Bulgaria’s anti-corruption protests explained – and why they matter for the EU

European leaders have stood by as Bulgarians demand real reform on corruption. But such silence will only harm the EU in the long run.

Image by Ned Dervenkov

Thousands of people have taken to the streets across Bulgaria in recent weeks. Their compatriots abroad have been assembling outside the country’s embassies. Online, thousands more have signed petitions demanding the resignation of chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev and the government led by the prime minister, Boyko Borisov.

The biggest protests in Bulgaria since 2013 have since expanded into demands for systemic change on three fronts: the fight against corruption and the mafia links of those in power; reforms to the judiciary; and freedom of speech.

The protests were sparked by  a police raid on the offices of the president himself on 7 July and a seaside villa scandal involving the former leader of Movement for Rights and Freedoms party, Ahmed Dogan, who illegally treated a public beach as his own. President Rumen Radev has long accused Borisov of corruption and “links with oligarchs”, and on 11 July called on prime minister and chief prosecutor to go. The biggest protests in Bulgaria since 2013 have since expanded into demands for systemic change on three fronts: the fight against corruption and the mafia links of those in power; reforms to the judiciary; and freedom of speech. “EU are you blind?” is one of the protestors’ slogans – and it signals that the issue is bigger than just a run-of-the-mill domestic political crisis. It is also telling that protestors have also taken to protesting in front of the Christian Democratic Union headquarters in Berlin.

Given the global pandemic, the demands of enacting the European Union’s recovery deal, and the now-daily geopolitical challenges presented by China, the United States, and other major powers, Bulgaria’s protests may appear a minor detail. But as usual, the devil is in the detail, and this one could prove fiendishly destructive, potentially harming the EU project in the long run.

Here is what is happening.

The ruling party, GERB, is part of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. The EPP has been vocal in its backing of the Bulgarian government in response to the demonstrations. “The EPP Group fully supports the Bulgarian government of Boyko Borisov and its efforts to protect the economy against the negative effects of the Coronacrisis, fight against corruption and the progress that is being made to join the Eurozone”, said group leader Manfred Weber on 10 July.

But this has wider implications. Such statements aim to create a sense of external support for the GERB-led government, which it then deploys domestically in support of itself. The European Parliament election in May 2019 showed citizens broadly still support the European project but also expect to see some change. As long as certain parties are part of the EPP group, they cannot be the change people voted for, however. This could cause disenchantment not only among Bulgarians but among the citizens of other member states. When European leaders do not properly address people’s demands for justice, rule of law, and democracy in any EU member state, it negatively affects the EU as a whole.

The political crisis in Bulgaria is a threat to the future stability of the EU. Bulgaria has just entered ERM II, the eurozone’s waiting room, and political stability in the country – based on rule of law, democracy, a functioning judicial system, and effective anti-corruption mechanisms – is crucial to eventual membership of the euro. Ensuring reforms follow these principles is something that the current government has consistently failed at. In the EU, Bulgaria is the highest-scoring country in terms of corruption according to Transparency International; its democratic standards lag; and its judicial system is barely functioning. According to World Bank data, foreign direct investment in Bulgaria remains a tiny fraction of GDP and no real progress has been made during the three Borisov cabinets since 2009.

Bulgaria has just entered ERM II, the eurozone’s waiting room, and political stability in the country is thus crucial to eventual membership of the euro.

Furthermore, Bulgaria’s GDP growth in the past 10 years has been more akin to that of non-EU countries such as Armenia, Albania, and North Macedonia: around 50 per cent. In contrast, neighbouring Romania has enjoyed a 202 per cent increase in GDP for the same period, and joined the EU the day that Bulgaria did. Consequently, Bulgaria has the lowest average salary in the EU, with just a little less than €690, trailing non-EU members Montenegro – €785 – and Bosnia and Herzegovina – €741. This signals that the government at least has made poor use of EU cohesion funds.

What does the EU itself make of all this? Does it desire a poor and corrupt member state in the eurozone – and, at some point, the Schengen area?

From a European foreign policy point of view, Bulgaria is an external border of the EU, and thus plays an important role in migration, security, relations with Turkey, and relations with Russia and the Black Sea region. If Bulgaria fails to address properly any of these challenges, this will be felt quickly in other parts of Europe. Furthermore, the complexity of Bulgaria’s immediate neighbourhood is such that it risks setting a negative example for neighbouring Western Balkans countries as their governments consider what reforms they need to make in the future.

Bulgarians’ anti-corruption fight resembles longstanding demands for transparency and accountability on how EU funds are spent in the country. While this is a problem for Bulgaria in particular, it also reveals once more the EU-level lack of an effective control mechanism on the spending of EU funds; and Brussels’s inability to protect European values ​​within the union. German, French, and Swedish taxpayers care how their taxes are spent via the EU. So, the anti-corruption protests in Bulgaria and the fight of Bulgarian civil society for rule of law and democratic reforms are everybody’s business. An investigation into the Bulgarian government’s spending of EU funds by the European chief prosecutor is necessary when the EPPO becomes operational in the end of the year. But by then it might already be too late.

At the heart of the problem is perhaps the judiciary system in Bulgaria, which is an unprecedented case within the EU of a non-functioning system. Over the years, successive scandals have called into question its independence. Civil society organisations in Bulgaria have long campaigned for judicial reforms, and have received the support of the Bulgarian Judges Association in this endeavour. But they are unlikely to succeed without addressing the problem on EU level. In a recent progress report on assistance to Bulgaria and Romania, the European Commission urged Bulgaria “to put in place procedures concerning the accountability of the prosecutor general, including safeguarding judicial independence”. Besides assessing progress on judicial reform, the fight against corruption, and the fight against organised crime through Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, the EU should adopt a firmer stance on Bulgaria and press it to make stronger progress given that it has now been in the EU for over 10 years.

On press freedom, in comparison to other EU member states, the 2020 World Press Freedom Ranking ranks Bulgaria in 111th place, far behind all other EU countries but also behind many African or Asian countries. To paraphrase Gabriel García Márquez: “The EU advances at the speed of the slowest.” If Bulgaria remains so far behind on fundamental questions like freedom of speech, rule of law, and an independent judiciary, this is damaging for the EU as a whole.

The EU’s inaction and European leaders’ deliberate and continuous silence on the situation in Bulgaria could lead to increased alienation and Euroscepticism among the union’s young citizens in Bulgaria (but not only), where trust in Brussels institutions is typically greater than in the national government and one of the highest in the EU. But this is not a given. Civil society’s reawakening is recent and incomplete. If European leaders do not express clear support for the rule of law, democracy, and reforms to the judicial system in Bulgaria now, there might be no chance later to keep Bulgaria a pro-European member state.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Programme Coordinator, Africa programme

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