Change Comes Slowly for Bulgaria, Even With E.U. Membership
by Andrew Higgins
As Ukrainian protesters camp out in their capital to demand closer ties to Europe, Boris Rangelov, a student protest leader in Bulgaria, has a sobering message from the cold capital of his country, another former Communist nation but one that, unlike Ukraine, joined the European Union years ago: Change takes a long time.
While the protesters in Ukraine have been out on the streets for just a few weeks demanding that a government they see as corrupt and discredited resign, Mr. Rangelov has been protesting on and off since February to get rid of his own country’s seemingly deeply corrupt political and economic masters.
“We should be in the Guinness Book of World Records,” said Mr. Rangelov, a first-year student at Sofia University, which has become the center of a rolling protest movement that first ousted a conservative government and now wants the same for its even more unpopular Socialist-led replacement.
Bulgaria’s demonstrators have discovered just how difficult it can be to bring change, even in a country that has been a member of the European Union for six years. Ukraine’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, snubbed the union in November in favor of deeper ties with Russia, setting off the protests by Ukrainians who see a brighter future through closer ties to Europe.
The endless political deadlock here has fueled deep disillusionment among frustrated Bulgarians who had hoped European membership would mean an open road toward a more prosperous, equitable and transparent system. And it has given them a more realistic sense of what membership in the union — an option not even on the table yet for Ukraine — can bring.
It has also underscored the seeming powerlessness of the European bloc, despite sharp rebukes from Brussels and its diplomats and the suspension of some aid, to leverage its influence in Bulgaria for change.
Meanwhile, Bulgarians and Romanians, whose nations both joined the union in 2007 and who gain the right to work anywhere in it as of Jan. 1, are abandoning their homelands for wealthier corners of the bloc in numbers so large they are provoking stirrings of regret among some member nations wary of the competition for jobs.
“I never thought my country would be in such a bad situation right now,” said Meglena Kuneva, who, as Bulgaria’s minister of European affairs from 2002 to 2005 and then as a senior official in Brussels, negotiated the nation’s entry into the European Union. “I thought we would go further, better and faster.”
Virtually nobody in Bulgaria thinks that the European Union membership has not brought many benefits or that it was a mistake. Roads, parks, water treatment plants and numerous other sites carry big signs emblazoned with the union’s 12-star blue flag and trumpeting the money Brussels has pumped in. Unlike in Western Europe, there are no noisy euroskeptics clamoring for exit. Without the European Union, Ms. Kuneva said, “Bulgaria would have been worse than Ukraine.”
But Bulgaria has consistently remained at the bottom of the European Union’s poverty tables. In December, Transparency International, a Berlin-based advocacy group that monitors corruption, ranked Bulgaria as Europe’s most corrupt country after Greece.
For too many members of Bulgaria’s political class, Ms. Kuneva said, membership “was just about European funds and how they could steal from them,” never about European values and the importance of accountability and the rule of law.
“I am ashamed and frustrated,” added Ms. Kuneva, who over the summer joined an alliance of six small Bulgarian parties to form the Reformist bloc, which supports protesters’ calls for a clean break. European Union officials, she added, have tried to bring change through aid and advice, “but they cannot come here and govern” to expunge the corruption that “is poisoning everything.”
Citizens of other former Communist nations tend to agree that their countries have made big strides since joining the European Union in 2004.
“Society is very disillusioned,” Nikolay Staykov, the boss of a small tech company in Sofia who has set up a website, noresharski.com, a reference to Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, to help organize protests and provide an alternative source of information to pro-government news outlets. “There were lots of unrealistic expectations. We no longer expect that a magic European wand will change everything.”
Mr. Staykov said he was not sure whether, after so many new governments and false starts, Bulgaria might finally be joining the rest of Europe in more than just name. "The optimist in me says the problem is our politicians," he said. "The pessimist in me says the problem is much deeper."
Indeed, when Mr. Oresharski, a mild-mannered former academic and onetime finance minister, became prime minister in May, many Bulgarians and European diplomats looked forward to a new start. Four years of scandals under the previous center-right administration had peaked just before the May elections with allegations that the government had illegally bugged political opponents and, in some cases, its own supporters.
Mr. Oresharski, who heads a fragile coalition led by the Socialist Party, promised a government of cleanhanded experts, free of the skulduggery redolent of Bulgaria's Communist past, when the intelligence service became infamous as a subcontractor for the K.G.B. and earned a grim reputation for its particular expertise in "wet work," the assassination of enemies.
After less than a month in office, however, Mr. Oresharski set off outrage when he appointed Delyan Peevski, a 32-year-old media mogul with a thin résumé and a sulfurous reputation, as head of the national security agency. After protests, Mr. Peevski quickly stepped down, but the appointment became a toxic symbol of the cozy and opaque relations between Bulgarian business clans and the state apparatus, particularly its security organs.
Ms. Kuneva, the former minister, said she felt more pity than anger toward Mr. Oresharski. "He cannot speak for himself," she said. "He is just a smoke screen," she added, for hidden interests that really call the shots. Mr. Oresharski declined to be interviewed.
The government has refused to explain why it chose Mr. Peevski, a man manifestly unqualified for such a delicate national security post, or who had initiated his appointment. The silence has fueled speculation of a secret deal between the authorities and one of Bulgaria's most controversial and powerful business groups, the New Bulgarian Media Group, controlled by Mr. Peevski's mother, a former head of the national lottery.
Mr. Peevski could not be reached for comment. His mother, Irena Krasteva, has dismissed as "lies" the allegations of her family's undue influence, insisting that the scope of her media group's holdings has been wildly exaggerated.
A senior Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that while Bulgarians had a taste for conspiracy theories, "it is shocking that they often appear to be true."
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