Bulgaria: How to get Sofia back on track?

25 July 2013
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Frankfurt

Reconstitution of the painting "Liberty Leading the People," during a demonstration against the government in Sofia on July 13
Reconstitution of the painting "Liberty Leading the People," during a demonstration against the government in Sofia on July 13

The former members of the communist nomenklatura and secret services have hijacked a large part of the Bulgarian institutions. The EU knows it, but has not yet found the means to persuade them to respect the rule of law.

Last week about a thousand people held demonstrations outside the German Embassy in Sofia. The rally continued the peaceful spirit that had marked the daily protests against the Bulgarian government – until the violent escalation on its 40th day on the night of [July] 24: As a thank you to the German Ambassador, the demonstrators recreated the Fall of the Wall of 1989. Together with the French Ambassador, the ambassador had published an article in one of Bulgaria’s largest newspapers, in which both diplomats openly expressed their sympathy with the protesters, who gathered in their thousands every evening in Sofia and denounced the government as a “Mafia”.

The central message of this “unusual and outrageous act”– in the words of the outraged Bulgarian government – is: “Membership in the European Union is a decision meant to civilise a state. The oligarchic model is not compatible with that, neither in Bulgaria nor elsewhere.”

As a plain statement, that is true; as a description of the current situation, it would be false. In the 23 years since the end of the Communist dictatorship in Bulgaria, cliques stemming predominantly from the old Communist nomenklatura and intelligence services have hijacked large parts of the State's institutions in order to pursue their businesses interests in a wide gray area where politics, business and organised crime overlap. The individual groups within this milieu are enemies, and sometimes deadly ones, but together they form a fairly closed circle – an “oligarchic model”.

Dealing with Bulgaria

How should the EU deal with a member like Bulgaria? Bulgaria is not the example of what an EU member state should be, but at the same time, it violates no EU treaties and no fundamental rights. The reign of the oligarchs is exercised informally, behind the scenes, in an environment that, on the surface, conforms with the laws. That is why the legal instruments that the Union may use to act against violations make very little headway. Outwardly, Bulgaria does meet the requirements of a democracy.

You cannot even say that it is merely a facade. Election results are open, Parliament holds debates, the judiciary is not controlled by the politicians, the media criticise the government, and there is a civil society that is not trampled over by the state. It’s only that it is nearly impossible at times to distinguish between the normal signs of a democratic community and the pathological symptoms of a corruption that has penetrated deeply into all the political forces and throughout the state itself.

The major parties in Bulgaria are committed to democracy and to everything else that does not cause a stir in Europe. Socialist leader Sergei Stanishev, for example, is Chairman of the European Social Democrats and in this role is a master of saying the right thing. He rarely gives himself away as he did in mid-June, when two weeks after the inauguration of the government headed by his party, he tried to appoint a dodgy media magnate and deputy head of the secret service, which was what sparked the protests.

Democratic reversal

The essence of the Bulgarian malaise was known in the EU before the country joined in 2007, and that was why it, like Romania, was put under special watch. In the end, though, the decision to admit both countries came down to political considerations – and the hope that EU membership would speed up democratisation. The opposite happened: once admission was a sure thing, interested parties began to work towards rolling back reforms that had been initiated in the justice system; there also began a race among the various shadowy economic groupings for control of the institutions that would be responsible for managing EU funds.

As long they make no gross blunders, the EU is fairly powerless – as is also shown in the Romania of today. There, the government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta, trying last year to put curbs on a self-confident judiciary investigating cases of corruption, launched a kind of cold coup d’etat. The laws it breached it doing so, were so flagrant that they gave the European Commission the opportunity to step in.

Ponta suffered a defeat, from which he has learned that he must proceed much more gingerly than he did last summer with a constitutional reform that should lead to the same destination, but offer no legal targets to Brussels. The possibilities for putting him under pressure politically are limited. Ponta, a tried and tested democrat, can plead the fact that he has won an election – and as the head of a EU country he will be called on to vote in many EU resolutions.

That makes it all the more important that the Commission and the other member states clearly indicate that they know very well what is really going on – and that, just as they do in Bulgaria, they take advantage of opportunities that fall their way to make difficulties for the oligarchic criminal complex.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer

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