Fuelled by protests
Lessons learned from Bulgaria’s democratic defects
For nearly a month now, Bulgarians have been protesting. Sofia, along with major cities across the country, sees daily rallies demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev. The protests are bound to continue.
Borissov refused to step down and hand over his post to a technocrat hailing from within his own party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB). Then, in the wee hours of 7 September, police forcefully cleared impromptu camps and barricades set up by the protesters. Borissov and his coalition partners from the far-right United Patriots alliance are putting out a fire with petrol.
No one should be surprised by the outburst of discontent. Over the past decade, protest has become a standard feature of Bulgaria’s defective democracy, much like in the country’s Balkan neighbours. There have been multiple waves of street action targeting cabinets and leaders of different stripes. In 2013-2014, for instance, Sofia went through more than 400 consecutive days of anti-government rallies, ending only with the resignation of then Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski and his cabinet.
Both then and now, the triggers have remained the same: state capture, cosy ties between senior office holders and their business cronies, rampant corruption fed in no small way by EU money pouring into the country, the prosecution service’s collusion with shady oligarchs. Yet in the old days such issues were the preserve of the youngish, social media-savvy, educated, and often well-heeled urbanites. “The smart and the beautiful,” as tabloids and television talking heads jeered.
That no longer seems to be the case. A survey from late July has found that over 60% of Bulgarians look favourably on the protests, while 45% and 43% respectively demand the resignations of Borissov and Geshev. Public opinion rates President Rumen Radev, who threw his weight behind the protest, twice as highly as the embattled prime minister. Hristo Ivanov, the leader of the small liberal Yes!Bulgaria party, whose supporters are at the core of the protests, outpolls both Radev and Borisov, being favoured by nearly half of Bulgarians.
The bad news is that Bulgaria’s ills run deep and who happens to be at the top is a second-order issue. Borissov was in opposition in 2013-2014 and actually supported the anti-Oresharski protests. He seized power later on after the governing Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) was abandoned by its coalition partner, the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (MRF). MRF, formally in opposition, renders tacit support to Borissov. In exchange, its poster boy, tycoon Delian Peevski, whose appointment as head of the national security agency sparked the 2013-2014 protests, has seen his business empire expand and thrive.
Peevski and Prosecutor General Geshev, an ally of his, have become the face of what Bulgarians describe as “mafia”. Ahmed Dogan, the influential MRF founder, counts as the godfather. Dogan assisted in the birth of an earlier iteration of this cartel in the early 1990s, with the notorious Multigroup that in its heyday was discussed at length in Misha Glenny’s instant classic McMafia. You can get rid of Borissov. Geshev, parading as the people’s sheriff as he takes on Peevski’s competitors, might take a bow too. But dismantling a system rooted in clientelism and rent-seeking remains a Herculean task. There is no shortage of ideas, to be sure. The overhaul of the judiciary, including making the almighty Prosecutor General truly accountable, has been discussed for years. Easier said than done, considering the sustained opposition by veto actors in high places.
Elections are the straightforward mechanism to resolve the ongoing crisis. Protestors want them in the autumn; Borissov and especially the United Patriots, who are likely to lose big time at the polls, would rather stick around till their term ends in March 2021. Though haemorrhaging support, GERB has a fair chance of coming first ahead of BSP yet again. A new populist movement headed by talk show host and musician Slavi Trifonov will do strongly as well. Trifonov is now applauding the protests and calling for a sweeping clean-up of the state. But hardened cynics suspect he might strike a deal with Borissov and enter cabinet.
The status quo in Bulgaria is resilient. Yet there is a silver lining too. First, the genie is long out of the bottle and the protests will erupt again in the future if red lines are crossed. Second, the pro-reform coalition led by Ivanov’s Yes!Bulgaria is sure to enter parliament and put pressure on institutions from within. That might be merely a consolation prize, for sure, but it should not be dismissed lightly all the same.
The larger lesson from the Bulgarian case is that bottom-up civic engagement is a sine qua non for meaningful democratic change. In the 1990s, the Balkan country was fortunate enough to join the bandwagon and make it together with the rest of Central and Eastern Europe into NATO and the EU. Once inside, momentum was lost and structural problems worsened, not unlike Hungary and Poland, which for obvious reasons are under a much greater international spotlight. EU membership has overall been a positive story: it delivered undeniable economic benefits and expanded opportunities for Bulgarians.
Yet the EU is at best an ally rather than a substitute for domestically driven efforts to uphold the rule of law, accountability, and transparency. Some Brussels actors can do harm too: e.g. the European Parliament parties, whose knee-jerk reaction is to support or provide cover for their local affiliates, whether in Bulgaria or other member states.
National governments are not innocent either. Though the EU legal order as its stands provides sufficient instruments to hold individual member countries accountable for their failings at home, they are not readily deployed because of political expediency. Introducing more robust conditionality tied to the EU transfers, a leitmotif in the current budgetary negotiations, would be a welcome development. But it is no silver bullet if political will to make use of sanctions is lacking. Civic participation, including protests, could do much more to keep Europe in a healthier shape.
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Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Protestors at anti-government protests in Sofia also on 14 July 2020. Photo: © Nikolay Doychinov / AFP / picturedesk.com