Economist: Corruption Crackdown Raises Police State Fears in Bulgaria
From The Economist
Guarding the guardians
A welcome onslaught on corruption raises some fears of a police state
BE CAREFUL what you wish for: you may get it. Last year Bulgarians voted to make Boyko Borisov, a burly former police chief, their prime minister. He had promised to spare nobody and nothing in tackling organised crime. He has certainly made a difference. The television news now features police operations with such flashy labels as “Octopus”, arresting people with such ominous names as “the Tractor”. The culture of impunity that once plagued Bulgaria has largely gone.
A former prime minister, Sergei Stanishev, is under two investigations involving the loss of secret documents. Some of his former colleagues face questions about corruption, negligence and abuse of power. One prominent casualty is Nicolay Tsonev, a former defence minister, who was arrested in April in a hospital. As he was being handcuffed, a prosecutor screamed insults at him. All those charged deny wrongdoing, and none of their cases has come to trial.
The new style is certainly going down well with ordinary Bulgarians. The hardline interior minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, has now replaced Mr Borisov as the country’s most popular politician. But some fear that the price of the crackdown may be bad government of a different kind: a still weaker rule of law, and even a shift towards what might look like a police state.
Law-enforcement agencies now screen anybody who runs for high public office. That ought to help reserve power for the clean-handed. But in practice it could give spooks and security-service apparatchiks free rein. The crackdown has also brought paralysis in public administration. “Before, the administration did nothing without a bribe. Now they simply do nothing,” says Ivan Krastev, director of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, a think-tank in Sofia. This is slowing, among other things, the already deplorably tardy spending of European Union money.
The biggest challenge is to guard the guardians by creating a sturdy legal framework for the anti-corruption campaign. Past efforts to reform Bulgaria’s creaky justice system have been largely fruitless. EU watchdogs that once barked warnings seem now to have given up. High-profile arrests are one thing: actually convicting a wrongdoer in a timely and transparent fashion quite another. The courts still move painfully slowly. When they are blamed for this, the judges respond that police evidence-gathering is sloppy. But when it transpired that a well-connected lobbyist had been able, in effect, to appoint senior judges, few of those named had to resign and no investigation ensued.
Moreover, little of this gets the public scrutiny it deserves. Most big media outlets have murky ownership, leaving their journalists vulnerable to outside pressure and influence-peddling. The television news may look like the trailer for a gangster movie. But justice and showbiz are different.
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