Bulgaria Protests: Will This NATO Ally Be a Democracy or Dictatorship?

Bulgaria has been rocked by daily protests demanding the resignation of the government of Plamen Oresharksi for nearly 100 days, following the ill-fated appointment and rapid withdrawal of Delyan Peevski for head of the State Agency for National Security, popularly known as DANS. The matter has a highly symbolic value, as it demonstrates that the symbiosis between mafia and state has come to the point where state institutions are used primarily for protecting the interests of shady oligarchs. Peevski, as a person, is unremarkable; his appointment, however, represents this fatal marriage, the moral bankruptcy of the current regime — a historical crossroads for Bulgaria about whether or not it should go towards European-style democracy or a central Asian dictatorship.

Why should Americans care?

At the very least, the U.S. and Bulgaria are NATO allies, and the pact itself is founded on a solidarity of political commitment to democracy and human rights, a test that the current Bulgarian government fails. More generally, these are social values in the U.S. and Europe, and joining the chorus on moral and principle grounds would give greater legitimacy to the democratic forces and emerging civil society in the country.

The Peevski fiasco found strong reflection in international media, because it severely diminished the trust that Bulgaria’s allies in NATO and Europe need to have in the country’s institutions in order for Sofia to meet its obligations as a full partner. Consequently, domestic appointments in high-profile security institutions require figures that not only have professional rapport with international partners, but are also competent in the sphere — qualities that Peevski completely lacks.

UK Ambassador Jonathan Allen came out with a powerful op-ed this week, calling out for the implementation of important reforms that would solidify democratic standards in Bulgaria and reiterating in an interview that Peevski’s nomination came “as a big shock to the international community.” It is a consensual position that Europe maintains, and answering the question “who dunnit” is a key requirement for getting Bulgaria out of the diplomatic isolation in which it currently finds itself.

Scarier still, Plamen Oresharski’s coalition government was touted as an expert cabinet by the Bulgarian Socialist Party on its formation after the interim elections in May, but it's just been occupied with is nothing less than the complete political purging of all levels of the state administration in true Stalinist fashion. The supporting cast in this coalition is played by the ethnic Movement for Rights and Freedoms and far-right party, Ataka. The replacements tend to be the former agents of the Communist regime’s political police, who have dubious professional and moral qualities. In a word, the emphasis is placed on blind loyalty over competence and professionalism of any kind.

Peevski also represents a civilizational crossroads for Bulgaria’s political culture. On the one hand, rejoining Europe has been an objective since Liberation in 1878, when the ideologues of the day sought to transfer the knowledge and values in the creation of a modern European republic, and this was the impetus behind joining the European Union in 2007. On the other hand are the remnants of the old regime, turned oligarchs, employing simulated straw men and neo-Stalinist methods of repression and propaganda to create a norm, incompatible with reality. Today, this dichotomy between past and present is most pronounced in the institutional stand-off between the Oresharksi government and the president, Rosen Plevneliev. While Plevneliev has largely ceremonial functions, his actions as a catalyst for engaging civil society on important issues have proven to be an influential outlet for demanding accountability out of the government.

The grand picture is this: Bulgaria is governed by an unnatural, self-contradictory coalition of communists, an ethnic party and extremist ultranationalists. Finding itself in domestic and international isolation, this coalition has engaged in a schizophrenic and panicked grab for power, forgetting that power is a means and not an end. 

The result is the opening of a chasm between the public and the political elite that can only be reconciled through theinclusion of civic society, new elections and the political marginalization of the current actors in favour of people with a European vision and values.

A tumultuous history on the bridge between civilizations shapes Bulgaria, but its future in the 21st century can and must be distinctly European.