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Beleaguered Bulgarian Prime Minister's 'Restart' Looks Like A Nonstarter

Independent experts see the Bulgarian prime minister's call for a new constitution as a ploy to stall for time and distract attention from corruption scandals. (file photo)

After weeks of mass demonstrations against oligarchic control over Bulgaria’s government and judicial system, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov is trying to placate protesters by proposing what he calls a “restart” of democracy.

Taking the term "restart" from the street protests, Borisov wants to rewrite the Bulgarian Constitution that was ratified in 1991 following the collapse of communist rule.

Borisov's ruling GERB party released a proposed draft constitution on August 17, the same day Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka tried to placate a massive uprising with talk of a new constitution.

The changes people have been demanding at protests across the country are different than what we see in this draft.”
-- Petar Cholakov, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

As with Lukashenka's vague promise in Minsk, Bulgarian political analysts and legal experts say the draft constitution from Borisov’s party fails to meet the demands of either demonstrators or the political opposition.

The opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has signaled it won’t support GERB's rewrite of the country's defining document.

President Rumen Radev, who is allied with the BSP, said “confidence in the ruling majority has been irretrievably lost” and that GERB does not have the trust or a mandate from the Bulgarian people to rewrite the constitution.

“Conversation about the constitution and the future of Bulgaria is possible only after the resignations demanded by the society and the holding of fair, early elections,” said Radev, who has described Borisov’s cabinet as a “mafia" government.

President Rumen Radev speaks at an anti-government protest in Sofia in July. “Confidence in the ruling majority has been irretrievably lost,” he says.
President Rumen Radev speaks at an anti-government protest in Sofia in July. “Confidence in the ruling majority has been irretrievably lost,” he says.

Protest organizers Arman Babikyan, Velislav Minekov, and Nikolai Hadjigenov -- known in Bulgaria as the “Poison Trio” -- said rewriting the constitution “will allow the mafia to create its own basic law” drafted by GERB lawmakers in a “failed and distrusted parliament with a majority dictated by its oligarchic government.”

All of that makes it likely Borisov’s so-called “restart” will be stopped in its tracks before it starts.

In order to convene a Grand National Assembly to rewrite the constitution, Borisov needs support from more than two-thirds of the 240-seat parliament.

That means he needs votes from a minimum of 161 parliamentary deputies.

“Currently, GERB’s parliamentary group is comprised of only 95 [deputies],” said Petar Cholakov, a Sofia-based political scientist and professor of sociology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. “It is unlikely they can find the support they need from other [deputies].”

In fact, Cholakov told RFE/RL, GERB’s draft constitution is “more or less like throwing a bone to society” without any meat on it.

“The changes people have been demanding at protests across the country are different than what we see in this draft,” Cholakov said. “They want Borisov’s resignation, they want the resignation of the prosecutor-general [Ivan Geshev], and they want elections for a new parliament” before the next scheduled vote in March 2021.

'Pouring Gasoline On The Fire'

Dimitar Bechev, director of the Sofia-based European Policy Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank, said GERB’s draft constitution is like “trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it.”

“In Bulgaria, the judiciary -- including the prosecutor-general -- has too much power and very little accountability,” Bechev explained. “This can be used by the prosecutor-general for political purposes, as well as taking sides in business rivalries.”

A draft "restart" constitution for Bulgaria was released by the ruling GERB party on August 17.
A draft "restart" constitution for Bulgaria was released by the ruling GERB party on August 17.

Bechev said GERB’s draft constitution has only “cosmetic changes that don’t really do anything” to address demands for judicial reform that would impose more checks and balances on the independent Prosecutor-General’s Office.

“These changes don’t make sense, and it can be argued that it can do even more harm,” Bechev said. “It would allow the prosecutor-general to draft legislation and put it before parliament. That just doesn’t make sense.”

Bechev added that other proposals in the GERB draft constitution are presented as reforms but are actually an attempt to expand and further entrench GERB’s power.

These include eliminating some of the few checks and balances the president has over the judiciary, as well as reducing the size of parliament from 240 to 120 seats -- a change that would favor larger parties like GERB and the BSP at the expense of smaller opposition parties.

Those smaller parties include groups in the extraparliamentary coalition Democratic Bulgaria -- whose co-leader, Hristo Ivanov, kick-started the ongoing anti-government protests in early July with a protest stunt on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast.

“We are against the reduction of the number of deputies because this means that Bulgarian citizens will receive less representation in parliament,” Ivanov said.

According to Cholakov, GERB’s draft constitution essentially “is defending the interests of GERB and limiting the powers of the president even further” as part of a long-running power struggle between the president and the Prosecutor-General’s Office.

“The president won’t be able to appoint three important magistrates -- the prosecutor-general, plus the chairs of the Supreme Administrative Court and the Supreme Court of Cassation,” Cholakov noted. “That power will be vested in parliament instead.”

“I don’t think there are substantial reforms as far as the prosecutor-general is concerned,” Cholakov continued. “I don’t think these changes are going to bring about what the protesters demand.”

“If GERB really wanted to introduce positive change, it would be to make the judicial system, in general, less dependent on politicians and oligarchs,” Cholakov said. “They haven’t done this. The prosecutor-general remains a very powerful figure in the judiciary and is uncontrollable.”

“We need a formal procedure, a realistic procedure, which will enable the judicial system to remove the prosecutor-general in certain cases,” he said. “For example, when there is evidence of the prosecutor-general being involved in bribery or corruption.”

“Currently, the Supreme Judicial Council has the final say” about the prosecutor-general’s tenure, Cholakov explained. “The problem is that the Supreme Judicial Council is dependent, itself, on politicians. So if the prosecutor-general has the support of the majority in parliament, he can do basically whatever he wants.”

Many think Bulgaria’s widespread corruption has allowed “mafia-boss” oligarchs to control the appointments of judges -- and even government ministers -- from behind the scenes.

Since becoming the prosecutor-general in November 2019, Geshev has come to be seen by many Bulgarians as a politically dependent figure who has overlooked corruption cases involving Borisov’s ruling GERB party and the powerful oligarchs behind GERB.

A growing number of Bulgarians think Geshev has misused his powers by launching unjustified criminal investigations against Radev, his aides, and his allies.

Meanwhile, the latest opinion polls by Gallup International show that more than 60 percent of Bulgarians support demands for Borisov and Geshev to resign and for immediate parliamentary elections to be called.

Gallup surveys also show that 68 percent of Bulgarians do not have confidence in Borisov’s leadership, while only 20 percent do.

Ulterior Motives

Cholakov concludes that Borisov knows he will not get the support he needs to rewrite the constitution but has proposed the idea because of ulterior motives.

“What really matters is that he is trying to change the subject of public debate in Bulgaria -- to shift the narrative away from the calls for his resignation, the removal of the current prosecutor-general, and the fact that he has been personally involved in so many corruption scandals” since he first became prime minister in 2009.

Meanwhile, Bechev noted that Borisov already is “floating the idea of another backup plan” separately from GERB’s new draft constitution -- that is, having one of his political allies take over as prime minister until the next scheduled parliamentary elections in March.

“Long story short, the whole draft constitution is a maneuver -- a safety valve -- to gain time, politically, and to avoid having elections now while his approval ratings are so low,” Bechev said. “Maybe he thinks GERB will have a better chance” if he can delay early elections by a few months.