The push of East European countries to join the EU was motivated less by the possibility of access to the single marker or to EU funds than by a desire to normalize, society and to firmly establish democracy,rule of law and freedom of speech. Yet, paradoxically, it has been during the years of EU membership that the quality of democracy in Bulgaria and other Eastern European member states has deteriorated.
In Bulgaria, left and right program-based political parties are on the decline, while populist parties gain support from a growing swing vote far too often bought in cash or in kind. Clientelism, political patronage, and corruption are on the rise among all political parties,, aided by a corrupt judicial system and suppression of freedom of the press. Together, such trends hinder reforms and "make democracy feckless," to use an apt phrase coined by democratization expert Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.
A similar deterioration of democracy has also occurred in Romania which, together with Bulgaria, has been under the scrutiny of the EU's Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). Both countries were put under the CVM eye since their accession to EU membership in 2007, this with the hope that external pressure would induce reforms and enforce rule of law. Hungary and Poland, economically the best performers among the post-communist Central and East European countries, recently joined ranks with Bulgaria and Romania in the infamous group of EU member states that appear not to maintain rule of law; similar trends can be observed in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Political system grounded in irresponsibility
Even though the oversight of the CVM can be regarded as futile over its more than eleven years of operation, it has brought one positive result: the discovery that systemic corruption cannot be tackled by trial imprisonment of offending individuals, even of hundreds of individuals, as in Romania. Voters persistently re-elect representatives of the very same corruption-ridden parties who use every means to obstruct opportunities to create institutions responsible to the public interest.
In short, even formal procedures of regular elections do not, by themselves, yield accountable governance. What seemed to be, back in 2006, a peculiarity of the Balkan countries has proved to be just an early local manifestation of a far deeper political crisis in many EU member states.
Regardless, a majority of citizens, in Bulgaria at least, persistently endorse the EU, expecting the EU institutions to bring radical democratic alternatives of the local status quo. The EU enthusiasm needs an explanation in order not to fall prey to easy, superficial and misleading interpretations.
First, throughout Europe, it appears that the more citizens are disappointed by the local political institutions, the more they project their aspirations for a positive political change to the EU. The stronger the disappointment, the stronger the trust in the EU. These are universal, quite irrational, nearly eschatological expectations.
Second, the renowned Bulgarian economic historian Roumen Avramov, in his work on the modernization of Bulgaria over the past century, posits that most major reforms have been imposed on Bulgarian governments by foreign donors during periods of crisis, i.e. that there is a hundred-year tradition of public expectations of positive changes being imposed from abroad.
Third, to an extent such an expectation can be realistic. Back when the EU was stronger and more united in its convictions, it was capable of exerting political pressure to squelch dangerous political developments within individual member states, as, in 2000, when the then fourteen member states joined forces to threaten Austria with sanctions in the event of extreme right-wing politician Jörg Haider joining the country's government.
Today, however, such unanimity and efficacy of the EU has been compromised by a series of shocks including the global economic crisis of 2008-13, the migration and refugee crisis of 2013-16, and the ongoing process of Brexit . At the moment, the EU has neither the power nor the authority to impose its standards of political behavior. Indeed, drastic abuses in Hungary, Poland and Romania of the fundamental values of the EU have not been countered with adequate responses. Nonetheless, within Bulgaria#,# the seeming weakness of EU responses has not compromised positive attitudes towards the Union, even if only because its values represent the only alternatives to the deteriorating domestic democracy.
Still even in its current shape the EU manages to maintain some efforts in safeguarding its fundamental values. The latest example is the launching of Article 7 disciplinary action against Poland in late 2017 aimed at defending judicial independence in the country.
In a nutshell, the popular inertia to expect an EU intervention against the "feckless democracy" at the national levels may be understandable but it can be a harmful illusion at a time of crisis within the EU itself.
Eleven years ago, upon Bulgaria's accession into the EU, expectations that that the country would use its membership to do more than construct motorways and modernize its agriculture were high. At the time, all but few Bulgarians believed that peer pressure from other European member states would result in meaningful changes and improved integrity of the country's administrative, and judicial systems.
Today, however, even as Bulgaria is at the helm the Council of the European Union, the country is still mired in corruption, scandals, and poor governance - this despite the continuing monitoring of the country's ineffective judicial system by the European Commission. Previous hopes of Bulgaria joining the EU's Schengen borderless area and ERM II, the Eurozone's training ground, during the course of its EU presidency, appear to have vanished. Accession to Schengen and ERM II are reform milestone that Bulgaria must achieve in order to be taken seriously within the EU. Fellow member states, however, are still not convinced of the quality of the country's institutions.
Why hopes have not come true?
There are many explanations as to why the the process of reform has been so painfully slow in Bulgaria. The fundamental reason, of course, is the inability of the country's political environment to deliver a reform agenda that goes beyond mere lip-service and on-the-surface attempts to keep Brussels calm. In this issue, KQuarterly has invited a number of writers, commentators, and academic experts to present their insights into why Bulgaria's seems unable to deliver on reform.
They range from the anarchistic approach towards state institutions shared by many Bulgarians, via the embedded political irresponsibility in the Bulgaria's political system to Russia's hybrid propaganda success as a sign of an entrenched oligarchy. These are not an all-encompassing explanations - we preferred to sketch out the problems in order to give a broader picture of Bulgaria's woes. And we promise to continue the series.
* Georgi Dimitrov is professor of sociology at the European Studies department, St. Kl. Ohridski University of Sofia. He teaches history of sociology, modernity and modernization, and European civilizing process.