Bulgaria’s March Against Corruption

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The protests in Bulgaria have been going for almost two months now. As the government has failed to provide a meaningful alternative that could satisfy the demands of the demonstrators and thus solve the ongoing political crisis, let us examine the root causes that have driven it, and attempt to shed some light on the immediate political future in the country.

The small spark that ignited a very dry haystack in this case was a well-publicized on social media visit of a prominent opposition politician to an illegally built palace at the sea owned by a former chief of the DPS party, known to be a major power broker.

As the opposition leader was promptly roughed up by security – hypothesized to be state-funded, moreover – the illegal palace by the sea quickly became a symbol of the corruption and state capture, a week later visited by several thousand protestors who decided they had enough, which in turn led to clashes with both police and security forces.

The protests then moved to the capital, where a tent camp (and a coworking space) was built in the middle of one of the busiest intersections that lead to the city center. The primary form of protest since then has been blocking roads and sporadic demonstration in front of institutions and seats of power.

What is more important, however, is their motivation and their goal.

It is important not to confuse the root of the problems that drive the protest with the direct casus belli that sparked the past two months of protest.

The problems are twofold – pervasive corruption, nepotism, state capture, and oligarchic control of a façade democratic government that became embodied in prime minister Borissov and his close circle on one hand, and on the other the role of the prosecutor general as an unelected and accountable to no one strongman.

Thus, the two goals of the protest became the resignation of the prime minister and the resignation of the prosecutor general (hopefully followed by a change in his office’s role in the judiciary). This is to be followed by a major anti-corruption push and the dissolution of the current oligarchic model, but the “how” is yet not certain.

And it seems that so far the protest cannot be appeased by anything less than those two resignations. This is evident from the constant attempts of the prime minister to offer gradually more generous “gifts” to the public, while in the same time staying in power.

First, he sacrificed three key ministers deemed to be connected to the captured state, most importantly the finance minister, thought to represent the interests of the most prominent oligarch in the government. As this did not calm the protest down, the second offering was quite more drastic – a new Constitution for the country, written by the ruling party.

Legal experts (including the IME legal team) have deemed the new Constitution project put forward rather absurd. It is, in essence, an unfounded reshuffling of the chapters of the current one, missing a preamble, and features inexplicable changes such as giving judges and prosecutors the right to propose legislation.

The public reaction was so negative that just days after full draft text appeared, Borissov was forced to sacrifice the very justice minister that is said to have written it.

At this point is seems unlikely that the ruling GERB party actually wants to change the constitution; it seems that debating such a change is primarily an attempt to buy time until the general election, scheduled for end March 2021.

Certainly, constantly offering appeasements other than a resignation gives Borissov at least a few days at a time, while the new token is discussed in the public sphere and then shot down as inadequate.

The very idea that the constitution can be amended, or written anew, however, has driven a number of very dangerous ideas out of hiding. Most notably, such ideas stem from the nationalist junior coalition partner.

So far, they have proposed that compulsory military service be put in the new constitution, enslaving the nation’s young men (and probably women too) for at least a year and derailing their personal and professional development.

Another great proposal of theirs is the introduction of educational qualification for voting in elections, aiming to disenfranchise and deprive of voting rights about a fifth of the population and further social cleavages. Those two are sufficient to demonstrate the dangers of writing a new foundational law in the current climate.

And there is the prosecutor general; he acts as if the protest does only wants the prime minister’s head, and not his own. There is an aura of invincibility around him, and rightly so – his power is unchecked, while he is able to unleash the full power of the judiciary on anybody who stands against him, or his allies.

The situation is only made worse by the weakness of the opposition. The anti-corruption party running the protests so far is not in parliament, and has meagre popular support. The largest opposition parliament party – the socialists – are leaderless and unable to provide a meaningful alternative to the current government, while themselves struggling with oligarchic ties and corruption allegations.

Against this backdrop, polls show a surge of support for populists, including the newborn party of an ex- late night TV show host.

The EU is not helping either – on the contrary, in the beginning of the events in August prominent EU politicians expressed their support for the castle-owning former DPS party chief, attracting the ire of the anti-corruption movement. A recurring message of the protest also has focused on the role of EU money as a tool for extracting rent utilized by the oligarchic class, thus creating Eurosceptic sentiment.

Protesters were also dismayed by the quick reaction of EU institutions and officials to the events of Belarus, while those turn a blind eye to similar developments within the boundaries of the EU itself.

Where will the events go from here? It is pretty hard to say. It seems that Borissov is determined to stay in power no matter what, even if this means resorting to violence to put down the protest. At the same time, the anti-corruption movement seems to be able to sustain its power and even attract more people as the new political season heats up.

Even if the goal of removing Borissov from power is successful, what follows is even harder to imagine, as corruption is much more deeply rooted and eradicating it will take time, effort and dedication. That said, the march against corruption has begun.

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Adrian Nikolov