Political Scandals of Bulgaria

Photo source: Al Jazeera

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Before parliamentarians returned from a summer break in September 2020, protestors had gathered to block the parliament building in Bulgaria. They had accused the government of protecting the tycoons and other influential men. There were also accusations of mafia links to those in power, curbing of freedom of speech, prosecution racketeering and inaction against plunder. These issues have been largely returned with a loud silence.

The ambiance of these protests were such, as if the memories of 2013 protests had been fresh in the minds of many Bulgarians, when the French ambassador protested amongst the demonstrators against the grip of the oligarchs on the country. At that time, protests were also due to the interruption of EU funding and students also occupied the Sofia University.

Metrics, such as by Transparency International indicate that the perception of corruption in Bulgaria is highest in the European Union. In 2019, the Rule of Law Index put Bulgaria in the league as Russia for corruption of the executive. The level of corruption is now above Romania in European Union. Even in the 2020 Investment Climate Statement for Bulgaria, the US Department of State concluded that corruption remains endemic. It is an issue for which even the centre-right GERB party and the centre-left BSP have blamed each other for. Despite joining the EU in 2007, successive Bulgarian governments have failed to implement crucial reforms.

Petar Cholakov, associate professor with the Institute of Sociology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, commented that the public has been exhausted with the ‘litany of revelations of underhand behaviour’ by those in power. Citizens had also asked questions about where EU funds intended to improve public services in Bulgaria ended up, according to Dimitar Beshev, lecturer on Eastern Europe and Russia at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The protests had continued for over two months mainly because the general prosecutor had been accused of being a hatchet man of the then Borissov government. Online, thousands signed petitions. In the street protests, people threw firecrackers, and in return were attacked by batons and water cannons. It led to hundreds being arrested, and many were badly beaten. It even included a journalist, who had shown his press card but still was not spared.

In 2020, many other administrative problems arose, which contributed to the frustrations, as the winter was also marked by a water crisis caused by the drying up of several dams, the most serious of which took place in the town of Pernik, 45km southwest of Sofia. The water shortage happened due to lack of maintenance of vital infrastructure and government leniency towards large industries abusing local water reserves.

In its recent political past, there were important turns of events in 2016, when during the presidential election, the presidency came under Rumen Radev, a former air force commander. This led to institutional conflict as Radev criticised the government and then Prime Minister Boyko Borisov over the state of corruption in Bulgaria.

The crises continued to escalate as compromising pictures showing the prime minister sleeping in his bedroom next to a drawer packed full of 500-euro bills, gold bars and a gun.  There were also his leaked voice recordings where he crudely mouthed off about a political colleague. It had stoked anger, representing a kind of turf war, but he put the blame on opposition figures, including the president. This was followed by another scandal, as former minister of justice Hristo Ivanov led a group of activists from his reformist ‘Yes, Bulgaria!’ party, a catch all party founded to fight corruption, to the residence of influential oligarch and former chairman of the Turkish minority DPS party Ahmed Dogan, near the town of Rosenets, on a public beach, who regarded it as his own home.

The activists, however, were told to leave by security guards, who Radev later confirmed worked for the National Security Service, which is funded by the government and was protecting another oligarch, a DPS MP and media mogul Delyan Peevski. In the meantime, Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, whose appointment was controversial in itself and was at first vetoed by Radev, was implicated in the ‘Eight Dwarfs’ extortion scandal along with numerous magistrates. This led to more criticism of the government by the opposition.

The situation reached a breaking point when the prosecution, with the help of police, raided the presidency in July 2020 on the grounds of conspiracy and sharing of state secrets. Numerous people were arrested, including one of the president’s advisors.

It was shortly after the breach into the presidency, when the protests gained momentum two months after. It was followed by a speech by Radev in support of the protesters and he also demanded the resignation of the chief of the NSS, Geshev and Borissov, but they refused to resign. On the contrary, Borisov offered to overhaul his country’s political system through some worrying constitutional changes, perceived as attempts to settle the governing party’s hold on power, such as reducing the number of MPs. It also removed constitutional guarantees for the equality between men and women replacing them with ‘pro-natalist’ and ‘family values’ paragraphs. Borisov’s constitutional exercise was aimed at buying him time in power, which infuriated the protestors, because he suggested parliamentary debates for constitutional changes for five months, which coincided until the 2021 Bulgarian election. 

When protests continued, videos of police violence against a young protester were made public. The boulevard in front of the National Assembly was briefly blocked, and an unsuccessful motion of no confidence and government reshuffle followed.

These moments shook Bulgaria’s political history. The protest movement was not cohesive by any means, as it represented different groups from all political spectrums. Although organised mainly by the liberals,  it included turbo folk singers, apolitical hipsters, artists, radical left, Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and its splinters.

As more roadblocks were set up in the capital Sofia and the protest movement spread across the country, it started hurting the EU’s ethos. In an article by Denica Yotova in European Council on Foreign Relations: ‘from a European foreign policy point of view, Bulgaria is an external border of the EU, and thus plays an important role in migration, security, relations with Turkey, and relations with Russia and the Black Sea region. If Bulgaria fails to address properly any of these challenges, this will be felt quickly in other parts of Europe. Furthermore, the complexity of Bulgaria’s immediate neighbourhood is such that it risks setting a negative example for neighbouring Western Balkans countries as their governments consider what reforms they need to make in the future.

Another problem is perhaps the judiciary system in Bulgaria which is an unprecedented case as a non-functioning system within the EU. Over the years, successive scandals have called into question its independence. Civil society organisations in Bulgaria have long campaigned for judicial reforms, and have received the support of the Bulgarian Judges Association in this endeavour. 

Hence, the political crises in Bulgaria are also a threat to the future stability of the EU. Bulgaria has just entered ERM II, the Eurozone’s waiting room, and political stability in the country, based on rule of law, democracy, a functioning judicial system, and effective anti-corruption mechanisms, are crucial to eventual membership of the Euro. Hence, ensuring reforms is something that the previous governments have consistently failed at. 

When the national rule of law safeguards are no longer working, it is a responsibility of the EU institutions to take action.  A recent case by the European court of justice has reminded that independent justice system is not only a standard in a democracy but a legal obligation in regard of article 19 of the treaty on the European Union. But Europe has been just watching how democracy withers in Bulgaria. This form of attitude is a real ostrascisation towards Bulgaria by the EU.


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