• It is more and more evident that the government is just simulating anti-corruption reforms in order to secure some level of legitimacy in domestic and European context.
There are two possible interpretations of the current state of affairs in Bulgarian politics. The optimistic one sees a slow, yet steady progress with some problems remaining in certain areas. Although Bulgaria doesn't reach the stellar economic growth achievements of Poland and Romania, its GDP is expected to increase by close to 4% in 2017. Recently, the country received some praise for its reform efforts from the European Commission. According to this interpretation, these problems will eventually be solved, although much remains to be desired in terms of the quality and the speed of the process.
The second interpretation is rather pessimistic: Bulgaria remains a state captured by strong economic interests, which persistently exert systematic influence over key bodies in the administration and the judiciary. Reforms are being introduced, but most of them fail to address the core problem. In a number of cases, it seems that the government is siding with the behind-the-scenes oligarchy. In the pessimistic interpretation, the efforts of the government just simulate anti-corruption reforms in a bid to provide it with a certain level of legitimacy in domestic and European context.
The jury is still out on which one of these interpretations is true. Unfortunately, there is a lot of evidence suggesting that the problems are systemic, and not just incidental.
The attack from behind the scenes
First, the media situation in the country continues to deteriorate both in terms of pluralism and quality. A near-monopoly situation exists in the printed press, while the radio and television market is also subject to processes of concentration. More troubling, though, is the fact that large parts of the media are ruthlessly used for denigration of opponents of the government. Most of those media outlets are linked to one person - the MP from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms party Delyan Peevski, who has become a symbol of the behind-the-scenes governance in Bulgaria.
The pressure against any opposing view expressed publicly is increasingly open. The recent decision of the Commission for Illegal Assets Forfeiture to freeze some of the assets of the publisher of Dnevnik and Capital newspapers, is only one example. Further, journalists are openly harassed and TV stations remove anchors without explanation.
Second, in terms of prosecutorial policy, there has been a number of investigations, all of which have been directed against opposition politicians or public figures generally inconvenient for the government. This is in marked contrast with the situation in Romania, where the anti-corruption prosecutors target government officials as well.
And third, the recent scandals around ammunition manufacturers Emko and Dunarit left the impression that government representatives were trying to take hold of the businesses, including through attempted nationalization. They were actively helped by prosecutors and magistrates in this endeavor, which suggests that the state fails to be a neutral umpire vis-à-vis the private sector but rather starts to act on behalf of or against specific actors.
The collapse of Corporate Commercial Banks (Corpbank) in 2014 is another case in point.
There have been indictments only against a very limited circle of persons, including the owner of the bank and some employees, as well as against two accountants and a member of the regulatory banking authority. A host of controlling and monitoring authorities, which failed to detect problems in the bank and in fact had tolerated its blatant violations of the law, have been practically exonerated from criminal or political responsibility. These bodies include the financial intelligence services, the Financial Supervision Commission, most of the central bank board members. Some of these officials have been either re-appointed, or transferred to other prestigious and responsible positions. This raises the suspicion that the government and the judiciary simply do not want to dismantle the system that led to the Corpbank demise.
The problem is not one of poor PR by the government, but systemic failures to address the creeping occupation of the state by private interests. For more than a decade Bulgaria has been ruled by a media-business joint venture that exploits public resources and supports politicians and political parties.
As a result there have been political failures in dealing with the non-accountable public prosecutorial office, or creating effective anti-corruption institutions. Some of these events suggest that things have actually deteriorated over the past year.
A new anti-corruption law is yet to be adopted and disagreements on some of its details among the partners in the government coalition have not been ironed out. As a result, most probably the law will just merge the three existing anti-corruption agencies into one. The most important part in the new structure is going to be the asset confiscation element.
Particularly troubling is the idea of GERB, the main partner in the coalition, to repeal the statute of limitations on all privatization deals concluded since the 1990s. This will allow prosecutors to reopen cases closed twenty years ago. The political message is that not GERB, but its predecessors are criminally responsible for the "corrupt transition". Apart from raising issues with the rule of law, this idea obviously provides a room for significant prosecutorial discretion in the reopening of the cases. In the Bulgarian environment, this implies a significant probability of abuse of power.
The reputational problem
Not surprisingly, Bulgaria still has a serious reputational problem in the EU: it is regarded as the most corrupt and poorest member state. This reputation affects the chances of the country to join the more exclusive clubs of the EU - the Schengen borderless area and the Eurozone, with the latter being much more important. Reputational costs also partly explain the lack of significant foreign direct investment in Bulgaria in recent years.
The upcoming Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU was a perfect opportunity for the government to dispel the suspicions of state capture and to set Bulgaria firmly on the path of strong and sustainable growth. Unfortunately, for the reasons discussed, this opportunity is most probably gone already. However, Bulgarians will continue to hope for a miracle to come.
* Daniel Smilov is a Bulgarian comparative constitutional lawyer and political scientist. He is program director at the Center for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, Recurrent Visiting Professor of Comparative Constitutional Law at the Central European University, Budapest, and Assistant Professor of Political Theory at the Political Science Department, University of Sofia.