Sunday

4th Dec 2022

Opinion

The corruption fuelling the Bulgaria protests

  • Protests in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, have been going on for two months against government corruption (Photo: Ivan Shishiev/ Sketches of Sofi)

Finally, Bulgaria did it. After years of competition with Romania, Bulgaria has officially become the uncontested European champion of corruption.

That was recognised not by one but by many different international institutes and organisations. Metrics - such as by Transparency International - indicate that the perception of corruption in Bulgaria is highest in the European Union.

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Other criteria see democracy in the country as deeply in peril. In 2019, the Rule of Law Index gave Bulgaria the same marks as Russia for corruption of the executive.

One can see the glass half empty or half full.

But it is hard to deny the skill put in by the current government to maintain the leadership in this domain above all other EU states. Even in the 2020 Investment Climate Statement for Bulgaria, the US Department of State concluded that corruption remains endemic.

Joking aside, people have been taking to the streets of Sofia to protest for more than two months now against the government and general prosecutor, who is accused of being no more than an enforcer of the Borissov government.

Protests are being put down with unrestrained violence, police brutality targeting citizens and journalists alike.

These demonstrators are wondering where these EU institutions supposed to fight for a more democratic Europe are. The answer from the international community has been limited to a diplomatic answer declaring that it is not the role of the US or EU to decide on behalf of Bulgaria.

This position is a bit surprising as memories of the wide international support received for similar protests in 2013 are still fresh: the French ambassador protesting amongst the demonstrators against the grip of the oligarchs on the country, the interruption of EU funding, the visit of the American ambassador to the students occupying the Sofia University, and more generally speaking - real ostracisation of Bulgaria from the international community.

These voices are silent today, while the situation is stagnating: for instance, despite a real lack of significant progress under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), the supervision mechanism is nonetheless going to be lifted.

According to that CVM report of 2019, the Commission considered that Bulgaria had actively fought against organised crime, noting a durable positive trend over the institutional climate.

But the issue is that allegations against the incumbent government are not followed up on. The only allegations which are thoroughly investigated by Bulgaria's Prosecution Office (which have been denounced multiple times by the Council of Europe as an anachronistic aberration) are ones made against political opponents of the governing party.

It is also surprising to see that the EU treat accusations as equivalent to a real fight against corruption, despite the absence of a formal conviction by an independent court.

Indeed, only a conviction after an independent trial can be a meaningful indicator of the reality of a fight against corruption - without mentioning that the presumption of innocence is a fundamental right enshrined in article 48 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Loud silence

In addition, the perception of total impunity of the close allies of the government and persecution of any opponents does not help citizens to perceive a real change.

On the contrary, the loud silence of the international community seems to imply that the fight against corruption is not anymore a fight for western and European values, but only a useful excuse to challenge unhelpful governments.

"We wanted the best, but things turned out as always" is a famous saying of Russian former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, used in connection with the natural tendency in Russia to worsen things no matter how good intentions may have been.

Most of the protestors expected the EU to hold itself to a higher standard by taking actions on the good intentions demonstrated.

This support did not come, but the only way that EU will overcome the political accusations of ignoring a democratic deficit is by using the powers granted within the European treaties themselves.

The respect of EU values is essential for citizens to trust EU institutions.

The rulings of the European Court of Justice continue to underline that the rule of law is fundamental to the EU legal order and threats towards it challenge the legal, political and economic basis of the Union's functioning.

The deficiency of rule of law in one member state impact the EU as a whole.

The protests in Bulgaria clearly open the debate whether the rule of law remains the central shared value for all Europeans. Because of the high-level corruption, governmental abuses and the lack of judicial independence, Bulgaria demonstrates that national check and balances are not working.

Nevertheless, EU funds for Bulgaria, for instance, have not been suspended.

When the national rule of law safeguards are no longer working, it is a responsibility of the EU institutions to take action. This have been confirmed in a recent case by the European Court of Justice reminding that in independent justice system is not only a standard in a democracy but a legal obligation in regard of art 19 of the Treaty on the European Union.

However, Europe is just watching how a democracy withers in Bulgaria.

This is not what Bulgarians expect nor what they deserve for trying to fight against the systemic corruption and the antiquated conception of the state pushed by politicians nostalgic of a bygone era.

If Europe wants to make sense in the east, it has to stand firmly for the democratic values it manifests and support the legitimacy of the protest movements in countries like Bulgaria. Or it will be perceived only as a body of hypocrisy.

Author bio

Blaga Thavard is Bulgarian qualified attorney at law with the Sofia bar, and a lawyer at Pappas & Associates in Brussels.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Analysis

What's behind the sudden political unrest in Bulgaria?

Demonstrators are demanding prime minister Boyko Borissov and chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev resign, following a raid on the president's office. President Rumen Radev has been a vocal critic of the government and its record on graft.

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