The temptation to exercise power without limits is and will be a test for Bulgaria's government in response to the pandemic. There are three questions for those in power to answer.
Two masked heavies were beating a journalist while a third person was filming the scene on his phone. The police isolated the Roma ghettos. Meanwhile, Prosecutor-General suggested introducing a curfew and a proposal to triple the penalty to 1,000 leva (about 500 euros) for doctors who do not aid, while forcing them to fight the COVID-19 virus without protective clothing. Two weeks ago, the parliament hastily approved a state of emergency that required the adoption of appropriate legislation.
The legislative process over the new emergency legislation was complete havoc. One initiative would give the ultimate ability of the state to use cell phone metadata to monitor the execution of the obligatory quarantine. One of the members of the legislative commission confidently claimed that in an emergency situation all laws can be changed. While the new emergency law was voted, another idea surfaced to suspend the application of the European Convention on Human Rights during the state of emergency
This is the state of public debate in Bulgaria in recent weeks.
The coronavirus is not an imaginary threat. People get sick because of it and the number of deaths is rising significantly. There are already more than 21,000 deaths across Europe.
Awareness of the enormous challenge to society and the economy in individual countries has sooner or later reached also those in power.
Ease of emergency
Although national authorities in Bulgaria use the argument of the need to manage a crisis situation effectively, it is puzzling to see the ease with which the emergency has been introduced.
The short and ambiguous constitutional provision on the state of emergency required further regulations. A week later the Bulgarian Parliament adopted relevant emergency legislation.
In Bulgaria, it was justified by the need to arm the authorities with rapid action tools to restrict movement, punish those who break the quarantine or to limit the operation of private entities. However, a question remains whether it is really necessary to use such a big gun against the virus? Especially, the application of the drastic measures will have a damaging impact on the economy.
The newly adopted law organises the application of laws, administrative acts, taxes and decisions of state authorities. Importantly, the law provides for limited supportive functions of the army. The law enforcement agencies obtained the right to receive metadata for tracking the position of quarantined individuals, and severe fines were introduced for quarantine violations.
However, along with the consistent and logical measures concerning the epidemy, quite surprisingly the ruling GERB and the oppositional DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedoms) largely representing the Turkish minority in the country, used the opportunity to introduce an amendment increasing the state subsidy for Muslims in the country.
This is a clear signal that the political elites in Bulgaria will not omit any opportunity to secure their interests even in times of unexpected social and economic challenges.
Not a carte blanche
A state of emergency is one of the strongest and at the same time one of the most dangerous tools of power, mainly because it allows the state to restrict human rights under the law. Pursuing their safety responsibilities’ authorities should not forget that the state of emergency is not a carte blanche for unlimited action, but its introduction is justifiable only by immediate necessity and is strictly limited to least possible encroachment in the relevant rights.
The unprepared proposal for the suspension of the European Convention on Human Rights, without any public debate, increased concerns about government’s intentions to the extent that the Foreign Minister Katerina Zaharieva had to explain that this step was not made yet.
Most of the countries planning such steps followed PACE’s President Rick Dams appeal and withheld their suspension requests. However, Bulgarian’s government final decision is still uncertain.
How to hold the authorities accountable
The COVID-19 pandemic will reshape the economy of Bulgaria. The lockout will inevitably result in an economic slowdown and the emergency measures will generate unpredicted expenses not only in direct response to the virus but also a necessary social cushion. The increased state powers and the decreased public control create a convenient opportunity for the draining of public finances.
At the end of February, the Bulgarian Finance Minister V. Goranov claimed that the state has a budgetary surplus of 1,5 billion leva and only two weeks later the Bulgarian Prime Minister Borisov suddenly started to promote the thesis that the state is already suffering from a budget deficit of 3.5 billion leva.
Considering that the only significant expenditure of the state was its support for the Bulgarian Development Bank, for the amount of 500 million leva, the creation of a 4.5 billion hole would require strong and logical justification. Especially, some of the additional expenses will be covered by transfers within the EU funds.
So here comes the first question: is it at all possible to hold the authorities accountable for financial embezzlement in a state of emergency?
How to express solidarity and exert pressure on the state
Beating a journalist in Bulgaria is nothing surprising since a long period of time. Cynically, one could say that in comparison to Jan Kuciak or Daphne Caruana, nothing happened to him, because although he is lying in a hospital with his face butchered, he is alive.
What is terrifying, however, is the cynicism of the principal, who in his confidence of omnipotent power and impunity, requested a record of the beating.
Slavi Angelov is a journalist of the weekly 168 Chasa (168 Часа). His texts focus on social and political issues, the borderline between the state and law, as well as criticism of political and social pathologies. He has described, among other things, the activities of “Leakless” – a criminal group dealing with kidnappings for ransom or, recently, corruption and impunity on the Bulgarian coast.
And here the question arises: how to express solidarity, how to put pressure on the authorities for beating a journalist in an emergency?
The naive assumption that the law enforcement agencies will meet the task, find and punish the perpetrators is not even an option that comes to mind. There is probably no one in Bulgaria who honestly believes in the competence and self-limitation of the authorities. And yet it is during these times of emergency that the only bond between the authorities and society remains its self-restraint.
The weakened tools of social control and the growth of means of repression of the authorities can only be buried by political responsibility. How to rely on such responsibility, when no one has seen it for a long time?
How to stop creeping competences
Meanwhile, the new Attorney General Ivan Geshev is extremely active. In a few months, he has unleashed a mace of his subordinate institution to prosecute not only criminals but also to control state institutions, thus entering into the area of competence of other state bodies. From the perspective of his seven-year office term, he also decided that his competence includes fighting the coronavirus and the promotion of proposals to introduce a curfew.
Due to the fact that three cases of the infection were detected in the Bansko resort, Geshev proposed an immediate quarantine of the city, which was cut off from the world. Interestingly, the quarantine is not tight since people from the surrounding villages can leave after alleged disinfection, which raises the question: why can others not leave according to the same procedure? Especially, that at the same time 340 British tourists left the ski resort in bus convoys secured by the British Embassy.
At the request of nationalists from the WMRO party, there was an order to cut off the Roma ghettos. WMRO MP Aleksander Sidi justified this “the large number of people who returned from abroad”. Such steps have already been introduced a week ago in the cities of Kazanlyk, Nova Zagora, Sliven and Yambol, although among the Roma minority living there, no case of coronavirus has been detected at that time.
At the same time, a new face has appeared on the Bulgarian political scene. General Ventsislav Mutafchiyski, who is a director of the prestigious Medical-Military Academy and heads the Crisis Operations Staff, wins people over with sensible and balanced arguments.
Against the background of the ubiquitous political practice, Mutafchiyski’s life path as a doctor and a soldier, with excellent professional credentials, makes him a man who is out of the system and at the same time comes across as competent and composed.
A new face on the political scene in Bulgaria can potentially capitalise the common apathy and scepticism for the political elites. A strong man with sound decisions in hard times is a good starting point for a political career.
Break the masks
In a façade democracy, the introduction of a state of emergency creates the possibility to break the masks. The lawful increase of the authorities’ competence towards their own citizens, the weakening of the mechanisms of social control and the social apathy nurtured for decades are a convenient formula for the boundless strengthening of power.
The abuse of the state of emergency to crack down on inconvenient citizens, financial embezzlement, the transfer of extraordinary powers to political struggle, interference with freedom of speech or assembly outside the narrow framework of a legitimate fight against the virus will be indications of a very dangerous trend.
On the other hand, the Bulgarian Prime Minister must be aware that the extraordinary opportunity created by the coronavirus can be a nail to his political coffin. If he follows the temptation to abuse the state of emergency to suck out billions and pursue his current policies, then with the lifting of the state of emergency the public expectation of settling the errors of the emergency may increase.
Paradoxically, for Borisov, self-restraint and guarding against the abuse of instruments that allow for an emergency in the long term may be of much greater value. The temptation to exercise power without limits is and will be a test for Borisov’s “Europeanness”.