Crisis in Bulgaria: The EU is threatened with a second Hungary

Eeggs, tomatoes and pickled vegetables. When a head of government tells his citizens via social media that they would be happy to throw all of this at him if they just left the intersections open for rush hour traffic, then there are two options: Either the man is completely removed. Or he believes in the reconciling power of his humor.

The announcement comes from Boiko Borissow, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, these days. Unlike what it sounds like, the situation is serious. On Wednesday demonstrators in Sofia again called for his resignation, at least 55 were injured, according to official figures, 95 were arrested. You accuse his bourgeois nationalist government of nepotism with oligarchs. In addition, Borisov wants to further restrict the control of the judiciary and the separation of powers with a constitutional reform. Even his own president, Rumen Radew, in a speech to parliament, demanded that Borissov and his entire cabinet resign. “We have no other way out of this loss of trust.”

People in Brussels look to Bulgaria with concern. Is a second Hungary emerging here? After joining the EU, Viktor Orbán’s country gradually restricted the free media, judiciary and opposition. The result: an EU country into which money flows from Brussels, sometimes without any control.

Eggs are pelted at police officers in Sofia

“We have to take a closer look at Bulgaria,” said MEP and corruption expert Daniel Freund (Greens) in an interview with WELT. “Unlike Hungary, Bulgaria behaves more inconspicuously and therefore more skillfully.” Jens Geier, chairman of the European SPD, warns: “We are threatened by several Hungarians in the European Union because governments in states such as Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic currently have heads of government. who show little willingness to subordinate themselves to European decisions ”. In part, they would “develop a great imagination in order to channel EU payments into their own pockets”.

Bulgaria’s citizens have been calling for reforms for years. And for years the same man has come back to power after the resignations of governments: Boiko Borisov. It is undoubtedly his talent for humor that keeps the beefy 61-year-old winning elections. Borissov learned politics in the communist cadre schools, but has mastered the iconic, popular appearance.

For years he was the oldest professional soccer player in the country for the second division FC Witoscha Bistritsa – and was celebrated for it. He likes to send well-watched live videos on Facebook. Most recently at the wheel of a car on the highway. Borissov rejected the resignation demands against him on Thursday.

Opposition politicians in the rubber dinghy

“This man can talk to construction workers on the street just as well as he can with important state guests from the EU,” political scientist Dimitar Bechew told WELT. Bechew was born in Sofia and conducts research worldwide on the role and development of post-Soviet states, including for the Vienna think tank Institute for Human Sciences. He sees similarities, but also differences in the development of Bulgaria compared to Hungary. “Borisov is less powerful than Orbán. Who really rules is the cartel of oligarchs and political incumbents. “

The latest protests a few weeks ago sparked off a scene with symbolic power. The opposition politician Christo Ivanov landed in a rubber dinghy on a public beach near Burgas on the Black Sea. The controversial politician Ahmed Dogan, who is also said to be close to oligarchs, has his property there.

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The public beach there is screened by state security forces. Videos show how the security forces evacuate the opposition politician. “The incident pinpointed the misuse of government resources,” says Bechew. He describes a vicious circle. Oligarchs would pull the strings in the government. The judiciary is not independent; instead, Attorney General Ivan Geschew is pursuing political opponents. Independent media? Largely turned off. “Only that, unlike in Hungary, there is no decline in the rule of law, but the situation has always been like that,” says Bechew.

A nearly closed system that is supported by EU funds. As early as 2014, citizens in Bulgaria demonstrated against the theft of their land. At that time it was still the urban, pro-Western middle class that took to the streets, says Bechew – because the socialists were still in power with Prime Minister Borisov.

He resigned at the time because of allegations of corruption. But he was re-elected in an entertaining campaign, under close EU scrutiny. Bizarrely, with the mandate to finally get corruption under control. Since 2017, the socialists have no longer ruled, but right-wing national parties. An unusual alliance of pro-Western supporters and post-Soviet nostalgics is now demonstrating across the country. This shows that the head of government is not interested in national ideology, said Bechew. “He follows the money pragmatically.”

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This is evident at the EU level. While Hungary is vocalizing its positions in Brussels, seeing itself as a spokesman against migration and for national independence, Bulgaria is acting cautiously. Sofia plays elegantly on the big stage in Brussels. SPD politician Geier also warns of this: For years the Bulgarian government wanted to avoid EU control of its failure to comply with the rule of law. Borissov is “very keen to demonstrate his loyalty on the European stage to Merkel and the European People’s Party”.

The Greens MP Freund has set up a cross-party working group against corruption. Many countries are in view: Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland. “Back then, when Bulgaria was admitted, Brussels was hoping for further progress in the rule of law that would result from the opening of the country,” says Freund. That did not come true. “Rather, EU funds stabilize the corrupt system.”

Recently, the leaders of the EU Parliament sent a fire letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (available to WELT). The appeal: It should no longer be allowed for EU funds to be paid out to governments without compliance with provisions for democracy and the rule of law. In the case of Bulgaria, the EU MPs are now hoping for the EU report on the rule of law of the member states expected for this month – and for the corresponding consequences for Brussels.

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One hope: Unlike Hungary, Bulgaria has submitted to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, which will in future be allowed to investigate fraud in the use of EU funds in the member states. With the distribution of the 750 billion aid fund for the Corona crisis alone, the department should face major tasks.

The management is taken over by the corruption specialist Laura Kövesi, who has already “cleaned up pretty much” in Romania and apparently became so uncomfortable there that she was fired, says Freund. “In view of the big task, the department is still far too small in terms of staff.”

All of this is a toxic mixture for the Bulgarian economy. Although the auto parts supply industry has great potential, as does the emerging IT sector, says political scientist Bechew. Unlike the politicians in Brussels, he believes that Bulgaria can only free itself from this misery: “The entire political culture must change.”