Can You Navigate Bulgaria’s Media Jungle?

Earlier this summer, I was invited to share my thoughts on media freedom in Bulgaria as part of a project promoting free speech in Eastern Europe. I am very grateful for this opportunity because sharing your opinion without censorship is a luxury and a privilege which many people do not have these days. This is especially valid when you talk about media.

I was hesitating how best to approach the topic as there are so many clichés floating around to which I do not subscribe at all. I believe that many reports on Bulgaria are biased because they do not pinpoint the very core and origin of the problem. At the end, I decided to merely paint the picture that I see. No sugar-coated, misinformed reports, no euphemisms, no quick fix solutions. You can read my commentary “Bulgaria’s media jungle: the good, the bad, and the ugly” for New Eastern Europe here.

On Elections and Political Suicide

Shortly after the snap parliamentary elections in July, I shared my thoughts on Bulgaria’s future with New Eastern Europe. It appears that one of the parties, which many hoped to provide an alternative to the current dire state of affairs, may have been hijacked by Bulgaria’s deep state. As a result, instead of cooperating with other opposition parties like many expected, it indulges in disruptive behavior. It seems that not only it does not mind committing political suicide in the process, but also hopes that other opposition parties do the same.

In Bulgaria, we usually use the term ‘deep state’ to refer to the network built by Bulgaria’s communist secret services (Darzahvna sigurnost) which was never dismantled because full lustration – disclosing the names of all agents of this network and their activities – was not implemented. Darzhavna sigurnost had become a state within the state, essentially governing the country in the final stages of communism. This network may have evolved and adapted to the post-communist reality, but its values have remained the same.

Dismantling Borissov’s autocracy is surely what many players behind the curtain hope to avoid.

You can read my article ‘Snap elections in Bulgaria: who is ready for political suicide?’ here.

Parliamentary Elections in Bulgaria

On 4 April 2021 or in 4 days, Bulgarian citizens will vote for a new Parliament. Unusual elections, considering Bulgarians have been protesting against Boyko Borissov’s government for 8 months and Borissov did everything possible to avoid early elections, which means these are the first parliamentary elections organized by a government led by Boyko Borissov. I have written an article for Res Publica about the incredibly high stakes which was published earlier today. I republish it here with the permission of the editors.

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The EU Accession of the Western Balkans: The Perspective of a Neighbor

The editors of the Res Publica Blog – a project of the Institute of Communications Studies in Macedonia – recently asked me to share my views on the prospects for EU accession of Western Balkan countries, as part of the “Tales from the Region” blogging initiative. Considering how much ink has been spilled on this issue, I thought it was more appropriate to reason in the reverse – can the Western Balkans learn anything from the experience of new EU Member States like Bulgaria? I republish my article in full on my own blog with Res Publica‘s permission.

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On Bulgaria’s Notorious Veto on Macedonia’s EU Accession Talks

At the end of 2020, I was asked to share my thoughts on Bulgaria’s veto on Macedonia’s accession talks for EU membership for the Res Publica Blog – a project of the Institute of Communications Studies in Macedonia whose aim is to fight disinformation through research. The project is financed by the British Embassy in North Macedonia and publishes primarily academic writers. I republish my article in full on my own blog with the permission of the editors of Res Publica. As you will see, I do not share the views of the Bulgarian government – I find they belong to a different era.

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100 Days of Protests Exposing Bulgaria’s Rule of Law Decay

Bulgarians have been protesting against Boyko Borissov’s third government and General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev for more than 100 days. Beyond exposing the rampant corruption and the rule of law decay in the country, what have the protests achieved? Most importantly – what lies ahead, considering the European People’s Party continues to support its loyal autocrat? I ponder these questions in my latest article for New Eastern Europe – “Bulgaria: 100 days of protests”.

Surely, one of the longstanding problems of Bulgaria’s justice system, which the protests have also showcased, is the lack of accountability of the General Prosecutor, coupled with the excessive powers of the Prosecutor’s Office s/he leads. I was honored to be interviewed for a an episode of the new podcast of Verfassungsblog and the German Bar Association, “Let’s Talk about the Rule of Law”, about the role that prosecutor’s offices should have – their relationship with the executive, the checks and balances to which they should be subjected, etc. José Manuel Santos Pais, President of the Consultative Council of European Prosecutors (CCPE), Prof. Thomas Groß, and I had a fascinating discussion. You can listen to episode 5 of the new “Let’s Talk about the Rule of Law” podcast here.

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When Standards are Dual

Bulgaria’s fiery summer of protests led to a stormy fall. Sadly, there is a bitter feeling of dual standards in the air.

The government is clearly uncomfortable with the protests, so it resorted to a shameful trick typical of autocratic regimes – violence. Sadly, the EU Commission chose to look the other way. You can read my article “Protests in Bulgaria: will the EU at least condemn the violence?” for The Brussels Times here.

In stark contrast to the nonchalance of the EU Commission, the EU Parliament took some interest in Bulgaria’s democratic backsliding. At a hearing of the LIBE Committee dedicated to the rule of law decay in Bulgaria, however, Commissioner Vera Jourova, whose portfolio includes values and transparency in the EU, was afraid to depart from her institutional point of view and maintained that Bulgaria had been making steady progress under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism which monitors the country in the areas of rule of law, corruption, and organized crime. You can read my article “On Coins, Parallel Universes and the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism” for the Verfassungsblog in which I showcase the pitfalls of this mechanism and the hypocrisy of the EU Commission.

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Bulgaria’s Ignored Rule of Law Crisis

Earlier this month, I wrote an article for the blog of the #FBPE movement (Follow Back, Pro-European) about the challenges which Bulgaria faces in the area of rule of law and why the mass protests started. The hashtag was first used by Mr. Hendrik Klaassens in response to Brexit, but it quickly transformed into a movement. Currently, FBPE is even a word defined in English dictionaries. I am very grateful that they are now turning their eyes to and following the rule of law crises in Eastern Europe. You can read my contribution “Bulgaria’s Ignored Rule of Law Crisis” here.

If you follow me, you know I often write about Bulgaria’s rule of law decay.

You can find a list of my blog posts and some of my articles for the media here!

Will Borissov’s Government Survive This Summer?

As you probably know, mass protests erupted in Bulgaria on 9 July 2020 after Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office raided Bulgaria’s Presidency in an attempt to orchestrate a coup. Bulgarians demand the immediate resignation of Boyko Boriossov’s government and controversial General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev who engages in politically motivated prosecutions in violation of the Constitution, the ECHR, and the EU Charter. President Rumen Radev is the only critic of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov who has a high position in the state and Bulgaria’s Presidency is essentially the only institution which has not been fully captured. In June 2020, way before the protests started, I wrote this article for New Eastern Europe: “Bulgaria: will Borissov’s government survive this summer?”. It does not cover the protests, but I think it will further showcase to you why citizens are on the streets. Nearly 100,000 people protested in Sofia on 15 July 2020. We are about to see if my title is prophetic.

COVID-19 and Autocracy

Could the COVID-19 crisis serve as an excuse to solidify autocracy? In countries in which the rule of law is undermined such as Bulgaria, this seems very likely. Earlier this month I contributed to an online Symposium hosted by the Verfassungsblog dedicated to states of emergency and democracy. You can read my contribution here.

Bulgaria’s Economic “Model” Promotes Poverty

How do you find writing inspiration? I often get inspired when I debate topics with others. Recently, a new opinionated follower on Twitter lectured me on how people in Bulgaria live better than before because they spend more and travel more. When I asked her which people she had in mind, she sent me some articles from Bulgarian media whose quality is questionable to say the least.

I am certain that there are many people who fall for this play with data, which is borderline propaganda, so here is an article about Bulgaria’s economic model, which is anchored in promoting poverty. Some myths propagated by Boyko Borissov’s government should be shattered once and for all.

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Could Football Be a Litmus Test for the Rule of Law? My Latest Article for Euronews

Were you shocked by the racist abuse at the Bulgaria-England Euro qualifier? I never thought I would combine my interest in football with my concern for Bulgaria’s rule of law, but I felt compelled to take a stand. I have a huge admiration for people in professional sports because sports illustrate many of the qualities we aspire to – commitment, discipline, and hard work. Most of all, sports inspire us, ordinary people. The name of the game for true fans will always be football, but in Bulgaria, corruption is the bigger game. My commentary for Euronews entitled “Racism at the heart of Bulgarian football is becoming a litmus test for the rule of law” can be found here.

From a CVM Report Which Scandalized Civil Society to Secret Arrests Soviet-Style

Here are the two latest articles I wrote for the Verfassungsblog:

If you are interested in daily updates on the rule of law in Bulgaria and the EU, follow me on Twitter @radosveta_vass.

More reactions to Bulgaria’s CVM:

Vlog Post: The Failure of Bulgaria’s Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM)

In this video post, I explain how and why the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) failed in Bulgaria. When Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union (EU) in 2007, they did not entirely fulfill the criteria on the rule of law. That is why, they were placed under this mechanism, so that they could catch up with other Member States. Twelve years later, little progress (if any) has been achieved.

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European Elections 2019 in Bulgaria

How did European elections 2019 go in Bulgaria? I was honored to be interviewed by New Eastern Europe for their podcast “Talk Eastern Europe.” You can listen to episode 13 dedicated to #Euroelections2019 in Poland, Lithuania, and Bulgaria, which features my contribution, here. If you believe you know everything about Bulgaria, I encourage you to listen anyway because there are valuable comments on Poland and Lithuania.

In retrospect, as I was interviewed shortly after the elections, we did not discuss election manipulations in much detail. If this is a topic which is of interest, you can take a look at my article “8 Worrisome Charts on the Grim State of Bulgaria’s Rule of Law.” The methods and the lies continue to be the same.

8 Worrisome Charts on the Grim State of Bulgaria’s Rule of Law

In my article “All You Need to Know about Bulgaria’s Rule of Law in 10 Charts,” I showcased how corruption and the crackdown on human rights and freedoms have detrimental and far-reaching consequences for Bulgaria and for the EU. Since the article attracted much interest, here are 8 more charts, which may be helpful in understanding what went wrong in Bulgaria and which add new nuances to the rather grim picture of the current state of the country’s rule of law.

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How to Harass Inconvenient Opponents of the Government: Bulgaria’s Playbook

Since a Twitter thread I started to draw attention to this dreadful topic attracted interest, I think it is time for a more detailed guide to understanding the mechanisms of harassing inconvenient opponents, which Bulgaria’s government traditionally employs.

Bulgaria has a long, sad history of framing people who are inconvenient for some reason – prosecutors, judges, businessmen who do not support the government, journalists who do not portray the government in the light it wants, civil servants who refuse to follow ludicrous political orders, etc. Unsurprisingly, it has lost hundreds of cases before the European Court of Human Rights because of violations of the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. The practice, however, seems to have intensified in the past five years under the nose of the EU Commission, which is supposed to monitor Bulgaria under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism.

Here is a prototypical scenario:

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Frans Timmermans and Bulgaria: What EU Values?

Without much competition, Frans Timmermans was selected as the Spitzenkandidat of the Party of European Socialists (PES). His campaign is based on the defense of EU values. In principle, EU values are defined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union and include democracy, the rule of law, the respect for human rights, etc.

Yet, the fact that Timmermans currently serves the First Vice -President as well as the Commissioner for the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the Juncker Commission ultimately raises the question about his achievements in the areas of rule of law and defense of human rights.

Juncker’s Commission (to be understood as President Juncker, Commissioner Timmermans, and Commissioner Jourova who have a say in these matters) has already been criticized for its relaxed and overly diplomatic approach towards the rule of law crises in Poland and Hungary. As a scholar with an interest in the rule of law challenges in Bulgaria, I cannot help but notice Timmermans’ silence on my country either.

If you follow my blog, you probably know that Bulgaria is in a very poor shape – it was downgraded to a semi-consolidated democracy by Freedom House, it is considered the most corrupt EU member by Transparency International, it was ranked 111th in the world based on freedom of speech by Reporters Without Borders, etc. If you did not know the rule of law in Bulgaria is in a deplorable state, consider reading my article for the EU Observer “Is Bulgaria the EU’s next rule of law crisis?”

However, despite red flags by reputable indices as well as numerous letters of complaint, which have been sent to Timmermans from Bulgaria, he never expressed any concern publicly or took any action to prevent the further decay of the rule of law.

In an attempt to shed some light on Timmermans’ disturbing nonchalance, I carried out an opinion poll on Twitter.

Shall we see what the survey found about his silence?

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Manfred Weber and Bulgaria: Is There a Dual Standard on the Rule of Law?

Manfred Weber is a changed man. In May 2018, he warned that people should not “point fingers” at Orban who was not a “bad European.” After months of turning his eyes away from the Hungarian rule of law crisis, on the day of the vote on the activation of Article 7(1) of the Treaty on the European Union against Hungary (12 September 2018), he did a 180 degree turn. ‘Today I will vote in favour of triggering #Article7. I have always been in favour of building bridges and I want to continue to do so but yesterday I didn’t see any readiness from the Hungarian PM to make a move towards his EU partners and address our concerns. #Hungary,” he posted on Twitter. Four days later, Financial Times reported he was already concerned not only about Hungary, but also about Poland, Romania, and possibly other countries.

If you follow my blog, however, you probably know that Bulgaria’s democracy and rule of law are in a critical condition (if you do not, consider reading, for instance,  All You Need to Know About Bulgaria’s Rule of Law in 10 Charts). So, while I appreciate the evolution of Weber’s views, I am troubled that he did not mention Bulgaria as a country he is worried about. Manfred Weber is running for President of the European Commission, so his opinion, fickle as it may be, can have huge consequences for the rule of law debate, which will surely continue to haunt EU institutions.

Is there something I am missing from the big picture? I carried out a Twitter survey to find out how Weber’s awkward silence on Bulgaria could be explained.

Shall we see what the survey found?

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