Elena Kasabova should have little reason to feel discontented. She has a well-paid IT job at a Sofia bank, enjoys holidays abroad with her daughter and is looking forward to advancing her career.
But this summer she has joined thousands of Bulgarians staging daily street protests in the capital and other cities to press for the resignation of Boyko Borisov, the long-serving prime minister, and his close associate Ivan Geshev, the country’s chief prosecutor, over their failure to crack down on corruption.
“Corruption is evident everywhere,” she told a rally last week. “As a conscientious taxpayer, I don’t see why donations are needed to fund children’s hospitals and basic medical equipment while the police, MPs and cabinet ministers drive around in the latest models of expensive cars paid for out of the state budget.”
The protests have highlighted popular anger over pervasive graft in the EU’s poorest member state that observers say reflects collusion by high-ranking officials, shady business groups and senior members of the judiciary.
They remained largely peaceful and relatively small until last Wednesday, when tens of thousands rallied outside a government building for the first parliamentary session after the summer break and police turned pepper spray and water cannon on the crowd.
Bulgaria is ranked lowest among the 27 EU member states in Transparency International’s 2019 corruption perceptions index. The Centre for the Study of Democracy, a Sofia think-tank, said in a 2019 report that according to local businesspeople, at least 35 per cent of public procurement contracts involved corrupt practices.
“Patience with the system is running out . . . High taxes and high levels of corruption make it very difficult to succeed, whatever sector you decide to work in,” said Petar Nedevski, the owner of a tourism business in Sofia who has attended protests every day since they began in early July.
Bulgaria’s problems with corruption became entrenched in the 1990s when a group of oligarchs seized control of swaths of the economy as successive governments struggled to overhaul the country’s institutions following the fall of the Soviet Union. Their grip weakened as the economy expanded but most retained connections with politicians.
This summer’s protests were sparked by a raid ordered by Mr Geshev on the offices of President Rumen Radev, who was elected by popular vote in 2016 and is an outspoken critic of the ruling Gerb party’s record on graft. Carried out by a heavily armed security team, the raid added to a simmering feud between Mr Borisov and the president.
Anger has been intensified by a series of recent scandals, including allegations about kickbacks to government officials paid by a now-fugitive Bulgarian businessman in return for allowing him to take over the state gaming company operation, and leaked photographs of the prime minister’s bedroom at a state mansion showing a stash of €500 bills in an open drawer. Mr Borisov has said some of the photographs are fake.
A former fireman and Sofia mayor who is serving his third term as prime minister, Mr Borisov has dominated the country’s politics for more than a decade. But his approval rating has recently declined sharply, with opinion polls indicating that between 60 per cent and 70 per cent of Bulgarians support the protesters’ demands for his resignation.
Mr Geshev came to prominence as a maverick investigator opposed to the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. His appointment as chief prosecutor last year prompted criticism from European-trained Bulgarian lawyers and led to street protests in Sofia.
Last Wednesday’s protest came as the government was holding a special parliamentary session to prepare the launch of constitutional reforms later this year. It is unclear what the reforms will be, and opponents see the plan as a tactic to divert attention from Mr Borisov and keep his government afloat for the rest of its term. A general election is due next April.
While the government secured enough votes to push ahead, it faces another hurdle in November, when it needs to secure support for an assembly to push through constitutional changes.
“Borisov is determined to hold on for the rest of his term but it’s by no means certain that Gerb will get the votes needed to establish the assembly . . . We’re quite likely to see a period of confusion and delay,” said Hristo Ivanov a former justice minister and a leader of Democratic Bulgaria, a pro-European party who has played a prominent role in the protests.
Daniel Smilov, an analyst at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, said Gerb’s constitutional manoeuvring would only make the protesters more determined.
The recent scandals “are graphic examples of what people see as high-level corruption”, he said. “None has been properly investigated, leaving many with the feeling that Mr Geshev has served to cover up such misdeeds.”