Bulgarians in the streets

Last week we looked at the continuing anti-government protests in Belarus, which show no sign of letting up. It would be remiss to not also mention the even longer-running protests in nearby Bulgaria against the government of Boyko Borisov and its alleged mafia connections.

The difference between an autocracy and a democracy, even a flawed and deeply corrupt one, can be seen in the fact that the Bulgarian protests have been met with sporadic police brutality rather than organised repression, and that Bulgarian opposition leaders have not felt the need to flee for their lives. It’s an important difference to keep in mind.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean the Bulgarian situation isn’t serious. Bulgaria has long been known as the most corrupt country in the European Union, which it joined in 2007. But not until this year has there been a sense that its democratic institutions were fundamentally threatened.

Borisov, who leads the centre-right party GERB, has been prime minister since 2009 with two short gaps: one in 2013-14 and one in early 2017. In both 2014 and 2017 early elections returned him to power. But GERB has never held a majority in its own right; Borisov has governed with the support of smaller right-wing parties. His current coalition partner is the United Patriots, an alliance of assorted right and far-right groups.

You can read my report on the 2017 election here; in it I remarked that “Bulgaria’s voters have shown they still have confidence, of a sort, in their established politicians.” That confidence now seems to have evaporated.

Borisov has a particularly bad relationship with the president, Rumen Radev, who was elected in 2016 with the support of the opposition Socialist Party (that was the event that prompted Borisov’s second resignation). The touchstone for the current protests was a raid ordered by the chief prosecutor, a Borisov crony, on the president’s office; Radev in turn has endorsed the protests and called for the government’s resignation.

But a lot of the attention has also been directed to the EU, which represents a major source of funding for the government and, allegedly, for the mafia. As has already been seen in Poland and Hungary, the EU’s mechanisms to ensure compliance by its members with the rule of law are ineffective. Hristo Ivanov, one of the leaders of the Bulgarian opposition, complained last month that “This level of state capture in Bulgaria was only made possible by the easy drug of EU funds.”

The problem is that GERB is a key member of the EU centre-right political alliance, the European People’s Party, and its other members have been reluctant to discipline it – even more so than they were in the case of Hungary. But corruption is often bipartisan; Bulgaria’s liberal party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which also represents the interests of the ethnic Turkish minority, is apparently deeply implicated as well.

Opinion polls show that GERB’s support has slipped since 2017, but not catastrophically; it is averaging in the high 20s, a few points ahead of the Socialists. Third place is contested between Ivanov’s centre-to-centre-left Democratic Bulgaria, the DPS, and There Are Such People, the party of populist folk singer and talk show host Slavi Trifonov. The far right is further back, and in danger of falling below the 4% threshold.

With no election due until early next year, there’s time for Borisov to recover, particularly if his control of the media is as comprehensive as his opponents claim. But we’ve already seen this year in Slovakia and Montenegro that autocratic leaders are not immune from electoral retribution. The prime minister has schemed to forestall his opponents with a plan for constitutional revision, but he lacks the numbers in parliament to push through any changes.

The protesters may or may not force Borisov from power early. But the scale of popular discontent that they’re demonstrating is a sign that, one way or another, the end of his reign is probably not far off.

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