The return of American diplomacy and the institutional trench warfare in Bulgaria
Even though many mainstream media have not noticed it, American diplomacy has made a big comeback in the Balkans. The Biden administration has chosen Bulgaria as the stage to reaffirm America’s hold on the region. By imposing heavy sanctions on the Bulgarian oligarch, Washington is not so subtly signaling to Russia that its reach goes very far. But there are also sensitive implications for the future of the small country in South-Eastern Europe. Perhaps the fight against systemic corruption is finally reaching its peak. Could this be the end of bad governance?
Many argue that corruption in Bulgaria and Southeastern Europe is only a vestige of the half-century reign of national Communist parties. So the threat of the EU to metaphorically swap carrot for stick should have promoted a deep clean-up. Instead, it just gave a few short-term successes for anti-corruption activists, activist judges and specialized prosecutors. Again, State capture and embezzlementremain endemic for one reason or another in post-socialist countries inside and outside the Union. Specifically, these efforts were in vain and Bulgaria was still poorly equippedwhen that joined the Union on January 1, 2007. Thus, Brussels allowed in a deeply corrupt country where the hidden interest sees even those who occupy the the highest echelons of power.
If it was not membership of the European Union, at least domestic policy could have helped the country to fight against endemic maladministration. Yet the status quo has remained intact despite the calls and promises to eradicate corruption that have been stronger and stronger. In a sense, the pervasiveness of corruption is a feature and not a bug rooted in Bulgaria’s imperfect liberal democracy. These conservative – and, in a sense, perverse – forces found their embodiment in Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his associates. Therefore, government agencies, political parties, courts and the entire existing power structure help to prevent any change.
Despite this, the proverbial “wind of change” may have started to blow over Bulgaria in summer 2020. After taking to the streets against the excesses and failures of the ruling party, the voters Borisov abandoned in the April 2021 elections. Conversely, the new parties and loose coalitions of civil society organizations, formed shortly before the competition, won a relative majority of preferences. And, as many analysts have noted, these newcomers don’t share much except the desire to “”dismantle the Borisov system”.
However, these new actors failed to form a governing coalition due to the heterogeneity and negativity inherent in their agendas. Thus, President Rumen Radev programmed new elections on July 11 and appointed an interim government.
Indeed, there is a institutional custom order these firms to limit their activities to the management of day-to-day affairs. Nevertheless, these technocrats – many of whom Radev supported in his quarrel with Borisov – started a thorough examination past governments. In the process, the cabinet redesigned bureaucracies, suspended Sofia Airport Concession and stopped other public tenders for suspected irregularities. More importantly, the Interior Ministry has confirmed previous suspects that officers appointed by Borisov may have wiretapped illegally opposition politicians.
In short, President Radev’s ministers are trying to tear up the “Borisov system” before the next elections. However, simply ousting most – if not all – of the the men of the previous government to key positions in government agencies is straightforward. Especially when such a program is pushed by the president, with the palpable the support of a absolute majority Population. But the Borisov system also has an economic component. In fact, the ruling party has established a sprawling network of supportive oligarchs funding and favorable media coverage. Taking them out is just as, if not more, important than firing bureaucrats, but also much more difficult.
Drive out the oligarchs
In other words, rescinding appointments from the Borisov system and appointing trustworthy officers to these posts is only a first step. But real change requires leaving the wealthy individuals and organizations benefiting from the status quo clawless and toothless. Such a task involves profound economic transformations which would surely arouse immense opposition from powerful pressure groups. Obviously, there is not enough time before the Bulgarians vote again and their representatives take on a new executive. But the interim government is powerless in the face of Bulgaria’s condemnation of persistent corruption no matter what.
On the contrary, the government has gone to great lengths to drive out and derail some of those oligarchs linked to Borisov. For example, the Minister of Finance appointed a Audit committee responsible for reviewing the activities of the Bulgarian Development Bank (BBR). As a result, the public discovered that the oligarchs had diverted the BBR from its mandate to support small businesses. In fact, eight large private companies received more than half of the BRR’s total credits, or approx. 473 million euros. On average, each of them borrowed almost € 60 million – and “it’s not a small and medium-sized business. In addition, these companies have borrowed against 2% rate instead of the average 5-7%. Following this leak, the Minister of Finance fired the whole board of the BBR. It also instructed the National Bank of Bulgaria (BNB) to appoint a new direction.
The United States strikes back
Surprisingly enough, the United States has just provided invaluable assistance to Radev and his government. On June 2, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned several “individuals for their extensive roles in corruption”. In the first place, the sanctions target Vasil Bozhkov, a Bulgarian businessman currently hiding in dubaievade an arrest warrant on corruption charges; Delyan peevski, prominent figure and former member of parliament for the Turkish majority Dvizhenie za Prava i Svobodi as well as the owner / controller of four of the companies involved in the BBR scandal; and Ilko Jeliazkov, former member of the National Office for the Control of Special Intelligence Gathering Systems. Second, the United States sanctioned “their networks encompassing 64 entitiesWith which no transaction in dollars is possible.
The United States chose to strike Bulgaria, a NATO ally, with “the single biggest action targeting corruption to date ”. On the one hand, this falls within the limits of the current administration’s effort to restore America’s moral stewardship. More specifically, the sanctions can be interpreted as a not-so-veiled message to Russia – which strongly influences Bulgarian policy. Yet those who had looked into bilateral relations between the United States and Bulgaria should have expected a similar decision. After all, the sanctions came after US Ambassador Herro Mustafa’s repeated criticism of widespread corruption in the countryside. Mustafa also symbolically refused meet with Attorney General Ivan Geshev, which embodies systemic corruption in Bulgaria.
Therefore, the game has reached a whole new quality now. The BNB has banned all Bulgarian banks from doing business with people under US sanctions. In addition, the BNB had already frozen some deposits, means of payment and assets of Peevvski, Bozhkov and Zhelyazkov earlier. However, after the OFAC decision, the blocking extended to their the whole network of affiliates and related entities.
Officially, the malicious influence of corruption on democracy provides the United States with a moral justification to sanction any corrupt individual. Namely, the The Treasury argues he
undermines the values which constitute the essential foundation of stable, secure and functional societies; Ha[s] devastating impacts on individuals; weaken[s] democratic institutions; degrade[s] the rule of law; perpetuate[s] violent conflicts; facilitate[s] the activities of dangerous people; and undermine economic markets.
Of course, the upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin also played a role in this decision.
Yet the sanctions calendar suggests that there may be other forces at play. Rather, it appears that Washington has decided to choose sides in the institutional trench warfare between the Presidency and the Government.
From Bulgaria’s point of view, although most of the American media did not notice it, the impression is quite clear. To quote President Biden: “America is back, diplomacy is back.” Specifically, this resurgence has special significance in the Balkans, a region of immense importance for Europe. energy security. Concretely, the United States is taking the lead in the West’s efforts to prevent China, Russia and Turkey from entering.
Of course, whether this external support will be enough for Bulgaria to finally eradicate corruption is questionable. Nevertheless, the return of the United States can stimulate a dynamic of positive competition in which Washington and Brussels compete for limited normative power. If this were the case, increased international pressure on Bulgaria to curb corruption could reach breaking point quite quickly. At that point, either a fundamental change will take place; or the Bulgarian elites will take root more