Bulgaria rocked by protests amid coronavirus fears

Analysts say powerful business interests and 'state capture' have led to the current political crisis.

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    Demonstrators take part in an anti-government protest in Sofia, Bulgaria on Saturday [Reuters/Stoyan Nenov]
    Demonstrators take part in an anti-government protest in Sofia, Bulgaria on Saturday [Reuters/Stoyan Nenov]

    Over the past four days, Bulgaria has been shaken by a wave of anti-government protests with thousands marching through the capital Sofia "against a mafia model of governance". 

    Demonstrators have demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, and smaller protests have been held in other cities in the country.

    Public anger erupted on Tuesday when a politician from the centre-right party, Democratic Bulgaria, Hristo Ivanov, tried to reach a public beach on the Black Sea coast but was stopped by officers from the National Protection Service (NSO), guarding the nearby mansion of Ahmed Dogan, former leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) party.

    Ivanov accused Borisov's government of enabling Dogan, who is seen as one of the most powerful men in Bulgaria, to encroach on public property and using taxpayer's money to provide him security, although he occupies no formal government post.

    On Saturday, after declaring that NSO will stop providing a security detail for Dogan, Borisov of the governing GERB party rejected the calls for his resignation.

    "We will remain in power because the opposition will break the country," he said in a Facebook live from his home.

    Earlier in the day, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, a member of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), also called on Borisov, as well as General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, to resign. On Thursday, prosecutors entered the presidency building and arrested two members of the presidential administration.

    The raid came after Radev criticised the government and said NSO should not guard Dogan.

    The deepening political crisis comes after a series of major political scandals in recent months and amid growing public anger against the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

    After Bulgaria saw a slump in daily cases during a two-month lockdown, the sudden opening up of businesses and the permission to hold public gatherings have led to a new spike in cases.

    Analysts say the roots of the present crisis run deep and have to do with the country's weak rule of law and the problematic relationship between oligarchy and politics.

    Oligarchy and 'state capture'

    Dogan is a controversial figure in Bulgarian politics. A former agent of the communist secret services and an ethnic Turk, he founded the DPS in 1990 as a party meant to give political representation to Bulgaria's Turkish minority, which had been brutally victimised by the collapsing communist regime.

    Over the next 20 years, however, he came to occupy an important position in Bulgarian politics. "The power is in my hands. I am the instrument of power that distributes the portions of financing in the state," he famously said in 2009.

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    Bulgarians shout slogans and hold the national flag during a demonstration in front of the Council of Ministers in Sofia [Vassil Donev/EPA-EFE]

    Dogan has not been seen in public for several years and refused to give on-camera interviews during the recent events.

    Bulgarian media mogul Delyan Peevski, who is one of Dogan's closest allies and also a member of DPS, has also been using NSO security.

    Ivanov of Democratic Bulgaria Party has accused Dogan and Peevski of controlling the General Prosecutor's office and the interior ministry, and has claimed Borisov is "afraid of" and "dependent" on them.

    "[Dogan and Peevski are] part of a governing cartel going back to the mid-2000s. Other stakeholders include the Prosecutor General and whoever happens to be in power," Dimitar Bechev, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Al Jazeera.

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    According to him, "state capture is a reality" in Bulgaria.

    "[In Bulgaria, there is] weakness of the rule of law and the fact that the most powerful political force, GERB, isn't a transformational actor but part of the setup [and the] EU is no longer an external check … but a source of rent," he said.

    The European Union, which Bulgaria became a member of in 2007, has repeatedly suspended financial assistance for various economic initiatives in the small Balkan country over corruption concerns and its failure to tackle organised crime. DPS has been accused of controlling public works funding in non-urban areas, part of which has come from the EU.

    According to Jana Tsoneva, a Sofia-based sociologist, the main problem in Bulgarian politics is that DPS, along with all other major parties, are dependent on powerful business interests.

    "[Big] business is a source of corruption ... When we talk about corrupted politicians, we have to talk about who is corrupting them," she said. "We need institutions to be fixed, but that cannot happen as long as [big] businessmen continue to buy politicians and use these institutions in their internal battles of market share."

    What happens next?

    The political crisis in Bulgaria has exacerbated the growing public discontent triggered by the coronavirus pandemic and the slumping economy. According to the European Commission, Bulgaria's economy is projected to shrink by 7.1 percent. Meanwhile, unemployment has soared to 9 percent.

    Some have argued the crisis may bring Borisov's long political career to an end and damage GERB's chances in the next election.

    In an opinion poll released by Sova 5 in early July, before the protests erupted, just 28.5 percent of the respondents said they trust Prime Minister Borisov; 31.9 percent said they trust President Radev.

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    If there were to be early elections, Borisov's GERB party, which has led three governments in Bulgaria since 2009, would get 21.3 percent of the vote, Radev's BSP 12 percent, DPS five percent, and Democratic Bulgaria 2.4 percent, the poll suggested.

    Bechev and Tsoneva said the protests are unlikely to shrink GERB's support significantly, but they could lead to early elections.

    "Early polls might help Borisov maximize the vote for GERB but will hand power to Radev who appoints a caretaker government," said Bechev. "I guess GERB will still be the largest party after the next elections, but the question is who will coalesce with it."

    Borisov's current coalition partner, the far-right alliance United Patriots, may not clear the 4 percent threshold at the next election. Other options may include, "There is such a people", a new party established by popular talk show host Slavi Trifonov, whose support currently stands at 5 percent, or DPS. A coalition with the latter, according to Bechev, may be too risky for Borisov, given the negative public opinion of Dogan and Peevski.

    For Tsoneva, as long as GERB is in power it is unlikely for the reforms needed to end oligarchical interference in government affairs to be carried out.

    However, she sees an opportunity for the pro-EU and pro-reform Democratic Bulgaria to exploit the current political crisis and play a more significant role in the political scene. Ivanov's party is seen as catering to the small educated urban elite and so far has struggled to achieve significant results in parliamentary elections.

    "[Democratic Bulgaria] could go beyond its unpopular legalistic discourse of guarantees for private ownership and anti-corruption and expand into wider notions of justice, which engage those suffering from poverty, exploitation, marginalisation and racism, and the lack of adequate healthcare, which are the concerns of the majority," said Tsoneva.

    Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter: @mkpetkova

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News