Like every phase of capitalism, the 1989 transition in Bulgaria kicked off with criminal privatizations and violent efforts to carve out of shares in the emerging market. The public, execution-style killings of the 1990s and overt mafia violence traumatized generations of Bulgarians who welcomed the relative normalization of the situation as the transition proceeded. The GERB party (which stands for Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria), which has been in power since 2009, built an image as the enforcers of “law and order”, able to crack down on the mafia, despite the background of its leader Borisov in the shady security sector which dominated the crime headlines of the 1990s. Ten years later, we now know that the only way GERB keeps the mafia in check is not by buttressing the state in its fight against organized crime, but because, as a mafia itself, it has captured the state.
GERB’s crimes: a non-exhaustive list
For over a week now, Bulgaria has been rocked by the biggest anti-government protests since 2013. The immediate trigger of the rallies was the completely illegal raiding of the president’s office by agents of the department of public prosecutions, after the president revealed that security guards on the public payroll have been doubling as personal bodyguards for two of the most visible and reviled oligarchs in Bulgaria: Ahmed Dogan and Delyan Peevski.
The protests have been quite diverse, uniting people from across the entire political spectrum who are sick of the government’s corruption. In the following, I will provide a non-exhaustive list of some of the most egregious scandals during GERB’s 10-year rule.
Almost immediately upon assuming power, Borisov began purging businessmen who had previously been close to him, the most high-profile instance being the public arrest and show trial of Alexei Petrov.
In 2010, GERB’s Minister of Agriculture resigned after it was revealed that her university diploma was forged.
In 2010, a leaked audio recording revealed Borisov meddling in the investigation into a large brewery by telling the prosecution to leave the business owner alone.
In 2012, GERB turned over parts of natural reserves to real estate developers by swapping them for less lucrative terrains. This scheme triggered some of the biggest environmental protests to date.
In 2012–2013, a senior GERB functionary “sequestered” four tons of cured meat from the owner of a big meat plant on behalf of Borisov.
In 2017, nepotism in high-level GERB-led local government appointments caused a public scandal known as “Best-Man-Gate”.
In 2017, news emerged about European funds that were earmarked for rural development but used for the construction of over 700 private luxury villas for GERB politicians and their cronies, triggering panicked revisions. As with similar cases, the investigations resulted in zero indictments, although some grant beneficiaries were forced to return the cash.
In 2018, news broke that the Minister of Finance lives rent-free in a luxury apartment in a gated community owned by Kiril Domuschiev, one of the richest men in Bulgaria.
In 2018, Bulgaria occupied the honourable 111th place in the media freedom rankings put out by Reporters without Borders, a position it fought hard to keep in 2019 and 2020.
That same year, the Bulgarian state seized a Libyan oil tanker, and a GERB MEP flew to Libya to broker a €4.5 m ransom.
2019 was also marked by the so-called “Apartment-Gate” revelations that senior GERB figures, including the so-called “second man” in the party along with the chairwoman of the parliament had acquired luxury apartments at fire-sale prices from a high-end property developer at whose behest GERB had changed a law to retroactively approve an illegal skyscraper belonging to the developer.
During the scandal, it was revealed that the head of the anti-corruption agency himself had illegally acquired a rooftop terrace in this luxury condo. So did one of the vice-PMs from the far-right United Patriots party. Neither man faced justice; instead, the former anti-corruption chief was rewarded with a consular appointment in Barcelona, on the basis of forged Spanish-language proficiency certificates.
Likewise in 2019, Bulgaria’s corruption problem made international headlines when investigations into the laundering of €5 m and the offshore acquisition of a luxury house on the outskirts of Barcelona for €1.5 m linked it to Borisov and his girlfriend.
Since 2019, the city of Pernik has been placed on severe water restrictions which continue to this day because the Minister of the Environment allowed the city dam to dry up in in order to benefit the largest steel production line operating in the city. The criminal neglect of the government left other dams throughout Bulgaria on the brink of total depletion, too.
At the end of 2019 came the shocking appointment of Ivan Geshev as prosecutor general, a notorious detective and former deputy chief prosecutor who made a name for himself by stating he does not accept the idea of the separation of powers, that he is God’s own instrument of retribution against (selected) oligarchs; by vilifying disabled people on benefits to legitimize budget cuts; by stoking ethnic tensions; and by covering up literally every high-profile mafia investigation he led. His appointment offended the fundamental sense of justice of many.
In 2019, media investigations uncovered lists of mayors, ministers and local authorities “tipped” by a large construction company, enjoying the privileges provided by one of GERB’s preferred contractors for public tenders. Speaking of public tenders, almost every public reconstruction or refurbishment project in GERB-led municipalities needs urgent repairs shortly after completion.
Some of the biggest public tender disasters in 2019 and 2020 include the collapse of a newly built inner-city highway in Varna and the rupture of an underwater sewage pipe which was supposed to be placed underground but instead was laid on the sea floor by the private contractor to save money. The result was the spill of untold amounts of effluent in Varna, which caused significant damage to the marine ecosystem.
In the first half of 2020 alone, GERB produced at least five notable scandals.
In June, the state bailed out a bank belonging to a local oligarch in order to secure access to the ERMII mechanism. This vulnerable and volatile bank, which has been saved three times by the state, has been implicated in various dubious development projects in natural reserves over the years.
In June 2020, a leaked recording of a meeting between the Minister of Agriculture and large agricultural producers revealed her urging them to cover up the embezzlement of European funds, lest the EU stop the cash flow.
Then, in a major U-turn, the government deliberated whether to impose a 20 percent tax on gambling (which had previously been tax-free) or to nationalize the private lotteries. (Speaking of taxes, the government not only gives generous tax breaks to big investors but often fails to collect what little is due.) A short time later, Vasil Bozhkov, the owner of the biggest private lottery in the country, fled to the UAE and began publishing screengrabs of his chats with Borisov and various GERB ministers. He alleged that the Minister of Finance exhorted him to transfer his businesses to party stooges.
The fallout related to this gambling boss also implicated Borisov’s PR manager who allegedly visited Bozhkov every month in his office. A media investigation revealed that she spent €500,000 on a luxury villa which she could not possibly afford on her public servant’s salary alone.
In June again, the illegal construction of a luxury hotel on the seaside in a natural reserve sparked widespread discontent and protests. The government had the temerity to claim that it was not a hotel but an anti-mudslide fortification wall. It turned out that the husband of the Minister for Foreign Affairs had designed the hotel.
In July, an audio tape of Borisov admitting on the phone to meddling with the judiciary (again) was leaked. Then came pictures of Borisov’s bedroom showing him sleeping next to a nightstand packed full of €500 notes, gold bars, and a gun–in true mafia style. Borisov indirectly confirmed the authenticity of the pictures by alleging that president Radev had filmed him with a drone, but said the money was planted.
In the eventful summer of 2020, the violent reshuffling of the market share that began with the botched shake-down of Bozhkov culminated with the so-called “Eight Dwarves” scandal. In this scandal, the owner of the largest lift manufacturer in the country revealed how an ex-detective working for the oligarchs at the highest levels of the state stole all his assets.
The long list of corruption scandals, environmental vandalism and crimes against the welfare of the Bulgarian people, accompanied by purges and manoeuvring in the ranks of the oligarchs close to the government that reach the public in the form of leaked photos and audio recordings (not to mention the scandalous high-level appointments) is the backdrop against which the current wave of protests has unfolded. And I have not even broached the topic of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is its own unending litany of absurdities, costing lives and livelihoods.
But the immediate trigger is as follows: in early July 2020, Hristo Ivanov, the leader of a small opposition liberal party decided to exploit the aforementioned tensions within the elite and disembarked from a boat on a beach next to the estate of Ahmed Dogan, the honorary chairman of the DPS (colloquially known as the Turkish party). The DPS is a nominally opposition liberal party, but it backs all parliamentary proposals made by GERB. Dogan had fenced off the beach at his seaside McMansion, something which is totally illegal given that the constitution defines the seashore as inalienable public property. Over the years Dogan has openly flaunted his oligarchic connections and riches. The media baron Peevski—a DPS member whose appointment as head of national security in 2013 triggered mass protests—is one of the richest men in Bulgaria. The Dogan-Peevski duo is rumoured to control even Borisov. Dogan interprets all criticism of him or his party as stoking ethnic tensions (in this, he resembles the far-right parties which also tend to shroud all social antagonisms with racism, although in Dogan’s case, it is self-directed).
Ivanov live-streamed his disembarkation and the way he was brutally pushed back into the sea by Dogan’s security guards. Ivanov suspected they were in the employ of the National Security Service, which president Radev, the person formally in charge of the NSS, confirmed. In response, prosecutor Geshev ordered the completely unprecedented reprisal raid of the presidential office. In a move reminiscent of a classic Leninist gesture, Ivanov turned the intra-elite war into a “civil” war, triggering the biggest protest wave since 2013.
Together with the privatization of the beach, the raid became the symbol of the revolving door that operates between big business and politics in Bulgaria, which the protestors are rebelling against. Enough is enough, they say. Though I agree, I could add more: in the 10 years GERB has ruled, it has presided over Bulgaria becoming the most unequal and poorest state in the EU. Unfortunately, this analysis is rather marginal in the protest, but even without it, there are enough reasons to fight.
Borisov, who otherwise projects a strong-man image, is visibly descending into panic and peddling bizarre conspiracy theories about the protests. He believes Bozhkov is bankrolling them. Supporting this claim, the prosecutor general released recordings to the mass media in which Bozhkov admits to endorsing the protests and hatching a plan to unseat GERB. Borisov also accused the protesters of planning to burn the parliament and reprimanded them for “sabotaging” the anti-COVID-19 measures. This is of course nonsense, considering that he ordered the premature lifting of restrictions to save the tourist season and the entertainment industry. And that’s why Bulgaria, which braved the onset of the pandemic relatively well, is now in the grips of a second wave.
Borisov’s increasingly hysterical pitch shows that the situation is spiralling out of control and GERB will probably relinquish control of government. Borisov wants to avoid a Radev-appointed caretaker government at all costs, and is trying to placate the protesters in incremental ways: first he sacked three ministers and is expected to propose to be replaced by a different prime minister if GERB is allowed to complete its term. However, given the state of the opposition—a weak, internally divided socialist party, a small liberal coalition, co-led by Ivanov, and a host of far-right parties which we don’t want anywhere near the executive—it seems likely that GERB will be re-elected, as happened the previous two times Borisov resigned (in 2013 and 2016). I don’t think snap elections will result in the socialists and the liberals forming a coalition, even though for the first time since 1989 these protests saw voters from the two blocs marching side by side. It is a difficult electoral equation to solve at this point, but my hope is that the socialists and the liberals will overcome their mutual animosity and will try to form a government, if only with the sole purpose of keeping GERB’s toxic influence at bay.
The left and the protests
Both the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary left supports the protests, even though some activists see in them a repetition of the 2013 liberal anti-corruption and anti-communist protests. While there is some truth to that, I think it is not a repetition of the 2013 anti-mafia protest frame. The 2013 demonstrations emerged from an entirely different configuration: for the first time since 1989, liberals and socialists are marching together against the ‘agglutination’ of big business, government, and the deep state. This is unprecedented given that since their inception, the liberals have always defined themselves in opposition to the socialists. Also, unlike in the 2013 protests, anti-communism is not a motivating force in the ideological framework, even if the protesters are not receptive to explicitly anti-capitalist messages either.
Despite its liberal, rule-of-law trappings, there is plenty to support in the movement. At the very least, doing away with overt violence and thievery in the public sphere is important in its own right and is a necessary step from which to begin taking on the invisible violence that traditionally interests the left: coercion and private despotism in the economic sphere.
What the left can strive to do is expand the narrow legalistic frame of the movement to include broader notions of justice: in the workplace, for the environment, and against privatization (the last two are already present in the protests given that Dogan’s McMansion is in a natural reserve and illegally privatized a beach), to fold in a critique of the inequalities that breed corruption, etc. Right now, even the liberal anti-corruption discourse is amenable to this because the total subservience of Bulgarian politicians to the rich is clear for everyone to see. Ivanov’s stunt confirmed the traditional Marxist suspicion towards the state as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie.
There is no doubt that politicians are corrupt, but when we talk about corrupt politicians, we also need to talk about the corrupting influence of large business owners. It takes two to tango. Everything is for sale in Bulgaria, including politics. But this problem will not be solved with judicial reforms alone, as imagined by the protest leaders and politicians like Ivanov. We need to think critically about the systemic roots of corruption in a political economy whose business machinery can function only when oiled by bribes and connections. In a country as wildly unequal as Bulgaria, is it surprising that big business pulls political levers in the pursuit of profit?
The EU is not innocent either. In 2007 it was widely expected that the accession to the EU would discipline the local ruling thugs, but it turned out that it only emboldened them. Bulgaria is visibly descending into an authoritarian mafia state under the watch of the EU. This begs the question of why the EU is not alert to this, and one answer I can think of is that unlike similar so-called authoritarian-populist heads of state like Viktor Orbán, Borisov quietly takes his “cut” from the EU funds without flexing his muscles to Brussels, while his party helps the EPP keep its majority in Parliament.
The vast inequalities, the impunity and the venality of public officials in Bulgaria invite comparisons to pre-revolutionary France. Placards of guillotines have been on display at the protests, spicing up the visual language of the movement. It would be a big step forward in the long term if this protest and the next elections brought about a fraction of the socio-economic renewal and progressive change 1789 did. For now, though, the downfall of GERB is certainly worth our while.
 Most of these investigations were carried out by bivol.bg, the Bulgarian version of WikiLeaks.