Social Movements in Bulgaria. An Interview with Nadège Ragaru

Bulgaria Protest 2020 Photo copyright: shutterstock

Why such anger now? What are the causes of such an explosion of anger this summer?

The social movement that has been going on in Bulgaria for over two months crystallised around a call for the resignations of both Prime Minister Boiko Borissov (GERB, right-wing populist) and Attorney Gernal Ivan Gechev. The protesters, united under the slogan, “Out with the Mafia!” are demanding early elections before the legislative elections scheduled for March 2021. Their movement has denounced elite arrogance, collusion between the political and economic spheres, political uses of justice, as well as corruption within the state apparatus.

To grasp what triggered these events, it is necessary to consider multiple time scales, both short- and medium-term. The cast of protagonists includes whistleblowers, oligarchs, politicians suspected of having illicit dealings with the latter, and the public prosecutor. The clashes have played out on multiple platforms, from political economy and partisanship to the judiciary.

The initial spark came from the July 7 attempt of Hristo Ivanov, ex-minister of Justice (GERB, 2014-2015), to access a public beach from the ocean. Ivnov is currently co-president of a small rightwing coalition called Democratic Bulgaria. The beach in question was de facto privatised by Ahmed Dogan, the honorary president of the party defending the interests of Bulgaria’s Turkish and Muslim minorities (Mouvement des droits et libertés, MDL). A controversial figure, Dogan is suspected of serving as a discreet but influential ally to the ruling party and of maintaining a close relationship with Delian Peevski, an oligarch and press magnate. The strong action of security guards to prevent the small boat (with its Bulgarian flag) from docking was filmed and broadcast live on Facebook. At Ivanov’s request, President Rumen Radev (Bulgarian Socialist Party, PSB, ex-communist) made public the agents’ affiliation—National Security Service (NSO), responsible for ensuring the security of leading figures in Bulgaria—on July 8. Radev also bid the protections that had been granted to Dogan and Peevski to be suspended. The next day, the public prosecutor ordered a search at the Presidency building. The operation targeted the secretary for legal affairs and one of the Head of State’s internal security advisors—suspected, for the first, of influence peddling, and for the second, of having unduly appropriated intelligence service documents.

The temporal coincidence of these events came to convince many citizens that, first, the state has been hijacked by oligarchs and their political minions; and, second, the public prosecutor serves the interests of the leader of the government in the controversy between him and the president. On the very evening of July 8, a first rally was organised in front of the Presidency building. Two days later, Rumen Radev denounced the government as a “Mafia,” proclaimed his support for the emerging protest movement, and demanded the resignation of the Prime Minister and Attorney General.

Behind these episodes are three competing registers. First, the political level. A former bodyguard, Bojko Borissov has governed Bulgaria almost continuously for ten years. His hold on power has been based on an eminently flexible policy of post-electoral alliances (since March 2017, with the far right) and on a clientelist allocation of public contracts and state resources. For several years, NGOs and investigative journalists have revealed the existence of practices of embezzlement, corruption cases, and a differential management of illegal acts, some of which have involved the fraudulent use of European funds.

A turning point, however, occurred in June 2020, with the circulation of photographs showing hundreds of 500-euro bills and pieces of gold atop the Prime Minister’s bedside table, all topped by his personal gun. The diffusion of these images gave a graphic, almost palpable form to the economic predations imputed to the elites, and suggested the weaknesses of a governmental leader powerless to prevent the circulation of such compromising information. A few days later, one of the most powerful oligarchs in Bulgaria, Vasil Bozhkov, a higher-up in the gambling world who had fled to Dubai in January 2020 to escape arrest on various fronts (murder, rape, tax evasion, etc.), published on his Facebook page text messages with the Prime Minister, declaring that he had handed over some 67 million leva (34.2 million euros) to members of the Bulgarian executive (including the Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister) between 2017 and the end of 2019, in exchange for generous tax breaks. (The oligarch was suspected of tax evasion to the tune of 700 million leva, or 357.9 million euros.) The day before, a sound recording had been anonymously sent to several websites, in which a voice sounding like that of the Prime Minister exposed his contempt, in no uncertain terms, for several politicians, including the current Speaker of the Bulgarian Parliament, Tsveta Karajancheva (GERB).

This series of kompromati (a term designating compromising, credible, but not always accurate information, used for the purpose of disqualifying political opponents) led to attempts to reaffirm the validity of Bulgarian justice…This would explain the attention paid to the advisers of the President, a former fighter pilot, socialist and Russophile. Bojko Borisov has maintained rather tense relations with the President since the latter took office in January 2017. We should note, however, that during summer 2020, the Socialist Party itself never came to play a pivotal role in the protests. The establishment, deeply divided between generations, political visions, and affiliated economic milieus, was to elect its leader on September 12, for the first time by a direct vote by members. The decisive victory notched by the departing president, Kornelja Ninova, was nonetheless not enough to confirm her authority in the party.

Finally, beyond the political and partisan stakes, a third variable contributed to the accumulation of discontent, namely the choice of the public prosecutor, elected in November 2019 by the Bulgarian Supreme Judicial Council (as its only candidate). The new leader, Ivan Gechev, had previously been involved in the much-criticised court management of the bankruptcy of the Cooperative Commercial Bank, where the magnate Peevski was a co-shareholder and allegedly had his assets illegally appropriated by political actors. In autumn 2019, the President had vetoed the election of the new Attorney General, though the veto was bypassed by a second vote by the Supreme Judicial Council. Since then, the Attorney General has presumably played a pivotal role in the arbitration, via the intermediary of justice, of competition between economic milieux.

The dysfunction of the Bulgarian judicial system results, in part, from an unanticipated effect of the process of democratisation. In 1991, one of the main concerns of the authors of the new democratic constitution was to prevent the executive branch from exercising its grip on the law—as had been the case under socialism. The office of the Attorney General was thus endowed with broad prerogatives and a high degree of autonomy. For several years, now, but newly intensified under Gechev’s direction, the Bulgarian public prosecutor has been suspected of opening selective lawsuits against business leaders judged to be hostile to power. This practice may have contributed to the public prosecutor’s role in the (re)distribution of market share among oligarchs. This would explain some of the compromising information recently released on the Prime Minister and his entourage.

Who are the protesters? Is a united opposition front to the government in place?

Over the course of two months of protest, the profile of the participants has shifted. Certain key features can nonetheless be discerned: the first concerns the presence of young protesters, often Bulgarians living abroad, who had returned home for the holidays. Some of them consider themselves to have been forced into exile because they found it impossible to achieve their professional and personal goals in a country they consider corrupt. Around this durable core have gathered Sofia residents of all ages, including sympathisers of a small right-wing coalition, Democratic Bulgaria, founded in April 2018 on a program of institutional and legal reforms. A third group of protesters is composed of those sympathising with the Socialist Party, the current opposition. Finally, joining the marches are citizens who only marginally recognise themselves in the current electoral scope and wish to express their indignation, as well as their weariness, vis-à-vis the seizing of public and private resources by narrow segments of society, the impunity of those close to power, and the deepening of social inequalities. The protesters thus span a wide range of political sensibilities and social profiles.

What is the response of Boïko Borisov’s government to the demonstrators?

The Borisov government has responded on multiple fronts—political, economic, partisan, constitutional, electoral, etc.—moving with surprising agility as the social movement has grown…without, however, managing to prevent its authority from being eroded on local and international scales.

Its first reaction, in mid-July, was to seek the resignation of three ministers (Finance, Economy, Interior) deemed close to Peevski. At the same time, the government sought to regain the initiative by emphasising its commitment to the fight against the COVID-19 crisis (successfully contained during the first wave of spring 2020) and by announcing a broad plan of economic support, thanks to the economic stimulus plan formulated by the European Union following the exceptional European Council of July 17-21, 2020. The Prime Minister has also sought to strengthen his legitimacy among his supporters by organising a national GERB conference in Sofia on August 5. That the conference coincided with the assault on a Bulgarian journalist, in the absence of an effective intervention by the private security company overseeing the event, however, adversely affected the gambit.

Even while banking on the anti-governmental movement exhausting itself, as well as on tensions between protesters and residents affected by the blocking of several central avenues of the capital (Sofia), the Prime Minister made the surprising move, one week later, of announcing a plan of constitutional reform. He also indicated that he would be ready to resign if Parliament approved the election of a Grand National Assembly (i.e. an assembly of 400 members and not 240—a decision that would require a two-thirds majority). On September 2, the day of Parliament’s return to session, GERB and its allies obtained the necessary number of signatures to examine the constitutional review proposal, a maneuver that opponents of the government claimed was a delay tactic. Presented as a response to voters’ demands, the proposal would reduce the number of deputies to 120, remove some of the already modest prerogatives from the Head of State, and claims to set out to strengthen the transparency of the judiciary. Several clauses are particularly controversial, such as the reference to “national values and traditions” (in a multi-ethnic country) in the preamble to the future Constitution, as well as the note that marriage must unite a man and woman. Finally, the government launched a reform of the electoral code and resolved to introduce voting machines, under the responsibility of the Central Election Commission—whose president subsequently resigned.

This profusion of new initiatives did not manage to get the better of the uprisings. Clashes between demonstrators and police on September 2 gave new life to the mass movement. Although the police counted more victims than the protesters, the fact that at least three journalists were injured and/or attacked during their time in police custody lent renewed international visibility to the Bulgarian protests, while further weakening the government’s external legitimacy. The next large rally is scheduled for September 22, Bulgarian National Independence Day.

What outcome is to be expected from this confrontation between the government and the demonstrators?

Two factors should be taken into consideration: Europe-wide dynamics, on the one hand; and the possibility (or not) of the social movement giving rise to a governmental majority in accordance with the protesters’ hopes, on the other.

Since the start of the anti-government actions, one of the priorities of the demonstrations’ organisers has been to exert pressure on Bulgarian authorities by lobbying the European political arena. The institutions targeted have included European partisan structures (GERB’s membership in the European People’s Party [EPP], currently in the majority in the European Parliament, has not offered a very powerful lever for action); the European Parliament (particularly the LIBE Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group); the Council of Europe (the Commissioner for Human Rights; the Venice Commission); as well as the European Commission (through the post-accession monitoring mechanism that has applied to Bulgaria and Romania since they joined the EU in 2007). These consciousness-raising actions have begun to produce effects. The LIBE Monitoring Group submitted questions in writing to the Bulgarian authorities at the beginning of September; a debate on rule of law in Bulgaria is scheduled for a mid-October plenary session in the European Parliament. It remains to be seen to what extent these initiatives will succeed in influencing the choices of the Prime Minister and his coalition partners. Within European bodies, the agenda is already extremely full: between the COVID-19 pandemic, the difficult implementation of the Brexit agreement, recent upheavals in Belarus, and political developments in Poland and Hungary, there is little room for in-depth reflection on the Bulgarian situation, however worrying it may be.

The second dilemma is even more in-depth. In a few months, parliamentary elections will take place in Bulgaria, early or not. Can we hope that the demonstrators’ demands for improving Bulgarian society will find their way onto the ballot? Bulgaria’s election method (209 seats elected by proportional representation, 31 by majority vote) has forced the main political players to be flexible in putting together post-election coalitions—even if that means betraying the expectations of their constituents. To this day, GERB and the Socialist Party remain the two main protagonists in the political game. The Democratic Bulgaria coalition, so visible in the summer 2020 demonstrations, is expected to amass 10% of the vote at most, mainly from educated and urban voters. The autumn promises to offer a wealth of partisan plans, whether from former GERB officials (the former second-in-command, Tsvetan Tsvetanov and his Republicans for Bulgaria), the Socialist Party (former ombudsman Maja Manolova, who had previously supported Peevski and who actively participated in the summer 2020 protests against him) or media figures such as the singer, host and television producer, Slavi Trifonov (founder of the party called “Such a People Exists”). Since the mid-2000s, attempts to reshuffle partisan bids have essentially taken the form of populist organisations centered on a charismatic figure, and have proved more or less ephemeral. The main result of this mode of reshuffling the political spectrum has been a slow partisan drift towards conservative, populist, and xenophobic conceptions of governing. This configuration renders any profound reordering of elites and of decision-making practices, as anticipated by the demonstrators, unlikely.

Interview by Corinne Deloy, CERI.

Translation by Victoria Baena.

Photo Copyright: Shutterstock.

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