SOFIA — Just as rule of law in Bulgaria is set to come under the lens in the European Parliament, the country is providing increasing grounds for concern over topics ranging from police violence to a nationalist party’s proposals for constitutional change.
Anti-corruption protests against Prime Minister Boyko Borissov have been running for two months and stepped up a notch last week, with clashes between riot police and demonstrators that injured dozens and led to 120 arrests.
On Thursday, the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs is scheduled to hold a meeting with Věra Jourová, the EU commissioner for values and transparency, and debate the EU’s monitoring mechanism on the judiciary in Romania and Bulgaria.
The state of the Bulgarian judiciary is one of the main flashpoints of the demonstrations in Bulgaria, as protesters and opposition parties are making increasing allegations that the prosecutor’s office has been effectively captured by oligarchs using it for personal gain. Indeed, last month, more than 50 MEPs, mainly from the Socialist and Democrats group and the Greens, sent questions to the European Commission over their fears that there was an “imminent threat to the rule of law and democracy in Bulgaria.”
“The state of the rule of law in Bulgaria is an emergency,” the parliamentarians wrote, in a letter that observed that the battle against organized crime in Bulgaria took a step back after Brussels expressed a willingness to end its Compliance and Verification Mechanism of the Balkan country’s judicial system.
The challenge for those wanting action on Bulgaria is that the center-right European People’s Party is defensive of Borissov, a member of their group.
Green MEP Ska Keller defended the CVM as “the Commission’s main tool” to tackle rule of law violations. “I think it’s very important to see what is happening there, and that we’re not going to let [violations] happen without saying anything. It is important to say that this is not OK.” She said the concerns of the Greens focus on the need for a “plan to stop” corruption.
The challenge for those wanting action on Bulgaria is that the center-right European People’s Party is defensive of Borissov, a member of their group. On the European stage, Borissov is seen as a key ally of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Before Thursday’s debate, an EPP official and another party insider suggested that attacks on Borissov were largely political opportunism from the S&D camp. They stressed that Borissov was no “dictator” and could easily be voted out next spring. One insisted that Bulgarian corruption was no worse than that in France and Italy.
Lawmakers from the liberal grouping in the EU are also conspicuously silent on the crisis, as two senior political operators in Bulgaria’s ethnic Turkish party, which is part of the ALDE family, are among the immediate targets of anti-corruption protesters on the streets of Sofia.
Events of the past few days, however, will only compound fears in Brussels that there are genuine problems to address in Bulgaria.
Pepper spray and beatings
One of the foremost worries is the treatment of demonstrators, including journalists, covering a major protest on September 2. A number of people reported police brutality.
Journalist and writer Dimiter Kenarov was among them. He was beaten, handcuffed and briefly detained, despite identifying as a reporter several times.
“They threw me to the ground and kicked me in the head several times, even though I was shouting that I’m a journalist,” he said. Later he was brought to a police station and released in the early hours with no charges or a reason given for his arrest.
Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev condemned the clashes and accused the government of “directing” and triggering the violence on September 2. He described Borissov’s government as “marred by corruption and violence.”
In the meantime, Marian Kolev, the owner of Hippoland, a Bulgarian chain of toy stores, complained that his 17-year-old son was among the protesters who were pepper-sprayed by the police at the protests on September 2. On Friday, around 20 tax inspectors and auditors showed up at the company’s headquarters and some of its stores in Sofia, launching a probe into Kolev’s business. The move was seen as a politicized response from the government. Two days earlier the businessman, who has been a regular at the protests, criticized the conduct of the police in an open letter. Hippoland’s workers had been spotted wearing branded T-shirts during demonstrations in July.
Rejecting the idea that the government was exerting improper influence on the audit authorities, Social Affairs Minister Denitsa Sacheva told private television bTV that the timing of the Hippoland audit inquiry was “accidental.”
The government, however, seems unmoved by last week’s clashes. On the contrary. While the prime minister, who usually basks in media spotlight, remained silent on the issue, members of his center-right GERB party signaled that resignation is currently not on the table.
“We won’t resign. If we do it, this would mean that every other government could be toppled by representatives of the underworld,” Toma Bikov, a lawmaker from the ruling party, told parliament on Thursday.
To resist calls for his resignation, Borissov’s strategy has been to begin parliamentary discussions on a new constitution. But even beginning those discussions threatens to undermine an international reputation that he has long fought to safeguard.
In order to kick off the parliamentary sessions on his new constitution, the prime minister needed support from the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), a nationalist party and a junior partner in the current government. The party wants mandatory voting, to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman (stated in the current constitution), and protect the rights of “ethnic” Bulgarians. Three other proposals — introducing literacy as a qualification for voting, the return of obligatory military service, and expanding the powers of the president — could be put to a referendum.
Some observers see the education requirement as discriminatory. Krasimir Karakachanov, head of IMRO and deputy prime minister, is notorious for his anti-Roma rhetoric. Last year he pushed for a plan which aims to integrate “unsocialized gypsies” and what he called “gypsy crime.”
Ruzha Smilova, a politics professor at Sofia University, called the education qualification an “absurd idea.”
“If approved, such changes will automatically exclude us from the Council of Europe and the European Union because they violate the European Convention of Human Rights which stipulates that voting is fundamental human rights,” she said.
In another embarrassing revelation of the way Bulgaria works, Borissov also needed to secure the support of Veselin Mareshki, founder of the populist Volya party, and some of his deputies to initiate the constitutional debates.
Mareshki had oscillated between opposing and supporting the constitution amendments, but he decided to sign the draft last week. The very same day he and some of his fellow party members offered their support for the new constitution, Bulgarian media reported that companies allegedly linked to him had won public tenders to manage a beach on the Black Sea.
Mareshki distanced himself from suggestions that he had supported Borissov because of the beach, but insisted that his main political consideration was he wanted to prevent the Socialist Party and ethnic Turkish party from thwarting GERB.
On Friday in an interview for bTV, Mareshki candidly admitted he supported the draft constitution without even reading it.