Breaking Up with Peevski
The Economist (blog)
By V.v.B. in Sofia
A country whose patron saint is Ivan Rilski, a hermit, Bulgaria has a tradition of introspection and withdrawal dating back to the Middle Ages that has at times led to the rejection of any temporal structure, including the entire world of politics. Five centuries of Ottoman rule and four decades of communist dictatorship didn’t help but today apathy and withdrawal from political affairs seem to be a thing of the past. Over the past three months tens of thousands of Bulgarians have taken to the streets daily. An estimated 10% of the electorate have joined the protests, which are backed by 51% of those surveyed in a recent poll.
The protesters’ main demand is the resignation of the entire government, which they feel has forfeited the public’s trust. The protesters have strong arguments: the government should not get away with the (subsequently revoked) nomination of Delyan Peevski, a media mogul, as head of the national security agency. They point at politicians in other European Union (EU) countries, such as the Czech prime minister of the German president, who had to resign over far smaller misdemeanours. The government depends on an unholy coalition of Ataka, a far-right party, the party of the Turkish minority (which the xenophobic Ataka used to denigrate) and BSP, the reformed Communist Party. It continues to rely on Mr Peevski’s media group for survival. And it has taken up the practice of previous governments of partisan appointments to independent agencies such as the appointment of the head of the National Archives.
Yet however bad a start the government of Plamen Oresharski, the prime minister, has made, he was elected through free and fair elections, according to the OECD. He has largely assembled a government of competent technocrats such as Zinaida Zlatanova, the minister of justice, a former head of the EU Commission’s representation in Sofia, and Tsvetlin Yovchev, the minister of the interior, who are both not members of any political party. And although the government has so far only paid lip service to the need for dialogue with the newly awakened civil society, it has shown awareness of a pressing crisis.
What is needed now is a big reform effort, in particular in areas that are obviously vulnerable to influence from oligarchs. The most important change is reform of the judiciary and the administration to create properly independent watchdogs and a non-partisan bureaucracy. This would put an end to the inefficiency of the anti-trust regulatory bodies, which would properly enforce anti-monopoly legislation and curb Mr Peevski’s hold over large swathes of the media. (Mr Peevski’s group controls six of the 12 largest-circulation newspapers as well as newspaper distribution and digital television channels.)
After decades of partisan influence, it won’t be easy to transform agencies and watchdogs into independent bodies. It should involve a public hearing of candidates, cross-party consensus on the senior appointments at the major agencies and the participation of NGOs, civil-society organisations and even the EU in the vetting and nomination process of candidates. The involvement of the EU should be temporary until Brussels has regained confidence that Bulgaria is a democracy up to EU standards.
At the moment, some EU members are deeply worried about Bulgaria. The German and the French ambassador in Sofia recently published a joint statement warning that the oligarchic model is incompatible with EU membership. They too stressed the need to appoint untainted and incorruptible candidates to senior public jobs in a transparent nomination process as well as the importance of media pluralism.
So far, the EU has not threatened any action yet as it has done with Hungary, for which it even discussed the suspension of voting rights. The EU is mainly concerned about corruption rather than the rule of law as a whole. It has frozen the bulk of structural and cohesion funds and Bulgaria remains subject to the Control and Verification Mechanism under which the European Commission monitors the fight against corruption and judicial reform.
Government ministers insist the protests will lead to better governance as parties across the board have taken on the message. But they must make a real effort to put an end to the oligarchs’ hold on politics. Otherwise the protests will continue—and they may not remain peaceful—and the EU will consider sanctions. Bulgaria does not want to become the first country to have its voting rights suspended, EU funds permanently withheld or to hold the record in the persistence of daily demonstrations in Europe.