30 YEARS OF TRANSITION: Corruption, racism and intolerance in Bulgaria

30 YEARS OF TRANSITION: Corruption, racism and intolerance in Bulgaria
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia November 3, 2019

This is the first in bne IntelliNews’ series of articles marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the coming days our correspondents from across Central Europe will report on how their countries have weathered the last three decades of transition.

We start with Sofia-based reporter Denitsa Koseva’s in depth look at democratic backsliding, persistent corruption and the rise of the far right in Bulgaria. 

November 10, 1989. It’s late afternoon and a 13-year old girl is travelling home by bus. It’s as crowded as usual, but unlike on any other day, the passengers seem a bit restless. “Do you know that Tato was removed,” one of them whispers to his companion.

He’s referring to Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s long-ruling communist leader, nicknamed “Tato” by the population. 

Everyone looks around, worried, as for such a statement one can go to jail for life. When the girl returns home to her apartment in a communist-built panel block that looks the same as all the other blocks in the country, she tells her parents, whispering “I heard that Tato was down”. Her parents freak out as even when you whisper, someone can hear you in your own home and send your whole family to prison. They turn on the TV. It turns out that Tato really has been removed from power.

In the following months changes come that scare many Bulgarians, while others spend night after night peacefully surrounding the parliament and demanding changes to the constitution and democratic elections. Democracy eventually arrives in Bulgaria without violence except for an attack on the parliament one summer night in 1990. 

I was that 13-year-old girl, and over the next 30 years I witnessed Bulgaria’s transition to democracy and a market economy, and later its entry to the EU and Nato. 

The first seven years were hard for most Bulgarians. In the winter of 1997, exhausted by poverty, lack of basic food products in stores, hyperinflation and yet another Socialist-led government, Bulgarians got angry and protested for weeks, demanding that real democratic processes be established.

In 2019, Bulgarian citizens barely remember the hunger, poverty, lack of choices and complete lack of rules in the country in the early transition years. However, they still do not feel significantly more optimistic about their future than they did 20 years ago.

The rule of law remains problematic. Recently the European Commission said that Bulgaria meets all criteria and recommended lifting the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) monitoring — a system put in place for Bulgaria and Romania to assess their performance on the rule of law and corruption. The country is still rated as the most corrupt in the EU by international watchdog Transparency International, and has not made any meaningful progress in that direction for years.

Indeed the European Commission’s positive report on Bulgaria’s progress under the CVM coincided with a scandal over the appointment of Ivan Geshev as the country’s new chief prosecutor that highlighted much of what is wrong with Bulgaria today. Geshev was the sole candidate for the post and was endorsed by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) in October despite widespread criticism and street protests.

Geshev is notorious for his failure to deliver significant results in a trial concerning embezzlement at one of Bulgaria’s biggest banks, Corpbank, which collapsed in 2014. No sentence has been issued so far. 

Geshev was also behind the action movie-style arrest of an independent mayor of one district in Sofia, who was forced to stand handcuffed in the street for hours, after which she was issued very tough — and questionable — sentence for bribe taking. 

Many people in Bulgaria fear that Geshev will use his post to go after critics of the establishment, while no member of the establishment has been accused of or sentenced for corruption to date.

Lack of tolerance on the rise

The political situation is equally worrying. 30 years after the collapse of communism, Bulgaria is heavily influenced by racism and far-right movements. With three far-right parties supporting Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s Gerb in the ruling coalition, far-right ideology is flourishing. 

In particular, the far-right has managed to whip up outrage among large swathes of the population to force through their social agenda. 

A few years ago, far-right parties blocked adoption of the Istanbul convention on protection of women and children against violence, claiming that it would open the door for the introduction of a “third gender” — as they dubbed gay and transgender people — and allow gay marriages. Demonstrating that even after three decades of transition liberal values are by no means universally accepted, the scandal split Bulgarians in two with one half claiming that a man slapping his wife is a better option than legalising gay marriage. 

Domestic violence was at the centre of a later scandal too, when religious and far-right groups sensationally claimed that a new strategy to protect children against domestic violence was intended to take white Bulgarian children away from their parents and give them to black gay couples in Norway. This made thousands of Bulgarians afraid that anyone could take their kids, and the government dropped the strategy, which simply aimed to better define children’s rights.

Now that trust in democracy and the hope that — nearly 13 years after accession — EU membership will bring a western style of politics to the country are fading away, homophobia and racism are on the rise. 

A poll by the Open Society Institute of Bulgaria carried out in 2018 and released in the summer of 2019 showed that half of Bulgarians wouldn’t vote for a candidate for a mayor who is gay or is member of the Roma or Turkish minority.

The same survey showed that less than half of the population, just 45%, believe that democracy is the best form of governance for the country. This is seven percentage points less than three years earlier.

“Amongst the participants in the survey there are dominant negative assessments of the efficiency of the government to solve the main national issues, low trust in institutions and the conviction that the political and administrative elite is formed based on connections instead on merits,” the report noted.

Macroeconomic stability but lack of FDI

Despite being less free and less democratic than ten years ago by a number of indicators, Bulgaria is enjoying macroeconomic and fiscal stability. The country’s budget has posted a surplus in recent years and the macroeconomic indicators have been assessed as stable and positive by international institutions. This is a common situation across Central and Eastern Europe, where the troubles on “Planet Politics” contrast with the flourishing “Planet Business”. 

However, “Planet Business” is now suffering too in Bulgaria as political uncertainty and corruption have pushed major investors away. A report from the Bulgarian Industrial Association shows that foreign investment in Bulgaria has collapsed, decreasing ten times since 2007 as the country lost its attractiveness for international companies.

The unstable economic environment, insufficient profits and alleged political pressure forced several big foreign investors to leave the country in 2018, among them Czech utility CEZ which is struggling to offload its Bulgarian assets. This is in contrast with the government’s claims that the situation in the country is stable.

Media freedom plunging, trust in institutions at rock bottom

The same survey by the Open Society Institute of Bulgaria showed a crisis of public trust in television and the press as factors of more responsible governance.

“[T]elevision is losing its position of a medium people trust when they look for information about the situation in the country. The majority of respondents agree that the press is free to criticise the government but they do not believe that the press or television would report the truth in case a senior civil servant is involved in a crime. Without reliable information about the work of the government, citizens are prevented from taking part in the process of decision making,” the report says.

Meanwhile, international institutions have raised concerns that media freedom in the country has collapsed with many independent journalists either being removed from their posts or being under severe pressure to stop criticising the establishment. The Bulgarian press is rated the least free in the EU by Reporters without Borders. 

In the most notorious example of pressure on critical journalists, the public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) was silenced for five hours in mid-September for the first time since 1944. Its management claimed that BNR stopped broadcasting for technical reasons, but journalists have suggested it was connected to the decision by the Horizont programme’s head, Nikolay Krastev, to take prominent broadcaster Silvia Velikova off the air, which caused a storm in Bulgaria, as it was seen as yet another attempt to silence journalists critical of those in power. Velikova's colleagues refused to replace her while she was suspended, causing the shutdown.

Another prominent investigative journalist, Mirolyuba Benatova, was forced to quit one of the leading TV channels, Nova TV, after it was acquired by a businessman close to those in power. Benatova became a taxi driver, refusing to work for media related to media mogul Delyan Peevski and not getting any other job offers.

Independent investigative news outlet Bivol.bg has also become a target following a series of publications revealing that top politicians and magistrates have acquired luxury apartments, houses and villas at a price significantly below the market value.

Unhappy but apathetic 

When it comes to the country’s main institutions, Bulgarians also do not trust the government, parliament and prosecution. Polls have shown that the public trust in these institutions varies between 8% and 17%.

But despite being unhappy and pessimistic about the situation in the country, Bulgarians seem apathetic and have lost energy to protest or to take major steps to bring about a change. Even the highly controversial procedure to elect the country’s next chief prosecutor brought just a few thousand people out onto the streets.

Peaceful protests brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets back in 1989 and 1990, but today Bulgarians seem tired of protesting, especially after several big protests in the early months of third-time Prime Minister Boyko Borissov brought no results. Moreover, no political party has emerged as a true alternative to the ruling Gerb party for the moment and people do not seem motivated to get more of the same at the moment.

Read other articles in this series: 

“I was 30” commercial stirs controversy in Romania

The Czech Republic divided by freedom since 1989

Poland at a crossroads

Central European automakers prepare for an electric future

A profound crisis of trust in democracy

Gabor Szeles, a self-made Hungarian success story