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Bulgaria’s Faustian bargain and the betrayal of the 2020 anti-corruption protests

Bulgaria’s anti-corruption protests in 2020 gave voice to engaged citizens eager for reform in the country’s political system. Despite this, successive governments have failed to honour their pledges to bring about real change. A controversial understanding between establishment and reformist figures has only dashed these hopes of reform further.

March 15, 2024 - Radosveta Vassileva - Articles and Commentary

Now former Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov arrives for a EU Summit, at the EU headquarters in Brussels, back in October 2023. Photo: Alexandros Michalidis / Shutterstock

On March 5th this year the prime minister of Bulgaria Nikolay Denkov resigned. His government had been elected by Bulgaria’s parliament on  June 6th 2023 after protracted negotiations between Boyko Borissov’s GERB party and the PPDB (We’ll Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria) coalition. To many abroad, the election of a regular government last year put an end to a long period of political instability and an election spiral in the country. Yet, already in the summer of 2023, to many at home, the symbiosis between those accused of rampant corruption and those claiming to bring about democratic change in Bulgaria was deeply concerning.

Recent events, such as two high-profile murders in Sofia, a controversial reform to Bulgaria’s constitution in December 2023, and the implicit recognition that there was a third coalition partner in the government – namely, DPS, a long-standing ally of Borissov behind the scenes – made it more and more discernible that the latest cabinet was the product of a Faustian bargain  betraying the 2020 anti-corruption protests. Unsurprisingly, according to the most recent polls, two-thirds of Bulgarians did not have confidence in Denkov’s cabinet. How did Bulgaria get here, what does the future hold, and why is the rule of law at stake?

How it started: a beautiful promise for change that was not kept

The 2020 anti-corruption protests, which eventually led to Borissov’s demise, had very clear demands – the resignation of Borissov’s third government and the removal of controversial General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev from office as a first step towards an in-depth reform of Bulgaria’s justice system. Bulgarian citizens believe that only a major overhaul of this system, whose backbone has been inherited from totalitarian times, can lead to proper investigations into the corruption scandals implicating GERB and their allies, such as DPS.

At the 2023 election, the PPDB coalition made it to parliament on an anti-GERB ticket. PPDB’s leaders recurrently misled their voters that a coalition with GERB or another party associated with Bulgaria’s corrupt status quo was not in their plans. Following the October 2022 snap parliamentary election, for instance, Kiril Petkov, co-leader of PP, argued: “We promised our voters that we would not be entering a coalition with GERB or DPS. We will keep our promise. This is a matter of values.” He repeated the same pledge right before the April 2023 snap parliamentary election. In 2022, Hristo Ivanov, co-leader of DB, relied on even bolder rhetoric, saying that “If we enter a coalition with GERB, I would be ashamed to walk in the street.”

Coalition as a dirty word

As is often the case, politicians do not keep their pre-election promises. Yet, in view of the 2020 protests, PP and DB’s post-election choices can be seen as sheer betrayal. No wonder PPDB’s political calculations created major problems regarding how the coalition with GERB, which they negotiated after the April 2023 election, could be marketed to citizens . The most prominent faces of PP and DB showcased their strongest skills at linguistic gymnastics, avoiding the word “coalition” like the plague. The coalition was presented as a “format”, a “fit” and as a “rotation”. Bulgarian journalists even created the term “non-coalition” to refer to Denkov’s cabinet.

More importantly, PPDB gave their voters pointers as to how to come to terms with this strange non-coalition phenomenon on the Bulgarian political stage. They explained that experts endorsed by GERB and PP would be rotating through key positions in government – an approach, which, nevertheless, creates constitutional challenges because, for such a rotation to happen, the government should resign, and a new government should be elected. Voters were also promised that there was a carrot to be earned for tolerating this scandalous marriage of convenience – the reforms demanded by the protests of 2020 were supposed to take place with GERB’s help.

The first true red flag, however, came with the very election of Denkov’s cabinet on June 6th, 2023. His government was supported not only by parliamentarians from GERB and PPDB, but also by two recognizable figures from DPS – the then leader of DPS Mustafa Karadayi and Delyan Peevski. This second figure had been sanctioned for corruption by the US government under the Global Magnitsky Act in 2021 and by the UK government under its Global Anti-Corruption Sanctions Regulations in 2023. Peevski is also known for his close ties to Borissov.

A high-profile murder and a pseudo-constitutional reform: who governs Bulgaria?

More red flags appeared following the murder of Alexey Petrov, a high-profile secret service agent who many believe had deep links to Bulgaria’s underground in August 2023. Both Borissov and Petkov admitted that Petrov was the godfather of Denkov’s cabinet because he had facilitated the negotiations between GERB and PPDB. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Denkov refuted that this was the case: “I have directly participated in all the processes related to the preparation of the legislative programme… and never in any of these processes has Aleksey Petrov’s name been mentioned.” Ultimately, this brutal murder and the confusion among the highest ranks of government about how to react to it led to painful questions, such as who governs Bulgaria, where are decisions taken, and to what extent does organized crime play a role in the political landscape? Overall, in the eyes of a critical public, Denkov did not appear as the person in charge, but merely as the acceptable face of an unacceptable union.

What further troubled critics was a sort of pseudo-reform to Bulgaria’s constitution in December 2023, which was portrayed by both PPDB and GERB as a major step in the fight against corruption. First of all, the controversial amendments were drafted and enacted with the parliamentary support of GERB, PPDB and DPS. On a symbolic level, fighting corruption with parties accused of being implicated in rampant corruption is surely disturbing, especially in view of the demands of the 2020 protests. It did not help that the sanctioned Delyan Peevski became the main public interlocutor of this alleged reform, either. Predictably, amidst this reform, lack of confidence in Kiril Petkov peaked at 64.4 per cent while disapproval of Hristo Ivanov reached 51.5 per cent.

More importantly, the recent constitutional reform follows in the footsteps of the worst of GERB’s legislative practices. This is namely the habit of changing something cosmetically in order not to alter anything at its core. In a nutshell, this reform does not resolve any of Bulgaria’s long-standing challenges in the area of the rule of law – it does not minimize the political dependencies of the Supreme Judicial Council, nor does it introduce proper checks and balances for the excessive powers of Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office. To this end, Mihail Ekimdjiev, a lawyer who has won more than two hundred cases against Bulgaria at the European Court of Human Rights, contended that the reform “slaughtered” the hopes for change because all it ensured was the “cementing of the cadres of Borissov and Peevski” in Bulgaria’s justice system.

Yet another high-profile murder: who governs Bulgaria’s justice system?

The truthfulness in Ekimdjiev’s words found illustration in the events that followed another ruthless murder in Sofia in January 2024 – that of Martin Bozhanov, also known as the “Notary”. It transpired that Bozhanov was the owner of a club for magistrates, where they met to receive bribes to start bogus criminal proceedings against innocent people or whitewash criminals. This scandal engulfed senior judges and prosecutors, including the now former General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev and the current Acting General Prosecutor Borisolav Sarafov. This controversy confirmed what many knew before – that anyone can be charged and harassed and that anyone can be acquitted for the right amount. Viewed from the standpoint of the clash between Geshev and Sarafov from spring 2023, when they accused each other of crimes against the justice system, this scandal only shows the depth of the decay of rule of law in Bulgaria, which has been left unattended to for decades.

One should not forget that all controversial magistrates implicated in NotaryGate have been promoted and given stellar reviews by the Supreme Judicial Council, which the alleged constitutional reform of December 2023 failed to overhaul. Moreover, these magistrates are perceived as allies of Borissov and Peevski not only because of the way they were elected and appointed, but also because they turned a blind eye to the corruption scandals in which Borissov and Peevski had been implicated. In this light, it is quite revealing that Borissov argued that he did not see a reason why Sarafov should resign as acting general prosecutor despite the serious allegations against him that emerged from NotaryGate.

Was there an alternative to the Faustian bargain with GERB and DPS?

When confronted about their Faustian bargain with GERB and DPS, which is at the core of the current non-coalition, PPDB’s leaders get incredibly defensive. “One of our greatest achievements, and I am very happy about this, is that what was behind the scenes is now at the front row in parliament. Peevski, Borissov… and me, we are all in the front and have to argue our case before the media,” explained Kiril Petkov to a critical journalist.

Sitting at the front row in parliament together with someone who has been sanctioned for corruption by both the US and the UK, and with the controversial prime minister of three governments is already a bad look, which can be perceived as an endorsement of these politicians. Moreover, controlled transparency in front of the media is not exactly how those who protested against corruption in 2020 imagined accountability. After all, the role of a true opposition is to fight for its values and to expose the status quo rather than enter shameful deals and implement pseudo-reforms in an attempt to deceive voters and imitate decency.

Overall, Bulgaria is at a crossroads – its future cabinet whose composition is currently being negotiated will be a puppet in the hands of a controversial political union . It is expected that the next prime minister will be former European Commissioner from Bulgaria Mariya Gabriel. While she has spent most of her political career in Brussels, one should not forget that she owes her appointments there entirely to Borissov and his GERB party. Not only does this imply that she has favours to return, but also it signals that, just like Denkov, she will merely be the less controversial façade behind which the Faustian bargain between the reformists and the establishment can be hidden.

While the current marriage of convenience between the reformists and the establishment may be tolerable from a distant perspective – GERB is a valued member of the European People’s Party (EPP), while DPS are a cherished member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) – it is unbearable for those truly committed to defending the rule of law. Corruption is not a Euro-Atlantic value, so a Faustian bargain with those pretending to be Euro-Atlanticists may have dire consequences for those who made it. The litmus test will surely be the European elections this spring, as they will indicate the price that PPDB has agreed to pay for their debatable manoeuvres. Sadly, however, in the meantime, Bulgaria’s rule of law will remain hostage to those who preyed on it.

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. She is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at Middlesex University.  

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