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Bulgaria: 100 days of protests

Questions are being asked after over a hundred days of mass protest in Bulgaria. What has been achieved and what does the future hold?

October 28, 2020 - Radosveta Vassileva - Articles and Commentary

People protesting in Sofia, in front of St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral carrying national flags and demanding PM's resignation. Photo: Circlephoto / Shutterstock

For more than 100 days, thousands of Bulgarians have been coming together in the streets to demand the resignations of Boyko Borissov’s third government and General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev. The mass protests erupted after the Prosecutor’s Office physically raided Bulgaria’s Presidency and arrested two of President Rumen Radev’s associates on questionable charges. In the eyes of many, this was not only a violation of the separation of powers and the principle of immunity from which the President benefits, but also an attempt to prepare the ground for the impeachment of Radev, a critic of Borissov. In other words, the Prosecutor’s Office attempted to orchestrate a coup. However, the plan backfired as both right-wingers and left-wingers immediately gathered in protest to defend the rule of law. The raid was merely the last straw for a nation that has now run out of patience with its authorities.

What have the protests achieved and what does the future hold for Bulgaria? These are serious questions now being pondered within Bulgaria’s fragile civil society, which is facing more and more pressure from local authorities.

Bright lights

Bulgaria is traditionally ignored by international media, but the mass protests seem to have provoked an interest in its rule of law decay — a development which Borissov’s government surely does not like, all the more a recurring theme in all critical publications is the role of the mafia. Politico overtly refers to Bulgaria as a “mafia state”. Le Monde has stressed that Bulgarians are now protesting against “the mafia dictatorship”. The publication released a series of articles showcasing the longstanding challenges to the rule of law in the country, paying close attention to the general prosecutor’s lack of accountability. La Repubblica also outlined the contours of the “mafia management” of Bulgaria’s “state machine”.

In addition, for the first time in a long while, Borissov’s ministers were forced out of their comfort zone during interviews under the bright lights of international media. Tim Sebastian, host of Deutsche Welle’s “Conflict Zone”, exposed the hypocrisy of Bulgaria’s Minister of Labour Denitsa Sacheva by confronting her with diverse questions about the country’s struggling economy, its unhealthy record of violating human rights, and its rampant corruption. Sacheva found herself in the absurd situation of accusing the United Nations Committee against Torture of having manipulated its conclusions on Bulgaria. Not only is this committee known for transparency, but also Bulgaria has not contested its findings. While many journalists in Bulgaria let lies pass easily, Tim Sebastian was unimpressed. The rhetorical question he posed still resonates with Bulgaria’s civil society: “What kind of government is this?”

Foreign analysts demonstrated concern for the dual standards applied to Bulgaria by the European Commission. For instance, Judy Dempsey from Carnegie Europe drew parallels between the crises in Belarus and Bulgaria and underscored that a united stance on corruption by EU institutions might have sent a strong signal to Borissov’s government.

EPP’s safety net for Borissov is vanishing

The mass protests in Bulgaria also drew the attention of the European Parliament, which, in stark contrast to the European Commission’s nonchalance, adopted a resolution addressing the rule of law decay and breaches of fundamental rights in Bulgaria.The document is highly critical and touches upon an array of pressing issues, including the allegations concerning the corruption of Boyko Borissov and the Prosecutor’s Office. The very fact that this resolution materialised shows that the European People’s Party (EPP) safety net from which Borissov traditionally benefits is starting to vanish.

It is certainly ironic that the higher powers in the EPP were unsuccessful in sabotaging the resolution even though they did their best to do so. The EPP group did not allow Radan Kanev, a Bulgarian EPP MEP who often criticises Borissov, to speak during the plenary debate on the country’s rule of law. Instead, it showed a united front in defence of Borissov both in the parliamentary room and on social media, where key EPP faces, such as Antonio López, publicly stated that they would not support the resolution. Bulgaria’s civil society will also remember the firm support for Borissov’s regime offered by Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP at the European Parliament, during the plenary debate. Weber praised Borissov and went as far as denying the fact that freedom of speech in the country was threatened. Bulgaria currently ranks 111th in the world in the World Press Freedom Index. Weber had previously expressed his admiration for “Borissov’s fight against corruption” at the onset of the protests.

Meanwhile, the EPP tried to deprive the resolution of its original intent. MEP Roberta Metsola from Malta, who has never previously shown an interest in Bulgarian affairs, surprisingly tabled amendments to the resolution, which Bulgaria’s civil society perceived as scandalous. Metsola attempted to remove references to a report by the Venice Commission as well as the allegations of Borissov’s corruption. She also tried to include a reference presenting the arrests of the President’s associates as legitimate. The MEP also attempted to include a passage blaming the President for violating an alleged duty of neutrality due to his public support for the protests. In this way, she showed disregard for Bulgarian constitutional law as the country’s Constitutional Court has clearly recognised that the President is entitled to make political statements. Perhaps Metsola’s proposal to include a passage suggesting that people protesting in Bulgaria were paid to do so proved most controversial. She withdrew the latter after the leaders of the protests told her they would file a libel suit against her.

Not only Metsola’s amendments did not survive the vote, but the resolution on Bulgaria’s rule of law was adopted with the votes of some EPP members which clearly shows that it will be more and more difficult for EPP’s leadership to provide a shield for Borissov in the future.

Pressure

While the European Parliament resolution provides hope to protestors and sends a strong message to Borissov, it is, in fact, a small step that has been taken too late. Meanwhile, the European Commission, currently dominated by the EPP, has shown little concern about the rule of law decay in the country. This is not only visible in the latest report on Bulgaria under the new Rule of Law mechanism which is riddled with euphemisms, but also in the Commission’s refusal to reconsider its conclusions under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, which monitors the country in the areas of the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organised crime. The Commission has refrained from issuing a public statement about the protests, which is much needed considering the violence employed by Borissov’s regime.

Despite the fact that Borissov’s government is currently in the international spotlight, it has continued its crackdown on Bulgarian civil society. Pro-government media continue to tarnish critics and state institutions are being misused to harass opponents. While Borissov’s government shows no sign of willing to resign, regular elections, supposed to be held next year, seem far away. Borissov’s GERB party has also tabled controversial amendments to Bulgaria’s election law, which were quickly vetoed by President Radev. It is expected though that these proposals will still pass as the president’s veto is not binding. That is why, the parliament can simply vote on them again.

Bulgarians know that the future is in their hands, but their options are limited, especially if the elections are unfair. “Necessity is the mother of invention”, the old saying goes. But what will this invention be, in light of the pressures civil society faces? Only time will tell. A firmer commitment to defend the rule of law in Bulgaria by the European Commission, considering its role as the Guardian of the Treaties, would have been helpful. However, perhaps it is better that we now know that we are on our own.

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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