“This is not Moscow!” the chant echoed in Sofia just days ago, as thousands of Bulgarians gathered to protest before the presidency–a troubling sign of how serious the rule of law concerns have become in a country which is a democracy, a parliamentary republic and a full member of the European Union and NATO.
Bulgaria has become plunged into a true democratic crisis in recent times. Yet after five parliamentary elections in two years and countless scandals, the unlikely coalition formed by the former ruling party, GERB, and the pro-western We Continue the Change–Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB) duo received parliamentary backing on 6 June, offering Bulgaria a long-awaited moment of hope.
The chaos of the last months and weeks before the deal, however, mean that the coalition–even if it holds together–will have its work cut out for it to restore the rule of law and complete Bulgaria’s European integration journey, particularly considering its pro-Russian political elites’ cynical efforts to derail the EU-oriented coalition at the finish line.
Troubled rule of law seeks redemption
Indeed, at times in recent weeks, Bulgaria’s deep democratic wound seems to have turned septic, with leaked wiretaps nearly torpedoing the coalition deal, the European Commission opening four criminal procedures against Bulgaria–including for failure to tackle fraud and money laundering–and allegations that Bulgarian President Rumen Radev was deliberately trying to stymy the formation of a government to serve Russia’s interests, among countless other red flags.
Amidst this dramatic backdrop, Bulgarian Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev seems determined to spark even more chaos. In the past month, Geshev has claimed that he was the target of an attempted car bomb assassination–allegations which quickly sparked widespread skepticism in the face of evidence suggesting that the attack was staged. One former ambassador to Moscow suggested that Geshev had taken a leaf straight out of the Kremlin playbook in manufacturing the incident, subsequently going after independent investigative journalists and theatrically ripping up his letter of resignation on television while claiming that he is the victim of political persecution.
Yet Geshev’s scorched earth tactics to stay in power have not stopped the Bulgarian Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) from relieving him of his post. Citing his flagrant violations of the principles of ‘honesty and decency’ in the Code of Ethical Behaviour of Bulgarian Magistrates—particularly in relation to his threat to oust the National Assembly’s “political garbage” who dare to oppose his corruption-tainted tenure—the SJC’s courageous 12 June vote leaves Geshev on his last legs. With few powerful allies left, Geshev’s fate lies entirely in the hands of President Radev, whom the former will be counting on to repeat his recent delaying tactics.
Drawing line between friend and foe
Geshev’s downfall began earlier this year, largely precipitated by the chief prosecutor’s politically motivated targeting of businesses without any substantiated evidence—a practice he has perfected over the years to protect his and his allies’ political interests to the detriment of Bulgaria’s rule of law.
Just months ago, Geshev seemed determined to prop up GERB and its leader, Boyko Borisov, by any means necessary. In January, for example, opposition party Democratic Bulgaria was expected to receive a mandate to form a government—yet Geshev initiated suspiciously-timed raids on popular FinTech firm Nexo, alleging financial fraud.
The raids seemed questionable from the beginning, with authorities apparently not presenting search warrants for hours, yet questions about their underlying motives did not take long to surface—a few Nexo employees had made donations to Democratic Bulgaria from their personal accounts, suggesting that the probe was an effort to scupper the opposition’s chance to form a government.
Despite the dismissal of allegations by local institutions, as well as Europol refraining from joining the investigation, Bulgaria’s electoral code underwent swift amendments to hinder personal contributions ahead of the forthcoming elections, further hinting at the raids’ political nature. In 2020, the owner of Hippoland, a well-known chain of toy stores, faced similar scrutiny and pressure after openly expressing support for opposition demonstrations in 2020, revealing a concerning trend within Bulgaria’s socio-political landscape.
Now, however, Geshev must sense that his best chances no longer lie with his long-time GERB allies. After a long time of seemingly protecting Borisov legally—even swiftly declining to press charges against him last summer when the former PM was briefly arrested—Geshev is suddenly interested in investigating the allegations against Borisov. The ulterior motive, naturally, is not far behind. Geshev’s sudden keenness manifested itself immediately after Borisov’s party announced their support for long-awaited judicial reforms that would curb Geshev’s powers.
Borisov is now facing the possible lifting of his parliamentary immunity to allow an investigation into a money laundering case known as Barcelonagate, a case which had been suspiciously on hold as the Prosecutor General’s office supposedly awaited translations of material for two years. Yet, with the fresh Borisov-Geshev rift, translators seem to have magically been found.
Suspicious actions, timing and allies
If Geshev has fallen out with Borisov, he appears to be trying to cultivate a new alliance with Rumen Radev, who is seemingly equally opposed to the new pro-Western coalition government and a potential spoiler of the SJC’s attempt to remove Geshev in the coming days.
Unlike Borisov, Radev has promised not to support a decree that would force legislation to make the Chief Prosecutor replaceable prior to the end of his term and accountable for his actions. Radev’s choice cannot simply stem from a feeling of goodwill towards Geshev; Mihail Ekimdzhiev, a respected attorney has said, “in view of the frankly criminal behavior on the part of Ivan Geshev and the obvious abuse of official power bordering on insanity, I believe that the Prosecutor General should be physically questioned… he is carrying out a prosecutorial coup”.
Despite raids on private firms linked to the political opposition, apparently staged bomb plots, leaked recordings, an actual physical brawl on the floor of Parliament and other dramatic manoeuvers, the desperate attempts of Radev and Geshev to hinder the formation of a pro-EU government have failed, but they will certainly not make life easy for the newly-appointed cabinet.
While it represents the first glimmer of hope for Bulgaria’s democratic future in the past year, whether the new coalition will be able to clean up the catastrophic state of the rule of law in Bulgaria remains to be seen.