Recent events in Belarus tend to overshadow more than 40-days of consecutive days of protest in Bulgaria – the poorest member of the EU and NATO. There is a growing concern with the inexplicable silence and muted reaction of the European institutions and leaders, and the long-term consequences that could catalyze Euroscepticism in Bulgaria and open niches of vulnerability that could translate into frustration, inviting hostile acts from our adversaries.
Thousands of Bulgarians have taken to the streets to protest flagrant grand corruption and abuse of power which have epitomized the current Government of PM Borisov. These two pinnacles of his rule are widely acknowledged as the principal reason for Bulgaria’s laggard status in the EU. Despite sufficiently high GDP growth levels, oligarchic capture of key state institutions leads to flawed dispersion and dramatic income inequality, which ultimately turn Bulgaria’s membership into a handicap for the Union.
Among the protesters are people of all ages and walks of life, with diverse ideological, political, ethnic and religious background, with young Bulgarians in the lead as the majority – embodying the hope of the new generations that something can and will be made different.
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Corruption, entrenched by more than 10 years of rule of PM Borisov is the principal evil in modern Bulgaria, destroying material wealth, human and intellectual capital, democratic values, and respect for institutions. It denies Bulgarians the heights of intellectual and professional pursuits that are common to their fellow Europeans. A landmark of corruption are Borisov’s pet projects as Gazprom’s transit pipeline through Bulgaria (aka Turk-Balkan stream) and the Russian-made nuclear power plant at Belene. None of these projects make economic sense for Bulgaria with the sunken costs exceeding €3 billion and rising Borisov’s Government appears determined to sustain dependence on Russia and has dug his heels in refusing to leave
The ruling clique resorts to methods of governance and even lifestyle more akin to organized crime than to a political organization.
Most Bulgarians (62 % according to recent opinion polls) support the protests and their main demands – the resignations of the Government and the Chief Prosecutor. Despite numerous cases of flagrant corruption and abuse of power and outright criminal acts of government officials, the system of the Bulgarian Prosecution, which remains the only Soviet-style prosecution in the EU, has remained indifferent, selective or collaborative.
Grand corruption at the highest levels of government, including at the level of the Prime minister, ministers, magistrates, MPs, oligarchs is not investigated, with the negligible exception of few sporadic instances meant for PR and media use. Moreover, the specialized branch of the prosecution, which has been specially created to protect society from such evils, is used as a cover and an active factor in gangsters’ like seizure of private businesses and independent media, while ignoring blatant ‘daylight ‘crimes.
If EU’s top politicians, elected and appointed by all of us, continue to mute their reactions to the public protests under the diplomatic excuse of respect for sovereignty and non-interference, that would undermine the public belief in the shared values on which the Union has been built. No one should keep silence when autocrats violate core values of democracy the rule of law in any part of Europe. Stability and prosperity based on abuse of power are short-lived and never shared. Turning a blind eye on the grievances of other fellow Europeans means that we have succumbed to the old imperial system of balance of forces, real politik and egoistic interests.
Mutual vulnerability calls for mutual transparency and respect for shared values and standards of governance. They preclude abuse of sovereignty as a shield by autocracies, when they deny voters free and fair elections, free and independent media and the rule of law. It is not all coincidental that both Belarusian President Lukashenko and Bulgarian PM minister Borisov are reading from the same Kremlin script offering changes in the Constitution in a last desparate attempt to gain time, to dilute and ultimate contain the protests’ energy.
Over the years, Bulgarian citizens have learned to cherish European solidarity. However, years spent as the EU’s laggard have transcended into a loss of self-confidence and self-respect, imploding one of the oldest European nations – pushing it to the limits of its survival. What is absolutely devastating and morally destructive is that this corruption is powered to no small extent by European funds. Thus, instead of prosperity and an equal opportunity for all, European money contribute to greater social inequality, injustice, and poverty. The byproduct is a Bulgarian copycat of Russian crony capitalism with oligarchic capture of key sectors of the economy and public life.
The EU Recovery Plan is expected to help our economies overcome the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic through dedicated loans and grants.
However, given the current state of corruption dominated matrix for allocation of EU money, dedicated to Bulgaria, more infusions of such funds would pour oil on fire, resulting in further aggravation of these inherent problems – including deficits and debt. Therefore, the protesters insist that conditions are set, and the release of these funds is tied to tangible and verifiable results in the fight against corruption. Monitoring mechanisms are not enough and will not be efficient until there are objective benchmarks for assessing EU funds’ impact and “costs – benefit”, as well as guarantees received for their implementation based on the rule of law and the removal of corrupted officials at the top of the executive, legislature and judiciary.
Failing to do so, instead of easing the pain on companies and individuals, such EU funds would deepen inequality and the spread of poverty – enriching the corrupt elite and the oligarchs.
Today, the majority of the Bulgarians wants nothing more or less than the resignation of the government and the infamous Chief Prosecutor, preceding an early election. This is a perfectly legal and routine procedure under the Constitution. The voters should be left to resolve the current crisis and pick the new leaders. Keeping the captains and the collision course will not only wreck Bulgaria’s ship but will deny Bulgarians the prospects of life in a truly European and democratic country.
European leaders and Governments should give Bulgarian protesters the chance to finish off their homework by linking the negotiation on the National Recovery Plan and spending on future EU funding schemes and current payments under EU programs to the restart of reforms and immediate elections.
Corruption is not confined to Bulgaria, therefore the protesters’ goals transcend national boundaries. They are in full harmony with the shared vision of EU and NATO Allies who cherish democracy, transparency and accountability, the supremacy of the rule of law, and the genuine drive to modernize and to make our nations and economies globally competitive.
To rebel against corruption is our shared civic duty, our shared responsibility as European citizens and taxpayers.
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