Has Corruption Exposed Bulgarian Democracy’s Inability to Act in the Face of Authoritarianism?
As the Red army swung across Eastern Europe beating back one Nazi division after another, the grip of Soviet style communism began to tighten. With the world beginning to heal from the evils of the Third Reich, Eastern Europe found itself in a particular position. Although many Western and Southern European countries saw a revitalization of liberal democracy after liberation, many of their eastern counterparts would come under the subjugation of Moscow. After the conclusion of the Second World War Bulgaria came under the influence of members from the Bulgarian Communist Party who were determined to see the establishment of a new regime loyal to Soviet autocratic dictator Joseph Stalin. Communist militias began rounding up thousands of former government officials who did not follow the party line. In 1946 Georgi Dimitrov, who was the leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party, formally abolished the monarchy and held elections where the communists received 95.6 percent of the electorate’s vote. These elections gave the Bulgarian Communist party the mandate they needed to openly take power and carry out the Soviet agenda. For the next five decades Bulgaria, along with the rest of Eastern Europe, lagged behind the rest of the world.
Once the Bulgarian people were finally freed from the clutches of Soviet domination, the Bulgarian National Assembly amended the country’s legal code in order to rid the Bulgarian Communist Party of its leading role in January of 1990. In the following months, democratic institutions were reestablished back into the Eastern European nation. However, Bulgarian democracy is once again coming under threat, but this time it is not from an external invader. This time the threat to Bulgarian democracy is the internal rot of corruption. The question remains, can Bulgarian democracy fight off yet another threat to its young democratic institutions.
For the past three months protests have erupted on the streets of major cities all across Bulgaria. From the capital of Sofia to the coastal city of Varna, protests have called for the resignation of the country’s prime minister Boyko Borissov and attorney general Iven Geshev. The main frustration of the protestors is targeted towards the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) Party and the multitude of corruption and tax scandals that has embroiled the party. Protestors have targeted the government over its suspicious dealings and have branded their message about a top to bottom regime change.
Although a majority of Bulgarians support the protests that are currently taking place, the actual protests are losing steam day by day. In the capital of Sofia only a few hundred protestors are now showing up on a recurring basis. While the protester's numbers seem to be dwindling, their statements against the government’s chronic corruption have started casting doubt on how democratic Bulgaria truly is and whether it can improve the lives of its citizens.
Bulgaria is not new to corruption scandals and consistently ranks at the top of the list for most corrupt countries within the European Union. A little over a decade ago Transparency International rated Bulgaria as the most corrupt and EU nation. In the early 2000s, Transparency International gave high corruption ratings to Bulgaria's plethora of scandals. In 2006 Valentin Dimitrov who was the director of state-owned heating utility Toplofikatsia Sofia, was charged with money laundering after it was shown that he misused funds in order to buy a jacuzzi for his office, massage chairs, and a yacht. In 2007, several police agencies uncovered a financial scheme in which 7.5 million Euros in agricultural aid was being misused. Two Bulgarian suspects were brought up on charges of tax evasion and it was revealed that they had close ties to the government. The list goes on and on over corruption within the Southeastern European state. What makes the problem worse is the government’s unwillingness to stop the blatant corruption.
For the past two decades Bulgaria has been unable to answer the plight of its citizens because both the ruling and opposition parties have no incentive to do so. Borissov’s party has no incentive to fix the drastic levels of inequality that plague the Bulgarian people because they not only have a solidified majority in the national assembly but they are also aware of the tricky position that the Bulgarian Socialist Party is in. The Bulgarian Socialist Party, the opposition party to GERB, does not want to be the target of political attacks claiming that they are trying to return Bulgaria to a strict form of Soviet communism. As a result, the Bulgarian Socialist Party has remained a docile force against Borissov’s party, hesitant on using state funds to address the drastic levels of inequality and poverty. While corruption has a stranglehold on the current administration which has in turn fueled the frustrations of the Bulgarian people, it is also the fear of a return to Soviet style governance that leaves the government in a weakened position to address the needs of its people. Therefore, despite GERB’s corruption and failure to represent the people’s needs, the fear of the potential reemergence of Soviet style rule associated with the Bulgarian Socialist Party that has made progress for one of the poorest countries in the EU virtually impossible
With the domestic situation in Bulgaria turning hostile quickly as more of its national political parties join in calling out the current government, it is also important to consider how the administration’s embroilment in corruption is playing out on the international stage. Particularly, we should ask ourselves how the European Union reacted to the Bulgarian government under the GERB Party. In more recent years the European Union has been heavily cracking down on corruption across all of its member states. The European Commission has proposed and passed numerous resolutions that have attempted to reduce the effects of corruption. These attempts by the EC have also inspired national legislatures in France and Germany to adopt wide sweeping anti-corruption legislation. Western European member states are sending a message to Bulgaria that corruption has no place within EU borders.
Many of Bulgaria’s opposition party members have called upon the European parliament to condemn the actions of the current administration. The European People's Party, however, had flat out refused to support any legislation in regards to the matter mainly because (GERB) is a member of the EPP. The resolution which was voted against in the European Parliament would have reaffirmed fundamental rights and the rule of law in Bulgaria essentially cracking down on high level corruption. Borissov’s administration chalked up the proposed resolution as nothing but “childish.”
Yet, despite the voting down of the resolution, the legislative proposal did still have an impact on Bulgarian relations with the international community. The anti-corruption resolution had done damage to the relationship between Borissov and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The relationship shared between Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party and Borissov had already come under strain when the chairman of the German Bundestag (Parliament) European Affairs Committee gave his reservations about the high levels of corruption taking place in Bulgaria and the threat to liberal democracy. Germany identifies itself as the bulwark of liberal democracy in the European Union and says that it cannot be seen supporting a fellow EU member state who is rejecting basic democratic fundamentals.
Nevertheless, the EU’s overall failure at cracking down on Bulgarian corruption serves as an example of how carefully Brussels treads when dealing with rogue member states. With the increased rise in far-right populism in Eastern Europe, the more conservative parties of these countries are levying accusations towards the EU of Western European imperialism. While GERB does not view itself as a hardline anti-European Union party, the increasing likelihood of Borissov reverting to authoritarian measures may indicate that he will follow suit and adopt an anti-European message. Thus, in order to avoid Borissov’s potential anti-European hostility, the EU has taken a relatively moderate tone in addressing Borissov and GERB.
After looking at both the national and international responses, one is left to ask where exactly Bulgarian democracy stands. Despite the opposition’s demands for Borissov’s resignation and calls for snap elections to act as a referendum on Borissov’s rule, the Bulgarian prime minister has used the pandemic to argue that changing power in the middle of a national crisis would be irresponsible. The next round of parliamentary elections is going to be held in March of 2021, however, Borissov is already moving toward full authoritarianism at an alarming rate. With popular support dwindling and a waning economy that is exacerbating an already dreading inequality problem Borissov has shown a willingness to engage in other forms of corrupt authoritarian measures like canceling the elections or censoring protestors.
The chronic level of corruption that has plagued Bulgaria for decades from outside influences is now destroying Bulgarian democracy from the inside. Public officials have been too busy lining their own pockets and as a result have let democratic norms fall to the wayside. It is now up to the Bulgarian people and its systems of government to resist the potential authoritarianism that seems to be invading the country yet again. The question remains, has corruption destroyed another burgeoning democracy that has barely passed its 20th birthday?