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Turmoil in Bulgaria brings the EU’s rule-of-law problem into sharper relief

Over the past few years, observers have paid increasing attention to the movement toward authoritarianism in certain member states of the European Union. This scrutiny focuses most often on the governments of Hungary and Poland, which are engaged in deliberate campaigns to undermine democratic institutions and the rule of law. While criticism of these two regimes is entirely justified, Hungary and Poland are unfortunately not the only EU countries currently exhibiting this worrying trend.

2020 Bulgarian protests next to the Party House, the office house of the National Assembly (Sofia, Bulgaria)

For another similar case, look no further than the recent news of widespread protests in Bulgaria. Over more than three weeks, citizens have mobilized in cities across the country to call for reform to institutions that they believe serve the interests of a small group of powerful people rather than those of the nation as a whole. “There is a sense in the general public that the social contract, which rests on rules being applied equally to everyone, has been broken,” explained Vessela Tcherneva, the head of the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The inciting incident for the protests came on July 7, when a member of Bulgaria’s National Assembly was forcibly removed from a supposedly public beach on the Black Sea coast by agents of the National Protection Service (NSO). The officers had been guarding the nearby mansion of oligarch Ahmed Dogan at the taxpayers’ expense, even though he does not currently hold public office. Responding to the incident on July 9, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev criticized Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and his government for allowing the NSO to protect Mr. Dogan and other wealthy private individuals. The next day, armed police officers detained and raided the offices of two of President Radev’s advisors, in what many view as a political stunt designed to divert attention from the corrupt behavior of the government.

Demonstrators have swarmed the streets of Sofia since. Supported by Radev, who has called for a “purge” of the government “mafia”, they initially clamored for the resignations of both Borissov and his close ally Ivan Geshev, the chief prosecutor who ordered the raids. Over time, demands have expanded to include systemic reform of the judiciary and greater freedom of speech. Meanwhile, Borissov’s efforts to appease the public outrage by firing four government ministers has had little success.

It seems that Bulgarians have lost faith in their institutions, rather than simply the present government. This should not come as a surprise. While Borissov’s center-right GERB party currently holds power, a government led by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (to which Radev also belongs) was ousted in 2013 over similar allegations of corruption and judicial obstruction. Indeed, according to Dimitar Bechev at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, “successive governments have not done much to overhaul the country’s judiciary or the all-powerful office of the prosecutor general, promote transparency and accountability, or take on vested interests.” Such an assessment is supported by Bulgaria’s worst-in-the-EU corruption ranking by Transparency International and its decline to 111th in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

All this points clearly to very serious rule of law issues in Bulgaria – in fact, one could argue its problems may be worse even than those of Poland, if not Hungary. Of course, it is important to note the differences between these countries. Unlike the other two, Bulgaria suffers less from democratic backsliding than a simple failure to ever make adequate progress in reforming its institutions. Additionally, blame cannot be placed squarely on a particular ruling party in Bulgaria, as its obstacles stem rather from an entrenched oligarchic system.

Nevertheless, weak rule of law in any EU member state should be of grave concern to the bloc. After all, much of the Union’s authority rests on an assumption of shared values. While it is one thing to argue that citizens of a democracy should share their sovereignty with like-minded countries, it is much more questionable whether they should do so with corrupt and repressive regimes.

Despite this existential interest, the EU has so far failed spectacularly to tackle the issue. Most glaringly, it has continued to provide common funds to member states that willingly flaunt its core values, sustaining the very regimes that threaten it. Though there was talk of making these funds conditional on rule of law during the recent long-term budget negotiations, the idea ultimately failed to bear fruit.

All hope is not yet lost. The budget deal has still not received final approval from the European Parliament, which could push back on the rule-of-law issue over the coming months. Additionally, the Bulgarian protests should provide some optimism that grassroots pressure may be able to affect change within the member states. Nonetheless, without major changes, the continuation of current anti-democratic trends could ultimately tear the Union apart.

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Nick Lokker

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