Bulgaria's prime minister, former king Simeon, fails to make good on promises

 

By failing to tackle corruption and poverty in the first 400 days in office, Simeon II's ratings have plummeted, reports Chris Stephen in Sofia

A year ago Bulgarian model and TV star Juliana Doncheva symbolised the youth and freshness of a daring new Balkan government - one headed by the former King, Simeon II.

But on the anniversary of his triumphant election, little has changed, and Ms Doncheva has become, for the critics, a very different symbol - one of a government that is all style and no substance.

"At the beginning I was more optimistic," she says. "Sometimes I think there are so many problems. The most difficult thing is to persuade the other people in the countryside that everything depends on them. In some cases they are really against us." It was all supposed to be so different.

Simeon Saxe-Coburg, to give him his full name, had lived in Spain since being kicked out of Bulgaria by the incoming communists after the second World War while only a child king.

Last year he arrived back on the proverbial White Horse announcing he would save his country after the failure of successive governments of Left and Right. Simeon formed his own party, The King Simeon II Movement, promising to make the lives of ordinary people "visibly better" within 800 days.

The voters loved it. In elections, his party was swept to power, and Simeon became prime minister.

Other former royals, Michael I of Romania and Crown Prince Alexander in Serbia, looked on in awe, wondering if they too might one day take a shot at returning to power. Monarchists wondered if the Balkans might follow the example of Spain, which returned its king to the throne in the 1970s and is a successful constitutional monarchy.

Once in power, Simeon assembled a colourful team of "experts" to help him run the country. He picked former communist-era dissidents to provide a moral compass, and a team of bankers from London to run the economy. A bullet-headed hardman, Boyan Yordanov, nicknamed "Rambo" was recruited to reform the police. And Ms Doncheva, a youth and fashion TV presenter, arrived to bring in the youth vote.

"The idea was to run the country like a business," says deputy Emil Koshlukov. "The 800 days was modelled on a business cycle. If you are a trouble-shooter, it takes a year to turn around a business, then another year to take off, and the results show up in the first few months after that. This is the economic way of thinking."

But a year on, little has changed. The government has announced fine plans, but has failed to take on vested interests. Worse, poverty is on the increase, with Bulgaria now, per person, the poorest of the 10 nations in membership talks with the European Union.

As a result, Simeon's poll ratings have tumbled from 70 per cent to just 42. Now the former dissidents in his government are on the warpath, demanding he stick to his promises.

Mr Koshlukov has formed a splinter group trying to force his own government to launch an inquiry into privatisation deals by previous administrations.

These saw great chunks of state assets, including an airline, hotels, businesses and even an underground garage near parliament sold for peanuts amid suspicions of collusions between the buyers and government officials.

"All the evidence [for corruption\] is there. But my government, my leadership, is silent on this," complains Mr Koshlukov.

This week's key State of the Nation address was the final straw, with Simeon backtracking on his key promise to bring prosperity in 800 days.

"The reason they got elected was corruption," says a Western diplomat in Sofia. "The reason they will lose power is that they have not done enough about corruption."

Above all, Simeon has failed to take on his notoriously corrupt legal system. But without changes here, reform cannot work elsewhere, and Western investors - the only likely source of extra cash - will not come.

As with other reforms, it seems being a nice guy is no substitute for experience and courage. The government insists changes are taking place - but will take time to show results.

The Deputy Prime Minister Nikolay Vassilev, a former Lazards banker, says the privatisation deals of previous governments are now ancient history. "There is this populist belief that we have to break those deals, but it is very difficult to prove," says Mr Vassilev. He is keen to stress that the new administration has escaped the taint of corruption levelled at previous governments: "There are no corruption scandals involving any ministers, we are creating a new morale," he says.

This is fine as far as it goes, but the voters had expected more. Simeon's lack of action is all the more difficult to understand because Bulgarians are among the most politically sophisticated people in the Balkans, and would probably support radical change if it was properly explained to them.

The country has a 99 per cent literacy rate, none of the inter-ethnic tensions that scar much of the rest of the Balkans, and a people who are friendly and keen to be drawn closer to the Western democracies.

"I cannot say the new government is no good," says Dimitri, who sells Soviet-era medals and cigarette cases in front of the onion-domed Alexander Nevski cathedral. "But times are hard for the ordinary people. We need changes."

And that is the problem. Simeon was elected to produce radical change, not simply business-as-usual. Unless the former king can summon a very different leadership style, the whole idea of bringing former monarchs back to save the Balkans will probably be dead for good.