The State of Democracy in Bulgaria

Interview with the Bulgarian business newspaper Dnevnik, 9 April 2014

Dnevnik journalist Aleksandrina Ginkova interviewed me on the latest Bulgaria country report written for the Transformation Index project.

Protests in Sofia, photo by Yulia Lazarova,
Protests in Sofia, photo by Yulia Lazarova,

The report mentions that a culture change within institutions is required to guarantee sustainability. Can you elaborate on the problems in the work culture and how are they related to corruption?

The notion of “culture change” used in the country report refers to entrenched practices and behavioral patterns within the Bulgarian judiciary and other state institutions. Foreign and domestic observers were surprised and shocked when the government of Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski attempted to appoint the controversial businessman Delyan Peevski as Chair of the State Agency for National Security. This decision was in striking contrast with its public commitment to combat corruption.

It is also very hard for a foreign observer like me to understand the obstacles to judicial reform in Bulgaria, given the long trajectory of EU pressures and governmental reform efforts in this policy area. One likely explanation for these incomprehensible decisions and blockades appears to be the persistence of informal, personal relations that may be used to retain power or to subvert the impact of formal institutional changes.

In contrast, the opinion survey evidence that I have on “work culture” or “economic culture” in Bulgaria – that is, on citizens’ value orientations regarding work, market economy, performance and competition – does not indicate that popular attitudes would facilitate corruption.

It’s been 25 years since the fall of Communism – an epoch where everything happening in the country was centrally planned. Now the report says that the Bulgarian elites are not able to unite the society and make even medium-term plans. Is the old know-how lost?

No, the Bulgaria of today strongly differs from the Bulgaria of 1989, thus any “old knowhow”, even if it were still available, would not be usable today. Elitsa Markova, our country expert for Bulgaria and the initial, main author of the BTI country report,  rather notes in her analysis that the political instability of the period from 2013 to 2014 showed the deep divisions in Bulgarian politics and society and impeded strategic, longterm-oriented policies.

Our expert survey is based on the assumption that policymakers should strive to achieve and strengthen constitutional democracy and a market economy based on social justice and environmental sustainability.

While a change of government can facilitate progress towards these aims, too frequent changes may cause political elites to lose sight of them.

What do you think is the reason for the lack of continuity and long-term planning in the state authorities?

One reason have been the changes of government and the preoccupation with election campaigns during the period assessed by our survey. A second reason has been the lack of a stable parliamentary majority for the government of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. A third reason is the relatively weak capacity for longterm planning at the centre of government. Although there are many advisory councils attached to the government, their impact on governmental or prime ministerial decisions seems to be relatively limited.

The report mentions little policy-learning ability of the politicians, a trend of discarding almost all achievements of the  previous governments and how these phenomena are correlated to the pattern of negative voting. Do you think that this negative voting could somehow influence the politicians in their thinking?

The report notes that negative voting – that is, voting against the governing political parties to express dissatisfaction and protest – induces opposition politicians to voice a fundamental rejection of the incumbent government and its policies. Such a principled anti-establishment posture leads opposition parties to announce and implement far-reaching changes after they have won governing majorities. While such fundamental reforms may help overcoming vested interests and institutional sklerosis, they also risk losing the valuable experience and institutional memory accumulated in a predecessor government.

In other words, a more polarized political competition tends to favor radical policy shifts at the expense of a learning process that utilizes and adapts existing experiences in a more incremental fashion.

The poll results often seem paradoxical – the people are unhappy with the political parties but they still vote and claim there are somehow represented in the parliament. The state and the parties have been accused of working for private interests but a lot of people would like to be part of the state administration which controls a vast amount of resources. How would you explain these paradoxes?

Electoral turnout has decreased from 67 percent (2001) and 56 percent (2005) to 51 percent in the 2013 and 2014 national parliamentary elections. Thus, there has been a growth of non-voters in the longer perspective which corresponds to the broader trend of declining turnout figures, declining party membership and declining trust in political parties we are observing in most European countries.

Among those who choose to cast their ballots, a growing percentage votes for extremist or populist protest parties. But if such parties manage to enter government, they often fail to deliver on their promises of radical renewal, disappointing their voters which then seem to withdraw their support from these parties or withdraw from electoral participation altogether. The resulting electoral volatility forces political parties (that lack a stable membership in society) to build their organizations by (mis-)using state resources.

Such practices of party patronage reinforce the distrust of citizens in “the political establishment”. At the same time, I would assume that many people continue to appreciate the relative job security associated with employment in the state administration.

You are mentioning that despite the emergence of two extremist parties interethnic relations do not represent a significant risk to the democratic institution. Why is this so?

During the period covered by our report (2013 – January 2015), extremist and nationalist ideas promoted by Attaka and Patriotichen Front did not spread over to other parties and political actors. GERB, DPS and other opposition parties remained committed to refrain from inciting rhetorics and to retain the inter-ethnic balance that has emerged over the first two decades of Bulgaria’s post-Communist history.

There were also no instances of physical violence between ethnic communities. However, the inflow of refugees since 2015 bears the potential to increase the risks of inter-ethnic tensions and radicalization.

What do you think are the reasons for Bulgaria’s lack of international influence?

Bulgaria’s government has been reluctant to develop a more pro-active policy towards its Black Sea neighbors and appears to be reactive in its approach to the refugee crisis. One reason for this restraint may be the traditionally close relations with Russia that cause the government to balance between its Euro-Atlantic engagement and the interest in preserving the special relationship with Russia.

Do you think that the broken educational system combined with popular disappointment could lead to the emerging of actual antidemocratic movements in the future?

No, our report does not label Bulgaria’s education system as “broken”. The report notes that there has been no reform of the school education system in 2013/2014. Generally, I believe higher levels of education are likely to increase the knowledge and civic awareness of citizens and thus also their disinclination to believe in slogans of antidemocratic movements.

However, this effect may be constrained by the absence of social mobility options for well-qualified school-leavers, leading to disappointment and frustration.

The report mentions business tycoons that are not committed to democratic values but do not openly challenge the legitimacy of democratic institutions. Why do you think they act this way? Why don’t you use their names?

This remark in the report refers to the salience of informal personal relations as a channel of lobbying for powerful business actors. While lobbying of public officeholders is a legitimate means of interest representation, business representatives who use their economic wealth for bribing government officials violate the rule of law. Such illegal lobbyists do not openly oppose the rule of law and other principles of constitutional democracy, because they view informal channels of access as most effective for their purposes.

Names were not mentioned because naming persons would have required additional information on specific cases and backgrounds. Since we have to respect a word limit for the report and the range of topics covered by the report is already very broad, we were unable to study and present such cases in greater detail.

Before the KTB collapse, the Bulgarian National Bank had been one of the few public institutions that was not largely distrusted by the public, the report says. What are the consequences of the lack of trust in it now?

The failure of the banking supervisory institution has weakened public trust in the Bulgarian National Bank and also raised questions regarding the stability of other banks. However, it seems to me that the BNB is taking serious efforts to restore this trust and that the IMF and the European Commission are now closely watching the BNB’s work which should limit the risk of further bank collapses.

Can we say that the society is in a vicious circle and there is no way new intelligent, democratic, tolerant leaders to emerge from it and start the change?

No, I think the protests of 2013/14 have manifested a remarkable capacity for civic self-organization and grassroots activism. They have contributed to the political socialization of future political leaders who will be likely to overcome what currently appears to be a stalemate or a vicious circle.

The last European Commission report on Bulgaria under the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism was critical towards the judiciary and the prosecution. Without judiciary there is no state. Do you think that this is the most important think for the society to work on?

Developing a more accountable and professional judiciary is an important political goal, but sustainable, knowledge-driven socioeconomic development is at least as important for Bulgaria, not just to enable more people to benefit from economic growth, but also to broaden and stabilize the middle class constituency underpinning a high-quality democracy.

Is there something specific in Bulgaria’s elites that diffentiates Bulgaria from the other countries in transition?

Bulgaria’s post-communist political elite lost its power later than the post-communists of East-Central European countries, but Bulgaria’s ruling and oppositional elites also avoided the pattern of nationalist mobilization that emerged in the former Yugoslavia and its successor states. Hitherto Bulgaria has lacked a broad Eurosceptic populist centrist political party comparable to ODS in the Czech Republic, Fidesz in Hungary or PiS in Poland. However, its more fragmented party system has also prevented the emergence of a dominant party  that seeks to monopolize power and to dismantle democratic checks and balances.

Thus, the constellation of elites in Bulgaria results from a specific path of transition and represents a unique configuration of actors and symbolic/material power resources. But the repertoire of power resources and the roles played by individual elite groups also resemble the scenes we have seen in other transition countries.

Link to the original  interview

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