Bulgaria joins Europe’s awkward squad

Bulgaria joins Europe’s awkward squad

Concern is growing in Brussels about Sofia’s tolerance of cronyism and corruption

Hristo Ivanov was broadcasting live on Facebook outside a Black Sea villa in July, when three beefy guards pushed him and two other activists into the water. The Bulgarian opposition politician kept on filming when secret service agents threatened to sink the boat that had brought the campaigners to the property known to be used by Ahmet Dogan, one of the country’s leading power brokers. Thousands watched in real time as the police questioned the group headed by Mr Ivanov.

The video, since viewed by more than 1.2m people, sparked weeks of protests across the country against political cronyism. Opponents of Boyko Borisov’s government charge that it is a microcosm of Bulgaria’s problems with corruption and the rule of law, almost 14 years after the country joined the EU.

Mr Borisov’s political difficulties also raise tough questions for Brussels and other EU countries. Critics say they have failed to put sufficient pressure on Sofia to improve governance. Tensions have risen further in recent weeks because Bulgaria has blocked the opening of talks for North Macedonia to join the EU, raising fears it may join Hungary and Poland in their frequent battles with Brussels and fellow member states.

Bulgaria has received billions of euros from the EU since it joined in 2007. Simeon Djankov, a Bulgarian economist and Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says the money that has flowed to what is still the EU’s poorest state is part of the problem.

“The EU funds actually increased corruption and state capture,” said Mr Djankov, who served as finance minister during Mr Borisov’s first term, from 2009 to 2013. “In particular, these were used to buy, either directly or through procured projects, much of the media and thus provide a cover for politicians.”

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