The challenges Bulgaria is facing are manifold. To make matters even worse, besides the health crisis and dire economic situation, there is the concern of internal division. Growing dissatisfaction with the local mafia’s increasing power, corruption, and lawlessness has led to unprecedented protests of Bulgarians across the country and in major European cities.
This year, 9 July marked the first day of a series of protests, where the protesters raised demands for the resignation of Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov and Chief Prosecutor Geshev. Hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian citizens blocked main streets, boulevards, and even border checkpoints in their desire to be heard. There were two immediate triggers for these sudden protests. First, famous Bulgarian politicians have become entangled with the construction of a private luxury residence on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. However, the land used is classified as exclusive state property and should therefore belong to all citizens. Second, the prosecution’s actions against President Radev and the arrest of several of Radev’s confidants, which actions raised public suspicions. Bulgarians perceived these events as a “repression of the uncomfortable people,” and deplored the “lack of freedom that we are supposed to have in the EU.”
Never before has Bulgaria seen protests of such length—four months and counting—and they reflect the people’s urge for change. There is much needed change since Bulgaria, contrary to Prime Minister Borissov’s opinion, is the European Union’s most corrupt country, as well as one of the poorest. The European Commission’s September 2020 Rule of Law Report considers the country’s underperformance in the fight against corruption to be one of the main reasons for the ongoing demonstrations. Media ownership in Bulgaria also remains opaque. According to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Bulgaria takes 111th place, far behind fellow EU countries and also behind certain African and Asian countries.
Given the global challenges of 2020, it might be easy to overlook the uprising in one of the smallest EU countries. Nevertheless, this political crisis has the potential to create more significant problems. Bulgaria has suffered from critical flaws relating to democracy, the rule of law, the judiciary, and the fight against corruption. As one of the Union’s border states, the country’s persistent internal struggles could jeopardize not only the security of the EU as a whole but also the stability of the Eurozone, the waiting room of which Bulgaria entered in July. The crisis is raging at the national level but given the state’s failure to solve its internal conflict, external help may be required. It is, of course, debatable whether the Bulgarians would approve such assistance after the European People’s Party surprisingly declared its support for Mr Borissov. The public regarded the party’s gesture of solidarity as neglect of public opinion and as blatant toleration of the Bulgarian mafia, leaving many citizens deeply disappointed with both the national government and the European Union.
The two “main culprits” of the unrest in the country, despite the duration and the intensity of the political strife, flatly refuse to resign. According to Mr Borissov, who has a history of controversial remarks, “Bulgaria is among the most developed, white countries in the EU. I remain in power because the opposition will break the country.” At the same time, the Chief Prosecutor called the protests “provocations of agitators paid by oligarchs,” and claimed, “I will not resign for doing my job. I am on the side of the Bulgarian citizens.”
As the protests continued, a new idea emerged in the parliament regarding how the cabinet could retain power. According to Mr Borissov, the only way for the Bulgarian people to receive the desired justice is to give the state a complete “restart” by adopting a new constitution. In September, the required majority of the parliament voted in favor of the preliminary draft of the new constitution. The new constitution provides for a reduction in the number of members of parliament and a division of the Supreme Judicial Council into two separate units, namely the judiciary and the prosecution, giving the latter much more freedom and independence by removing it from the judicial branch. The amendments, however, are not necessarily in the interest of the country. The parliament may now more easily change the constitution by a qualified majority. Additionally, the President loses his right to appoint key figures in the judiciary, including the Chief Prosecutor.
The government’s actions have not yet satisfied the protesters’ longing for change. On the contrary, they understand this “new start” as the ruling party’s attempt to immortalize its power via “a custom-made constitution.”
Meanwhile, President Radev has joined the public in calling for an investigation of the Black Sea privatization, emphasizing, “it is time to expel the mafia from the executive and prosecutor’s office.” The protesters welcomed the President’s support. In contrast, the government dismissed it as a “well-crafted scenario” in the face of deep disagreement between the parliament and the President. The crucial question, however, remains: whether the President’s engagement in public protests corresponds to a crossing of boundaries that could lead to his impeachment.
The protests have still not abated. In light of the ongoing unrest, sporadic violence, and sociopolitical division, Bulgaria has been experiencing protests for more than one hundred consecutive days. On the 116th day, the protesters announced the suspension of daily demonstrations due to surging COVID-19 cases. Still, they swore to continue pressuring the government and demanding the resignation of Borissov and Geshev.
Today, the conflict in Bulgaria is far from resolved. Public discontent is still omnipresent, and the government has not taken adequate steps to address this frustration. The deepening of the health crisis in Europe might temporarily silence the country’s division, but it will certainly not solve the underlying problems. Extensive reforms remain absent and seem impossible. Of these necessary changes, internal reforms take precedence. Bulgarians cannot see any solution to the current crises without the resignation of their most disputed politicians.
Edited by Max Mueller; Photo credit: SevSab, Wikimedia Commons