Interior vs. Judiciary: Who Is Right in the War of Bulgaria’s Government Branches?
"They Let Them Go!"
“We capture them, and they let them go!” has become a catch phrase in Bulgaria in the last few years. The quote, expectedly, belongs to current Prime Minister Boyko Borisov but it dates back to his term as Chief Secretary of the Interior Ministry (2001-2005).
It means that the police are toiling to do their job well enough in order to put top gangsters behind bars only to see them released on bail, live happily as their trials drag on forever, or enjoy ridiculous sentences.
This rather succinct but powerful criticism of the Bulgarian judiciary is justified and unjustified at the same time. It is justified in that it does point to huge issues existing in the Bulgarian judicial system. But at the same time it fails to account for roughly as big and rather similar issues in the Interior Ministry structures.
Yet, to most Bulgarians it must make a lot of sense as Borisov’s image as a fearless cop grew immensely even though during his term Bulgaria saw a peak of ugly gangland murders.
After winning the July 2009 elections, Borisov took control of Bulgaria’s legislative and executive branch (despite having to put up with rightist partners for lack of an absolute majority). As his government set out to fulfill its declarations of cracking down on organized crime, some of his past criticism of the judiciary started lurking again in his statements in the fall of 2009. Clearly, this was not to be well received by the Bulgarian judges.
An Unkept Handshake Deal?
Interestingly enough, at the end of January 2010, Borisov and the top Bulgarian magistrates made a handshake deal, or as they called it, a gentleman’s agreement, which was advertised as a promise to avoid inter-institutional conflict, respect one another’s institutions, and other pompous phrases. It basically boiled down to the Prime Minister toning down his criticism of the courts, and the judges starting to “clean their own house” – whatever that is supposed to mean.
Perhaps much of the meaning of this phrase has to do with the scandal that shook – or at least should’ve shaken – Bulgaria’s judiciary – the case of the businessmen Krasimir Georgiev, known as Krasio the Black, who has been revealed to be a dealer trading magistrates positions around the country – for the average sum of EUR 200 000.
The scandal broke out in June 2009 but only in February-March of 2010 two magistrates were dismissed for having been in touch with Krasio. (And Krasio had worked hard before his detention – he is proven to have been in contact with dozens of judges, prosecutors, and even MPs.) So the affair with Krasio might be just one modest example of why the house of the Bulgarian judiciary might need some very serious cleaning.
The Prime Minister’s closest aide, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov claims to have been carrying out – successfully – the same “cleaning” job in his own institution. He has admitted there is corruption in the police, removed a number of officers, and instituted a system under which very small teams of policemen and prosecutors work on key cases in order to keep the information as secret as possible. However, despite the several rather eye-catching special operations with memorable codenames such as “The Impudent”, “Octopus”, etc carried out by the police since December, the effect of any measures Tsvetanov has taken so far is yet to become tangible.
Despite the gentleman’s agreement between the PM and the supreme magistrates, Borisov’s closest man Tsvetanov has burst out in February slamming the courts for their rulings. He has reacted strongly to the release on bail of suspects arrested in Operation Octopus together with former secret agent Aleksei Petrov. On Friday, March 5, Tsvetanov went further by revealing information that a Bulgarian drug boss, Ognyan Atanasov, who had been just arrested overnight, got a 18-year sentence in Greece and a 3-year suspended sentence in Bulgaria for the same crimes.
The judges have been somewhat moderate in striking back. In late February, in reaction to Tsvetanov’s criticism, Lazar Gruev, head of Bulgaria’s Supreme Court of Cassation, said he would clench his teeth for one last time sticking to the handshake deal with Borisov for no mutual criticism. The judges then sent an open letter to Borisov protesting against the Interior Minister’s remarks about their work, and threatening to tell on the government to all European and international magistrates’ organizations one could ever imagine.
On Friday, just hours after Tsvetanov slammed the Bulgarian courts calling the situation with drug boss Ognyan Atanasov a “disgrace”, Georgi Kolev, head of the Sofia City Court, declared there was no tension between the Interior and the judiciary.
Who Is Wrong?
It is rather clear there is tension which threatens to escalate into an all-out conflict. This current situation raises several critical questions.
First, is it a good idea for the Interior Minister to criticize the work of another branch of government in a democratic country? Technically, no. Yet, what if one assumes that the Borisov government has fair chances of success in fixing the problems in the executive (which is rather doubtful), and only the rotten state of the judiciary prevents any overall progress? What if exerting some kind of “moral” or public pressure is the only way to make the judiciary reform itself by removing its corruption infested elements?
This brings up the second major question: is Tsvetanov right? He is probably right in much of his criticism. Since Bulgarians prefer trusting foreign sources – a whole bunch of EU and other institutions have registered severe issues in Bulgaria’s judiciary. But as mentioned above, the judiciary is no exception – it is just part of the big picture of the Bulgarian government.
Oftentimes, the Bulgarian judges are handed messy laws to work with by the Parliament; often, the police and prosecutors either fail to gather enough good evidence to get some gangster sentences, or they just ruin on purpose the pre-court procedures; or sometimes the judges are faced with threats by the mafia, and can hardly hold on their own, without the proper backing of the state.
When faced with fighting all these issues and threats on the one hand, and the option of becoming richer by accepting a little something on the side, on the other hand, it becomes understandable why some judges might have made some morally (and legally) questionable decisions.
In this case, Tsvetanov’s criticism is only fully justified if it is 100% certain that the executive and the legislative branch, which are politically controlled, will guarantee proper conditions for the adequate work of the judiciary – something that is very hard to judge from the outside.
Of course, there is also the status of the judges as “independent.” While the MPs and Ministers can be replaced by the voters every four years, the magistrates can only be removed from office by other magistrates. This could allow them to be corrupt much longer than the MPs and the Ministers, and it certainly allows them as a guild to resist even strong public pressure.
This leads to the third major question, a rather unpleasant one – is the Borisov government just using this special status of the judiciary and its alleged hostility to reform as an excuse for its own failures? Or does it lack the political will and ability to wipe out organized crime? Is the troubled judiciary the convenient excuse for not being able to achieve the promised results? Hopefully, the answers to these questions should be “no” but all multiple answers remain on the table for the time being.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to the hardest thing – each branch of government reforming itself, and all of them doing that simultaneously rather than focusing on blaming one another. The odds for this working out to a positive effect are not very good.
"In God We Trust"
On Friday, US Ambassador to Bulgaria, James Warlick, declared that he had great trust in Bulgaria’s judicial system. He has also praised the Bulgarian Interior Ministry for some of its work. Of course, he is a diplomat and would say that kind of things. But if he truly trusts these Bulgarian institutions, he might be one of the few people on the territory of Bulgaria to do so.
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