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‘All countries have some corruption, but #Bulgaria has become a mafia state’ Yoncheva MEP




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Bulgarian Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov

EU Reporter spoke to Elena Yoncheva MEP about the continuing protests taking place in Bulgaria. Yoncheva says that while in every country there is mafia and some corruption, over the last ten years, Bulgaria has become a mafia state. 

Successive scandals and an obvious deterioration of the rule of law have failed to move European leaders into open condemnation of developments in Bulgaria. Yoncheva’s views - shared by protestors - appears to contradict the findings of the European Commission in its ‘Cooperation and Verification Mechanism’ (CVM) report of 2019 . In the report, the Commission considered that Bulgaria had met benchmarks related to the fight against organized crime, ‘reflecting the positive developments in the institutional environment and track record over the years’ and that ‘developments since November 2018 have not raised new relevant issues’. 

When Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007, it was recognized that there were shortcomings in the areas of judicial reform, the fight against corruption, and in the case of Bulgaria, in particular, a failure to effectively fight organized crime. The Commission's most recent evaluation of the situation found that there has been sufficient progress to meet Bulgaria’s commitments made at the time of its accession to the EU. 

However, Yoncheva paints a different picture.  She says that with every year the country is becoming poorer. Foreign direct investment has collapsed, as the country is seen to have a weak judicial system that won’t protect investors. Powerful oligarchs seem to have a hold on most of the economy. Education and health systems are also in decline, with people feeling a general drop in their standard of living. 

Yoncheva says that people have become progressively more disgusted. This is reflected in over a month's demonstrations against the government. The tipping point was early July, when Bulgarians finally took to the streets when the Chief Prosecutor, Ivan Geshev, ordered armed security officers to raid the offices of Bulgaria’s President and detained the anti-corruption secretary and security adviser for questioning. The President Rumen Radev has called for the resignation of the entire government, including Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. 

The protests were also provoked by former justice minister Hristo Ivanov, of the ‘Yes, Bulgaria!’ party filming his arrival on the beach outside the residence of former politician Dogan on the Black Sea coast. People were incensed that the public beach had become the private reserve of Dogan who enjoys the protection of state security officers. It was also found that a leading oligarch Peevski - who owns a large number of media outlets - has had to give up state protection officers, following the public outrage. The episode resulted in the resignation of the top general for state security. Ivanov has claimed in an interview with Politico that: “Borissov is king by day, Peevski is king by night.”


According to Transparency International's 'Corruption Perceptions Index', which scores and ranks countries on how the country's public sector is perceived by experts and business executives, Bulgaria has the lowest score in the EU, below Romania and Hungary. 

Transparency International 'Corruption Perceptions Index'

When I asked Yoncheva if the protests had received broad support among Bulgarians she said that those demonstrating had come from all sides: left, right and center. She said that according to polls, more than 70% of Bulgarians support the demonstrations, but that many people were still afraid to demonstrate, or were worried that they could lose their job. She said that she was confident that the government would have to resign; even if it doesn’t happen immediately, she forecasts that it will happen in September or October. 

Yoncheva does not underestimate the challenges that lie ahead, while she says that the government must resign, the process of reform will be difficult. She says that Bulgaria will have to start rebuilding its democracy. Borissov has been in power since 2009 and the previous socialist-led government also had corruption problems. Yoncheva says the support of the European Parliament and the European Commission will be important in this process. At this moment, there is no sign that  Boyko Borissov and his Chief Prosecutor are willing to give up power.

Borissov’s party GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) is part of the European People’s Party (EPP), the group appear unwilling to question the probity of the current administration. In 2006, a US diplomatic telegram revealed by Wikileaks claimed that Borissov "is involved in serious criminal activities and maintains close ties with Lukoil and the Russian embassy". His close links to Lukoil have raised concerns about possible links to properties in Barcelona. Spanish authorities are thought to be investigating these accusations. 

Yoncheva points out that the leader of the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber MEP went as far as to congratulated Borissov on this fight against corruption, she said that this was considered a cynical joke in Bulgaria. Weber’s statement, issued on 10 July, reads:

"The EPP Group fully supports the Bulgarian government of Boyko Borrisov and its [...] fight against corruption and the progress that is being made to join the Eurozone.


"Any political actions that would undermine the independence of the judiciary and obstruct the fight against corruption, would endanger the success of Bulgaria in Europe and undo the concrete progress and support for Bulgaria we have seen in recent years," said Manfred Weber, chairman of the EPP Group. 

The fact that European Funds are further entrenching the government's powers of patronage mean that Bulgarians have become skeptical about the European Union, once seen as a bridge to a better and brighter future.  Yoncheva says that the European Union and the European Commission should do much more.

She has also been the target of Borissov. In April 2019, before European Parliamentary elections, Borissov appeared to be taking action on the misuse of European funds.  It seems that the objective of the investigation was an attempt to damage the prospects of Yoncheva. In a recording, thought by some to have been recorded and circulated by people acting on behalf of Vasil ‘The Skull’ Bozhkov (described by the US State Department as "the most infamous gangster in Bulgaria" in a leaked cable published by Wikileaks) a voice that sounds like Borissov says that even though it may damage some of his allies he “will burn everything to burn Elena Yoncheva from here”. There appears to be some interest in investigating the recording, by Bulgarian authorities, but only as an illegal wiretap - rather than for the contents of the recording.

We asked the European Commission spokesperson service about the latest developments and if they were still satisfied that Bulgaria was respecting the commitments to put in place procedures concerning the accountability of the Chief Prosecutor, given recent events. The Commission replied that their stance remained that progress had been made by Bulgaria and that this would be sufficient to meet the commitments made at the time of Bulgaria's accession to the European Union. They added that the new rule of law mechanism will give the commission the means to pursue work with Bulgaria on any further necessary reforms.


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