There appears to be little chance of political tension in Bulgaria receding anytime soon, as protests against the country’s prime minister Boyko Borissov and his ruling GERB party enter their second week. The protests are the biggest the country has been in several years, with demonstrators calling for the resignation of both Borissov and the country’s chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev, primarily because of their perceived failure to rid Bulgaria of institutional corruption.
The protests began in a rather unusual way on July 7 when the leader of the small opposition party Da, Bulgaria! (Yes, Bulgaria!), Hristo Ivanov, tried to set foot on a public beach in the Black Sea resort of Rosenets. Instead, the politician was greeted by security forces protecting the nearby mansion of Ahmed Dogan, the former leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms party (DPS), and a veteran politician in Bulgaria.
In what some saw as an organised stunt, Mr Ivanov filmed his futile attempt to walk onto the public beach, and the subsequent footage sparked outrage amongst many in Bulgaria, who saw it as a further example of the state’s shadowy use of the state security apparatus. Mr Ivanov accused Mr Borissov of enabling the encroachment of private property onto public land through the use of taxpayers’ money to provide one of the most powerful men in Bulgaria with security.
These suspicions were confirmed a day later when president Rumen Radev, a member of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) revealed that the security personnel at the beach were employees of the National Protection Service (NSO) and called for the the prime minister, along with the chief prosecutor, to resign.
The president has continued to take a hard line against the prime minister, more so as the protests have grown in size. He declared that “it is up to all of us to throw the mafia out of the executive, and to throw the mafia out of the prosecutors’ office, which the mafia uses in the most ruthless way as its shield and for political repression.” In reference to Bulgaria’s ongoing demographic crisis, he added: “anger over all of this has driven two million Bulgarians abroad, something that once again worries each of us. This is a battle for our dignity, for our children, for our future – for our nature; a battle for a fair, modern and European Bulgaria.”
The situation heated up even further on July 9, as prosecutors entered the presidency building and arrested two members of the presidential administration, a move which many saw as revenge for Mr Radev’s stance, and a gross overreach of judicial power.
The anti-government umbrella group that has formed around the protests, Justice for Everybody, complained that, “the president uses legal arguments to stand up against the use of the security service to protect private individuals and seeks to clarify the status of a marine park, a beach and a port — which are Bulgarian territory — and as a result of that, a day later, military prosecutors and police storm into the presidency in a raid.”
Initially limited to the capital, where thousands of people have been demanding each day “an end to the mafia model of governance”, protests have since spread to other cities in the country, including Plovdiv, leaving Mr Borissov’s administration reeling.
The prime minster himself was initially silent, aside from a barely audible monologue on Facebook live, complete with candles and an icon of the Virgin Mary in the background. In it, he defended the police and presented himself as the only leader who can keep Bulgaria on its pro-EU trajectory, declaring: “we will remain in power because the opposition will break the country”. He went on to highlight his government’s successes in road building, and suggested that the NSO had been needed on the beach at Rosenets as Mr Dogan had reported an assassination attempt on his life a few years earlier. Mr Borissov also called for the avoidance of ethnic tensions with the pro-Turkish minority party which Mr Dogan once led.
The next day however Mr Borissov decided to remove Mr Dogan’s NSO protection, as it was becoming increasingly clear the protests were showing no signs of abating.
President Radev meanwhile has been quick to take the opportunity to benefit from Bulgarians’ frustrations.
In an address he called for Europe to weigh in on the matter. “Now that Bulgarians have taken to the streets, Europe has no right to look at Bulgaria with its eyes wide shut. Europe needs a democratic Bulgaria, a Bulgaria with rule of law.”
While Mr Radev is yet to get his wish of vocal EU support, the US Embassy in Sofia has weighed in, declaring its support for the protests in a statement. “Every nation deserves a judicial system that is non-partisan and accountable to the rule of law”, the statement read. “We support the Bulgarian people as you peacefully advocate for increased faith in your democratic system and promote the rule of law in Bulgaria. No one is above the law.”
The US Embassy statement only emphasised the EU silence. Mr Borissov’s GERB is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP) and a key ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and, unlike his Polish and Hungarian counterparts, has largely avoided criticism.
Indeed, Manfred Weber, Leader of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, went so far as to release a statement which fully supported Mr Borissov and his government’s “fight against corruption”. In a further display of irony, the protests began just a day before Bulgaria’s bid to join the ERM-2, the eurozone’s so-called “waiting room”, was officially approved.
While protests are not uncommon in Bulgaria, the current demonstrations are particularly significant.
As Rumen Dobrinsky from the Vienna institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw) explains, “Bulgaria witnessed a number of protests in 2018-19. But the key difference between what we saw then and what we are seeing now is the lack of political colouring to the protests.”
Instead, Mr Dobrinsky suggests that these protests encompass a wide political spectrum of affiliations and sympathies, yet all seem to be united against Mr Borissov. “The magnitude and the spirit of the current wave of protests in Bulgaria are only comparable to those demonstrations seen after the fall of communism and then at the peak of the macroeconomic crisis of 1996-97.”
While the protests have been largely peaceful, there have been notable cases of police brutality which only serves to further fuel protesters’ anger. The father of a hospitalised law student gained particular attention when he said that officers beat his son unconscious, inflicting blows both to his head and chest. Dozens have been arrested since the beginning of the protests.
One of the protesters’ complaints is the alleged necessity of GERB connections in order to gain a public servant position. Private companies have also complained that they have been asked to pay sweeteners, such as in the case of the “sausage-gate” scandal of 2017 where a GERB official was accused of extorting bribes in the form of tonnes of sausages, causing a public outcry.
In this sense, the large scale of the protests is unsurprising, considering that scandal after scandal has hit the ruling party for years. In many ways, the NSO security row at the Black Sea was merely the final straw.
Just last month, Bulgarians took to the streets in protest against unrestricted construction on the Black Sea coast, something which is inflicting significant environmental damage. And in what sounds like something out of a mafia movie, leaked images of the prime minister surfaced next to wads of cash, gold bars and a 9mm Glock on his bedside table, which experts verified as genuine. The prime minister responded that: “I have a handgun and I don’t part with it. From today, I will sleep with the gun,” although he said that the money was photoshopped into the image. If this weren’t already enough, recordings were released, believed to have been taken in 2018, in which a man believed to be Mr Borissov admits to harassing a company, complaining about other politicians, mentions the name of a threatened MEP and makes fun of his European counterparts. All of this points towards a clear culture of corruption.
Dmitar Bechev, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council believes that state capture in Bulgaria is a reality, where there is a “weakness of the rule of law and the fact that the most powerful political force, GERB, isn’t a transformational actor but part of the setup [and the] EU is no longer an external check, but a source of rent.”
While Bulgaria has not seen the levels of harassment of migrants and minorities to the same extent as Poland and Hungary, it does share the attributes of democratic backsliding. Opposition figures in Bulgaria are increasingly branded as “enemies”, or “slime” – to borrow from Mr Borissov’s vocabulary – and more significantly, there is a murky separation of powers. Moreover, the media, while pluralistic, is becoming more and more concentrated.
As wiiw’s Mr Dobrinsky explains, the large scale of the protests stem from Mr Borissov’s shady model of governance since he assumed office, a year before Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, in 2009 (with a break from 2013-14). “During this period, Mr Borissov has managed to undermine the constitutional separation of powers and to establish a system of authoritarian rule, where it is he personally who takes (or imposes) the important decisions in all three branches of power: executive, legislative and judicial.”
This amounts to a widely shared public suspicion that the rule of the country is concentrated in the hands of a few business tycoons, “such a model of state role provides fertile soil for corruption at all levels of government,” Mr Dobrinsky explains.
One cause of this seemingly systemic corruption, according to Sofia-based sociologist Jana Tsoneva, is the reliance on big business.
“[Big] business is a source of corruption … When we talk about corrupted politicians, we have to talk about who is corrupting them,” she explains. “We need institutions to be fixed, but that cannot happen as long as [big] businessmen continue to buy politicians and use these institutions in their internal battles of market share.”
Other analysts suspect low public expectations of governance, due to the country’s poor track record with democracy and low trust in institutions. An opinion poll, released just before the protests began, put trust in Mr Borissov at just 28.5 per cent, and trust in president Mr Radev not much higher at 31.9 per cent.
However, if these protests prove one thing, it is that the stereotype of “weak expectations” are wrong. Instead, an exasperated public taking to the streets in ever increasing numbers poses a significant threat to the Bulgarian government, which is now hanging on by a thread. Mr Borissov’s current term in office is due to end in March next year, but to many, it would come as no surprise if it ended sooner.
Others believe that Mr Borissov, no stranger to scandal, will continue to hang on.
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