By Preslava Boneva
The country is going through a governmental crisis and for almost two months protesters, made up of the right-wing opposition, along with left-wing supporters and non-partisan citizens, have mobilized daily. The aim of this article is to explain the current situation in Bulgaria with its historical context. The triggers and the whole development of these protests will be also discussed, as well as the reaction of the leaders of the country.
“We are to have one flag, and on it the words: holy and pure republic”
Vasil Levski, a Bulgarian revolutionary
To understand the present protests, we must know the political path of the 21st century in Bulgaria. The Fatherland Front, a resistance group coalition that included communists, won the November 1945 elections and the communist gained control of the new national assembly. In just a few years the country was transformed from a constitutional monarchy into a republic, the industry was nationalized and political power was privatized by The Communist Party. In December 1947, the National Assembly adopted a new constitution similar to the one in the USSR; what meant that the presidency was replaced with a Presidium, an executive committee. That September, Nikolai Dimitrov Petkov, leader of the Agrarian party, had been executed after being convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the government. Under pressure from the USSR, Bulgaria renounced its friendship treaty with Yugoslavia following the breakdown of Soviet-Yugoslav relations in 1948. The relations with the country [Yugoslavia] and its successor states have been fluctuating since, also with its southern neighbors Greece and Turkey. Diplomatic ties with the West have been often characterized by Western accusations regarding the spying activities of Bulgaria.
During most of the communist period, under the leadership of Todor Zhivkov (secretary of the Communist Party from 1954, Primer Minister from 1962 to 1971, and Head of State from 1971 to the end of 1989), Bulgaria was one of the most closest societies of the ancient Soviet satellite countries. In 1953 the government decreed that all people who left the country without permission would be sentenced to the death penalty and their families ran the risk of being interned in concentration camps. As a member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) and the Warsaw Pact, Bulgaria was one of the strongest allies of the USSR. During the 1970s the country received significant financial aid from the USSR, which was earmarked for industrialization.
In conclusion, the country prospered under Soviet commandment. On November 19, 1989, the Bulgarian Communist party abandoned its political monopoly and Zhivkov resigned. The last decade of the twentieth century was a period of transition back to democracy and free market in the context of Atlantic and European integration.
The road to democracy
The first free elections took place in June 1990, won by the moderate wing of the Communist Party (the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP). In 1991, a new constitution was adopted that reduced the powers of the President and left the First Minister under the inspection of the legislative assembly. The planned economy was scrapped and private initiative was legalized. The new system could not improve so much the quality of life or accelerate economic growth. In fact, in the 2000s, the average quality of life and economic performance remained lower compared to the times of communism. The reform package introduced in 1997 restored economic growth, but led to an increase in social inequality. Together with Romania, Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007.
Nowadays, Bulgaria is a Parliamentary Republic. Through universal suffrage, every 4 years, Bulgarians vote and elect the Parliament. The party with the most votes is the only one who can form a government. Under the unwritten rule, the leader of the winning party is appointed as the Prime Minister, who holds the highest authority in both national and international relations. An important fact is that in Bulgaria the President has only a representative and protocol functions, but no executive or legislative powers.
For two months now Bulgarian protesters have occupied two major crossroads in the capital, Sofia, and in other big cities in the country such as Varna or Burgas, promising to block the traffic until the government resigns. People demand the resignation of Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, the conservative populist Boyko Borissov, leader of the right-wing GERB party, established in 2006. The party won the 2009 parliamentary elections, winning 39.7% of the popular vote and 117 seats (out of 240). After the elections, a new government was formed, led by Borissov, who was the former mayor of Sofia, a former member of the National Movement Simeon II and former personal guard of Todor Zhivkov in the 1990s.
Now, the government of Borissov, is accused of being involved in organized crimes(1) : refusing to tackle corruption, and suppressing freedom of speech. It is important to underline that, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index in 2019, Bulgaria is one of the most corrupt nations in the European Union. Furthermore, according to Eurostat, Bulgaria had the lowest level of GDP per capita in the EU in 2019. In fact, the protesters accuse the government of serving the interest of the mafia and the oligarchy. According to Dnes.bg(2) the Bulgarian media, thousands of people have gone out on the streets every day to be part of the demonstrations. This is a significant figure considering that around 7 million inhabitants live in the country. Despite the restrictions against the global pandemic of COVID-19, the protesters are still demonstrating day after day with the motto “Mafia” and “Resignation.”
Boyko Borissov has been in power for almost ten years without interruption. He resigned twice, in 2013 and 2016, but after a few months, he came back as the leader of the government. Now, he refuses to leave, and for the first time citizens have decided to take the streets to show their discontent with the current government. In addition, they also demand the resignation of the chief prosecutor, Ivan Geshev, known for being a close friend of the Prime Minister.
“All countries have some corruption, but Bulgaria has become a mafia state”
Elena Yoncheva, a freelance journalist
Meanwhile, the Bulgarian President, Rumen Radev- a vocal opponent of Borisov- is backing protesters up, claiming both the prime minister and the Chief Prosecutor should step down. The actual President was former commander of the country’s air forces and considered close to Moscow and the opposition Socialist Party. “After a month of protests throughout the country and abroad, it is already evident that it is not a question of a momentary limited discontent, but a massive desire to abolish this mafia political system”, declared(3) the president.
The big question is why these protests have taken place at this moment when there has always been dissatisfaction on the part of the population. Two significant events turned simple complaints and anger into protests. The search(4) of the offices of two advisers to the country’s president Rumen Radev, close to the Socialists and very critical of the government, which took place the past Thursday 9th July; and the revelation(5) of illegal favours to a controversial politician who supports the Prime Minister, the former head of the Turkish minority party (CDM): Ahmed Dogan. These occurrences have triggered more scandals such as investigations into fraud against European funds and questionable real estate transactions that have been made to benefit people from the rulers’ environment.
On the other hand, the context can’t be understood without the ex-gambling magnate Vasil Bojkov, who was tried on 18 charges in Bulgaria and a refugee in Dubai. He has guaranteed(6) to take down the prime minister whom he claims to have paid millions of euros in bribes. In short, the great leaders of the so-called “mafia” in Bulgaria are coming out to the ring to see who exercises more power. Meanwhile, the public is no longer paying to watch this show but has instead decided to go out and fight for a decent government and for an authentic democracy.
An important fact must be added: the protests have coincided with the country’s entry into the monetary mechanism known as European Exchange Rate Mechanisms (ERM II) which represents one of the requirements for Bulgaria to adopt the euro in the next two or three years.
Prime Minister’s reaction
Boiko Borisov’s first public reaction was via a video he posted on his Facebook profile. He was calm and carefree when he said that he respected the civil rights of all people, among them, the right to protest, recognized as fundamental in a democracy. “My door has always been open for dialogue. I ask you to be careful and not to let a drop of blood spill during these protests. The power was granted to us by the people who voted for our party… It is easy to break things; however, the difficulty lies in building them”, were some of his words in this 13-minute-long video.
Days later, he announced that he had no intention of resigning because the country would face delicate months due to the economic difficulties exacerbated by the unemployment and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. After its clear decision, the Socialist party presented a censure motion against the current government. It did not prosper as a large majority of votes against it were presented.
Besides, on Thursday 23 July, after returning from Brussels the prime minister decided to dismiss the ministers of the Interior, Economy, Finance, and Tourism- an act that has caused an increase in the protests.
Finally, on Friday 14 August, Borissov tried to quell the protests against him with a televised speech in which he said it is time to “relaunch the state.”
“The moment the National Assembly decides to hold parliamentary elections according to Article 160 of the Constitution, I will resign as Prime Minister on the same day. The Grand National Assembly is a unique opportunity not only to restart our democracy but also to make it happen with maximum political representation, “said Borisov. His party wants a constitutional change to review the country’s political system. His conservative party’s proposal includes a reduction in the number of parliamentary seats and a reform of the judiciary. People’s discontent has increased since then, because citizens do not want him to remain in power, but want him to resign and that the corresponding judicial processes against corruption and money laundering be carried out.
Bulgarian communities in Europe support their fellow citizens
Bulgarians abroad are also not willing to give up their desire for the country to become a better place, thus fighting for the suppression of illegality and corruption.
Several people gathered outside the Bulgarian embassy in Oslo, the Norwegian capital, to show their support, albeit far from the borders of their native country.
In the Hague, the Dutch city, there were also several protests started by young students. “We want a normal country, that’s why we are here. We do not want a corrupted state”, commented protesters.
The Road ahead
According to analysts, there are three possibilities as a result of these demonstrations: resignation of the current government and early elections, that the government will remain in power until the parliamentary election next March, or, finally, a broad redevelopment of the executive, this being considered as the most likely option among the experts.
In the middle of the actual global pandemic, the approval of the European Union recovery agreement and the geopolitical challenges presented daily by China, the United States and other powerhouses, the protests in Bulgaria may seem like a minor detail. But this could be completely destructive, undermining the EU project in the long-term. Last week, the European Parliament held a closed-door meeting on the state of democracy and the rule of law in Bulgaria. But it will be difficult to agree on a response at the community level because the Bulgarian Prime Minister is part of the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest group in the European Parliament.
In my opinion, the political crisis in Bulgaria is a threat to the future stability of the EU. From the point of view of European foreign policy, Bulgaria is an external border of the EU and therefore it plays an important role in migration, security, relations with Turkey and relations with Russia and the region of Black Sea. If Bulgaria does not adequately address any of these challenges, this will be quickly felt in other parts of Europe. The anti-corruption fight of Bulgarians resembles a longstanding demand for transparency and accountability on how EU funds are spent in the country. While this issue is particularly problematic in Bulgaria, it also reveals once again the lack at the EU level of an effective control mechanism over the expenditure of EU funds, and the inability of Brussels to protect European values. Thus, the anti-corruption protests in Bulgaria and the struggle of Bulgarian civil society for the rule of law and democratic reforms are everyone’s business as Europeans, not only Bulgarians. It is important to say that an investigation into the Bulgarian government’s spending of EU funds by the European Public Prosecutor is totally necessary.
The inaction of the EU and the deliberate and continuous silence of the European leaders on the situation in Bulgaria could lead to further alienation and Euroscepticism among young Bulgarian citizens (but not only), where trust in the institutions of Brussels is generally higher than in the national government and it is one of the highest in the EU. If European leaders do not express clear support for the rule of law, democracy and reforms to the judicial system in Bulgaria now, there may be no possibility later to keep Bulgaria as a pro-European member state. Seen as a whole, the future of Bulgaria is at stake. The big question is whether it will continue as a member country of the EU or if it will completely change its geopolitical orientation towards Eurasia.
This article is an edited version of an originally one published in El Generacional, featured image by Plamen Zafayah Zafirov.
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About the author
Preslava Boneva is a multitalented young Bulgarian, studying two degrees simultaneously: Journalism and Spanish Literature in the University Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid. Despite living abroad, she closely observes the transforming situation in her country and tries to draw attention to it. In addition to her studies she has interests in photography, reading and learning about other cultures.