Kiril Petkov, the former entrepreneur newly elected as Bulgaria’s prime minister, is betting on his business acumen to tackle two of his country’s thorniest challenges: low vaccination rates and the rocky relationship with neighboring North Macedonia.
Bulgaria has Europe’s lowest vaccination rate, at just 32 percent.
The country, which has long struggled with high-level corruption and low trust in institutions, has also sparked criticism on the European stage for obstructing North Macedonia’s path toward EU accession talks.
Now, the new government wants to get “at the very least 50 percent” of Bulgarians vaccinated by April, Petkov, a 41-year old Harvard Business School graduate told POLITICO days after becoming prime minister last week.
The strategy includes hiring marketing firms to run focus groups on vaccines, and possible financial incentives for over-65s to get the jab, he said in an interview during his first official trip to Brussels.
To overcome mistrust of institutions, he’s putting forward a respected figure to oversee the vaccine program: virology professor Radka Argirova.
“I want to make her the Dr. Fauci of Bulgaria,” he said referring, to Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden, who has become a household name in America.
The aim is “to create a person of credibility that Bulgarians can listen to,” Petkov said, adding that he wants to create a panel of top specialists alongside Argirova who “can recommend with authority that there will be no risk for people with certain diseases to vaccinate themselves.”
Petkov served as interim economy minister earlier this year and came to office after months of political turmoil including three elections.
The former entrepreneur said he also wants to create better training for Bulgaria’s doctors, including “a standard protocol for advice” on vaccines.
Bulgaria’s low vaccination rate is due to “a lot of misinformation” and “a huge amount of political instability,” Petkov said.
The prime minister also wants to take a more business-like approach to relations with North Macedonia.
After years of wrangling, the EU agreed last year to invite North Macedonia and Albania to begin membership negotiations. But Bulgaria has blocked talks over disputes with North Macedonia over history and language.
That has prevented both North Macedonia and Albania from advancing to the next key step in the membership process — agreement on a negotiating framework, a prerequisite for starting talks at an intergovernmental conference.
Bulgaria’s move fueled frustration in the Balkans and Brussels where enlargement supporters argued Sofia was undermining the bloc’s credibility and leaving a political vacuum in a region where Russia, Turkey and China are eager to gain influence.
While the new Bulgarian government is not planning to drop demands related to historical disputes with North Macedonia, Petkov said his aim is to broaden dialogue and use economic cooperation to improve relations.
The approach is about “enhancing the existing positions,” according to Petkov, who said he would like committees looking at the relationship to “work very hard for six months” but declined to give a deadline for the process.
“I don’t think any government, right now, can just go to their population and say, ‘OK, forget about all the problems, let’s just sign the agreement,’ — because this government will be quickly out of power,” he said.
Instead, the aim is to show people why cooperation is beneficial, Petkov said, for example, by bringing CEOs of Bulgarian and North Macedonian companies to meet and create ties.
“I want to be able to fly from Sofia to Skopje directly, I don’t want to fly through Vienna. I want to have the first railway connection, if possible — at least the plan for it. We want to have a joint cultural calendar,” he added.
While battling the pandemic and addressing the dispute with North Macedonia, the new prime minister also faces major challenges to fight corruption and implement reforms.
Petkov’s government — which consists of his Continuing the Change party, along with the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the populist There is Such a People party and liberal Democratic Bulgaria alliance — came to power following large-scale anti-corruption protests, with the promise of tackling graft.
“We ran on the campaign of zero tolerance to corruption,” he said, adding that his “personal dream” is to make Bulgaria a “textbook case of how corruption can be eliminated in a very short period of time.”
The government has already set up a parliamentary commission to look into corruption and one of its first legislative moves will be to boost the investigative powers of Bulgaria’s anti-corruption agency.
He faces an uphill battle. The country has struggled to push through judicial reforms seen as essential for eradicating systemic corruption.
The European Commission’s 2021 rule of law report points to a number of concerns about Bulgaria’s judicial system, including on the “accountability and criminal liability” of the prosecutor general.
Petkov — who has called for Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev to resign — acknowledged that the new government does not have sufficient votes to introduce the constitutional changes needed to tackle structural problems within the judiciary.
The government will “do as much work as possible on trying to change the judicial system,” the prime minister said, adding, however, that “we have to stay within the legal framework, because you cannot create a change that is not putting the rule of law itself first.”
The prime minister also insisted that he is his own man. One of the chief criticisms leveled against him by political opponents such as former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov is that he is a puppet of President Rumen Radev, allied to the Socialist party, which has a history of corruption and close ties to Russia.
Asked about his relationship with Radev, he said that he “worked really well with him” while serving as interim minister, but “didn’t receive as single call from him [on] what I should do.”
While noting that a small country like Bulgaria should have a “joint voice” on some issues, he insisted that, constitutionally, he and Radev head “completely separate institutions.” Borissov, a fierce enemy of Radev, insisted that division of powers between president and prime minister was “total nonsense.”
“It will be about good communication, not about any dependencies,” Petkov concluded.
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