Turmoil in Bulgaria

14 July 2020

The current protests reflect massive public frustration over the state of affairs in Bulgaria’s social, political and economic life during the last decade.

By Rumen Dobrinsky
photo: SabinaСъбина PanayotovaПанайотова - CC-BY-NC-ND

Thursday, 9 July 2020, started out in Sofia as a regular summer’s day, marred only by the continued misery of Covid-19. But then a dramatic move by the chief public prosecutor stunned the nation: accompanied by a unit of armed police, prosecutors raided the presidential office (in the absence of the president) and arrested two of his top advisers.

This provided a spark that ignited public discontent, which had been building for months, if not for years. Soon after the raid, a crowd of several thousand people gathered in front of the building to protest against the move, which most people consider to have been purely politically motivated. But this was only the beginning: the days that followed saw an escalation of the protests, with swelling numbers of people and with demonstrations in other cities. The main thrust of the protests now is for the resignation of the government and the chief public prosecutor. This was first demanded by the president, after he learned of the raid on his office, but the call was soon taken up unanimously by the protestors. The irony is that the protests started the day before Bulgaria’s bid to join ERM-2 was officially approved, after years of effort by the Bulgarian authorities.

Bulgaria witnessed a number of protests in 2018-2019. But the key difference between what we saw then and what we are seeing now is the lack of political colouring to the protests. All previous rallies were dominated either by interest groups pursuing their own social, political or economic goals, or by political parties, which either inspired the protests or jumped on the bandwagon with a view to benefiting from them. By contrast, this time the streets are only adorned with the national flag, and people of very different – even opposing – political affiliations or sympathies are united as one. The magnitude and the spirit of the current wave of protests in Bulgaria are only comparable to those demonstrations seen after the fall of communism and then at the peak of the macroeconomic crisis of 1996-1997.

The current protests reflect massive public frustration over the state of affairs in Bulgaria’s social, political and economic life after 10 years of almost uninterrupted rule by the GERB party, led by Boyko Borisov. During this period, Mr Borisov has managed to undermine the constitutional separation of powers and to establish a system of authoritarian rule, where it is he personally who takes (or imposes) the important decisions in all three branches of power: executive, legislative and judicial. Moreover, the widely shared public suspicion is that Mr Borisov tacitly shares this power with a handful of business tycoons, who have a say in some of these decisions. It goes without saying that such a model of state rule provides fertile soil for corruption at all levels of government.

The recent hand-picked selection as chief public prosecutor of Mr Ivan Geshev – who enjoys very low professional esteem in the judicial community – and the railroading of his nomination through the formal procedural channels (including his approval by parliament) are widely seen by the public as a demonstration of this authoritarian style. Some of Mr Geshev’s early moves – including raids on business tycoons who are not part of Mr Borisov’s entourage, or with whom he has fallen out – are broadly considered to confirm this. The subsequent raid on the presidential office (based on extremely weak evidence and with no sound justification) is another example, as President Radev – who has criticised the government openly and frequently – is currently Mr Borisov’s main political opponent.

This is the situation at the time of writing: a resolution to the conflict has yet to be found. But whatever the outcome, the Bulgarian people have already demonstrated that they will be seeking a radical change to the model of state governance that has prevailed under Mr Borisov, with a reinstatement of the rule of law and of democratic principles at all levels of government, and a genuine fight against corruption.