Bulgarian protests: battles over anti-corruption?

The Bulgarian protests of the summer of 2020 constitute an unusual eruption of political energy. Bulgaria has been known for its apathy and lack of social mobility, with many of its young people emigrating to the west for at least two decades. Today the younger generation – people in their twenties – are the most visible face of the protests. But the protests are also ‘universal’: a conflation of all kinds of ideologies, ages and geopolitical allegiances can be found represented in the squares of the big cities.

The primary emotion behind this release of energy is evidently sincere disgust at the endless cynicism of the in-groups that dominate the country’s political and economic life. At first glance, it looks like the street’s demands are pretty clear: resignations of the prime minister Boyko Borisov and the chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev. Both of them are considered by the majority of the protesters as representatives of “the captive state” that serves the oligarchy and mafia, but not ordinary citizens. This seems to be the position not only of the younger generation, but also of the urban middle class. The latter has finally allowed itself to feel offended by the rule of a prime minister whose magical explanation for holding power over much of the last 11 years is: “I am stupid. You [the people] are stupid too. Therefore we understand each other [perfectly].”

The protest is branded as an “ethical” one, beyond right and left, which unites the honest and disgusted people against the privileged elites. (“When the disgusted leave [power], the disgusting remain” is a popular saying.). But the ethical higher ground is only the beginning, not the end, of what this protest is all about. Officially it is about anti-corruption, but the real stakes could be even higher.

Two approaches

Recently there has been a growing clash between two approaches to anti-corruption in Bulgaria. Bulgaria started to develop its particular form of anti-corruption, consisting among other things in the creation of a specialised process of prosecution and specialised court and court procedure for confiscating illegally acquired property. The embodiment of this specific ‘Bulgarian anti-corruption model’ is Ivan Geshev, who became the chief prosecutor in 2019 after a number of well-publicised anti-corruption activities he had previously enacted as a deputy chief prosecutor.

Although nominally a technocrat, his media role and actions had departed from the traditional image of the chief prosecutor as a neutral and impartial guardian of the law. The prosecution’s investigations into two cabinets of the presidency were one of the sparks that ignited the current protests. This was because, for many of the demonstrators, this demonstration of power could only mean that the prosecution was itself a player in Bulgarian political disputes between the institutions, over a long period of time when president Radev was in open conflict with the prime minister Borisov. The office of the prosecutor had thereby turned into a political player with formidable discretionary power.

An alternative anti-corruption formula was duly advanced by the community of the Facebook page and site Initiative “Justice for All” , which enjoys the support of the party “Yes, Bulgaria”, popular among the urban middle class. ”Justice for All” has 7 key ideas for judicial reform that aim at limiting the power of the chief prosecutor as well as reducing political influence over the judicial system, through limiting the quota of the parliament in the high magistrates’ council.

These competing anti-corruption formulas are now clashing, as they contain irreconcilable differences regarding the nature of the Chief Prosecutor’s office.

Romanian anti-corruption – a source of inspiration

Underlying this clash of models is the Romanian anti-corruption formula, which was popular in Bulgaria until 2017-2018. Romanian anti-corruption gained its fame under the leadership of the former chief prosecutor of the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) Laura Kövesi, now chief prosecutor of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.

As Romanian Chief prosecutor from 2013 to 2018, she presided over numerous arrests of politicians, widely reported in the international press. The “Romanian model of anti-corruption” was lauded in the mass media as an exemplary model for delivering justice and building the rule of law. Moreover, it was credited with Romania’s remarkable economic development, which quickly surpassed that of Bulgaria.

The model of anti-corruption based on a powerful Chief Prosecutor’s office thus came to be seen in Bulgaria as a path towards a European standard of living. The Bulgarian middle class seemed to envy their Romanian counterpart, for its degree of empowerment as a result of the ongoing Romanian anti-corruption effort. During that whole period it certainly wasn’t soothing for the Bulgarian prime minister Borisov to have to listen to the high praise of the Romanian judicial system. While the Romanian prosecution was celebrated for having imprisoned ”a whole council of ministers” over sentences for corruption, no major politician was being put behind bars in Bulgaria.

In 2016, Borisov claimed in an interview for Nova TV that, in contrast to Romania, there were no convicted Bulgarian ministers because no one in the government was corrupt. He was perceived as being weak on anti-corruption and in 2017 Rumen Radev, supported by the Socialist party, won the presidential elections by deploying among other things an anti-corruption rhetoric which appealed to right-wing voters as well.

During Romania’s ‘golden age” of anti-corruption, the forces that are now against Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev in Bulgaria supported the Romanian anti-corruption model. At that time, few efforts were made to elucidate the essence of the Romanian anti-corruption model. It was suggested that it meant independence of the judiciary from political pressure – the transformation of magistrates into true technocratic operatives. But in spite of the many articles about Kövesi’s successful operations, despite her Bulgarian lecture tour, the Romanian anti-corruption model remained more of a slogan or a rallying point, than something that was understood conceptually or socially. It turned out that what was imported from Romania was the idea of an unrestrained chief prosecutor. This opened the door for the abuse of power and the public perception of this abuse that has now triggered another round of protests.

In fact, the Romanian anti-corruption model is marked by a number of peculiarities. Its main target is democratically elected politicians who are presiding over clientelist networks. It rarely touches on corporate economic interests. This model of anti-corruption empowered the middle class, the people with higher incomes, the businesses. It gradually cleansed the political landscape of the dinosaurs of the post-communist transition period. However, at the same time it also significantly limited the access of the lower classes, detached from real economic power and withdrawn to their rural in-groups, to their own political representation in a democracy.

This was successfully exploited by the Socialist leader and local baron Liviu Dragnea, who mobilised resistance against the DNA, found support in parts of the state and managed to obtain the resignation of Kövesi. This was despite the fact that less than a year later he was imprisoned himself for having two party members paid by the state for fake jobs.

Bulgarian anti-corruption models today

The Romanian justice system is no longer plastered over the Bulgarian press. Interviews with Romanian experts rarely offer any clarity on what has happened in Romania in recent years. But one exception – “The pre-2017 ‘golden era’ of anti-corruption in Romania was a fake” – was the thoroughgoing 2019 interview on Romanian justice for the Bulgarian site “The Barricade” by the Romanian anti-corruption expert Codru Vrabie. He explained that Romanian anti-corruption was independent from political interventions, but owed its spectacular success to an unholy bondage to the secret services.

In the meantime, Bulgaria received a road map in 2018 allowing it to enter the ERM II mechanism (the waiting room for the eurozone), which involved strengthening its technocratic structures. The Bulgarian anti-corruption model started to take shape around the person and the activity of Ivan Geshev.

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Vladimir Mitev | Radio Free (2021-11-28T21:59:30+00:00) » Bulgarian protests: battles over anti-corruption?. Retrieved from https://www.radiofree.org/2020/07/27/bulgarian-protests-battles-over-anti-corruption/.
" » Bulgarian protests: battles over anti-corruption?." Vladimir Mitev | Radio Free - Monday July 27, 2020, https://www.radiofree.org/2020/07/27/bulgarian-protests-battles-over-anti-corruption/
Vladimir Mitev | Radio Free Monday July 27, 2020 » Bulgarian protests: battles over anti-corruption?., viewed 2021-11-28T21:59:30+00:00,<https://www.radiofree.org/2020/07/27/bulgarian-protests-battles-over-anti-corruption/>
Vladimir Mitev | Radio Free - » Bulgarian protests: battles over anti-corruption?. [Internet]. [Accessed 2021-11-28T21:59:30+00:00]. Available from: https://www.radiofree.org/2020/07/27/bulgarian-protests-battles-over-anti-corruption/
" » Bulgarian protests: battles over anti-corruption?." Vladimir Mitev | Radio Free - Accessed 2021-11-28T21:59:30+00:00. https://www.radiofree.org/2020/07/27/bulgarian-protests-battles-over-anti-corruption/
" » Bulgarian protests: battles over anti-corruption?." Vladimir Mitev | Radio Free [Online]. Available: https://www.radiofree.org/2020/07/27/bulgarian-protests-battles-over-anti-corruption/. [Accessed: 2021-11-28T21:59:30+00:00]
» Bulgarian protests: battles over anti-corruption? | Vladimir Mitev | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2020/07/27/bulgarian-protests-battles-over-anti-corruption/ | 2021-11-28T21:59:30+00:00
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