Romania, Bulgarians are jealous

As they watched across the Danube River, Bulgarians wished they could do what the Romanians spectacularly did.

People gather in front of the Romanian Embassy to show solidarity with the mass anti-corruption protests in Romania, in Sofia
People gather in front of the Romanian Embassy to show solidarity with the mass anti-corruption protests in Romania, in Sofia, Bulgaria on February 5 [Dimitar Kyosemarliev/Reuters]

When I recently interviewed a British former Member of the European Parliament over coffee in London, he kept referring to me as Romanian. I kept correcting him, so he eventually quipped in desperation: “Gosh, I am awfully sorry – but you see, I never hear about political activists from Bulgaria, you people seem quite resigned to your fate. Now, the Romanians seem very determined to clean up their act.”

Well, that hurt.

Throughout the Balkans, peace of mind often lies in the belief that your neighbours are doing worse than you are, or are at the very least equally hapless.

For most of the 20th century, Balkan nations have been steeped in a state of permanent crisis and came out from behind the Iron Curtain poor, politically disoriented and clinging on to the reassuring idea that the misery was preordained by bigger powers and shared around equally – that it was not up to their own civic agency to break the bad karma strangling the region.

However, the MEP’s offhand statement resonates with a new reality, ushered gradually by Romania’s institutional and civic development as one of the three newest members of the European Union, and brought to rousing culmination over the past week by the mass street rallies against the underhand attempts of the new Romanian government to backtrack on anti-corruption prosecution and enforcement by sheltering politicians.

The epic turnout for the current Romanian anti-corruption rallies inspired much solidarity and envy throughout the region. Bulgarians responded with a small solidarity rally in front of the Romanian embassy in Sofia, with bittersweet memories of 2013 – the year when Bulgarians came out in their thousands, for the first time since 1989, to protest against gross government collusion with corrupt private interests trying to overtake key investigative positions in the state-organised crime-fighting agency.

And while a friend at the Sofia rally sighed wistfully: “We have no backbone, we have learned to be helpless”, a friend in Bucharest screamed down the phone in elation after a sleepless night in sub-zero temperatures: “Do you see!? We are teaching Europe how it’s done, as the West seems to have forgotten how to take their governments to task!”

The difference in outlook between a politically minded Bulgarian and a politically minded Romanian, living a river apart is absolutely striking.

Reform failure

Indeed, Bulgarians have plenty to be jealous about.

When it comes to steps against endemic corruption, Bulgaria and Romania started out in very similar situations, but took divergent paths.

As of today, Romania has an impressive track record in anti-corruption prosecution targeting scores of Cabinet ministers thanks to the resurgence of a brave and zealously independent judiciary.

In countries with small, ageing populations where the legacy of communism is extremely strong throughout the networks of power, state capture is an easier task, as is stamping out or simply ignoring dissent.


Bulgaria has more in common with Albania on this front – it is openly acknowledged that the judiciary in both countries is in desperate need of radical reform, but said reform is persistently blocked by governments acting in concert with beholden legislative bodies.

While the Romanian story shows distinct progress and boasts popular standard-bearers such as former Minister of Justice and prosecutor Monica Macovei, anti-corruption agency head Laura Codruta Kovesi and President Klaus Iohannis, Bulgaria has yet to find a triumphant hero who is in a position to effect change and give civic activists hope and actual leverage.

OPINION: Romania’s gift of hope to the world

What we have is a lovable martyr, Hristo Ivanov, a former justice minister who resigned in protest when parliament demonstratively scuppered his radical and much-needed plans for judicial reform in late 2015.

Weary of protesting from the outside and attempting the trickiest alchemy of all – turning outrage into voter turnout, his followers have harnessed his aura in creating a new political movement – Yes, Bulgaria – which will run in coalition with liberal and green formations in the upcoming snap elections in March.

Lack of critical mass

While the spirit of resistance is very much present in the Balkan societies, two factors appear to make the Romanian example the exception, rather than the rule – an achievable, champion-led starting point and scalable protest demography.

At their fullest, the Romanian rallies numbered around 600,000, a historic showing, unmatched since the toppling of Nicolae Ceausescu and widely covered by the Western press.

International media coverage has often served as a litmus test for the impact of any civic movement in the region – it legitimises protesters as a political force and tends to make authorities, wary of embarrassment or fearing a telling-off from Brussels, sit up and listen.

Bulgaria and other small Balkan countries such as Macedonia and Albania can never dream of such numbers, and this is not simply a drawback as far as publicity goes.

Effective activism needs to accumulate and sustain a critical mass in order to maintain pressure on the system, ideally across generations and social groups.

It requires a certain percentage of citizens feeling independent enough from the various snares of the system as to afford the risk of rallying against it.

In countries with small, ageing populations where the legacy of communism is extremely strong throughout the networks of power, state capture is an easier task, as is stamping out or simply ignoring dissent.

The system is too compact to allow enclaves of independent expert officials. The scope of the market is too narrow to allow for a strong social strata of professionals, businesspeople and academics who are not dependent on the public sector jobs and funding or the political machinations of large local employers.

A viable organising principle seems to elude many national anti-corruption movements in the region. Nations such as Bulgaria suffer from the internal fragmentation typical for post-communist societies which struggle to make sense of and agree on their recent past and, as a result, on the best course of action for the future.

In a sense, only the broadest anti-corruption slogans have been as successful as witnessed exactly because they harness the one emotion most Romanians and most Balkan countries in transition have in common – a deep frustration with marching in a circle while a select few grow obviously and shamelessly richer.

OPINION: Romania – Keep the corrupt in jail, where they belong

Whether regular Romanians and Bulgarians have a detailed view on the trickle-down effects of corruption and whether they are all equally passionate about the rule of law remains to be seen. What they certainly are is extremely angry at their political class, mostly for their immoderate and strikingly conspicuous money-grabbing and responsibility-shunning shenanigans.

In places such as Bulgaria and Albania, citizens find it difficult to believe that protest works. Allies are fewer, networks play a zero-sum game for power, and the absence of success stories and popular leaders – who are actually active politicians as opposed to fringe figures – appears extremely disempowering.

Romanians poured out on the streets demanding something simple and powerful – punishment. Punishment for public servants stealing from the very public they must serve, and for governments who gather ignominiously at night to try to subvert justice and shield each other.

The enemy is very clear, but so is the saviour. Romania’s neighbours are still searching for such clarity.

Maria Spirova is an award-winning Bulgarian journalist, editor and translator, regularly reporting on British and European politics. She is based in Oxford, UK.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.