Anti-Corruption Protests Show the Hollowness of Bulgaria’s Democracy

More than three months since they began, the daily anti-corruption protests against Boyko Borissov’s administration are still headline news in Bulgaria. But the rival corruption allegations leveled by both the Left and Right also highlight the lack of real political alternatives — with the country’s harsh social inequality and rising poverty levels drawing no similar political attention.

People gathered at antigovernment protest near the National Assembly building on September 22, 2020 in Sofia, Bulgaria. (Hristo Rusev / Getty Images)

Protests demanding the resignation of Bulgaria’s prime minister Boyko Borissov and attorney general Ivan Geshev have now continued for over a hundred days, with daily rallies continuing across the country. The target of protesters’ ire is the ruling coalition led by Borissov’s Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party, now widely discredited following a series of corruption and tax evasion scandals, controversial Black Sea construction projects, and a deep social crisis. A European Parliament survey showed that the income of half of Bulgarian citizens was impacted by the pandemic. Yet protest organizers have refrained from criticizing concrete policies or the administration’s response to the COVID-19 crisis — instead seeking to paint the government as entirely illegitimate.

In this context, it is not surprising that over 65 percent of the population say they support the protest. Less clear, however, is what exactly the Bulgarian people want. Opposition forces on both the Left and Right demand snap parliamentary elections. However, these same forces align with the government and Geshev in promising “equality before the law,” while at the same time utterly disregarding the rampant social inequality in the country. While most Bulgarians face low wages, high unemployment, and an ailing health care system, such concerns go practically unaddressed by either side in parliament.

This restriction of the political discourse in Bulgarian politics has gone on for over twenty years. The country’s political parties, the postcommunist Bulgarian Socialist Party included, generally avoid speaking about using the welfare state to address inequality and poverty, for fear of being associated with the old socialist regime. What it means for the country, however, is that there is no credible actor on the political stage to take up protesters’ social grievances in a meaningful way, let alone offer real solutions.

Little Room to Maneuver

While fewer and fewer people seem to be joining the daily protests in the capital, Sofia — with protesters now numbering only in the hundreds — their demands have garnered the approval of university lecturers and the arts and culture scene. Students joined the calls for the government’s resignation with a protest in front of the University of Sofia. Perhaps most importantly, however, the movement enjoys widespread support outside of the capital, in Bulgaria’s provincial centers.

While the protests themselves are losing visibility in the streets, the ongoing popularity of the movement’s demands — and their strong media presence — is pushing parties across the spectrum to turn on the current government. Recent months have seen a rare consensus of sorts, as both left- and right-wing Bulgarian members of the European Parliament push for the European Union to condemn the lack of democratic control over the Bulgarian attorney general, the ineffective prosecution of high-level corruption, and deteriorating freedom of the press. The center-right European People’s Party (EPP), of which GERB is a member, refused to back the resolution, but it passed with votes from the liberal Renew Europe group, the Socialists and Democrats, the left-wing European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), and the Greens–European Free Alliance (EFA).

GERB and even some figures on the Left dismissed this move — painting it as the product of a childish and self-colonizing reflex to seek approval from the West. The move was, at least, somewhat effective in chipping away at GERB’s image as Angela Merkel and the EPP’s loyal partner in the Balkans. Initial strains in the relationship between Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and its faithful Eastern European partner had already emerged in September when CDU member Gunther Krichbaum, chair of the German parliament’s European affairs committee, raised concerns around corruption and the rule of law in Bulgaria.

Boyko Borissov. (Jack Taylor / Getty Images)

Back in Sofia, Borissov refuses to resign — pointing out that parliamentary elections are scheduled for March 2021 anyway and claiming it would be irresponsible to step down during the coronavirus pandemic. With an eye to the government’s all-time low approval ratings, GERB’s coalition partner, the hard-right IMRO—Bulgarian National Movement, is also desperate to cling to what power it has. The party’s MPs called for a constitutional amendment to reiterate that marriage constitutes a union between a woman and a man, thereby cementing the unconstitutional status of same-sex unions, while also pushing the introduction of voluntary military service. To top it all off, the party launched an aggressive campaign against a new sex education book aimed at teenagers, claiming it is “promoting masturbation.”

The right-liberal Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which usually supports GERB’s bills in parliament, has also called for the resignations of both the government and the parliamentary speaker. Now, with elections just months away, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has decided to challenge the government not by promoting leader Kornelia Ninova’s “traditionalist,” “conservative socialist” agenda, but by attempting to win the trust — and votes — of the protesters and their supporters. This was evident at a recent parliamentary hearing with the attorney general, when a number of BSP MPs raised serious accusations that he had failed to operate independently of political and corporate interests.

The ruling coalition, which as well as GERB and IMRO—Bulgarian National Movement also includes the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), is thus left with few political partners — despite the lack of real ideological differences with their opponents. For now, however, they still enjoy a majority in parliament and can count on stability until elections next March. Current polls predict almost equal shares of votes going to GERB and the BSP, at around 24 percent, followed by DPS and then There Are Such People — a right-leaning protest party founded by a popular talk show host — and the right-liberal Da, Bulgaria (“Yes, Bulgaria”) party, which plays a significant role in the protests.

The Illusion of Equality Before the Law

The almost complete absence of ideological clashes in Bulgaria’s party landscape partly owes to the broad political consensus, emerging after the fall of socialism in the 1990s, that the state’s responsibility is to ensure equality before the law, fight corruption, and little else. This consensus has led to official politics ignoring the country’s extreme social inequality. According to recent data, the income of 30 percent of Bulgarian citizens is below the poverty threshold, while 70 percent in total cannot afford a decent standard of living. Distinctions between the Left and Right have thus grown increasingly irrelevant, while also allowing the parties of the Right to occasionally introduce social welfare measures as a bid for pensioner votes.

The BSP’s criticisms of attorney general Ivan Geshev, for example, focus on issues ranging from his selective prosecution of oligarchs (almost exclusively rivals to other companies close to the government), to his alleged unchecked powers and de facto immunity from state prosecution. Geshev claims that Bulgaria’s Criminal Code and Penal Procedure Code, which he derides as leftovers from socialism, set the bar too high in terms of the standards of proof they require. This hostility toward due process (according to Geshev, court proceedings under socialism were in fact an example of this) is a major point of contention with the opposition.

Another product of Bulgaria’s political consensus is the practically ubiquitous — but often deeply contradictory — use of anti-corruption rhetoric. At the recent parliamentary hearing, Geshev, himself often accused of corruption, presented what he termed the prosecution’s “impressive and unprecedented” results in fighting both “everyday crime” — a code word for what some imagine to be “Roma crimes,” such as small thefts and scams — as well as large-scale fraud involving EU funds. While Geshev boasts of the high number of corruption cases brought before the courts, BSP MP Filip Popov highlighted the vast number of (often minor) crimes the term entails, which allows the prosecution to exaggerate their efforts in the fight against it. The BSP even questioned the need for the Specialized Anti-Corruption Court — a signature achievement of GERB’s decade-long rule.

Apart from judicial independence and efficiency, opposition parties of all stripes often criticize GERB for its alleged “populism” when it sporadically responds to some social demands. These denunciations are the product of the opposition’s broader skepticism vis-à-vis the redistributive role of the state, along with its often neoliberal economic worldview. This fall the GERB-led government tried to alleviate social strife and growing public distrust by proposing what it claimed were “overdue” social reforms. Following a minor increase in minimum and maximum pensions back in July, minister of labor and social policy Denitsa Sacheva proposed another increase in the maximum pension, to be funded by a slight increase in contributions from high earners. Those unhappiest with the proposal were representatives of Da, Bulgaria, who dismissed GERB’s proposal as a “populist” measure that would hit high earners the hardest — despite the fact that they would benefit from an increased maximum pension later on.

Similarly, both right-wingers and the BSP criticized a recent government proposal to temporarily distribute child benefits to all families irrespective of income level — claiming the proposal’s “hidden agenda” was to indirectly buy votes in the upcoming election. Such criticism also suggests that social payments are themselves a form of corruption. The government in turn presented the measure as equal treatment of all families and children, though in so doing threaten to undermine the Bulgarian welfare state’s progressive character.

What all mainstream political actors — whether the supposed Left or Right — seem to ignore is that achieving social justice entails unequal rights. The apparent “equal right” to benefit payments disregards the uneven conditions Bulgarians with children face — that is, some need additional support. Even the Bulgarian constitution grants mothers special state protection such as paid leave, “free obstetrical care, and relaxed conditions of work.” Similarly, it grants special protection to children left without the care of the immediate family, to elderly people and people with disabilities. That justice often requires precisely unequal treatment is not exactly a controversial statement, except to those eager to pronounce the primacy of equality before the law only to justify their own socially regressive policies.

Is Another Politics Possible?

While the ruling coalition struggles to win back popular support with minor reforms in social policy, the BSP — nominally “socialist” and still considered the main left-wing opposition party in the country — does not do enough to appeal to its traditional constituency, largely made up of pensioners along with left-leaning and disenfranchised voters. In the middle of a pandemic, when more than half a million Bulgarians are without health insurance and unable to access affordable health care (a figure that is expected to rise by 15 percent by the end of the year), most parties are doing little to help those impacted by the COVID-19–induced social crisis.

To make matters worse, BSP leader Kornelia Ninova continues to stumble over her own backward social views in her otherwise justified indignation over the ruling parties’ cynicism. Most recently, she called on the GERB parliamentary speaker, Tsveta Karayancheva, to resign in response to crude sexist remarks made about Karayancheva by prime minister Borissov himself — essentially holding her responsible for her party colleague’s behavior.

The BSP has adhered to the political consensus that speaks only of equality before the law, and rarely of equality as social justice to be achieved through political action. As a result, it decided to tackle more abstract issues that are generally the reserve of right-wing parties, such as the rule of law and the separation of powers. This has put the party at a decisive disadvantage by depriving it of a core platform that could effectively distinguish it as a social opposition. Such a turn is even less likely now that Ninova purged the BSP leadership of the party’s more progressive and left-leaning members.

The attorney general does, after all, vow to “not differentiate between the destitute and the billionaires” — and prosecute all criminals regardless of class. Yet it is precisely the equal force that the prosecution claims to exert in pursuing justice that is the problem. Even if criminal privatizations or corporate tax evasion begin to be effectively prosecuted, those crimes are of a different scale and produce different and much more extreme types of social harm. A recent slip by the general secretary of the Ministry of Interior is indicative of popular attitudes — “Rules apply to all, regardless of whether they are a millionaire or earn an honest living.” Yet in Bulgaria today “equal standards of justice” are supposedly applied to unequal crimes. Bulgaria’s political parties end up arguing over the question of which particular oligarchs to prosecute.

The current situation exhibits many similarities to the 2013 protests, which ultimately prompted a BSP-led government to resign over accusations similar to those aimed at the current coalition. Now with the shoe on the other foot, the BSP ought, theoretically, to be able to take advantage of their opponent’s weakness. Yet it entered the stage of judicial reform long after other parties had already set the terms of the debate and was only pushed to do so by the popularity of the current protests. While repenting for its introduction of an extremely harmful flat tax back in 2008 and now advocating for a progressive tax reform, the BSP is not doing enough to salvage whatever is left of its historic social base and attract those disillusioned with the unjust redistribution that has resulted from the transition to neoliberal capitalism.

Prime Minister Borissov has been in power, on and off, since 2009. His popularity has waned considerably, and he now has lower ratings than ever. But if the BSP is serious about governing without entering into coalitions with right-wing parties next year — as it claims — it must address the fraught relationship between equality before the law (and welfare), and social inequality more generally. Until this political vacuum is filled, Bulgaria will continue to witness rounds of mutual accusations of corruption and misrule by various factions of the political elite, but no real change.