Bulgaria sinks under wave of pre-elections scandals

Ahead of elections on July 11, Bulgarians are confronted by alarming revelations of state capture.

Bulgarians are losing count of the scandals.

Bulgaria sinks under wave of pre-elections scandals

There’s a Watergate-style wiretapping scandal. There’s an agricultural tycoon accusing the government of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov of extortion. And there’s a state-owned bank providing hundreds of millions of euros to a small batch of favored companies.

The country’s dizzying daily headlines feel more like plotlines from a hit mafia series on Netflix than actual events unfolding in a European Union member country ahead of an election on July 11. 

The big question is whether this is finally a tipping point that spells a definitive end to the era of Borissov, the former firefighter and bodyguard whose center-right GERB party dominated the Balkan country’s politics for more than a decade but lost power in April.

The EU’s poorest nation has a long history of corruption but the sheer scale of the latest revelations of state capture is new. The fresh testimony only reinforces widespread public anger that an octopus-like elite has held onto power like a criminal gang, running rackets across the entire economy, and exercising power through the security services, media and judiciary.

“The scale is different and it makes it harder to sweep important issues like endemic corruption under the carpet,” said Dimitar Bechev, political analyst and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The difference is that these issues are being discussed by government officials.”

In a stark sign that Bulgaria is no longer able to fly under the radar, even Washington has waded into the swamp. The United States upped the ante this month by blacklisting several Bulgarians, including two powerful oligarchs, and dozens of companies, for their alleged involvement in graft, ranging from bribery of politicians to avoid criminal investigation to interference in elections. 

The U.S. Treasury described its intervention against the Bulgarians as “the single largest action targeting corruption to date” anywhere in the world under the Magnitsky Act. 

This unexpected intervention by the U.S. is an embarrassment both to Sofia and to the EU, which largely continues to turn a blind eye to Bulgaria’s rule of law problems and keeps pouring European funds, which opposition politicians complain end up in the hands of businessmen close to those in power. 

On the European stage, Borissov is a loyal ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the center-right European People’s Party, which has played down concerns about Bulgaria’s graft and the abuse of EU funds.

In a rare admission by a Bulgarian administration that concrete action is needed against prominent oligarchs, Sofia’s caretaker government responded to the U.S. move by setting up a commission to draft a list of all the entities and people connected with the sanctioned companies in the past five years, saying it would then cut ties with people on that list.

Whether this creates an impetus for a more meaningful clean-up depends on July’s elections.

So far, there are no clear signs of which way the vote will go. The traditional parties are badly weakened — the pollster Alpha Research noted that GERB’s support slipped 2 points after the U.S. sanctions — but they still have strong patronage networks that can mobilize voters.

Broadly, the polls suggest that the impending election is likely to be messy without a clear winner, and the EU has shown no inclination to intervene in the corruption fight as the U.S. has done. Even though Borissov lost power in April, GERB is still ahead in the polls ahead of next month’s vote. In the meantime, a caretaker government under Prime Minister Stefan Yanev is holding the reins.

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