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To turn the page on corruption, Bulgaria must fight against Borisov’s legacy

by asma
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The announcement by the chief of Bulgaria’s anti-corruption agency, Sotir Tsatsarov, to step down from his post on March 1, opens up a great opportunity to fill a key post in Kiril Petkov’s government. Tsatsarov, the former chief prosecutor, became the anti-corruption head in 2019 under former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who fell out of the public’s favour last year for abetting corruption among the rich and powerful.

PM Petkov himself pointed to the agency’s low number of corruption cases against high-ranking officials as evidence that it “has not done the job that all Bulgarians had hoped to be done” in what many hope could be a turning of the page on decades of corruption and oligarchic rule. However, the legacy of former long-time PM Boyko Borisov weighs heavily on the anti-corruption campaign’s success – and the country’s future.

Indeed, it was Borisov’s rise to power in the early 2000s that changed the nature of corruption in Bulgaria. By deeply altering the relationship between politicians, businessmen and media owners, the country finds itself in stranglehold that will likely take decades to break. Borisov’s ascent is closely linked to the re-appearance of the former Bulgarian King, Simeon II of Saxony-Coburg-Gotha on the political scene, who, after winning the elections in 2001, appointed Borisov as Chief Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior. The political experience helped Borisov win the PM position in 2009.

Simeon’s reappearance severely disrupted the Bulgarian political party system, and Borisov, learning the appropriate lessons and implementing them for use of his right-wing GERB party, was able to build on Simeon’s “soft populism” that challenged “the existing system of representation”, primarily because he was able to forge a much more tightly controlled relationship with Bulgaria’s media sector. This included establishing effective ties with media owners, which ensured appropriate PR and media representation.

This network was put to practical use in 2013 when mass protests erupted across the country, which caused political, business and media power to be consolidated and partially laid the groundwork for the current monolithic media landscape dominated by a few media tycoons. According to some analysts, the protests were hijacked by right-wing groups intent on seizing power and promoting their own interests: “The protests were not only reported, but also choreographed on the pages of the right-wing newspapers Capital and Dnevnik, both owned by Ivo Prokopiev.”

Prokopiev, a businessman who owns Bulgaria’s third-largest media group, Economedia, has often been associated with GERB as well as right-wing narratives and organizations. He is exemplary of the politico-media complex created during the years of Borisov’s rule, given that his group controls more than 20 newspapers, including the aforementioned Capital and Dnevnik, regarded as two of the most influential newspapers. At the same time, Prokopiev has taken advantage of legal loopholes since the privatizations of the 1990s, and now holds assets in domains ranging from finance and minerals to construction and telecoms.

Although Borisov resigned as PM in 2013 as a consequence of the protests, he snatched the office again in 2015, and it’s reasonable to assume that his support in the media played a crucial role in this. As a 2016 study by Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) of 40,000 news articles published throughout 2015 showed, Borisov was mentioned in 12 percent of them, with an overwhelming positive slant. Opponents and parties other than GERB, however, received three times less coverage overall, which on top of things was found to be three times more likely to be negative.

If the legacy of fostering corruption in virtually every sector – most of which is only coming slowly to the fore – is to be broken, then Petkov must credibly and swiftly reform a wide range of sectors, from the media and business to government and even the judiciary – the latter often deeply flawed through its entanglement with the opaque media landscape. This would require stronger independent oversight over the sprawling judicial bureaucracy, because the currently self-governing and consequently highly insular judiciary has little incentive to change its ways without external pressure.

Thus far, Sofia has made many promises with differing degrees of vagueness, and only time will tell how successful Petkov and his cabinet will be against decades of endemic corruption and influence-peddling. The biggest success might well be putting Borisov on trial, which can only become reality if political, economic and social reforms are credibly instituted. Given that the country’s oligarch-led deep-state will certainly push back with all its might, Sofia will need perseverance and EU support in a fierce fight against the system that Borisov put in place.

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