalities, former King Simeon and the Socialist Party Leader Sergej Stanishev, neither has deviated from the overall reform course set under Kostov in the late 1990s.