Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

How to dismantle a democracy: the case of Bulgaria

Not only fascistic xenophobes are capable of killing democracy. Semi-literate macho males bereft of any anti-democratic ideology can achieve this.

Evgenii Dainov
15 June 2020, 11.26am
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov at the EURO leaders summit, February, 2020.
Nicolas Economou/PA. All rights reserved.

After years of prevarication on the part of those who should know better, it has finally become common knowledge that democracy is being strangled in Hungary and Poland. What is less known is that democracy and the rule of law have been effectively dismantled in another EU member state, Bulgaria, under the rule of Europe’s longest-serving populist leader, Lieutenant General Boyko Borisov.

Unlike other European ‘strong men’, Borisov is not fascistic, antisemitic or xenophobic. Unlike other macho leaders in the region, he does not even have a problem with gay people. This makes him, I’ve been told by EU officials, somehow “safe” when it comes to democracy.

But it is not only fascistic xenophobes who are capable of killing democracy. This task can be very efficiently handled by semi-literate macho males bereft of any anti-democratic ideology.

A former policeman and member of the Communist Party between 1979 and 1991, in the 1990s Borisov jumped ship and joined one of the euphemistically named “strong-arm groups”, setting up a moderately successful “security company” in the process.

Failing to make a spectacular career in “security”, in 2001 he jumped ship again and became Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior. Over the next few years, he positioned himself as “poacher-turned-gamekeeper” and on the strength of this he won the 2009 elections, becoming Prime Minister a year before Victor Orban took over in Hungary.

The strong prey on the weak

What transpired then was that the poacher, while taking the job of gamekeeper, had continued to be a poacher. Disdaining any ideology, he flooded the system with men like himself, re-designing the entire machinery of state on the principle that it is not the law that rules everyone in equal measure, but that it is the strong who prey on the weak.

A decade later, civil society is in disarray, media is under strict control, in the place of an opposition we have “dissident” individuals and groups. The authorities persecute anyone seen as an “enemy” or, in Borisov’s language, “slime”. After a break of three decades, Bulgaria again has de facto political prisoners.

This is an instructive tale, because it happened under the very nose of the European Commission and the European Parliament. It is a tale of success and is, therefore, guaranteed to happen somewhere else. For this reason it is imperative to understand how it was done in Bulgaria.

To do this in a structured way, we can make use of the so-called Copenhagen criteria, which listed, in 1993, the conditions under which a country could become member of the EU. These included: political criteria; economic criteria; administrative capacity. Borisov and his party, GERB, have attacked and dismantled every single one of these, effectively taking Bulgaria outside the scope of EU norms, values and principles.

It is a tale of success and is, therefore, guaranteed to happen somewhere else.

  1. Political criteria: stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities:

Borisov is not famed for reading philosophical books, but from the beginning he grasped a basic Aristotelian principle: that politics, i.e. the creation of conditions for the good and virtuous life for the citizens, is ultimately based on ethics, i.e. on values that promote virtue. Before dismantling politics, he dismantled values.

Dismantling values

In the field of civil society, the process of attrition was already under way when he took power in 2009. In the two years following Bulgaria’s accession to the EU in 2007, most of the civil society-building NGOs disappeared, leaving civil society in the state of a building site. The activities of such NGOs had, between 1997 and 2007, compensated for the weakness of institutions and the absence of democratic culture, earning Bulgaria the reputation of having “a vibrant civil society”. It was, it turned out, only “vibrant” when saturated with active NGOs and civic groups.

NGO funding had been decided, during the pre-accession period, in Brussels. With accession, decision-making on NGO projects was devolved to Cabinet ministers in Sofia. These ministers immediately did two things: divided NGOs along two categories – “ours” and “not ours”, refusing all funding to the second category; and attached a 15 percent “kick back” clause as a prerequisite for any funding. In response, the leading NGOs ceased all activities, refusing to play this game.

In this way, civil society was already disembowelled when Borisov took power. What remained was the media, at that stage truly pluralistic and, indeed, vibrant. The 2008 financial crisis, which hit Bulgaria with a year’s delay, had cut advertising revenue, driving most media into the red. Borisov offered to fill the income gap by using EU funds managed by his ministers. There were, of course, strings attached: the media outlets thus aided should propagate the government line in all cases and, furthermore, were increasingly required to attack government critics.

Within a few years, democratic debate ended up mostly confined to the Internet, leaving the government without media oversight. Another few years on, by around 2018, the leading media outlets began publishing regularly updated lists of “enemies” (a.k.a. “slime”) that included leading intellectuals and critics of the regime, as well as the few remaining independent journalists and the publishers of the last two remaining independent print media.

Over 2018-2020, all reputable investigative journalists in mainstream TV, as well as independent-minded TV anchors, were purged from the three major national TV channels. On the eve of the COVID-19 crisis, the media were busily engaged in establishing a Borisov cult of personality.

The promotion of civil virtue takes place in civil society and the media. With both out of the way, the ethical underpinnings of democratic politics were gone. The way was open for a direct onslaught on the political criteria of Copenhagen.

Overcoming the separation of powers

Cleverly, and unlike his colleagues Victor Orban or Vladimir Putin, Boyko Borisov did not engage in direct attacks on human rights or on minorities; that would have immediately drawn fire from the European Commission. Instead, he concentrated on overcoming the separation of powers and on the capture of state institutions.

For most of 2013 and 2014, Borisov was out of power. Bulgaria had a weak and chaotic coalition government, under constant pressure from mass protests. The power vacuum was filled by two new players: Delyan Peevsky, media oligarch and financial mogul; and Sotir Tsatsarov, Chief Prosecutor. Mr Peevsky managed to both strengthen his grip on the media and to disembowel the then fourth-largest private bank, Corporate Commercial Bank, greatly gaining in real political clout. The Chief Prosecutor was busily acquiring real political power, summoning Cabinet ministers and Members of Parliament to his office for “coordination”.

When Borisov came back to power, in November 2014, he immediately formed an alliance with these two. The bulk of public tenders was channelled to Peevsky-controlled companies, while “regular consultations” with the Chief Prosecutor were held every Wednesday. The first was typical of any oligarchical regime in the East. The second was a Borisov invention, signalling his desire to overcome the constitutional separation of powers (in Bulgaria, the Prosecution is part of the judiciary).

Having tamed at least part of the judiciary, he then went on to tame Parliament by dictating from the outside (in Bulgaria, ministers and the Prime Minister do not sit in Parliament) the decisions of the majority, as well as refusing to enter Parliament even during votes of no confidence.

By the time he became Prime Minister for the third time, in the spring of 2017, it was clear that the executive branch was the master of Parliament, rather than the other way around. With the judiciary as an ally and Parliament as servant, Borisov then proceeded to capture the institutions of the state.

The capture of institutions

There is more to institutions than meets the eye. They do not simply administer things. In a popular passage, Geoffrey M. Hodgson explains that institutions are "integrated systems of rules that structure social interactions".[1] In democracies, these systems of rules are fixed in documented laws with the express aim of serving the common good of all citizens.

Institutions, in short, are emanations of the rule of law. As long as they are this, in their daily work they follow what is written in the law; no Prime Minister who rings in with instructions to do something that is not in the law has a chance of being obeyed.

By 2017, Bulgaria’s institutions no longer fell under Hodgson’s definition. They were indeed “systems of rules”, but these rules were the wishes of the Prime Minister and his allies, rather than the written laws. The institutions did what they were told to do, irrespective of any law. Might had become right, with significant consequences.

Might had become right, with significant consequences.

When Bulgaria’s “strong men” were working for the “strong-arm groups” of the 1990s, they would use organized bands of armed men to enforce their will on the recalcitrant. When the same strong men came to power, they could use the institutions of state as instruments to enforce their will, saving on the extra-legal violence.[2]

From this moment on, anyone who disobeyed or complained would see their business driven into the ground by the combined might of tax inspectors, fire safety inspectors, health inspectors and the whole panoply of “control institutions” (more than 70 in all) of the state. By 2018, people complaining of corruption saw their companies destroyed, as in a famous case where a meat producer complained of being pressured to hand over to the local GERB coordinator four tons of flat sausage. Today, the meat producer no longer has a company and is himself on trial for corruption and extortion.

With institutions no longer working to common standards within the limit of the law, the whole power structure of the country was re-designed along feudal lines. Key sectors of the economy, as well as geographic regions, acquired their own strong men, whose word was law.

One consequence has been an orgy of construction inside protected areas (mostly near the Black Sea) where, under the law, no construction is allowed. Official violence against those who disagreed followed. In a recent case, acting on orders of the local municipality, the police raided a cluster of tents pitched on public land on Coral Beach. Traditionally, this beach is inhabited by environmental activists. The police claimed no need for judicial permission or legal basis for the raid, it being not a raid but “a shake up in a conflict zone”. Needless to say, there is no law which defines “shake up” or “conflict zone”; these are defined by the local strong man.

Needless to say, there is no law which defines “shake up” or “conflict zone”; these are defined by the local strong man.

The disintegration of national security

With the re-founding of the state along the principle “the strong prey on the weak”, the institutions tasked with national security also reinvented themselves and quickly joined in the general corruption and in the persecution and hounding of critics. National security – and by extension, the security of the EU – fell by the wayside precisely at the moment when malign Russian influence was reaching its peak. Russian agents freely penetrated Bulgaria, setting up a GRU centre of operations for the entire Balkan region and beyond.

As long ago as 2015, the same group of GRU agents that was later to poison the Skripal family in Britain did a practice run inside Bulgaria, poisoning with a novichok-related agent a Bulgarian entrepreneur, Emelyan Gebrev. He was the target because of a complicated behind-the-scenes scheme, in which the Bulgarian state was trying to take over his business in order to hand it over to someone else, while the Russians did not want him as a competitor in the international arms market.

The Bulgarian authorities demonstrated complicity, at the expense of national security, by spending years covering up the incident. At one stage the Chief Prosecutor issued a mocking public statement that Mr Gebrev must have been poisoned after eating “badly washed rucola salad”. Only very severe pressure from NATO pushed the authorities into investigating the case – well after the Skripal scandal.

The lawlessness of the land reflected on its economy. Let’s move on, therefore, to the second batch of Copenhagen criteria.

2. Economic criteria: a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces

Here are some dry facts. By 2019, the bulk of direct foreign investment was reduced to loans provided by non-Bulgarian mother companies to their branches inside the country. Reinvested profit disappeared, totaling a puny 81 million Euros for 2019, as compared to 1.1 billion in 2017. Trust in the Bulgarian economy was obviously collapsing after 2017. What was going on?

Two major developments were going on. One was the escalation of government and government-sponsored interference in the economy. The other was the appearance of an entirely new para-legal system of “specialized punitive prosecutors” and “specialized punitive courts”. Both developments had the same aims: to strengthen the regime’s grip over key economic sectors and players; and also to make examples of companies that refused to toe the line. Let’s take these in turn.

Since about 2012, Borisov’s regime had been successfully importing, from places like Russia and Uzbekistan, the practice of “hostile takeovers” of private companies. We now have enough testimonies to be able to re-construct a typical case. Here it is:

“Good morning, what a nice business you have here!”
“Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“I am the local Party coordinator and the boss says you should hand over to me 40 per cent of your company.”

There are two scenarios thereafter. Scenario one: the visitor is asked to leave. The very next morning, the entire legion of “control institutions” would descend on the company, lock it up and block its accounts. Scenario two: the company owner agrees with the demand. In both cases the company emerges wounded, less competitive and less efficient.

By 2018, there was a severe escalation of such practices. When a Czech-owned electricity provider wanted to sell his business in Bulgaria, a major corporation bid for it and won the contract. The corporation was immediately set upon by, no less, the State Agency for National Security. The government approved a new buyer with no previous track record and with no money. That deal fell through only because the big banks, all of them internationally-owned, refused to finance it.

A few months later, the government stopped a deal under which the second most popular TV channel, Nova, was to be bought by an international entrepreneur. Nova was then quickly sold to a local “strong man” rapidly rising inside the ranks of oligarchs; and was immediately turned into a propaganda outlet for the government.

In a separate incident, institutions of the Bulgarian state organized the hi-jacking of a Libyan tanker, which caused the biggest international maritime scandal of our times.

In order to introduce some order into such practices, starting in late 2017 the government set up a new “punitive” legal system, side by side with the regular one. This was being sold, to the EU, as “fight against corruption” and was composed of: a Confiscation Commission, tasked with confiscating the property of people accused of corruption prior to their being taken to court; a Specialized Punitive Prosecution, tasked with fighting corruption at the highest levels of power; a Specialized Punitive Court and a Specialized Punitive Appeals Court, tasked with the same.

It was obvious to anyone with any knowledge of the country that this entire new system was an attempt by the government to take over companies and persecute critics with minimal regard for legal niceties.

The presumption of innocence was the first victim. In December 2018, a new law stated that the Confiscation Commission could hold on to your confiscated property even after you were pronounced not guilty by the courts. The Justice Minister explained at the time: “Even if the court declares some criminal innocent, society has the right to redress. The Confiscation Commission, by not returning property seized from this criminal, provides this redress”.

More recently, the Social Policy Minister (of all people) declared that innocence is something proved in court and not something that concerns the Prosecution.

The “clients” of the para-legal system to date have illustrated that initial fears were correct. The first such client was a District Mayor of Sofia, a Ms Ivancheva. Being elected as independent, she refused to enter the system of corrupt practices she found in place. She was then herself apprehended, in a very public arrest, on charges of corruption. The Prosecution’s case, taken to the Specialized Punitive Court, collapsed in disarray as evidence was overturned and witnesses claimed they had provided testimonies under duress. Ms Ivancheva, nevertheless, was sentenced to 20 years pending appeal.

Ms Ivancheva, nevertheless, was sentenced to 20 years pending appeal.

This case served notice that no elected official would be allowed not to “play the game”. Then came a string of cases designed to warn whole sectors of industry that they were about to be visited by “strong men”. The IT sector, so far left alone by the regime, was the prime target. One IT company owner was arrested on charges of preparing a coup d’etat by hacking into the sprinkler system of Parliament in order to create mass panic. When the Parliament spokesman explained that Parliament did not possess a sprinkling system, the charges were hastily changed to money laundering.

Another IT company owner complained of government corruption and racketeering and was herself arrested on charges of corruption and racketeering, remaining in custody to this day. In the most recent case, two industrialists with an impeccable reputation (the Bobokov brothers) were arrested as a warning to the recycling industry. The publishers of the last surviving independent press have had property seized and accounts blocked by the Confiscation Commission.

Another function of the new para-legal system has been to help the Prime Minister clear out oligarchs that had overstayed their welcome, in order to replace them with a younger and (presumably) more pliant breed.

A competitive market economy is something that Bulgaria no longer possesses. What it has, as an economy, is closer to the model of controlled economies prevalent in Central Asia. Investment fell off a cliff just in time for the COVID crisis.

What, then, is the state of affairs regarding the third set of Copenhagen criteria for EU membership?

3. Administrative and institutional capacity to effectively implement the acquis and ability to take on the obligations of membership.

In a lawless state, where strong men stalk the land, the strong prey on the weak and institutions act as highwaymen, sustained implementation of the acquis is impossible by definition. It is little wonder, then, that currently the European Commission is engaged in 37 procedures of sanctions against Bulgaria in the area of environment protection alone. And yet the Commission, as well as other EU bodies, continues to turn a blind eye to the core problem: the dissolution of the rule of law and the dismantling of the institutions and mechanisms of democracy. It is here that the acquis have been annihilated; the destruction of the natural environment is but one consequence of this.

Why the blind eye?

There are at least two reasons: politics (or, more precisely, politicking); and a loss of awareness of what the EU is all about. Let us start with the second.

The EU was not founded as a distributor of funds. Initially, the aim of the Coal and Steel Community was to make war physically impossible: everyone watched over the shoulders of everyone else; and the moment anyone started preparing for war (by drastically increasing the production of coal and steel), everyone else would see it. Then, with the removal of borders, the intention was to make war impossible even in the imagination. As people, capital and goods moved around the whole continent, the thinking went, they would come to know each other and not wish each other ill. Then came the stage at which human dignity was placed at the centre of policy and legislation, in order to guarantee against the return of dictators and thereby – against the return of the preconditions for war. Prosperity was largely an unintended consequence and the distribution of money to weaker EU members – a very recent invention.

Yet the various bodies of the EU today see its mission primarily in terms of money. As long as the money side of things is OK, then – the thinking runs – we do not need take action on any infringements of dignity, legality or decency.

The reasons for the politicking are obvious. Both Borisov’s party and Orban’s party are members of the EPP group in the European parliament. And the EPP group, badly mauled in election after election, feels that it needs its Bulgarian and Hungarian members in order to preserve some semblance of dominance.

This is short-sighted and suicidal precisely because the EU was not founded for reasons of money. At its basis are specific values that give birth to rule of law and democracy. An assault on these values, let alone a dismantling of legality and of democracy, is an assault on the entire EU project. It needs to be countered at EU level.

Barbarians, such as Prime Minister Borisov, are not at the gates. They are inside the castle, providing others with a working model of how to kill a democracy. This has happened in Hungary; it is happening in Bulgaria and Poland.

This is not business as usual. This is about the survival of our political civilization. Europe’s destroyers of democracy must be severely punished and brought to heel. Or else they might prove contagious.

Barbarians, such as Prime Minister Borisov, are not at the gates. They are inside the castle.

If democracy can be dismantled in Bulgaria by a barely literate macho male, it can be dismantled in a more sophisticated country by someone more intelligent and shrewd. The blueprint is now available.


[1] Geoffrey Hodgson. What Are Institutions? Iin: Journal of Institutional Economics (2015), pp. 497–505.

[2] With the exception of the odd judge or journalist who needed a severe beating on the street to stop making trouble.

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