Bulgaria 2020: what is to be done? 6 min read

 In Analysis, Politics, Southeastern Europe
Since 9 July, tens of thousands of Bulgarians across the country have marched on the streets every evening to demand the resignations of Boyko Borissov’s government and Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev. The formal reason for the demonstrations was an unprecedented raid conducted by the newly-appointed Prosecutor General in the offices of President Rumen Radev’s staff. According to the protesters, the critical stance of the President towards the conservative GERB-led government and some of key figures in the opposition party Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) was the reason behind the grandstand raid.

In fact, Borissov’s GERB and MRF have in the past not only joined forces in key votes in the National Assembly but are also known to cooperate behind the scenes. It was not by accident that on the seventh day of the protests, Borissov announced that he was asking three of his ministers (Interior, Finance, and Economy) to resign, so as to “refute the suggestion that GERB and the ministers in question are directly dependent on the MRF”. When key ministers are asked to resign amid protests just because of allegations, that speaks volumes about the nature of the political process in a country.

Against this background, there are three dominant narratives about Bulgaria’s governance that take shape in the public discourse.

The first narrative is the one of the government itself, which primarily insists on its successful use of EU funds, good crisis management, and the execution of excellent public procurements. For the partners in the GERB-United Patriots coalition, there are no problems in the country’s governance, including with regards to the way the prosecution is run. The challenges for Borissov’s government are allegedly always external to its power – a global pandemic, turbulence in the world economy, criticism from the President, or protests “supported by oligarchs”. In short, the government claims that left alone, the ministers could do a great job according to the tasks the cabinet has set for itself.

However, this narrative lacks a long-term strategy for the country’s development beyond Bulgaria’s sacred entry into the Eurozone and the Schengen area. Borissov’s main argument to remain in power is fairly simple: our government has no alternative. In the last few weeks, the recurring motif in GERB’s stay-in-power discourse is the securitization of the global pandemic joint together with the turbulences in the global economy – threats which, according to Borissov, only his government knows how to handle properly.

The second narrative is that of the Prosecutor General. Since his appointment in December 2019, Ivan Geshev has been making statements which transcend the traditional themes of the institution he leads and are in many respects closer to the rhetoric of nationalist party leaders, such as the far-right Ataka’s Volen Siderov. From Geshev’s point of view, the main problems of the country are overwhelming injustice, “the criminal governance during the transition”, “the anarcho-liberal circles”, and sometimes “the politicians” in general.

More recently, the favourite target of the Prosecutor’s Office has been so-called domestic delinquency (a term used in Bulgaria to denote small-scale stealing from households) and telephone fraudsters, which Geshev often interprets through an ethnic prism. In a nutshell, the troubles Bulgaria has, according to Ivan Geshev, come from the fact that thus far no one has had his courage and energy to stand up decisively against the bad guys – from “the socially disadvantaged” (as he euphemistically calls  the Roma) small-scale robbers to the grand oligarchs.

What solution, however, does the Prosecutor General propose? What the Bulgarian public sees so far is televised comeuppance, bombastic arrests, pompous statements and vigorous activity in social media. Leaving aside the legally dubious presentation of evidence, i.e. publication of chat screenshots and recordings of conversations, the work of the state prosecution at this time does not seem very effective. Ivan Geshev offers the audience a showdown with the oligarchy but curiously he cannot point at any concrete results from his work as a prosecutor so far, including as a leading prosecutor in the case of the collapse of the Corporate Commercial Bank, the fourth biggest bank in the country, in 2014.

The third narrative is shaped by the dominant voices of the protests. The demonstrations gather a wide range of people: from activists of the Yes, Bulgaria! party to members of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, but also nationalists and anti-capitalists. At any rate, the most resonant message of the protests is “Resignation!” of Geshev and the cabinet for a lack of morality and the absence of competence.

But how do the leaders of Yes, Bulgaria!, the main engine of the protests, answer the eternal question “What is to be done?” To cut a long story short, they offer power to the technocrats and digitalization of the whole country. The message is pretty straightforward: we are moral, we have the expertise to bring about change through technological solutions and changes in the institutional architecture.

Aside from the main points of these three narratives, it is worth mentioning what they remain mostly silent about: the roots of corruption.

There is a gruesome inequality in Bulgaria. About a third of the citizens live below the poverty line or are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. The income ratio between the richest and poorest 20% of the population is over 8 times – the highest in the EU. Entire groups of people are increasingly segregated and marginalized and do not have equal access to education, health care and justice.

The practically regressive tax system introduced in the country in 2008 – allowing the rich to pay less than the poor – during the government of Sergei Stanishev (now president of the Party of European Socialists) combined with the absence of non-taxable minimum and together with the marketization of the public education and healthcare exacerbate the feudal economic relations present in many regions of Bulgaria.

These are acute, structural social and economic problems that require political decisions, not managerial or PR strategies. If these systemic problems are not addressed politically, whoever heads the government or the prosecution will not be able to oppose the so-called oligarchic model in Bulgaria.

In fact, the role of local political and economic patrons (which are often the same) became more and more fundamental for things such as finding a job or sometimes for bare survival, leading to the development of a system based on primitive political clientelism. This pattern of social relations is especially problematic with regards to the Turkish and Roma minorities (8.8 and 4.9 per cent of the population respectively, according to the 2011 census) as there is virtually no competition for their votes. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) has dominated the Turkish-populated regions since the collapse of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and in the last decade has become the main recipient of Roma votes.

One of the conditions that enable the existence of party enterprises such as MRF is the position of the Bulgarian Turks and the Roma in the society. If they were adequately included in the economic and social life of the country, the existence of party monopolies would lose ground.

The economic dependence of hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian citizens on their local patrons is the nutrient medium of the oligarchy, not the formula for the composition of the Supreme Judicial Council, the lack of theatrical determination by Prosecutor’s Office or the rotten apples in the state institutions, which are quickly fired by the Prime Minister after each new scandal.

The massive protests across Bulgaria and in front of the Bulgarian embassies around Europe have a very clear message: Bulgaria is governed insolently and that has to stop! Yet, the conversation about what makes this insolence possible is still ahead of us.

Featured image: Protests in Sofia, Bulgaria, 2013 / Georgi C.
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