Bulgarians are protesting against corruption, demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister and the leader of the ruling center-right party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) Boyko Borisov, as well as Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev. This time, protesters took to the streets in the light of the European Commission's communiqué published on September 30 on the situation in the sphere of the rule of law in the European Union, in which Bulgaria is not mentioned in the best light.
Brussels is concerned about the lack of accountability of the Prosecutor General, the independence of the judiciary, the impartiality of the anti-corruption body, the dubious effectiveness of investigations of corruption cases, as well as the links of media owners with political forces, the problem of harassment and intimidation of journalists, the interference of politicians in their activities. Behind the screen of protecting the law and fighting corruption lie the interests of external and internal players who benefit from a change of power in Bulgaria for other reasons.
Today Europeans jokingly call Bulgaria the undisputed champion of Europe in terms of corruption. Every joke has a bit of truth. According to Transparency International, Bulgaria has the highest level of corruption susceptibility in the European Union and is already ahead of notorious Romania. According to the World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index, Bulgaria is on par with Russia in terms of government corruption.
Members of the GERB party became persons involved in journalistic investigations and high-profile corruption scandals. Agriculture Minister Rumen Porozhanov bought the property at below-market prices for EU money, while MP Tsvetan Tsvetanov and head of the Anti-Corruption Commission Plamen Georgiev bought luxury apartments at low prices, but did not reflect them in tax returns. These civil servants have already left their posts.
The Bulgarian government does not pay enough attention to the fight against corruption in the highest echelons of power. The Council of Europe has repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that the Bulgarian Prosecutor General's Office is very outdated and is engaged in selective justice in relation to political opponents of the ruling party.
The investment attractiveness of Bulgaria is decreasing from year to year due to the problem of corruption. Foreign investment inflows dropped from $ 8 billion to $ 1.13 billion from 2008 to 2018. It is difficult to do business in the country. Employees of the Neofit Rilski University came to the conclusion that due to the inflated tax rates, the complexity of the procedure for obtaining loans, frequently changing legislation, intricate administrative services, companies evade VAT. They have to give bribes and gifts to civil servants in exchange for services and various kinds of preferences. Kickbacks and funding of political parties in exchange for government orders are common.
Dissatisfaction with the Borisov government is also due to the fact that Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union. Bulgaria's GDP per capita is 9 thousand euros, 20% less than in crisis-ridden Greece. 22% of the population of the 7 millionth country live below the poverty line, and another 23% of Bulgarians are on the verge of poverty. The coronavirus pandemic and quarantine are adding fuel to the fire: by the end of the year, the Bulgarian economy is expected to decline by 7.2%.
It is not surprising why the European Commission focuses on the problem of the persecution of journalists in Bulgaria. In early August, during a conference of the GERB party, Polina Paunova, a journalist for Radio Liberty, was attacked. In March of this year, three masked men beat with metal rods the investigative journalist Slavi Angelov who exposed the financial machinations of businessman Vasily Bozhkov. The oligarch is hiding from justice in Dubai and in June expressed his intention to create his own political project and go into opposition to Borisov. According to the International Press Institute, Bulgarian law enforcement officers are detaining journalists covering protest actions. In early September, a photojournalist Dimitar Keranov was arrested.
Socialists prepare for elections
The opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party is involved in the protests, which is preparing for the parliamentary elections in March 2021 and is trying in every possible way to discredit Prime Minister Borisov and his party in the eyes of society. In July, the socialists put a vote of no confidence in the government to a vote in parliament but failed to secure Borisov's resignation. They were not supported by a significant number of MPs. Therefore, they changed their tactics and put pressure on the authorities with the help of street protests.
Socialists adapt to the mood of society and develop for themselves an image of almost the only effective political force capable of fighting corruption. Their leader, Kornelia Ninova, claims that the Borisov government robbed its own people during its 10 years in power. One of the members of the "Bulgarian Socialist Party" Rumen Gechev publicly discusses the influence of corruption on the non-competitiveness of the Bulgarian economy, the gap in the level of income of citizens.
An imprint on the Bulgarian protests was imposed by the conflict between the socialist-loyal President Rumen Radev with Borisov and Geshev. The head of state calls on the prime minister to comply with the demands of the protesters: to step down and give an opportunity to purge the government and the anti-corruption body. This is his personal interest. According to Prosecutor General Geshev, the Bulgarian president asked Air Force Major General Tsanko Stoikov not to submit documents on the appointment of First Lady Dessislava Radeva to the press service of the Bulgarian Air Force in 2014 at the request of the anti-corruption body. Then Radev was the commander of the Air Force and actually employed his wife, a civilian who had nothing to do with military service. This scandal could negatively affect the reputation of the "Bulgarian Socialist Party", which protégé in the 2016 presidential elections is no different from the corrupt officials from the GERB.
Bulgaria is in the field of vision of the Russian special services. In September 2020, the Bulgarian Prosecutor General's Office uncovered two Russian spies who were gathering information under diplomatic cover. In November 2019, Nikolai Malinov, leader of the National Movement of Russophiles in Bulgaria, was arrested on suspicion of spying for Russia.
If the protests influence the victory of the Bulgarian Socialist Party in the parliamentary elections in 2021, then Russia will win. Socialists and President Radev are appealing to the Kremlin. They advocate the lifting of anti-Russian sanctions by the European Union, the establishment of relations between Russia and NATO, and the expansion of cooperation in the gas sector. In 2018, Radev proposed to Russia to build a new Bulgarian Stream gas pipeline under the Black Sea. In 2014, Prime Minister Borisov, with whom the Kremlin has rather complicated relations, abandoned a similar project, South Stream.
At the end of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed dissatisfaction with Bulgaria's delay in the construction of the Trans-Balkan Gas Pipeline on its territory, which will allow delivering Russian natural gas coming through the Russian Turkish Stream gas pipeline to other European countries.
Borisov seeks to diversify natural gas supplies to Europe. Last year, Bulgaria began construction of a gas pipeline on the border with Greece to transit Azerbaijani natural gas coming through the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline (a competitor to the Turkish Stream). In 2019, Borisov discussed with US President Donald Trump the possibility of supplying American liquefied gas to Bulgaria.
It is not excluded that the commissioning of the Trans-Balkan gas pipeline will be delayed for some time under American pressure. After it became known about the final stage of construction, Assistant Secretary of State Francis Fennon hinted at the possibility of imposing sanctions to prevent Russia from using energy assets as an instrument of political influence. The US is interested in increasing supplies of liquefied natural gas to Europe and reducing the influence of Gazprom.
The protests in Bulgaria, with which the EU hopes to intimidate the Borisov government into focusing on fighting corruption, could influence the rise to power of the Kremlin's allies.
Conclusions for Ukraine
The protests in Bulgaria once again highlight that the government's ineffectiveness in fighting corruption and improving the quality of life of the population could be a prelude to a political crisis. In Ukraine, the situation is even worse than in Bulgaria.
If Bulgaria ranks 74th in the world in terms of susceptibility to corruption, then our country is 126th. Ukraine's GDP per capita is even less - $ 5.3 thousand. In Ukraine, 23.1% of the population live on incomes below the subsistence level.