News & Analysis

Bulgaria pumps more cash into Covid-19 recovery, but protesters want real action on corruption

Bulgaria this week announced plans to spend another 1.16 billion leva (592 million euros) to help its Covid-19-blighted economy, support frontline medics and protect vulnerable groups in what remains the European Union’s poorest member state.

The country’s under-fire prime minister, Boyko Borissov, will be hoping that the new cash will go someway towards tempering the fierce criticism that has been directed against him in recent weeks, including anti-government protests in a number of Bulgarian cities. In the latest mass protest on July 29, protesters blocked several major intersections in the capital, Sofia, during business hours, bringing traffic almost to a standstill. They blew whistles and vuvuzelas and rang bells, turning the protest into a noisy procession as they called for the resignation of Mr Borissov.

In the evening, a huge crowd gathered in front of the government headquarters singing the national anthem and waving national flags.

Participants vowed to remain on the streets until their demands are met. Those arriving from other parts of Bulgaria were urged to bring tents, blankets, water, and food in preparation for an extended protest, which have been mostly peaceful.

The prime minister and his government has come under increased pressure from protesters and opposition politicians who have called on him to quit over endemic corruption, but says that he will not allow political “chaos” to exacerbate an economic downturn that is already hitting jobs and incomes in the country.

“I am sorry that the political class does not see what months are ahead of us. I would understand if someone has a better plan,” he told reporters on July 27.

Among the new measures, the government will offer top up payments to frontline medics, provide bonuses to over two million pensioners and raise unemployment benefits.

The government will also spend 430 million leva to aid tourism, transport and construction businesses, and help them weather a downturn that the European Commission estimates at about seven per cent for this year.

The European Commission on July 27 approved a Bulgarian scheme worth 28 million euros to support tour operators forced to limit or suspend their activities due to Covid-19 restrictions. The measure was approved under the state aid temporary framework, and means that tour operators are entitled to receive 35 euros for each passenger who has booked a travel package with them, as long as it includes a flight into Bulgaria. Eligibility is restricted to flights between May 14 and December 31.

The latest measures are part of a second package of financial assistance announced by the Bulgarian government since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In March, Bulgaria introduced a package worth 4.5 billion leva in grants and preferential loans.

The cabinet has since claimed to have saved 160,000 jobs in the country of around seven million people by paying up to 60 per cent of the salaries of workers who otherwise would have been laid off. The scheme was recently extended until the end of September.

Mr Borissov was last week forced to reshuffle his cabinet to appease anti-corruption protesters seeking the resignation of the whole government.

The most notable change was the appointment of Kiril Ananiev as the new finance minister. Mr Ananiev has been a deputy finance minister in four different Bulgarian governments since 1998, and facing the daunting task of overseeing the economy during the Covid-19 downturn.

Until the reshuffle, Ananiev was health minister in Mr Borissov’s government, and had won broad praise for the way in which his ministry has handled the health crisis.

At the weekend, Bulgaria passed 10,000 cases of Covid-19 (at the time of writing it had risen to 10,621), while 347 people have died with the virus.

The reshuffle has left many of Mr Borissov’s more vocal critics unimpressed, however.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev is one of them, and has encouraged the protesters to keep up their rallies despite many leaving for summer holidays and increasing fatigue.

“The protests demand the resignations of the whole government and the chief prosecutor. The ruling party has again remained deaf to the people’s demands,” said Radev earlier this week.

The chief prosecutor in question is Ivan Geshev, appointed last year despite civil society objections over his integrity and independence, and overall suitability for the job.

The current round of protests against Mr Borissov and his government began on July 7 when Hristo Ivanov, a former justice minister who now leads an anti-corruption party, “Yes Bulgaria”, attempted to land his small boat at a public beach near the Black Sea town of Burgas. Livestreaming the whole thing, Mr Ivanov wanted to show that the owner of a villa close to the beach, Ahmed Dogan, was illegally treating the beach as his own. On cue, the moment Mr Ivanov planted a Bulgarian flag in the sand, he was pushed back into the sea by Mr Dogan’s bodyguards.

When President Radev revealed the next day that the bodyguards were officers of the state security agency, demonstrations began. These intensified after Mr Radev’s offices were raided by security forces and two aides detained on charges of influence-peddling and disclosing state secrets.

By July 11 Mr Radev was claiming that Mr Borissov runs a “mafia government”.

According to Denica Yotova, a programme coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), at the heart of the problem is Bulgaria’s “non-functioning” judiciary system.

“Over the years, successive scandals have called into question its independence. Civil society organisations in Bulgaria have long campaigned for judicial reforms, and have received the support of the Bulgarian Judges Association in this endeavour. But they are unlikely to succeed without addressing the problem on EU level,” she wrote this week.

Transparency International has long ranked Bulgaria as the most corrupt country in the European Union. The NGO has placed the country last in a ranking of EU countries for seven consecutive years and flagged that there has been “no significant progress in fighting corruption in comparison with other countries from the EU” between 2012-2019.

Nevertheless, the ruling party, Mr Borissov’s GERB, has so far retained the backing of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament. The EPP has been vocal in its backing of the Bulgarian government in response to the demonstrations. “The EPP Group fully supports the Bulgarian government of Boyko Borissov and its efforts to protect the economy against the negative effects of the coronacrisis, fight against corruption and the progress that is being made to join the eurozone”, said group leader Manfred Weber on July 10.

This approach could well be counterproductive.

“If European leaders do not express clear support for the rule of law, democracy, and reforms to the judicial system in Bulgaria now, there might be no chance later to keep Bulgaria a pro-European member state,” says Yotova.

For now, Bulgarian civil society has been reawakened, and the protests look set to continue. For the demonstrators on the streets of Sofia, more cash and cosmetic reshuffles are no replacement for Mr Borissov’s resignation.

Photo: facebook.com/otrovnototrio

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