Borissov faces showdown as EU concerns mount over Bulgaria

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Boyko Borissov’s premiership faces a major test on Wednesday when mass protests are planned across Bulgaria amid a corruption crisis that is starting to trigger concern in Berlin and Brussels.

For almost two months, Borissov has stared down daily demonstrations from predominantly young protesters, at times tens of thousands strong, who claim an oligarchic mafia has taken control of the nation through its influence over the judiciary, media and state security apparatus.

As the momentum of the daily protests is starting to ebb, demonstrators want to regain the initiative on Wednesday with what they call “the big sweep” or “the grand national uprising” against Borissov, a former firefighter and bodyguard who is a stalwart of the European People’s Party, the center-right political family that includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

The protesters have chosen Wednesday to up the ante because it is the first day of business after the summer in Bulgaria’s parliament, when Borissov will try to launch a highly contentious revision of the constitution.

In mid-August, Borissov responded to the protesters’ demands that he resign by saying that he understood the “deep desire for change” in Bulgaria and offered a “restart” via a revised constitution.

His opponents immediately smelled a rat and argued that he was playing for time by initiating a potentially lengthy process that would allow him to regroup, and complained that several of his proposed reforms would only further undermine rule of law in favor of mafia kingpins they see him as protecting.

Borissov’s bitter enemy President Rumen Radev, allied to the country’s Socialist Party, was scathing about the proposed “restart.” “Can the mafia reform the judiciary? The answer is no!” Radev said.

In reality, the constitutional changes already look impossible because Borissov lacks the two-thirds majority required in parliament to convene a Grand National Assembly, a sort of super-parliament with additional lawmakers that can redraft the constitution. With one of his typically ambiguous promises of resignation, Borissov has pledged to step aside once a decision is made to form a GNA — but there is little prospect of that.

There is, however, a more immediate political risk that could expose his vulnerability on Wednesday. Simply to begin up to five months of debates on a Grand National Assembly — something that could give Borissov breathing space — he needs half of the votes in parliament.

Any vote looks set to come down to the wire because he needs support from outside his own government coalition. His political fortunes are now tied to minor party leaders, notably populist tycoon Veselin Mareshki, whose popularity derives from his chain of low-price pharmacies, and who has see-sawed on his support for Borissov’s constitutional reforms.

Borissov predicted on Tuesday he would secure the 120 votes needed in the 240-seat chamber, and dismissed suggestions he could have to resign. When asked by reporters what would happen if he did not secure the necessary support for his reform projects, he said: “Work!”

Under the EU lens

Bulgaria’s rule-of-law imbroglio is multifaceted and ranges from issues such as oligarchs scarring the landscape with illegal construction, through to their improper use of state security agents. The most eye-catching revelations focus on the extent to which the judiciary has been weaponized for intra-oligarch turf wars and extortion of businessmen. The protesters are demanding the resignation of Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, but he is refusing to quit.

For years, Bulgaria’s rule-of-law failings have avoided the same EU scrutiny as those in Poland and Hungary because Borissov avoids any ideological war against Brussels, and is always keen to parade his loyalty on the European stage to Merkel and the European People’s Party.

Borissov’s ability to avoid international criticism is running out, however, and Bulgaria’s crisis is even beginning to sound alarm bells within the ranks of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, long seen as among the supportive founding fathers of Borissov’s GERB party.

“For me, it is clear that we have to talk seriously with Boyko Borissov’s government, with no ifs and buts,” Gunther Krichbaum, a Christian Democrat who chairs the Bundestag’s European affairs committee, told POLITICO. “These things are unacceptable. Bulgaria’s accession to the EU has been linked to clear commitments and expectations, and the citizens of Bulgaria are now being cheated of the fruits of EU membership.”

Detlef Müller, deputy democracy policy spokesman of the Social Democrats (SPD) in the Bundestag, also expressed fears that Bulgaria could turn into another Hungary. “As Germany, we should also pay more attention to states such as Bulgaria during the EU Council presidency,” he said. His party, the junior partner in Merkel’s governing coalition, has already expressed its support for the protests against Borissov and Geshev.

The growing concerns about Bulgaria are now also visible within the European Parliament. Last week, its Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group held a session behind closed doors on Bulgaria that investigated topics such as the chief prosecutor and the role of EU funds in corruption.

Lawmakers from the monitoring group wanted to keep the details of the in-camera meeting confidential but several stated publicly that Bulgaria merits closer inspection.

“We are not talking about Bulgaria enough,” said Katarina Barley, a Social Democrat former German justice minister who is now a vice president of the European Parliament.

When asked whether the EU should now be subjecting Bulgaria to the same scrutiny as Poland and Hungary, the German Green MEP Sergey Lagodinsky replied: “Of course.”

Borissov’s GERB party cast the monitoring group as a failed attempt by MEPs from Bulgaria’s opposition to sully the nation’s image. In a statement, GERB lawmaker Emil Radev was quoted saying the probe was an attempt to discredit Bulgaria over the use of EU funds that were used to build key infrastructure. “When you attack your homeland at the moment on vital projects, and you want to rule, you have to take into account the consequences,” he said.

Unnecessarily historical step

Grand National Assemblies and new constitutions are big events in Bulgarian history. There have only been seven GNAs, and the last formalized a democratic constitution in 1991.

The assemblies have a checkered history, right from the immediate aftermath of Ottoman occupation. The second GNA, in 1881, was hijacked by thugs and Russian soldiers to effectively orchestrate a coup d’état for Prince Alexander of Battenberg. Another GNA in the murderous early days of communism introduced a Soviet-drafted constitution.

Ironically, given the historical weight of what Borissov is attempting, many legal experts argue that there is no need for a GNA or constitutional change to enact the reforms in the judiciary and view the prime minister’s approach as more of a political smokescreen.

Some of the chief concerns are that the new constitutional framework will seek to reduce the power of the president — Borissov’s arch-foe — while not imposing meaningful checks on the all-powerful prosecutor’s office.

Hristo Ivanov, a former justice minister and head of the anti-corruption Yes Bulgaria party, has written to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to explain what he sees as a game of smoke and mirrors.

“Instead of bringing about accountability for the [chief] prosecutor … it eliminates even the existing, albeit minimal and dormant, checks on his appointment and actions,” Ivanov wrote. “The proposed ‘new constitution’ by Borissov is nothing more than another attempt at defrauding, maneuvering and winning time and — on the substance — threatens to significantly worsen the situation.”

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