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25th Feb 2024

Opinion

Bulgaria's political stalemate is stymying corruption fight

  • Boyko Borissov's brand of old-guard populism has continuously dominated Bulgarian politics, dashing hopes of any real progress (Photo: eu2018bg/Flickr)
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Just weeks after Bulgaria's fifth election in two years, the state is in danger of collapse as early as June if it is unable to form a government.

In the April general elections, Bulgarian strongman Boyko Borissov's party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) emerged top with 26.5 percent of votes, two points ahead of the coalition of reformist parties We Continue the Change (PP) and Democratic Bulgaria (DB).

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On 3 May, the PP-DB coalition proposed a project for government, including leading pro-Western and anti-corruption figures—but Borissov, a former bodyguard to Bulgaria's last communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, promptly rejected the proposed cabinet line-up and told reporters that he is seeking support for a minority government.

The increasingly unstable political situation in Bulgaria is the latest blow to a country which, when it joined the EU in 2007, seemed likely to take a democratic turn. However, Borissov's brand of old-guard populism has continuously dominated Bulgarian politics, dashing hopes of any real progress.

Borissov's reign during the majority of 2009-2021 was marked by corruption, scandals about misused EU funds (now under investigation by the European Public Prosecutor's Office), high rates of emigration, poverty, and inflation. In effect, Bulgaria has spent more than a decade dominated by a mafia elite with roots in the communist-era intelligence services.

Bulgaria is still not part of the eurozone or the Schengen area — mainly for failing to tackle its endemic corruption while struggling for eligibility in the EU's Recovery Plan due to lack of judicial reform.

Bulgarians have taken note; one recent poll showed that 88 percent of Bulgarians see corruption as widespread, and there have been numerous mass protests calling for a genuine fight against corruption, for media freedom and for judicial reform—in particular calling for the removal of Bulgaria's omnipotent and controversial prosecutor general Ivan Geshev.

Nothing seems to have changed, however—in January of this year, the Council of Europe's anti-corruption body GRECO (Group of States Against Corruption) criticised Bulgaria for lack of political transparency.

Even the US recently sanctioned five high-profile Bulgarians (adding to three others who were sanctioned in 2021), including Vladislav Goranov, Borissov's finance minister in 2014-2020.

But no single figure, including those sanctioned, have been put behind bars for graft to date. Borissov and Goranov were briefly detained back in 2022, but Geshev — likely due to his close ties to Borissov and GERB — declined to press charges.

The prosecutor-general being able to act above the law in Bulgaria is a long-standing bottleneck highlighted in a Strasbourg court in 2009.

Having more power than his counterparts in the EU, the Bulgarian prosecutor general can annul every prosecutor's decision and control every investigation in the country — and cannot even be fired for any wrongdoing. The Supreme Judicial Council, a 25-member body composed of legal experts, including subordinates of the prosecutor general, only has a limited degree of oversight over the prosecutor's office due to its composition.

Reform proposals have repeatedly been stalled GERB and the judiciary seems to be continuously weaponised to shake down businessmen. This was evident by cases such as the investigation into the Bobokov brothers, prominent businessmen who were arrested on Geshev's orders in 2020 and claim that the special prosecutor falsely brought criminal charges against them in order to seize their lucrative business empire based on political motivations.

In another recent example, Geshev's office raided the crypto platform Nexo, a few of whose employees had made publicly registered donations to opposition party Democratic Bulgaria in January 2023.

One barrister with experience working in Bulgaria has referred to the raid as "a coordinated attack with claims of criminal conduct based on fabricated and politically-motivated allegations […] the reality is that Nexo's directors were targeted due to their support for the political opposition, reform and end to corruption".

Bulgaria's bad record on media freedom is no less concerning.

On 2 May, two leading investigative journalism platforms, BIRD.bg and Bivol.bg, were subject to legal pressure over their recent revelations about alleged crime and corruption. They have faced defamation lawsuits and a discreditation campaign by Geshev—who has now even accused three investigative journalists of being involved in a car bombing which he escaped, though journalists and opposition politicians alike have questioned whether the alleged bombing is any more than a PR stunt.

Bulgaria desperately needs judicial reform but given the ongoing political stalemate, it's unclear when that might occur. Even if a government is formed, it is not expected to last beyond the upcoming local elections in October. This would likely delay any judicial reform and deprive Bulgarian citizens of much needed EU recovery funds.

As for the prosecutor general Geshev, who has been paralysing the justice system since 2019, he will likely continue to do so until the end of his mandate in 2026.

Author bio

Eli Hadzhieva is founder and director of the Brussels-based think tank Dialogue for Europe.

Disclaimer

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

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