Bulgarians are losing count of the scandals. There's a Watergate-style wiretapping scandal. There's an agricultural tycoon accusing the government of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov of extortion. And there's a state-owned bank providing hundreds of millions of euros to a small batch of favored companies.
The country's dizzying daily headlines feel more like plotlines from a hit mafia serieson Netflix than actual events unfolding in a European Union member country ahead of an election on July 11.
The big question is whether this is finally a tipping point that spells a definitiveend to the era of Borissov, the former firefighter and bodyguard whose center-right GERB party dominated the Balkan country's politics for more than a decade but lost power in April. The EU's poorest nation has a long history of corruption but the sheer scale of the latest revelations of state capture is new. The fresh testimony only reinforces widespread public anger that an octopus-like elite has held onto power like a criminal gang, running rackets across the entire economy, and exercising power through the security services, media and judiciary.
"The scale is different and it makes it harder to sweep important issues like endemic corruption under the carpet," said Dimitar Bechev, political analyst and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "The difference is that these issues are being discussed by government officials."
In a stark sign that Bulgaria is no longer able to fly under the radar, even Washington has waded into the swamp. TheUnited States upped the ante this month by blacklisting several Bulgarians, including two powerful oligarchs, and dozens of companies, for their alleged involvement in graft, ranging from bribery of politicians to avoid criminal investigation to interference in elections.The U.S. Treasurydescribed its intervention againstthe Bulgarians as "the single largest action targeting corruption to date" anywhere in the world under theMagnitsky Act.
This unexpected intervention by the U.S. is an embarrassment both to Sofia and to the EU, which largely continues toturn a blind eye to Bulgaria's rule of law problems and keeps pouring European funds, whichopposition politicians complainend up in the hands of businessmen close to those in power. On the European stage, Borissov is a loyal ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the center-right European People's Party,which has playeddown concerns about Bulgaria's graft and the abuse of EU funds.
In a rare admission by a Bulgarian administration that concrete action is needed against prominent oligarchs, Sofia's caretaker governmentresponded to the U.S. moveby setting up a commission to draft a list of all the entities and people connected with the sanctioned companies in the past five years, saying it would then cut ties with people on that list.
Whether this creates an impetus for a more meaningful clean-up depends on July's elections.
So far, there are no clear signs of which way the vote will go. The traditional parties are badly weakened -- the pollster Alpha Research noted that GERB's supportslipped 2 pointsafter the U.S. sanctions -- but they still have strong patronage networks that can mobilize voters.
Broadly, the polls suggest that the impending election is likely to be messy without a clear winner, and the EU has shown no inclination to intervene in the corruption fight as the U.S. has done. Even though Borissov lost power in April, GERB is still ahead in the polls ahead of next month's vote. In the meantime, a caretaker government under Prime Minister Stefan Yanev is holding the reins.
Since the April election, the scandals have come thick and fast. They appear to be a damning indictment of the way GERB has exercised power for years, but Borissov is shrugging them off.
In May, Atanas Atanasov, from the anti-corruption Democratic Bulgaria party, said that more than 30 opposition politicians had been wiretapped in the run-up to the April general election. While the list of politicians as well as the grounds for wiretapping are not public, caretaker Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov confirmed the claims. He went a step further and announced that even caretaker Prime Minister Yanev was among those whose phone was tapped.
Another opposition politician suggested the wiretapping covered more than 80 people and could have started during anti-government rallies last summer. Bulgarian prosecutors are now investigating the claims.
The accusations tap into deep fears among Bulgarians that the prosecutors, police and spy services are deeply interwoven with the political corruption.
"This is just another example of politicizing the intelligence and the law enforcement to use them as tools for repression," Hristo Ivanov, chair of opposition party Yes, Bulgaria, told POLITICO.
GERB dismissed the eavesdropping allegations, saying that the caretaker cabinet was trying to dismantle the secret services because of their recent operations to bust a Russian spy ring. One of the most common defenses from GERB is that it is the country's last line of defense against the opposition Socialist party, the former Communists, who also have a dismal track record on corruption and historical ties to Moscow. This has boiled over into a personal showdown between Borissov and President Rumen Radev, who is allied to the Socialists.
"It seems like President Radev and Interior Minister Rashkov could not forgive the intelligence service for busting a Russian spy ring," said Daniel Mitov, GERB's deputy chair, during a news briefing in Sofia in May. He also blamed the caretaker cabinet of being partisan and being put in place to aid the re-election of Radev, whom GERB described as "pro-Kremlin."
Earlier in May, Svetoslav Ilchovski, a prominent landholder with estates in northern Bulgaria, told lawmakers that people close to the GERB party controlled all sectors of the economy, and described ministers as "puppets."
Ilchovski told a parliamentary committee that GERB had extorted hundreds of thousands of euros from him and that, to put the frighteners on him, he had been shown a video purportedly showing another wealthy businessman being abused in jail.
Ilchovski also described the backstory behind now notorious leakedphotosof Borissov's bedside table, with a drawer jammed full of EUR500 bills and gold ingots. Ilchovski suggested that a Playboy model -- and prostitute -- had taken the pictures in Borissov's bedroom, and he referred to businessmen gifting Borissov gold bars.
Ilchovski's parliamentary testimony dominated Bulgarian news, but Borissov denied any wrongdoing and said that the claims were part of a larger plot designed by his enemies to discredit him and his party.
Just in case none of this were extraordinary enough, Kiril Petkov, the caretaker economy minister,revealed in a television interviewthat state-owned Bulgarian Development Bank, whose main goal is to fund small and medium-sized businesses, distributed close to one billion leva (EUR500 million) in loans among just eight companies. Later he condemned the practice as "outrageous" and initiated an audit of how loans had been allocated.
Despite this flurry of public allegations and the U.S. sanctions, it is still far from certain that the country is on the verge of a clean start.Polls do not suggestthat anti-corruption or anti-establishment parties, while on the rise, have the momentum to sweep away the entrenched old guard. There is also no imminent sign that the EU is going to do anything soon to stop the flow of European funds.
"I do not expect any sharp turns in Brussels' stance towards one of the EU's most corrupt member states," said Bechev."Now, the question is whether powerful member states like Germany and France will take Bulgaria's graft problems to heart," he said, but added that he was skeptical that they would."The only effective sanction which is proven to work is suspending euro funds," he added.
Since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, Brussels has cut funds in 2008 and in 2014 over concerns about improper spending.
An EU official who spoke on condition of anonymity insisted Brussels' Cooperation and Verification Mechanismmonitoring process "puts us in constant dialogue with Bulgaria on these matters." Bulgaria has also joined the European Public Prosecutor's Office, raising hope among some of Borissov's critics that the new body could take on tough corruption cases in the country. And the bloc's new mechanism linking EU funding to the rule of law could also ultimately become a tool for tackling systemic corruption.For now, however, there are no sanctions.
Spanish MEP Juan Fernando Lpez Aguilar, chair of the European Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee, said the body has been keeping an eye on developments in Bulgaria, calling the situation a "deplorable landscape."
"We have of course cared about Bulgaria," he told POLITICO. "It's deemed to be the most corrupt country in the European Union," he said, pointing to "lack of accountability, interference in the judiciary" as well as problems with media pluralism and "hate speech against minorities."
"The structural problems of Bulgaria are unsolved," said the chair, who is a member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament.
Following a meeting with Borissov late last year, EPP President Donald Tuskpointedto a need for "further reforms" when it comes to the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and fighting corruption. The EPP group in the European Parliament, however, has robustly defended Borissov's GERB.
"The EPP has not been shielding anything," saidPedro Lpez de Pablo, director for press at the European People's Party Group. "Whoever is criticising the EPP or GERB is only promoting the electoral campaign of the Socialists in Bulgaria ... Fortunately, in Bulgaria, there are parliamentary elections next 11thJuly and the people will decide whom to believe. From the polls, it seems the Bulgarian citizens do not believe in the messages the Socialists are trying to spread in European media about their country."
While Bechev was skeptical that the U.S. sanctions would force Bulgaria to clean up its act, he said that the Treasury's statement came at a pivotal moment, weeks before the election, and would amplify the message of protest parties and fuel future anti-corruption drives.
"Last summer we heard calls to step up anti-corruption efforts on the streets of Sofia. We hear the same message from lawmakers and government officials. Now, America also chimed in," he said, referring to major nightly protests that ran through the summer of 2020.
Genoveva Petrova, Bulgarian sociologist and executive director of Alpha Research, saidthat the U.S. sanctions might have an impact on the upcoming vote if "more details surface about links between the sanctioned Bulgarians and the previous government."
She said the outcome of the election would depend on how parties react to the series of unfolding crises.
"People are expecting to hear how each political party will resolve the health and economic crises, and an imminent political one, if the early election fails once again to produce a government," she said.
Like the April election, Petrova expects an equally unpredictable result in July.
"We are witnessing a rare moment in Bulgaria's political life in the past 30 years -- the model of one party hegemony has been broken," she said. "Until the dust settles, anything is possible." Boryana Dzhambazova, Lili Bayer, Politico
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