30 July 2013

A Bulgarian Spring?

Bogdan Scurtu

Anti-government protests in Bulgaria’s capital have been ongoing for more than 46 days now. Shouting “Resign!” and “Mafia!” demonstrators are calling for the cabinet of Plamen Oresharski to step down. Protests erupted after Deylan Peevski, a media mogul with alleged ties to organized crime, was appointed as head of Bulgaria’s Agency for National Security (also known by its Bulgarian acronym of DANS). He was confirmed a few hours later by the Parliament, despite the fact that he lacks any experience in the field. After a few days of street protests, the Parliament cancelled Mr. Peevski’s appointment unanimously.

1001026_10151531960049109_324250067_nDemonstrations in Sofia, 23 July 2013 source: © Vassil Garnizov

Who is Mr. Peevski?

Mr. Peevski is a 33-year-old, with a surprising political career. At 21, he was appointed head of Bulgaria’s largest port. He resigned after one day, since he didn’t have a college degree, the minimum requirement for the job. At 25, he served as deputy minister of disaster management. He was fired after corruption allegations, although they have never been substantiated. By 32, he was appointed head of DANS. Is he such a gifted politician? Or is he a fine example of what’s wrong in a post-communist, Russian-style oligarchic society?

Mr. Peevski’s mother owns a vast media empire, which he helps to manage. She served as chief for the country’s national lottery agency. When the agency started losing money, she was accused of siphoning funds. Yet again, charges were never substantiated. In fact, Bulgaria hasn’t prosecuted a single high-level public official. Responding to allegations, prosecutors deemed that her media empire was built with “clean money.”

Peevski2Deylan Peevski source: © BGNES 2013

Political Background

“Other countries have a mafia, in Bulgaria the mafia has a state” General Atanas Atanassov, former chief of counterintelligence, told the New York Times.

Bulgaria is a former communist country that joined the EU in 2007. It has failed to fully extract itself from its communist past. The culture of the ruling political elites is inherently undemocratic. The former communist nomenclature seized political power and the country’s most lucrative industries and businesses. These closed cliques ensure the success of the oligarchic power with organized crime tactics, rent-seeking maneuvers, and clutching of public contracts.

There were at least 150 Mafia style street executions in broad daylight since the fall of communism in 1989.

According to a Stratfor Report released by Wikileaks, “organized crime is invasive and plays a strong role in government, and business operations. Port, land transportation and cargo security is inexistent, and continual smuggling and other crimes, are virtually unreported or unaddressed with cargo theft, occurring frequently, almost always including violence, and being considered a significant disruptive problem for the supply chain. Corruption throughout Bulgarian government and police is virtually under no threat of prosecution and is part of society. Organized crime controls all or complete segments of the supply chain.”

The ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) is the official continuator of the former Bulgarian Communist Party. BSP’s source of power “has been built on clientelism and state capture,” according to a study by the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies.

In the May 2013 elections, BSP won 26.61% of the popular vote, whereas the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) won 30.54%. However GERB wasn’t able to form a governing alliance. BSP formed a coalition with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and chose as Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski.

European Reaction

In the early days of the recent demonstrations, protesters took to embassies of EU members. In front of the German Embassy they first built, then demolished a Berlin Wall, to symbolize real change. In front of the French Embassy, they reconstituted the “Liberty Leading the People” painting. Protesters chanted the European anthem and wrote open letters to EU officials in Brussels to seek help against corruption in their country’s government.

Siding with the demonstrators, the German and French ambassadors, Matthias Höpfner and Philippe Autier, released a common statement: “Belonging to the European Union is a civilized choice. The oligarchic model has no place in it, neither in Bulgaria nor elsewhere.” The European Commission also expressed its support for the protesters. EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding said: “My sympathy is with the Bulgarian citizens who are protesting on the streets against corruption.”

P023682000801-701243EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding in Sofia source: © EU 2013

But what can Europe do, besides statements of support? Can the EU intervene and get a member country on track, while still respecting the sovereignty of its internal affairs?

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s Reinhard Veser wrote that on the surface, Bulgaria respects all EU treaties and does not violate any laws. Elections are free, the media are free, debates are open, the judiciary is not politically controlled, and civil society is free to express itself. It is sometimes nearly impossible to distinguish between the mere appearance of a democratic society and the pathological distortions of corruption deep inside. The rule of the oligarchs is exercised informally. They operate behind the scenes, and in an environment that seems to conform to existing laws.

European Mechanisms

Corruption in Bulgaria is not news for the EU. When the country joined the union in 2007, the Commission set up a special “Cooperation and Verification Mechanism” (CVM) to address its corruption and problems in the judiciary. The Commission still issues two reports per year. Along with recommendations, it involves rewards and sanctions to the outcomes. One of the sanctions is freezing EU development funds. Another one is withholding the country’s membership to the border-free Schengen area which is painfully felt by the citizens, who need additional paperwork to travel inside the EU.

According to the eleventh CVM report (released in July 2012), Bulgaria lacks democracy and has a poor record in fighting organized crime. Freedom House rates Bulgaria as well as Romania and Croatia, as “semi-consolidated democracies.” All other EU countries, including eight former communist states, are “consolidated democracies.”

For now, the CVM reports will not end, as they produce tangible results. All recommendations from the reports were adopted by Bulgaria. But the road ahead seems long.

EuroPoint: Bulgarian protesters are demanding help from the European Union to fight corruption. In the process, they are developing and maturing the most important factor in a democracy: an active civil society.

Copyright © GSJ & Author(s)