Bulgaria’s Kleptocracy Owes to Its Economic Model, Not Just Its Corrupt Politicians

Three decades after the end of state socialism, Bulgaria is plagued by low wages, kleptocracy, and a dearth of progressive alternatives. The massive protests of recent weeks have echoed past discontent with corrupt officials — but there’s growing awareness that an anti-corruption drive won’t uproot the real sources of unaccountable corporate power.

Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov. (Jack Taylor / Getty Images)

Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest member state, is currently in the fourth week of the largest anti-government mobilization in years. Despite fears surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, tens of thousands of protestors are taking to the streets every night in the capital Sofia and other cities. They are demanding the resignation of attorney general Ivan Geshev and long-serving prime minister Boyko Borissov, who has governed the country on and off for over eleven years.

Like many of its Eastern European neighbors, Bulgaria has experienced waves of popular discontent at kleptocratic elites and downward social mobility since the collapse of state socialism in 1990. The last wave, sparked by popular anger at skyrocketing energy prices, broke in early 2013 and returned the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) to power, only for it to face its own wave of anti-corruption protests later that summer.

Now the current government, a coalition between Borissov’s center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and several far-right parties, has become the latest object of popular wrath. But this time, it seems, the demands for change run deeper — cohering the grievances that bring protesters onto the streets year after year.

Storming the Summer Palace

The current demonstrations were triggered by Hristo Ivanov, the leader of a small liberal party known as “Da, Bulgaria.” The party itself emerged from the summer of 2013 protests, which led to right-winger Borissov’s return as prime minister. Ivanov was appointed Minister of Justice in Borissov’s cabinet but soon resigned, disappointed by GERB’s reluctance to introduce more radical anti-corruption reforms.

In early July 2020, Ivanov tried to access a Black Sea beach that Ahmed Dogan, founder of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), had illegally incorporated into his palatial summer home. Dogan, who portrays his party as a defender of Bulgaria’s Muslim minority, is himself a millionaire and self-described political powerbroker, and his enclosure of the coastline — public property, according to Bulgarian law — had come to symbolize the arrogance and sense of entitlement that characterize the political elite.

In his attempt to access the beach, Ivanov invoked patriotic and populist language, signaling a break with his party’s previous elitism. He disembarked onto the shore carrying a Bulgarian flag but was pushed back into the sea by Dogan’s guards, who, it was later revealed, were government agents employed by the National Security Service (NSS). Geshev, only six months into his term as attorney general, mocked Ivanov, saying he must have confused Dogan’s summer residence with the Winter Palace in 1917. Later, Bulgarian president Rumen Radev, an independent who frequently clashes with Borissov, criticized the government for lending NSS agents to oligarchs to use as their own private security force. The next day, Geshev’s goons raided the president’s office.

Inspired by Ivanov’s direct action, groups of protesters soon also tried to storm the beach. Despite orders from the local mayor (himself a member of GERB) to allow the protests, police tried to block them, leading many to question whether law enforcement took orders from the government or directly from the super-rich. Moreover, the episode revealed that the DPS might be oppositional on paper, but in reality works hand in glove with Borissov’s administration.

Riding the Waves

The current anti-government protests can only be understood in light of the 2013 anti-corruption protests and their aftermath. At the risk of oversimplifying things, Bulgaria’s mass protests can generally be divided into social movements and, distinct from this, protests against establishment corruption.

Social and anti-austerity mobilizations tend to be either spontaneous or linked to unions and left-wing groups, and derided by the Right as manifestations of “Communist nostalgia.” Anti-corruption protests, on the other hand, tend to moralistically denounce corrupt public officials, but little else. They often rely on anti-Communism and pro-Western sentiment, calling for neoliberal economic policies. The country’s small left tends to dismiss them, believing they are driven by liberals who view deeper EU integration as the only plausible way forward for Bulgaria.

This division became eminently clear during the last protest wave, when a spontaneous anti-austerity movement erupted in February 2013. Protesters took to the streets to oppose a startling rise in the price of electricity and demand the nationalization of power companies. The GERB government resigned, though this was not one of the movement’s demands. Following a snap election, a new coalition came to power led by the BSP and supported by both the DPS and a far-right party.

In June 2013, the newly elected government proposed a DPS politician and highly influential media entrepreneur, Delyan Peevski, as head of the secret service. New mass protests began in the summer despite the retraction of this proposal. The protestors were clearly right-wing and their slogans were deeply elitist and anti-Communist. They seriously eroded public trust in the BSP and its government finally collapsed in 2014. Eventually, GERB was reelected and Borissov became prime minister once again.

These two waves of protest solidified the notion of the irreconcilability between social demands (having a popular base and populist rhetoric) and the moralizing anti-corruption protests of urban elites. This dichotomy was exploited by GERB to delegitimize all grievances around the constant corruption scandals its government is implicated in. They often claim their critics are “middle-class” elites who do not understand Bulgaria’s “silent majority”.

A common slur against the self-styled liberal middle class is to refer to them as “the smart and the beautiful” – ironically, the label was invented by liberal activists themselves during the summer 2013 protests. They revived 1990s-style anti-communism and bragged about being “producers of value” standing up to the “parasitic, manipulated and unproductive masses.” The Left, turned off by this antidemocratic rhetoric, distanced itself from the protests. The pragmatically driven GERB exploited this division to further weaken the already splintered opposition.

In the last few years, Borissov’s liberal critics have pointed to the revolving door between politics, business and the security services. GERB effectively disarms these accusations by dismissing them as complaints from “the smart and the beautiful”, and successfully integrated the conservative Right into its ranks by partnering up with extreme nationalists in 2015. The party effectively occupies both the liberal and the extreme rightwing space while attacking the Left, embodied solely by the BSP, with traditionally liberal anti-corruption and anti-Communist rhetoric.

Facing Off

Since 2017, the fight between the BSP and GERB has become personalized through what the media calls the “war of the institutions” — an ongoing conflict between the prime minister and president Radev, who was elected with the support of the BSP.

The president’s role is largely ceremonial, except for commanding the army, whereas the prime minister is elected by parliament and appoints the government. Radev became the country’s most popular politician and is perceived as somewhat independent of the BSP, a party rife with conflicts among its leadership.

Bulgaria most certainly suffers from deficits in the “rule of law,” though liberals ignore social and workers’ rights, and focus almost exclusively on the infringement of property rights. The judiciary is also defective, as evidenced by GERB’s recent appointment of the authoritarian Ivan Geshev as attorney general.

He has questioned the division of powers in the past and claimed he is an instrument of retribution in God’s hands. He often speaks on behalf of “common Bulgarians” and draws inspiration from Hollywood crime movies. Though claiming to target oligarchs, he only prosecutes capitalists who are not on good terms with GERB’s circle of corporate backers. He fashions himself as an honest guy fighting a corrupt system, and since his appointment, has taken to wearing a newsboy cap in public, earning him the nickname “The Cap.”

In his purported anti-elitism, Geshev shares the far-right’s aversion to foreign-funded and human rights NGOs. He also adopted the language (and practice) of zero tolerance against “everyday crimes” — code for crimes perpetrated by the Roma minority. Even as a deputy attorney general, “The Cap” campaigned against alleged “welfare parasites” such as people with disabilities.

Liberal activists strongly opposed Geshev’s appointment. Though Geshev has never questioned the primacy of private property, some intellectuals fell for his fashion statements and depicted him as a Communist revolutionary. Yet he himself poses as a staunch reactionary, ranting against the October Revolution and arguing that liberals are the true Leninists.

This personality clash reached its climax with Geshev’s unprecedented attack on the presidency. The attorney general’s raid on Radev’s office was the final straw, unleashing nationwide protests demanding the resignation of Borissov and Geshev.

More Than Just Europeanism

Incidentally, the protests erupted just as Bulgaria was allowed into the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) II, considered to be the waiting room for joining the euro. Borissov complained that instead of protesting, the nation should have been celebrating his success. Brussels had conditioned the admission on recapitalization of a single Bulgarian bank — the First Investment Bank (FiBank), associated with Tseko Minev, another oligarch.

Minev is hated by the environmentalist movement due to his enclosures of natural parks for destructive and often illegal real estate and ski tourism investments. The government eventually bailed out FiBank for €70 million, and Brussels allowed Bulgaria into the ERM II.

The case is illustrative of how devoid of meaning the EU’s talk of anti-corruption and “rule of law” really is. Some of the protesters still carry EU flags and slogans asking “EU, are you blind?” Nevertheless, their presence is diminishing, and disillusionment can be seen even in the liberal and pro-European press.

To add insult to injury, leading EU politicians ranging from European People’s Party leader Manfred Weber to European Central Bank (ECB) president Christine Lagarde praised the government, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe’s head Hans van Baalen called protesters “extremists” for “attacking Dogan’s property.”

The major business associations cheered Bulgaria’s accession to ERM II, and some of their representatives used the opportunity to back the government. The big companies that dare to openly oppose Borissov face retaliation from their competitors, who abuse their political connections to push them out of the market or take over their business.

Some large companies that were not directly repressed, however, did support the mobilizations. Hippoland, a major toy store chain, even formed a bloc with their employees. The next day the windows of their stores were smashed, leading to speculation that GERB-hired thugs were responsible.

Small business owners, heavily affected by the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, also appear to be in the streets. Yet it is the presence of workers, those worst hit by the current crisis, that has made the demonstrations so massive. Media reports show that many of the workers who joined the protests are indignant about injustice, inadequate social policies, and insufficient support during the coronavirus crisis.

Reshuffling the Deck

In an attempt to quell tensions, the government has enacted major reshuffles in the prime minister’s cabinet. But of all these, only the minister of the interior’s resignation was demanded by protestors, angered by police brutality in the early days of the mobilization.

The government also vowed to invest almost €1 billion addressing the economic crisis, such as small additions to pensions over the next three months as well as raises for health care workers, police, and social workers; increased unemployment benefits; and additional subsidies for hospitals and cultural projects.

However, these were added to subsidies for charter flights to boost tourism, the IT industry, and the construction of highways, along with some confusing measures like lower taxes on beer and wine. The government also decided to break the contract with a Dogan-owned power plant that required the state to pay €13 million annually to “manage” its cold reserve while sitting on standby.

Though the current protests continue to focus on corruption to the detriment of deeper structural problems, they appear to be broader and more political than previous protest waves. This is due to the extreme extent to which Bulgarian capitalists have captured the state, driving protestors to view European capital and the EU as supporting local criminals in the name of the common market.

Furthermore, anti-communism, the signature liberal idea of post-1989 politics, has vanished. The protests’ social base is much wider than previous waves and, most importantly, anti-corruption slogans are directed not only against politicians, but increasingly against business owners as well.

Nevertheless, the leaders of the protests struggle to break with the liberal blindness to economic power, instead seeing it only if it is embodied by prominent political actors. As a result, the most hated economic elites are political party activists, and the movement’s official demands are limited to changing electoral rules. Corporate elites, who are not as conspicuous, have exploited the commotion to push for severe anti-worker legislation.

Going forward, the real question is whether protesters will find the strength to, as Karl Marx once wrote, “leave the noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface” and go into the “hidden abode of production” — striking at the heart of unaccountable power. If not, another cycle of protests will be only another corruption scandal away.