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Mateusz Seroka  31 października 2020

Bulgaria is breaking the rule of law. Has the EU finally said ‘Enough!’?

Mateusz Seroka  31 października 2020
przeczytanie zajmie 13 min
Bulgaria is breaking the rule of law. Has the EU finally said ‘Enough!’? European People's Party - flickr.com

When protests broke out in Bulgaria in July, with people demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Attorney General Ivan Geshev, it seemed that the days of these politicians were numbered. Both have become symbols of the oligarchic kleptocracy that has been devastating Bulgaria for many years, turning it into an EU oasis of obscure dealings. However, after more than two months of protests, Borisov and his political and business base are still doing well. The Bulgarian prime minister’s exceptional resilience is not only boosted by the strength of domestic ties, but also the loud silence of the EU. For a long time, what mattered to Brussels was Borisov’s loyalty to the European project and support for key EU policies. Although the Bulgarian prime minister had tolerated corruption and the arbitrariness of the oligarchs who got rich, also on EU funds, in the opinion of EU officials he was not as big of a threat as a dangerous, right-wing populists from Hungary or Poland.

Political landing

Boyko Borisov’s problems began this July, when Christo Ivanov, former justice minister and one of the leaders of the opposition Democratic Bulgaria (DB) group, landed on the beach right next to the property of the politician and businessman Achmed Dogan. Although all beaches in Bulgaria are formally owned by the state, he was surrounded and removed from the private property by the oligarch’s bodyguards, who later turned out to be members of the National Security Service (NSO).

The disclosure of the ties between the government and Dogan angered the Bulgarians, irritated by the government’s sluggish struggle against corruption and the growing number of reports of fake tenders, as well as the embezzlement of public and EU funds. In 2019, before the European Parliament elections, reports came in of the EU funds designated for rural development being used for the construction of private villas (despite the resignation of the minister of agriculture, everything seems to indicate that the practice is still ongoing). Earlier, investigative journalists also reported that Bulgarian construction companies over-invoiced for work on projects co-financed by the EU.

As a result, there was an outbreak of public discontent in the form of demonstrations, whose participants demanded, among others, the resignation of the government and the prosecutor general, calling early parliamentary elections and battling against unbridled oligarchs. The capital city of Sofia became the epicentre of the protests, which had been going on for more than two months, but social unrest also spilt over into the Bulgarian province – at its peak, over 20,000 people participated in various forms of protest.

Protests are also being organised abroad (for instance, in Brussels or in Germany) by Bulgarian economic migrants. The public’s discontent gained wide political support. The protests were supported by President Radev and the opposition post-communists from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), pro-Western and pro-American Democratic Bulgaria, and anti-establishment believers from the party There Are Such People, founded by musician and showman Slavi Trifonov. Small nationalist and pro-Russian groups also joined the demonstration.

Striking the system

Ivanov’s action was a deliberate provocation aimed at exposing Bulgaria’s ruling party run by Boyka Borisov, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), with oligarchic circles preying on state property and gaining hold of domestic contracts, subsidies and attractive real estate thanks to corruption. Not only was Dogan’s seaside palace built in violation of the law but also its owner received state protection, despite lacking the status of an active politician. Dogan himself is not an anonymous character. From 1990 to 2013, this long-time agent of the Bulgarian communist security service was the leader (now honorary chairman) of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a party formally representing the interests of the Turkish national minority. Despite having officially withdrawn from active politics, he has retained his influence in the party and rules it from the back seat.

The DPS quickly took the position of a swivel party, joining a coalition with both the right-wing and the Bulgarian post-communists. Although the DPS is formally an opposition party (GERB is forming a coalition with the nationalist United Patriots), it has supported the Borisov government unofficially since 2017 in exchange for further economic and political concessions. Consequently, the party has become a symbol of corruption, nepotism and oligarchisation in Bulgaria.

Dogan and the deputy chairman of the DPS, Delian Peewski, personify the Bulgarian oligarchy (in its essence, most similar to that of Ukraine), whose participation in politics supposedly supports the business projects of party leaders. Dogan has built his position on construction companies and the energy sector (e.g. he owns a heat and power plant in Varna). Peewski, in turn, is a press magnate and the owner (via offshore companies) of the Bulgartabak tobacco concern. Moreover, the DPS is not the only such political project in Bulgaria. The parliament also includes MPs from the Will party, whose head is Veselin Mareshki, a businessman, a tycoon in the pharmaceutical and pharmacy industry and the owner of a chain of petrol stations.

Borisov deals the cards

The Bulgarian prime minister is no longer an active businessman, but he plays one of the main roles in the national political system. The people of GERB have power over the ministries and offices that oversee the allocation of budget funds, EU subsidies and the issuing of permits for the investments of Bulgarian oligarchs or other prominent businessmen. The government also decides on the shape of the policy in the justice system, which has been inefficient for years and tolerates the corruption of officials from local governments, all the way to the top of the government.

Borisov, a former police general, not only cultivates the image of a strong man in Bulgarian politics but also shows that he can pacify reluctant politicians both within his party and among his coalition partners. It also depends on his political will whether the politicised prosecutor’s office will take effective action in the event of a disclosure of corruption, or whether it will limit itself only to simulating activity.

For many years, Bulgarian investigative journalists, who describe successive scandals related to the construction of infrastructure and the use of EU funds, have been indicating that this practice could not take place without the taciturn consent of the prime minister and his close associates. That is why the Bulgarians protesting since July are demanding, above all, his dismissal and the removal of GERB from power.

Buying his time

When this year’s protests broke out, Borisov was frightened at first and considered resigning in exchange for the survival of the GERB government until the parliamentary elections scheduled for early 2021. He even distanced himself from the DPS and allowed the prosecution and the police to start investigating Dogan’s seaside palace. Now, however, he is determined to make it to the end of his term and is trying to buy more time. To this end, he used the negotiations on the new Multiannual Financial Framework and the EU Reconstruction Fund.

During these meetings, the Bulgarian prime minister insisted that he would make all decisions about his future as head of government only after the July summit of EU leaders. He argued that he could not leave earlier, because only he was the guarantor of successful negotiations for Bulgaria. It seemed that the results obtained at the summit confirmed this thesis – Sofia gained 29 billion euros in the new EU budget, i.e. 1 billion more than the current allocation.

Borisov then reconstructed the government, and once again made his departure dependent on the consent of the coalition partners. Finally, in August, he presented a draft for a new constitution and announced that he would step down if a special parliament (Grand National Assembly) was convened, which would undertake further work on the proposed amendment. However, even preliminary discussions on the project may take up to five months, which is enough to hold the position until the election.

The weaknesses of the opposition and the protests themselves also work to the advantage of the prime minister. First of all, they lack clear leadership – usually, this role is taken by the so-called poisonous trio of three activists (lawyer, sculptor and journalist), who do not have their own political support.

This makes it difficult to transform long-term, though still very spontaneous, protests into a more organised and coordinated social movement. The parties and politicians who support the social revolt do not have a united front. Moreover, Bulgarians have a problem with perceiving the protests – they have almost as many supporters (59%) as opponents (56%). In this situation, much again depends on Borisov and his ability to manoeuvre between politicians, non-parliamentary groups and the moods of rebellious Bulgarian streets.

Brussels’ silence

Until now, there was another factor that allowed Borisov to remain in office despite two months of protests – it was Brussels’ prolonged silence. For years, its intervention has been awaited by investigative journalists who have provided the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) with evidence of embezzlement of EU funds or corruption in infrastructure tenders. The participants, including those active outside Bulgaria, expected the same since the beginning of the protests. Meanwhile, Brussels only spoke of Bulgaria at the end of August. Borisov is protected by GERB’s membership in the largest political group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP).

Bulgaria remains the most corrupt country in the EU. In 2019, it was ranked 74th among 198 countries surveyed in the Transparency International ranking. According to the 2019 Eurostat analysis, 80% of Bulgarians surveyed believed that corruption is present in all areas of life, and 51% of them emphasized that it is the greatest in the sphere of public procurement.

The Bulgarian, still strongly political, judiciary system plays an important role in this, which is reflected in the respondents’ opinions. Since 2007, Bulgaria, along with Romania, has been included in the EU’s Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism to improve the fight against corruption and tackle problems with the rule of law. Despite the reported problems with the actual implementation of recommendations, Bulgaria has so far been praised for „significant progress” in subsequent reports. Moreover, in 2020, after almost two years of additional supervision by the European Central Bank, Sofia was allowed to participate in the Eurozone waiting room – the ERM 2 mechanism.

It seems that EU decision-makers not only turned a blind eye to the corrupt practices of the Bulgarian political elite and the judiciary system living in symbiosis with them but even rewarded such behaviour.

After all, Borisov was convenient for the EU mainstream because he did not cause trouble. Bulgaria supports the major projects prepared by the EU and does not question the actual leadership of Germany and France in this organisation. In 2014, Bulgaria joined the sanctions against Russia, although it has been cooperating with Moscow in the energy sector for years. Both Prime Minister Borisov and President Radev, although they later criticised the sanctions, did not dare to question their extension. Moreover, during the migration crisis, they did not oppose the relocation mechanism. Sofia also backed the Green Deal project, despite the importance of coal for the Bulgarian energy sector. Bulgaria has even joined initiatives calling for the strengthening of the rule of law, although it is having trouble doing so itself. If Borisov criticizes the EU, he does so for internal use. In Brussels, he can change his mind completely, so for EU officials he is not a populist acting to the detriment of the EU and can count on protection from the EPP.

Politicians from this party (the most prominent group among them are representatives of the German CDU) are reluctant to see the possibility of a change at the helm of the government in Sofia, mainly because it is a country bordering on an increasingly assertive Turkey.

One of the potential migration routes goes through Bulgaria; it is calm for now, but it may be triggered in the event of another migration crisis. Therefore, Bulgaria needs a politician who can make controversial decisions if necessary and who will control his cadres in the field. In the eyes of Western politicians, Borisov is just that kind of person, which is why he does not receive such strong criticism as Hungary or Poland.

The latest reports show that the patience of the elites in Brussels and Berlin is wearing thin. This was already indicated by the first cracks in Borisov’s armour – Commissioner Jourova’s suggestion that Sofia should consult the Venice Commission and the announcement of a debate in the European Parliament on the rule of law in Bulgaria. Finally, a bad signal for the Bulgarian prime minister was the (still delicate) distancing of his colleagues from the EPP. All this contributed to the final result of the discussion in the European Parliament. Borisov and the EPP suffered a defeat in the October 8 vote. The parliament has passed a resolution condemning corruption and deviation from the democratic course contributed to by the government led by the Bulgarian prime minister.

Polish version is available here.

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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.