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Protests Capture Bulgarian Despair, But Creating Real Change Could Prove Tough

Waving EU and Bulgarian flags, anti-government protesters rally in Sofia on July 14.
Waving EU and Bulgarian flags, anti-government protesters rally in Sofia on July 14.

Five days of back-and-forth between authorities and angry anti-government protesters from the streets of Sofia to Bulgaria's Black Sea beaches underscores simmering public discontent that often spills over without dramatically reshaping events in this corner of the Balkans.

The unrest began when thousands of protesters called for long-ruling Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his powerful top prosecutor to resign after investigators raided the offices of top presidential aides and detained others on July 9.

The raids on the aides to President Rumen Radev are seen as the latest in a long history of abuses by governing elites and politicized prosecutors targeting Bulgarian institutions and rivals.

The demonstrators included backers of an extraparliamentary opposition party outraged by special state security officers siding with a shadowy retired political leader in a dispute over public access to a small public beach on the Black Sea coast.

Scenes of police striking and arresting demonstrators have fueled more protests, and a dizzying array of political attacks and counterattacks has followed.

On its face, the standoff pits Borisov against his rival, Radev, a former military general who has spent much of his three years as president trying to escape perceptions that he is pro-Moscow and clashing with Borisov and what he and others describe as "mafia-style" government.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov

Borisov has accused the president of using "hate speech" and trying to profit from police bloodshed, while Radev said there was "only one way out of the current situation: the resignation of the government and the prosecutor-general."

But with such a wide array of grievances uniting protesters in the biggest round of public demonstrations against Bulgaria's status quo in seven years, some question whether Radev, whose presidential bid was supported by the Socialists, and other opponents of Borisov and his center-right GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria) party can stay united long enough to make a difference.

"What is remarkable on this occasion is that you have people from very different parts of the spectrum coming together," Dimitar Bechev, a senior fellow at Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, told RFE/RL. "Part of the reason is the political situation, of course, it has to do with the conjuncture of day-to-day politics, but on a broader level it also speaks volumes about the deep problems in the country."

All Aboard

In the beach episode that aroused public anger on July 7 -- two days before last week's first demonstration in Sofia -- former Interior Minister Hristo Ivanov livestreamed his amphibious trek to a secluded section of a rocky beach in Rosenets Park, next to a hulking residence and marina of influential ex-politician Ahmed Dogan, whose party has silently supported Borisov's governments for years.

Once ashore, Ivanov and his colleagues were allowed to plant a Bulgarian flag but ordered by apparent bodyguards to leave and threatened with the destruction of their boat. Police arrived and demanded documents from Ivanov’s group, despite his reminding them that the law grants public access to the beach.

Coastline Corruption? The Political Storm Over A Bulgarian Beach
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The president jumped into the rising furor over Ivanov's treatment the next day by confirming that the men who'd challenged him on the beach were from the National Protection Service (NSO), which is responsible for guarding the president, prime minister, and other senior officials. Radev added that Dogan was not entitled to such protection.

While the protests continued in Sofia and other major cities on July 11, hundreds of people turned up to retake that public beach.

Ivanov is a leader of the opposition coalition Democratic Bulgaria, which was shut out of parliament in national elections in 2017 and has since demanded early elections to bring a "radical democratization" of Bulgaria.

To critics of the government, the beach confrontation illustrated a textbook example of "state capture" under a decade of Borisov's leadership.

"[Radev] piggybacked on this dynamic, he didn't start it," Bechev said. "It started with this embarkation on this illegally privatized beach that has been [a thorn in the side of] many Bulgarians for a very long time."

Record Of Scandal

Borisov has been accused by critics of intensifying the "state capture" of Bulgaria's institutions and clamping down on free media in running the country for most of the past 11 years.

Chants of "Mafia" have become a feature of public protests in the country for years, including after each of the last two elections won by Borisov, a second-generation firefighter and former private bodyguard to ousted communist dictator Todor Zhivkov as well as the ex-king and former prime minister, Simeon II.

Borisov and his latest government have faced a laundry list of recent scandals including "apartmentgate," in which senior GERB officials appeared to get luxury apartments in Sofia at a fraction of the market prices; multiple investigations of suspected money laundering abroad, and using selective prosecutions against powerful political rivals.

Borisov's near-constant public battle with Radev, an independent who was nominated for the presidency in 2017 by the opposition Socialists, was reignited last month when images of unclear origin appeared to show Borisov sleeping next to a handgun and a stack of cash on a nightstand.

Borisov said it was him in the photos but said they had been doctored. He eventually accused Radev of using a drone to take them. Radev denied having anything to do with the photos.

An economic underperformer whose rule-of-law problems have persisted since it joined the European Union more than a decade ago, Bulgaria is regarded by many observers as the bloc's most corrupt state.

Sofia got a boost on July 10 when European Union finance ministers agreed to allow Bulgaria into the region's exchange-rate mechanism, leaving it poised to join the euro single currency within as little as three years if it meets other economic criteria.

Borisov had clearly hoped that entry into the "waiting room" to join the euro would unite Bulgarians behind something that many see as a badge of progress.

Coming on the heels of the raids on the presidential aides and the first night of protests, however, the achievement was overshadowed by the anti-government chants in the streets of "Mafia!" and "Resign!" and other comments targeting him and controversial Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev.

Government Overreach?

Geshev has insisted investigators did nothing wrong by raiding Radev's aides' offices and questioning them, and said the probes are not politically motivated.

But Bulgaria has a well-documented history of prosecutorial overreach and abuse recognized by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, which advises on constitutional matters. It and other outsiders have long encouraged Sofia to amend its constitution, which gives top prosecutors seven-year terms that offer nearly unprecedented powers.

Analyst Bechev described the Bulgarian prosecutor's post as "quasi-monarchical" and said the European Union "missed an opportunity in the accession process" to force the country to reform its prosecutorial structure.

Bulgarians' trust in their justice system is among the EU's lowest.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev speaks at a protest rally in Sofia on July 10.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev speaks at a protest rally in Sofia on July 10.

Radev weighed in against Geshev's appointment late last year, but Borisov's GERB allies rammed the nominee through without offering an alternative.

After police made arrests and forcibly dispersed demonstrators overnight on July 11, the president again urged the European Union not to "look the other way" when it came to Bulgaria.

"Turning the government into a mafia-style structure has pushed freedom-loving Bulgarians of all ages, irrespective of their political affiliations, to press demands for respect of the law," Radev told fellow demonstrators on day three of the current unrest.

Borisov responded on July 11 in a discursive 13-minute live Facebook video in which he spoke in front of an icon of the Virgin Mary.

"We will stay in power because the opposition will break the state," he said, adding that his government had been busy "building" highways and making other improvements.

He also reminded Bulgarians that national elections are scheduled to take place by May.

Whether Radev -- who has made almost daily speeches amid the protests -- can stay atop the fast-moving dynamics of the anti-government anger is unclear.

Bechev cited evidence of "a remarkable realignment."

But he also cautioned that the disparate composition of protesters looked like "a partnership of convenience" that could become "segmented" once again.

So what might happen next is anyone's guess, and could include early elections if the situation spirals out of control.

But GERB has consistently maintained the support of around one-third of the voters in each of the last three elections, suggesting that Borisov could once again emerge in a strong position following the next elections.

"It's a Faustian bargain…if you want to cooperate with Borisov," said Bechev, "because he's part of the problem of how you square the circle."

*This article has been amended since its initial publication.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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