Bulgaria’s reversible democracy
Bulgaria is not trying to be the Switzerland of the Balkans any more. In the past such slogans may have channeled some energy for overcoming the burden of the communist heritage, but today they are a mere disguise for what one would call democratic reversal in one of the newest EU member states.
In July this year Freedom House Europe issued a report on Bulgaria as part of the Nations in Transit 2009 survey. One of its main points was that democracy in Bulgaria is not irreversible. This year was the first since the beginning of the post-communist transition, in which the country’s rating for democracy, was decreased by Freedom House Europe. According to the report “many efforts are still needed to make Bulgarian democracy irreversible and vital”. And there are reasons for this. The last government did many remarkably undemocratic things before the July elections.
To start with, phones of MPs and journalists have been tapped by the newly-created State Agency for National Security (SANS). The agency, which is directly subordinated to the Prime Minister, publicly refused information to the Parliament about the case on a number of occasions. This reinforced the accusations that SANS is turning form anti-corruption body to political police. In fact this scandal was not an isolated precedent in SANS actions against journalists. Last year the agency shut down a website, which criticized the government and published details about the life of high officials in the government and security services. Shortly afterwards, an investigative journalist Ognyan Stefanov whose name made a stir in the website shut down, was nearly killed in a brutal assault. The perpetrators remain unknown to date while the prosecution office stopped the investigation.
While the government was creating political police and the organized crime acted with impunity, the cabinet made resolute steps to restrict the citizen’s right of protest. Months before the general elections a new law stipulated that rallies are illegal if organized in the vicinities of government buildings and in the center of the capital. This act came after half a year of weekly demonstrations organized by farmers, industrialists, workers and opposition parties. The latter were obstructed to participate on an equal footing in the political process with a number of legislative and judicial tricks plotted by the ruling coalition.
These among other examples made many in Bulgaria think that the July elections were last chance for the fragile democracy in the country. The opposition victory seemed like a breath of fresh air, but soon after the inauguration of the new government, indications of undemocratic behavior reappeared. The first one came when the Prime Minister Boyko Borisov called back one of his party’s MPs. Todor Yosifov a.k.a. “The Maniak”, a virtually unknown former hip-hop performer, came under media attack for his “gangsta lyrics” from 10 years ago. He was quickly substituted with another MP-candidate from the same region.
Soon after this scandalous decision, a former agent in the communist security services was appointed minister for the Bulgarians living overseas. In a country deeply divided about its communist past and the brutalities of the former regime’s secret services, this was a step clearly not in the right direction.
Dodging bullets (and justice)
In fact the question of security service reform is inextricably related to democracy in the whole former communist block. Often the unreformed security services undermine the newly-established democratic principles, while still using totalitarian thinking in both their internal affairs and public interactions. The rule of law is such a principle which every democratic country should assert. However, the new Bulgarian minister of interior Tsvetanov these days publicly backed 5 policemen sentenced for beating to death a detained suspect a few years ago. The Ministry of interior has a good record in pardoning and defending its officers who regularly commit police violence, but so far there has not been such obvious political pressure against already announced sentences before their appeal. A few days afterwards, minister Tsvetanov announced a plan for rearming Bulgarian police and introducing combat ammunitions and deadlier bullets.
Most recently, the ruling party has put forward a draft law which proposes creating interface and unrestricted access of the security services to internet traffic data, mobile phone conversations, etc. Without judicial approval. Controversy, the same party heavily criticized the previous government which tried to pass this law 3 times. So far attempts has failed. But where governments change and policies do not, one can hardly hope for any true pro-democratic reforms.
Public announcements like those of the new interior minister are no different from last government’s anti-democratic practices. There are reasons to be afraid that they are grounded in the same unreformed totalitarian understanding about political and human rights, typical for the communist era. Regrettably, the above examples are not isolated cases, but carefully selected points of Bulgarian democracy’s downward curve. It remains to be seen whether the last year was a turning point for democracy in Bulgaria.
It seems that so far criminals could stop a policeman’s bullets like Neo from The Matirx. That was a problem. With this year’s undemocratic upgrades we may soon witness a bigger problem though – an EU member state living in a computer program called “Democracy” while being governed by the same principles that we dumped 20 years ago.