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This article was published at the Open Democracy site on 27 July 2020.
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.
Currently, in the widespread popular protest, the division between the middle class and the oligarchs has come to dominate Bulgarian society and politics, just as was the case in Romania. The Romanian anti-corruption model has been criticised for what was called in Romania “TV justice” – exposing various infamous people under arrest and handcuffed on primetime Romanian television. Nowadays, a specific, Bulgarian form of “TV justice” takes place well before the court’s decision. The Bulgarian prosecution publicises audio recordings and the chat messages of people who are not yet sentenced as guilty, but who are suspected of a crime.
There are other similarities between what was going on in Romania pre-2017 and what has been taking place in Bulgaria in the run-up to these protests. But there are differences too. Curiously, apart from its orientation against President Radev, Bulgarian anti-corruption policy selects as its target some of the economic elites that have formed their corporate networks in the transition period. These are “honest businessmen” or “oligarchs”, who have been close to the current government for a long time, but who have fallen out of favour. In comparison, Romanian anti-corruption focused on politicians as the carriers of social evil, with conviction rates of around 90%. In contrast, no prominent Bulgarian politicians have been convicted, while some businesses of the accused have been closed down or nationalised.
“The Justice for All” community mentioned above opposes this model of fighting corruption. The community demands a limit on the Chief Prosecutor’s prerogatives, a reduced political quota on the Supreme Judicial Council and a stronger role for the judges in this institution. Chief Prosecutor Geshev has been critical of the role of judges in the judicial system, while a number of organisations of lawyers and judges have signed demands for his resignation.
This is a perfect storm, in which two visions for anti-corruption seem to be operating against one another and both of them, sincerely or not, claim the Romanian anti-corruption model as the source of inspiration. The opponents of Geshev from various organisations have been hoping to win Kövesi in Brussels on their side against him and Borisov. But Geshev and Kövesi are also in contact as their official positions demand, and in June 2020 even Geshev requested that more EPPO prosecutors be dedicated to Bulgaria.

Some reflections

So what is the protest in Bulgaria really about when anti-corruption is its main trigger? Is the protest fuelled by those oligarchs who still enjoy the support of the government and who fear that eventually they will find themselves targeted and their assets transferred to their rivals? Or is it an attempt to enlarge the scope of the anti-corruption campaign and target also the oligarchs who have hitherto enjoyed political protection?
Or maybe it is an effort to stop altogether the nascent fight against corruption, before tensions and wounds abound and Bulgarian society has become irreparably divided and ravaged by the ensuing instability? Is the Bulgarian deep state interested in some form of muddy political water, in which all the unaware and naive players will unveil their agendas, while the political elites gradually manage a new equilibrium that fits the changing international context?
All these scenarios are plausible, but it is beyond doubt that the basis of the protests is the sincere and dire need for change. A substantial group of the protesters are young people educated in western universities. These 20+ old youngsters who have until recently been engaged online or offline, in social activism – e.g. on ecological and civil rights issues – seem to be demanding the freeing of the Bulgarian economy and politics from the influence of the mafia, and its transformation into a proper liberal democracy.
There is an expectation that the European Union, which has been deliberately blind to Bulgaria’s problems with the rule of law while it has been critical of Poland and Hungary, will intervene this time. But the protests have many faces and there are also calls to fight for change by relying on our own resources, not on the help of foreign embassies. In any case, these protests are something necessary and positive, because they signify energy for action.
What is less positive is that the two big Bulgarian anti-corruption currents – the one behind Ivan Geshev and the one opposing him, are incapable of communicating a clear and consistent anti-corruption vision. What are the values, the goals, the approaches, the indicators of success of each of their versions of anti-corruption? How will the public judge what is good, or whether the road undertaken travels in the right direction? Is the fight for something more than power?
If the leaders of those currents fail to start explaining and debating their actions in a more lucid manner, these squabbles will become a meaningless spectacle, and the citizens might well fall back into their all too habitual apathy.
Marching is the easy part in these protests. But those who are really interested in progress, in raising the level of public discourse, promoting citizens’ demands and demanding the responsibility of public institutions, must present a coherent agenda for change.
There has been a feeling in Bulgaria that bottom-up change is impossible. Could the current be turning? Do we see attempts of the state to limit the all-powerful oligarchy through a complex process of competition over anti-corruption? Or is it rather the oligarchy which finds new ways to strengthen itself?
It has been said that what we see in Bulgaria is a battle for the soul of Europe. It could equally be claimed that it is a very Bulgarian battle. But it may involve various international partners and actors if it remains undecided. In my view the interest of Bulgarians lies in social change. It would be great if the western public, citizens and decision-makers take that into consideration, when dipping their toes into our Bulgarian contradictions.
Photo: The young people are the most visible face fo these protests, but there are all kinds of generational, ideological, geopolitical currents on the street (source: YouTube)
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