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Bulgaria: will Borissov’s government survive this summer?

A string of scandals could signal the end of Borissov’s ten year long rule.

July 13, 2020 - Radosveta Vassileva - Articles and Commentary

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov at the EPP Summit, Brussels, October 17th 2019 flickr.com

Since the beginning of 2020, Bulgaria has been shaken by a series of scandals that have exposed the country’s rampant corruption and fragile rule of law. Controversy erupted in June when news giants, such as Reuters and Bloomberg, as well as national media in EU member states, such as the Netherlands and Greece, reported a rather peculiar story. Pictures had been leaked of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s bedroom, which looked like something from a movie scene. The drawer of his nightstand was photographed full of cash reaching up to 1 million euros and gold ingots. Borissov himself was pictured sleeping — it appeared that he kept a gun on top of his nightstand too.

Those following the decline of Bulgaria’s rule of law now seem to be wondering if Borissov’s third government will serve its full term, but there is no easy answer.

Pictures worth a thousand words

Bulgaria rarely receives coverage from international media, but this scandal has changed the rules of the game. Why? On the one hand, it is certainly unusual to see these type of pictures include a leader of an EU member state. On the other hand, Borissov’s official salary is roughly 3160 euros per month in a country where the average net monthly earnings are 457 euros, the lowest in the EU. Borissov has repeatedly said that his income was insufficient but his “faith in God” helped him to carry on. Could these pictures serve as evidence of rampant corruption in a country which has been ranked for years as the most corrupt EU member state by Transparency International?

Prime Minister Borissov himself argued that this was a provocation by his opponents who wanted to sabotage his foreign policy, but he admitted that the picture of him sleeping was real. His supporters gave plenty of interviews in which they insisted that the rest of the pictures were “collages”. Nevertheless, Bulgaria’s member of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Bivol, in collaboration with E-Vestnik, submitted the photos for an expert opinion.The experts concluded that the only way that the photos had been manipulated was a change to the date on which they were taken. This was possibly done to protect the identity of the photographer(s) because Borissov’s government residence is guarded by the National Security Service. All his guests are registered unless he asks his guards not to comply with the procedure. The true dates would have helped shortlist the likely photographer(s) if the security procedure had been followed.

Those supporting Borissov believe he is the victim of a set-up. Although, it is questionable how a provocateur could enter his bedroom so many times without being found with a phone, bars of gold and millions of euros. For critics, however, these photos further illustrate the deplorable state of affairs in Bulgaria, as this event is just the latest drop in an ocean of controversies.

Another day, another scandal

Borissov’s political career received its first big blow this year when El Periodico, a Catalan publication, broke the story that he was being investigated for money laundering in Spain. Borissov contended that this was simply a provocation by President Radev, his major political opponent, and Russia. Tzveta Karayancheva, the Head of Bulgaria’s Parliament and close confidante of Borissov, dismissed the article as “fake news”. However, shortly after, Spanish police confirmed that there was an ongoing investigation.

Various critics rained on Borissov’s parade too. After a corporate raid against businessman Vassil Bozhkov by the Prosecutor’s Office in early 2020, Bozhkov publicly claimed that in the past few years he had paid Borissov’s government millions in cash. He described these payments as a “security tax” that the government demanded under threat of harming his business. For critics, this may explain some of the wealth photographed in Borissov’s bedroom. The businessman also disclosed that the messenger in this racketeering scheme was none other than Borissov’s PR manager, Sevdelina Arnaudova.

Whereas Arnaudova vehemently denied the allegations, her name only attracted the attention of investigative journalists from OCCRP’s partner Bivol, who discovered another paradox in spring 2020. Even though both Arnaudova and her husband are employed in the public sector, they live in a luxurious villa, the type of which public servants cannot usually afford. Arnaudova explained that she received a 1 million Bulgarian lev (approximately 500,000 euros) loan to acquire this property but this only raised more questions. Naturally, a 30-year loan, with a 2.5 per cent yearly interest rate given to a politically exposed person with a modest income seems suspicious. Those aware of market prices in Bulgaria also know that properties of a similar kind cost much more — a sign strangely reminiscent of Apartment Gate. This scandal shook Bulgaria in 2019 and exposed politicians and civil servants buying high-end property at prices significantly below market value.

The last days of spring ignited the political atmosphere in Bulgaria even further. In June, Bulgarians were shocked to hear yet another leaked recording of Prime Minister Borissov. In this recording, he not only insulted important politicians such as the head of Bulgaria’s parliament and the prime ministers of Poland and Hungary, but also explained how he instructed state institutions, including the Prosecutor’s Office, as to who should receive criminal charges and whose businesses should be raided. Borissov himself stated that he did not want this scandal investigated, which raised eyebrows within civil society. If this recording is fake, those who orchestrated the scandal should face consequences. If it is real, however, Borissov should be put on inquiry.

A captured state

A series of scandals of this caliber ought to shake the foundation of a democratic government. Surely in a state governed by the rule of law such controversies will be investigated. Yet, this is not Bulgaria’s modus operandi. The government’s traditional approach is to deny such allegations and to dismiss them as fake news or even hate speech.

Borissov has been governing Bulgaria for almost ten years and he has survived plenty of controversies, including leaked recordings. “You chose him” Gate showcased how he personally selected former General Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov, which violates the separation of powers because the Prosecutor’s Office is part of the judicial system. Yaneva Gate exposed the interference of Borissov, Tsatsarov and other politicians in judicial appointments, with these figures also instructing judges on how to decide cases. The list of scandals is rather long, but they have one thing in common — they are swept under the carpet without a proper investigation.

After Borissov came to power in 2009, Bulgaria gradually slipped into autocratic mode. I have written many articles exposing the purposeful dismantling of Bulgaria’s rule of law by the executive. This assault is visible in reputable indices and opinion polls. The 2020 Rule of Law Index by the World Justice Project gave Bulgaria the second worst score in the EU after Hungary. According to the latest Special Eurobarometer 502, only 16 per cent of Bulgarians believe that Bulgaria’s efforts in combating corruption are effective and only 18 per cent are convinced these measures are applied impartially and without ulterior motives. The Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit considers the country’s democracy to be “flawed”, while the Nations in Transit report by Freedom House downgraded Bulgaria to a semi-consolidated democracy in 2018.

What does the summer hold?

As I am writing this article, I am also reading news about an investigation by the Anticorruption Fund. This investigation has highlighted yet another case of racketeering by public servants against an entrepreneur, whose business had been threatened. Scandals have become “the new normal” in Bulgaria and betting on the next controversy is now a national sport.

Prominent civil society members have already called for civil disobedience and civil pressure groups have announced mass protests. However, Bulgarians are notorious for their patience with political abuse. Bulgaria is the only former communist country in which the regime fell under its own weight, without a revolution. It may be the case that this is what will happen this time, too. Borissov has become a huge liability not just for the country, but for his own GERB party.

Meanwhile, Evgenii Dainov has already argued that Borissov has provided an impressive blueprint for those who wish to dismantle democracy. To paraphrase Dainov, Hollywood scriptwriters need look no further for inspiration than Bulgaria’s numerous scandals. Maybe the movie could be called “The Death of Bulgaria’s Rule of Law”?

Dr. Radosveta Vassileva is a Bulgarian legal scholar whose research interests encompass EU law and comparative public and private law. She maintains a personal blog dedicated to the rule of law in Bulgaria.


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