Bulgarian Parliament

No Majority against Corrupt Elites in Sight

In the second election attempt this year, there is still no sign that anti-corruption or anti-establishment parties will manage to replace the corrupt Bulgarian political elite. Will the EU finally do something to support the corruption-ridden Bulgarians?


For the second time this year, Bulgarians are electing a new parliament. After long-time Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and the other political forces failed to form a government in April, new elections were called for 11 July. No less than three new parties with evocative names - "There Is Such a People", "Democratic Bulgaria" and "Stand Up! Mafia, Get Out!" - entered parliament in April at the expense of the established parties. They benefited from the mass protests of the summer of 2020, when thousands took to the streets to express their outrage against Borissov's government, which they accused of corruption and mafia-like behavior. All these new grouping had categorically ruled out coalitions with the ruling elite even before the elections.

The Time Series of Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) by Bertelsmann Stiftung reveal that Bulgaria has not made any progress in the fight against corruption for years. Since 2014, the country experts have rated corruption prevention with only a meagre 4 out of 10 possible points, although relevant legislative changes have also been achieved during this period. The SGI Country Report 2020 for Bulgaria states that: “In line with recommendations by the European Commission and the Council of Europe, new legislation creating a unified anti-corruption agency was adopted by parliament in December 2017. However, new agency has not been very effective either in bringing cases of high-level corruption to court or in confiscating illegally acquired property.”

In the spring, hopes were sparked that there would be some impact from the new parties who stand in the way of the hungry power elite. But these have not been borne out. Scandalous revelations of abuse of power and nepotism continue to dominate the headlines ahead of the July ballot.

EU toothless in the fight against spreading corruption

Not only in Bulgaria, the poorest EU member state, but throughout the southeast of the European Union, the Community is failing to effectively roll back corruption, damaging its image as a Western democratic union of values. According to the SGI data, Croatia, like Bulgaria, remains at a worryingly low level of corruption prevention. Greece and Slovenia are barely better, with only 5 points. Since 2014, Slovakia and Romania have deteriorated from 5 to 4 points, Hungary and Cyprus even from 4 to 3. Thus, these South-Eastern European countries are on the edge of a political reality in which public officials can do as they please and no longer have to fear any legal consequences or disadvantages.

The recently published "Global Corruption Barometer" by Transparency International for the European Union also shows a disturbing increase in corruption in the health system during the pandemic. The survey found that the highest bribes for medical services were paid in Romania and Bulgaria.

For years, the EU has stood by and watched EU funds flow into the pockets of corrupt elites in many countries, benefiting those who dismantle the rule of law and restrict the diversity of opinion in order to maintain their power. With billions of euros of European taxpayers' money paid as subsidies to the respective governments, there is far too little control over whether it is actually used for its intended purpose. Ultimately, the EU's lack of accountability has allowed systems to emerge in many member states that no longer meet European standards of democracy.

US sanctions expose EU

Recently, the Biden administration snubbed the EU with a clear gesture towards Bulgaria. The United States Treasury Department imposed far-reaching sanctions on 02 June 2021 against three influential Bulgarians and their networks of 64 companies and organizations for their involvement in significant corruption. This sanction represents the largest operation since the passage of the Magnitsky Act, a law passed by the US Congress in 2016 that empowers the US government to punish individuals around the world who have violated human rights by freezing their assets and denying them entry into the US.

The press release accompanying this move said: "These actions send a strong signal that the United States stands with all Bulgarians who strive to root out corruption. We are committed to helping our partners realize their full economic and democratic potential by tackling systemic corruption and holding corrupt officials accountable.” For the EU, which has been struggling for years to pass its own Magnitsky Act, focusing mainly on human rights violations far from the EU, this strong stance constitutes a harsh lesson.

Bulgarian society threatened by demoralization

Former Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov also believes that the EU has failed. The unambiguously pro-European stance of his compatriots, he said, "actually stems from the hope that the EU will be able to enforce European standards for democracy and the rule of law in Bulgaria as well." In an interview last summer, the current opposition politician of the bourgeois electoral alliance Democratic Bulgaria voiced concern that a deep demoralization within Bulgarian society could set in if Europe continued to look the other way.

Although the latest polls suggest that the new democratic alternatives slightly gained in comparison to April, the anti-corruption parties are not expected to win a parliamentary majority or even a stable government majority in this new round of elections. The reason for this, apart from the fragmented party system, is also Bulgaria’s new populist political figure, the TV star Stanislaw "Slavi" Trifonov, who heads the party There Is Such a People, which looks set to become the second strongest force in July, as it was in April. If the EU seeks stable conditions in its member countries instead of populism and systems on the best path to autocracy, then it must finally start forcing countries to effectively fight corruption and adhere to the rule of law. In any case, the EU's clean image has already been clearly damaged internationally.

Karola Klatt is a science journalist and editor of SGI News and the Bertelsmann Stiftung's BTI blog.

Translated from English by Jess Smee