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Corruption and 'state capture' in Bulgaria

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MEPs will this week be asked to adopt a resolution on the ongoing protests against corruption and alleged "state capture" in Bulgaria. A resolution will be put to a vote today (8 October) and is expected to be endorsed by the majority of members in full plenary.

On Monday (5 October), MEPs meeting for a plenary session in Brussels discussed the situation of the rule of law and fundamental rights in Bulgaria, in a poorly attended session marked by an absence of Bulgarian MEPs.

A small, peaceful demonstration organized by Bulgarian nationals based in Brussels took place outside the parliament while the plenary meeting took place.

Protesters accused three-times premier Boyko Borissov, 61, of weakening state institutions to the benefit of powerful tycoons, keeping Bulgaria the European Union’s poorest country. One protester, who did not wish to be named, accused Borissov of eroding state institutions to serve the interests of private business interests.

Borissov has dominated Bulgarian politics since 2009 but thousands of Bulgarians have been rallying in central Sofia since early July to demand his resignation and that of Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev.  Geshev who is said to have failed to wage a genuine war on high-level graft.

Transparency International ranks Bulgaria as the most corrupt country in the 27-nation EU.

In the plenary debate, Bulgarian MEP Andrey Novakov cited the EU’s Compliance and Verification Mechanism of the Balkan country's judicial system, saying this is “not just a box ticking exercise”.

When they joined the EU on 1 January 2007, Romania and Bulgaria still had progress to make in the fields of judicial reform, corruption and (for Bulgaria) organised crime. The Commission set up the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) as a transitional measure to assist the two countries to remedy these shortcomings. It aims to ensure that the country is enacting effective administrative and judicial systems needed to deliver on the obligations of EU membership

Novakov told the debate: “The CVM is not just a box ticking exercise but, rather, is about fighting corruption.”

The EPP member said: “There is, currently, very low trust in the judiciary in Bulgaria and concern about corruption and the Bulgarian people want us to do something about this and see it through. I believe we can produce tangible results but this needs good co-operation with the Bulgarian authorities.”

He said one means of doing this would be the need European Public Prosecutor’s Office, soon to start its work.

Novakov said: “This will be a useful contribution in helping the EU to fight against corruption and crime in Bulgaria. We will continue to work with Bulgarian authorities to this end.”

He noted that Bulgaria was one of five countries highlighted in the commission’s recent rule of law report which will be assessed next month.

He said: “There is a need to increase the trust of the Bulgarian people. This is needed not because Brussels wants it but because Bulgarian people deserve it.”

Novakov, an EPP member, was one of the relatively few Bulgarians MEPs present in the chamber for the one hour debate.

German Greens MEP Ska Keller said: "The Bulgarian resolution is very important. The parliament must not turn a blind eye to such violations but adopt the resolution that will send a strong signal to those countries with rule of law problems. We must call them out. This (respect for rule of law) is something they agreed to do when they joined the EU. If there is a regression, and that is certainly the case in Bulgaria, we need to do something about it.”

Michael Roth, speaking for the German presidency of the EU, said the debate on Bulgaria “touches on heart of the problem”, adding, “yes, it may be painful and political problematic but it is necessary because if there are problems we must address them without it being seen as external interference of the affairs of a country.

“I am grateful for this debate so that all member states, including Bulgaria, can scrutinize the rule of law. Council will not stay silent on this.”

Also speaking in the discussion, Commissioner Didier Reynders told MEPs: “We have a chance to take action (against crime and corruption) and this will start  with the public prosecutor’s office which is a good instrument to fight against crime.”

He said that as part of the rule of law report there will be a debate about five countries, including Bulgaria, in November, adding: “This is the best way to analyse the situation regarding the rule of law.”

He warned: “We use all the tools at our disposal against these five states, including Bulgaria”

Spanish MEP Juan Lopez Aguillar, rapporteur on the dossier, spoke of a “toxic cocktail”,  saying: “In Bulgaria, we are witnessing a worrying a lack of accountability in the judicial system and its Prosecutor General and a Bulgarian Parliament that is repeatedly neglecting its role in the checks and balances of a government mired in allegations of corruption.”

He said the resolution “sheds light on the deteriorating state” of the rule of law in the former communist state. One of the areas of concern for MEPs is press freedom in the country, which they say is an “essential ingredient for a healthy democracy”.

Lopez Aguillar said: “The combination of these ingredients is forming a toxic cocktail where public trust is very low and people are regularly taking to the streets.”

He said the resolution “sheds light on the deteriorating state of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights in Bulgaria”.

He added: “We are doing this for the people of Bulgaria, who we stand with in their fight for justice, accountability and democracy.”

The S&D member added: “European law matters; the rule of law matters. The rule of law is linked with defending the interests of the EU and fighting against corruption.

“Mapping corruption shows clearly that member states with structural deficiencies on rule of law are those most prone to resort to corrupt practices when managing EU budget and funds. That has to come to an end,” he said.

The debate comes a month after more than 50 MEPs, mainly from the Socialist and Democrats group, and the Greens, sent questions to the EC over their fears that there was an "imminent threat to the rule of law and democracy in Bulgaria".

"The state of the rule of law in Bulgaria is an emergency," the parliamentarians wrote, in a letter that observed that the battle against organized crime in Bulgaria took a step back after Brussels expressed a willingness to end its Compliance and Verification Mechanism of the country's judicial system.

For the third year in a row, Bulgaria is 111th on the World Press Freedom Index, by far the worst ranking for any EU country. The resolution says that recommendations from the Venice Commission need to be fully implemented. Already adopted earlier at committee stage, the text tackles the deteriorating situation in Bulgaria in respect to the principles of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights, including the independence of the judiciary, separation of powers, the fight against corruption, and freedom of the media.

During the debate on Monday several MEPs denounced the lack of corruption investigations and called for increased transparency regarding media ownership and distribution networks. Deputies also condemned “any kind of violence against peaceful demonstrations” and denounced the spread of hate speech.

They also raised concern about “violence against people of Romani origin, women, LGBTI people and other minorities” and called for cooperation between the Bulgarian Government and the European Commission.MEPs also highlighted the need for the Bulgarian Government to ensure stricter control of the way EU funds are spent and to address “immediately” the concerns that taxpayers’ money is being used to enrich those associated with the ruling party.

The text of the resolution focuses also on persisting systemic issues in the judiciary, especially the lack of a framework in place to hold the Supreme Judicial Council and the Prosecutor General accountable and the failure to comply with over 45 European Court of Human Rights judgments by carrying out effective investigations.

MEPs said they are also further concerned about a series of developments, including:

-          The announced constitutional reform, which should be preceded by proper consultations and be in line with international standards;

-          potential changes in electoral legislation, close to the next parliamentary election;

-          the hasty adoption of legislation by the governing majority;

-          investigations into high-level corruption not yielding tangible results and “corruption, inefficiency, and a lack of accountability”;

-          the serious deterioration of media freedom and working conditions for journalists in Bulgaria over the past decade;

-          allegations against the Bulgarian police regarding the use of force against women and children and journalists during demonstrations;

-          the state of fundamental rights in Bulgaria, e.g. as regards hate speech, gender and sexual discrimination, and the rights of Romani people and asylum seekers.

The resolution is set to be voted on by the full house on 8 October.

Protests in Bulgaria erupted on 9 July, with demonstrators calling for Borissov and Geshev to resign, based on allegations of corruption and state capture. Citizens took to the streets following two incidents that have added to the public’s growing frustration over systemic political corruption.

This week’s parliamentary debate and resolution mark a sharp increase in pressure the assembly is making on Bulgaria. It comes after members of parliament’s Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group (DRFMG) recently met to discuss the situation in Bulgaria. They heard from a range of actors and the focus was on democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights, especially media freedom, independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers.

Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev has condemned the clashes and accused the government of “directing” and triggering the violence on 2 September. He described Borissov’s government as “marred by corruption and violence”.

Bulgaria

Kristian Vigenin: 'A semi-mafia model of government in Bulgaria must be overcome'

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The current government in Bulgaria and the GERB party must be removed from power, says National Assembly of Bulgaria Vice President Kristian Vigenin (pictured). In this interview he drew parallels between the protests in Bulgaria and Belarus. Mr Vigenin pointed out that the current Prime Minister Boyko Borisov came to parliament only twice this year and his actions are unconstitutional,write Polina Demchenko and Vladyslav Grabovskyi.

In the Morning Block on the BNT TV channel you claimed you would become the “inner voice” of the protesters in parliament. What is this voice?

The main demands of the protest are the resignation of the Boyko Borisov government and the chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev, also the holding of early elections, which must be organized by the service government. We declared that we, as a party, as a parliamentary group, will be the voice of the protesters within parliament, and since the time we support their demands with the parliamentary instruments that we have at our disposal, we are trying to support the demands of the protest.

Mr. Vigenin, did you take part in the protest?

I and a lot of my colleagues are participating in the protest rather more than citizens. In fact, we act as a link between the protests on the streets by the people and the parliament. For the first time, a very broad form is demonstrated between representatives of different from each other, formations, which, together with the support of the president, want real changes in Bulgaria, that the motto passed through the first protest, is relevant to this day, the forces of ”Mutri” are out!”.

(It is worth noting that the credo said by Kristian Vigenin, is translated as “Bandits out!”; or “Down with the bandits!”; The word “mutra” has its own meaning in Bulgarian, which can be roughly translated as a classic bandit from the nineties.)

We believe that this semi-mafia model of government that has been built in Bulgaria, the model that the mafia controls all institutions, must be overcome, and for this to happen, the current government and the GERB party must be removed from power. This is the overall picture.

And if the GERB party does not stop existing, does not resign? What the reaction of citizens might be to your mind?

The protests have been going on for three month, people do not get tired of protesting. It is more and more difficult to hold on to the authorities, because apparently it is closing in on the defensive, in isolation. At the same time, it is becoming more and more difficult for them in parliament, as we, as the second largest parliamentary group, decided not to register, in fact not to participate, but rather to sabotage the activities of the National Assembly.

Several times it was not possible to recruit the required number of deputies by the beginning of the meeting, since at least 121 people’s representatives were presented to attend. And they are increasingly counting on political forces. For example, on September 16, the parliament, after all, began working, as we gathered. But even then, the president’s activities were on the edge.

We were here, but did not register, and one of the other political groups did not register neither. In such an environment, when the protests outside and the fickle work of the Assembly inside, it is believed that the GERB will not survive for long. But we still have to wait and see the outcome. In addition, the politician added that today the opinion in parliament is very dependent on one small formation, whose chairman was sentenced to a 4-year term in parliament for extortion and racketeering. This sets the mood for itself in parliament.

The Bulgarian president said that the current Cabinet of Ministers is the role of the Prime Minister’s attendants. Do you agree with this statement?

In fact, this is so, I said that the management of the GERB party has turned into an appendage of the executive branch. Parliament executes everything that the government orders, specifically the prime minister, the chairman of the GERB party. At the same time, the prime minister does not come to report to parliament.

The questions that we introduce into the quality of control in relation to it are deviation. This year, Boyko Borisov came to parliament only twice, although the prime ministers came to the country literally in a week and answered questions from the people’s representatives. Borisov’s actions are unconstitutional, since the supreme body in Bulgaria is the National Assembly.

And how does he remain prime minister without fulfilling his duties?

This is how he understands his responsibilities and does not think that he should notify the Bulgarian parliament. Usually, when there are comparatively important questions, Boyko Borisov sends someone from the deputy prime ministers, but he thinks that he is “above that”.

One gets the impression that the so-called “game” is designed to ensure that President Rumen Radev is re-elected. Is it so?

The President is still the most popular political figure in Bulgaria. Protests began in defense of the presidential institution when the chief prosecutor sent his subordinates to the presidency. People perceived this as an encroachment on the presidential institution and an encroachment on the president himself.

Rumen Radev is not shy and not afraid to point out the mistakes of the Prime Minister and the executive branch in general, to point out problems in the system. Of course, those whose mistakes he points out do not like this. They are doing everything they can to push him into the corner of the political arena, but they fail. People, including representatives of right-wing political formations, see hope in him. They believe that he can overcome this oligarchic, mafia model of government in Bulgaria.

How can you characterize the system that is currently built in Bulgaria?

I think that the citizens of Ukraine would easily understand it, since I see that the Ukrainian and Bulgarian systems of government are similar. I am not talking about any specific political situations in Ukraine, but I am talking about the fact that in fact big business and oligarchy control management. I believe that this hinders the development of the country, and we must get rid of this.

In Ukraine, in 2014, Kiev hosted the Revolution of Dignity - Euromaidan. It all started with the same peaceful rallies and protests, and ended with the “Heavenly Hundred”. How to prevent such a sad outcome? After all, judging by the mood of your protesters, they are not going to retreat.

Similarities can be found in both situations. But, I do not think that we have the prerequisites for the escalation of protests. I believe that the fact that Bulgaria is a part of the European Union, the long traversed path in democratization, and the establishment of institutions will help us cope without violence. But one cannot deny the fact that one day violence happened in our country, first of all, by the police, which, in truth, was unexpected for the citizens of Bulgaria.

I believe the violence was deliberately and deliberately provoked by the government. They did this in order to scare the protesters and remove the barriers and barricades that were built at several intersections in the center of Sofia. Of course, here in Sofia, the protests are not as large-scale as they were in Kiev in 2014. The tents, which were dismantled by the police, gave additional motivation and confidence to people that they can achieve something more. Now these barriers are gone. Large protests are organized once a week, the organizers call them “People’s Uprising”.

In general, small promotions take place every day. So, by 7-8 pm, people gather in front of the “National Assembly” building. The next big protest is “People’s Assembly” is scheduled for September 22, the Independence Day of Bulgaria.

Thus, symbolically, people want to show that they can be independent from the mafia and “mutras” (bandits).

Vigenin explained what “mutra” is groups of so-called “bandits” appeared in the early 90s, in Bulgaria. These guys were strong and armed, so they were called “mutra”. Over time, they faded into the background, economic and political life improved. But the Bulgarian prime minister, according to Vigenin, takes its roots precisely from those “dashing” 90s. His past was questionable, which is why protesters call him “mutra”.

As a rule, a leader surrounds himself with people who are close in spirit, those with whom he is used to work. Boyko Borisov did just that. He and his adherents have built a system in which the “mutras” have returned, but not with weapons and bats, but with the mechanisms of state power, but they are doing the same. This both outrages people and makes them protest.

How do you see the development of events?

If we follow normal political logic, then it is necessary that the Prime Minister resigns. He was supposed to do it back in July. In this case, the political environment in which we live in the following way - everything depends on the the prime minister. At the moment he is not interested in what is good for the state, he is not interested in what is good for his own party, but rather he is trying to guarantee himself that he will survive.

Speaking about the word “will survive” you need to understand that it is not only about the political situation, but also about personal security after he leaves power. Borisov will continue to look for such guarantees of security for himself, but no one gives him such guarantees, so he continues to remain at his post and continues to persist as long as it is convenient for him. This is how I personally see the situation; it is quite difficult to understandwhat exactly is going on in the head of the Prime Minister. It all depends on his personal decision, since in the GERB party all decisions are made by him alone.

You said that you often attend protest actions. Can you share your impression of what you see there? What kind of people are there, with what ideas did they come to protest?

Yes, different people come to protest, talk to me. Those who sympathize with us, the socialists, are also protesting, there are also representatives of the right-wing parties, with whom we are political opponents. It so happened that we ended up on the same side of the barricades to speak. As President Rumen Radev said: “We are not talking about the left versus the right, we are talking about respectable people against the mafia.”

And among the venerable people were socialists, right-wingers, and liberals, and this really feels like something new in Bulgarian politics. Of course, the BSP party also made mistakes in the past. But people from every party, adherents of every political leader, are ready to sacrifice, help in overcoming the current government and its legacy. They are ready to set a new course for Bulgaria, as for a free, real European state, in which there will be freedom of speech, freedom of the media - these are things that we are increasingly lacking.

Kristian Vigenin recalled the year 1989, when the leader of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov, was removed. This event marked the beginning of the “Gentle Revolution” in the country. Vigenin was then 14-15 years old, he had quite vivid impressions from that year.

There is a feeling that everything is repeated. The feeling of lack of freedom, and the desire for real democracy in Bulgaria, that young people need something different, which their parents could not achieve. As if history had made a circle and the year is 1989 again, which in itself is a rather difficult diagnosis of what happened during those years in Bulgaria. And this is all disappointing, because of the situation in our country that is the part of the European Union.

How does the European Union react to what is happening in your country?

The European Union and European leaders are simply silent. This week there will be a discussion in the European Parliament about what is happening in Bulgaria, after three months the people began to protest.

In conjunction, protests are taking place in Belarus. Do you see similarities in these situations?

Maybe, the protests in Bulgaria has a milder nature, but there are similarities between what is happening here and what is happening in Belarus. Something funny (curious ?) happened. The Prime Minister of Bulgaria, in an attempt to buy himself political time, proposed to develop a new constitution for the country. This is a way to start a process that will allow him to stay in power for a few more months. Literally a day or two later, Lukashenko proposed the same thing in Belarus. This further reinforced the impression that authoritarian leaders have the same set of tools and use them in the same way.

The opinions expressed in the above article are those of the authors alone and do not represent any opinions on the part of EU Reporter.

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Commission complains about lack of results in the fight against corruption in #Bulgaria

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Values and Transparency Vice President Věra Jourová led discussions in the European Parliament’s debate on the rule of law in Bulgaria (5 October). Jourová said that she was aware of the protests that have been taking place over the last three months and is following the situation closely. Jourová said the demonstrations show that citizens attach great importance to an independent judiciary and good governance.
She said that the Commission will not lift the ‘Control and Verification Mechanism’ (CVM) that checks Bulgaria’s progress in making reforms to its judiciary and fighting organized crime, she added that she would take the views of the European Council and Parliament into account in any further reports. Fighting corruption European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders said that while Bulgaria’s structures were in place they needed to deliver efficiently.
Reynders said surveys show a very low level of public trust in Bulgaria’s anti-corruption institutions and a belief that government lacked the political will to do this in practice. Manfred Weber MEP, Chair of the European Peoples’ Party defended Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s record, adding that he was supportive of the rule of law mechanism in European Council discussions. Weber acknowledges that the rule of law in Bulgaria “is not perfect” and that, there is still much to be done, but said that the government’s fate should be decided next year in elections.
Ramona Strugariu MEP (Renew Europe Group) made one of the more powerful interventions in the debate, saying that when she was demonstrating in the cold winter of 2017 in Bucharest - against government corruption in Romania - the support of President Juncker and First Vice-President Timmermans support made her feel that someone was listening to the Romanians who wanted reform. Strugariu said: “I am here today to ask for this voice from the Commission and of the Council and of this house because the Bulgarian people need it. Because it matters to them. It is really important to them.”
To fellow MEPs who were endorsing Prime Minister Borissov, she asked: “Do you know who you are endorsing? Because you are endorsing people facing serious allegations of corruption, money laundering and fraud with European money? I have seen women dragged outside by the police and pictures of children sprayed with tear gas, is this protection? Are you sure that this is the person to endorse?”

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#Bulgaria - 'We don't want to be under the Mafia and corruption' Minekov

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Ahead of a debate on the rule of law in Bulgaria (5 October), protestors and MEPs gathered outside the parliament to call for systemic change and new elections in Bulgaria. EU Reporter spoke to some of those involved. Professor Vladislav Minekov, has been labelled as one of the ‘Poisonous Trio’ by the oligarch-owned Bulgarian media. Asked what was keeping protestors on the streets ninety days after the first impromptu protest on 9 July, he said that Bulgarians don’t want to live under the Mafia. Minekov welcomed that the European Parliament was grappling with this important question, saying that Bulgarians had the impression that the EU and the world was overlooking what was happening in Bulgaria.

One of six MEPs we interviewed, Clare Daly MEP (Ireland), compared the current Bulgarian government to vampires feeding off EU money, “sucking the lifeblood out of Bulgarian society,” she said that the European Peoples’ Party, in particular, had protected Borissov’s government for too long and that it was time to face up to the blatant corruption and failure to adhere to the rule of law. 'Brussels for Bulgaria' has organized weekly protests in Brussels since the protests began in July.

One of the organizers, Elena Bojilova, said that Bulgarians abroad want to show solidarity with their fellow countrymen: “We've had people join us from other cities from Ghent, from Antwerp.” Bojilova explained that this phenomenon was also occurring in many other countries, “in Vienna, in London, in Canada in the United States, other European capitals. The fact that we are not physically in Bulgaria does not prevent us from supporting the efforts of our countrymen, and we fully support their demands which are for the resignation of the government, resignation of the Prosecutor General, reform rule of law and basically cleaning up the

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