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The anger against the «mafia state» drives thousands of Bulgarians onto the streets

For days, angry citizens in numerous cities in the country have been calling for Prime Minister Borisov to resign. A corruption scandal has made the problems of the Bulgarian political establishment abundantly clear.

For more than a week Bulgaria has been gripped by a wave of protest, and anger and dissatisfaction are driving more and more people onto the streets every day. At the largest rallies so far on Thursday in the capital Sofia, Varna, Burgas, Plovdiv and more than a dozen smaller provincial cities, angry citizens demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Prosecutor General Ivan Geschew.

The anger about the lack of justice in the “mafia state” is occasionally mixed with frustration about the lack of economic prospects or the lamentable state of the media landscape. On the index of freedom of the press, Bulgaria ranks 111th, far behind in the EU.

A dinghy ride exposes corrupt practices

The protests were triggered by a series of events that clearly revealed what the political system in Bulgaria is suffering from: oligarchic influence at the highest levels of power, politicized law enforcement agencies and fierce trench warfare between the elites.

Last Tuesday, Christo Ivanov, the head of the small anti-corruption party “Da Bulgaria!”, Landed in a rubber dinghy on a beach on the Black Sea, which is actually open to the public, but belongs to Ahmed Dogan's huge villa complex. Even after his resignation as head of the party of the Turkish minority, he is considered to be an influential puller. Ivanov was overpowered on the beach by security forces who were later identified as state personal security officers.

The public prosecutor's office chases political opponents

President Rumen Radew, an avowed opponent of Prime Minister Borisov, asked publicly why oligarchs were being guarded at state expense. Another shady figure, the media mogul and member of parliament Deljan Pejewski, also enjoys state personal protection. Pejewski is one of the richest Bulgarians and one of the most controversial and unpopular figures in political life. Plans to make him head of the intelligence service sparked the last major protest movement in the country in 2013.

The day after Radew's statement, the attorney general's office raided the presidential palace and arrested two confidants of the president. Prosecutor General Geschev, whose appointment was accompanied by minor protests in the autumn, is a close confidante of Prime Minister Borisov. The raid is seen as a revenge for the president's public criticism. The two major political camps, the conservative Gerb party of Prime Minister Borisov and the Social Democrats, who are close to President Radev, are positioning themselves for next year's elections.

The head of government is playing for time

Borisov has ruled Bulgaria with brief interruptions since 2009. During his term of office there were repeated corruption scandals, which however never harmed him. There have long been doubts about the independence of the Attorney General's office. The prosecution prosecuted numerous opponents of Borisov or Peyevsky. The oligarch's involvement in Bulgaria's largest bank failure has never been investigated.

Borisov, however, was also targeted by intransparent networks. In June, compromising photos of the sleeping head of government emerged in his private residence, which could indicate an undermining of the very same personal protection that sparked the recent protests.

In the current crisis, Borisov is playing for time. The head of government has ruled out a resignation. In view of the pandemic and the foreseeable economic upheaval, the country needs stability. The vote of no confidence set by the opposition on Wednesday has little chance of success in view of the majority in parliament.

Prosecutor General Geschew also wants to remain in office. The position of chief prosecutor is associated with great power in Bulgaria, and there are almost no ways to dismiss. Legal experts have long criticized the lack of opportunities to control the conduct of office.

"The deep dissatisfaction will remain"

"It is quite possible that the protests will gradually level off after Wednesday's vote," explains Genowewa Petrowa of the Alpha Research think tank in Sofia. "The deep dissatisfaction will remain." The question is how this will affect in the long term and who will benefit from it. As in neighboring Serbia, criticism of the government is widespread, but there are few credible alternatives. Young parties or an anti-establishment movement such as the initiative of show master Slavy Trifonov are most likely to gain popularity. The socialists also had their corruption scandals in the past.

Little hope is placed on the EU in the fight for more rule of law. Instruments such as the so-called cooperation and control procedure, with which judicial reforms should be promoted in Bulgaria and Romania, have proven to be toothless. In addition, Borisov, who is pursuing a clear pro-Western course and who has taken Bulgaria a big step further towards entry into the euro zone by joining the stability mechanism, can count on many advocates in Brussels.

For the young and mostly decidedly pro-European demonstrators, the lesson from recent years is therefore clear, writes the Bulgarian Southeastern Europe expert Dimitar Bechev, who teaches in the USA, in a comment: Change can only be brought about on site.