Bulgaria: EU’s ignored rule of law crisis

By Dr. Radosveta Vassileva

Do you know that there are currently mass protests in Bulgaria against the third government of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov as well as against General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev? Protests erupted spontaneously on 9 July 2020 after the Prosecutor’s Office raided Bulgaria’s Presidency based on obscure charges against the President’s advisors. President Rumen Radev is the only critic of Borissov who has a high position in the State and the Presidency is the last institution which has not been fully captured.

For experts following the decline of Bulgaria’s rule of law, these protests are no surprise. Since first coming to power in 2009, Boyko Borissov embarked on an assault against the rule of law comparable to Viktor Orbàn’s in Hungary. Similarly to him, Borissov is an esteemed member of the European People’s Party (EPP), but there is a catch — unlike Orbàn who overtly engages in anti-EU rhetoric, Borissov praises the EU only to use this as a license to undermine EU values away from the spotlight. He may be an autocrat, but so long as he brings votes for the EPP at the European Parliament, he is safe.

Solidifying autocracy and poverty

Borissov’s biography may hold the key to understanding Bulgaria’s current affairs. He served as the personal bodyguard of Bulgaria’s communist dictator Todor Zhivkov who he calls “one of his two great universities in life”. WikiLeaks links Borissov to drug smuggling and organized crime. Borissov’s rise to power followed the typical autocratic trajectory described in literature — he was elected by “disgruntled citizens” because he promised radical change. Instead, he pursued a policy of solidifying autocracy and deepening poverty.

Under Borissov’s rule, corruption and racketeering by public institutions became the norm — Bulgaria is persistently ranked as the most corrupt EU member by reputable indices such as the Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International and the World Bank Governance Indicators. The country is permanently shaken by corruption scandals — from leaked recordings evidencing how the executive harasses judges and meddles into courts’ functioning, through compromising pictures of Borissov’s sleeping with exorbitant amounts of cash in his nightstand, to the news that Borissov is being investigated for money-laundering in Spain.

Unsurprisingly, Borissov’s economic model promotes poverty — Foreign Direct Investment plummeted because investors fear expropriation, Bulgaria has the lowest median earnings in the EU, etc. There is ample evidence that Borissov’s government even manipulates the macroeconomic data, including GDP statistics, it sends EU institutions to deceive them about the true state of the economy. Many people emigrated  because they do not see their future at home — there are more Bulgarians working abroad than in Bulgaria.

On the legislative end, Borissov’s GERB party committed itself to carrying a crackdown on human rights and liberties. Moreover, it took steps to increase the already excessive powers of the Prosecutor’s Office and to ensure the capture of courts, so that critics and opponents could be harassed and silenced. Bulgaria has a poor track recording before the European Court of Human Rights — it has already lost 628 cases (contrast with the Czech Republic which ratified the European Convention on Human Rights at the same time as Bulgaria and has a similar population: it has lost 190 cases). In fact, Bulgaria has even lost a case on violating the “right to life” because of a violent police operation personally led by Boyko Borissov in his capacity of Secretary of Bulgaria’s Ministry of Interior.

EU’s complicity

It is no secret that accession to the EU is primarily a political process, but in the case of Romania and Bulgaria, the EU Commission explicitly recognized that they did not fulfill the accession criteria. That is why, it subjected both countries to the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), which was supposed to bring both countries back on track in the areas of rule of law and the fight against corruption. In the case of Bulgaria, the mechanism failed.

The more Borissov undermined EU values, the more progress the EU Commission recognized. First, many experts concur that the biggest threat to the rule of law in Bulgaria is the excessive, uncontrollable powers of the Prosecutor’s Office which has not been reformed since communist times and which is used by the executive as a weapon against those raising a voice against the status quo. The Council of Europe and the Venice Commission have called for a reform to no avail for a decade, but the EU Commission was never truly troubled dismissing the abuses as a political issue and even praising the Prosecutor’s Office for increasing its own powers. The EU Commission turned a blind eye to the harassment of judges, including the President of the Supreme Court of Cassation, and a dubious reform, which made sure the Supreme Judicial Council, the body appointing and promoting all magistrates and monitoring their ethical values, remained a puppet in the hands of the executive. A series of controversial reforms in the country’s penal codes undermining human rights as well as the creation of extraordinary tribunals in all but name were also checked as progress.

Considering, however, that Bulgaria is the biggest recipient of EU funds when one factors in GDP, the sad conclusion is that EU institutions not only support the solidification of autocracy but also finance it.

A parallel reality

While thousands of people are on the streets, the EPP, in the face of Manfred Weber, has expressed its firm support for Borissov, including his “fight against corruption”, even though for many Bulgarians Borissov is the symbol of corruption and a proponent of rule of law decay. The EU Commission has preferred to keep silent. Borissov himself coined the conspiracy theory that all those protesting were enemies of Bulgaria’s EU future.

The latter could not be further from the truth. Citizens are on the streets because corruption has taken its toll on our country. People of all ages and political beliefs — both right-wingers and left-wingers — demand a state governed by the rule of law. Is this too much to ask for? It is difficult to imagine Bulgaria’s EU future with Borissov in it for the rule of law and democracy are values at the foundation of the EU project by which Borissov does not abide.