The Odd EU Story of Oligarchy-Ridden Bulgaria and Its Post-accession ‘Progress Reports’

Bulgaria has made little progress in its problem areas – fighting corruption and organized crime, and guaranteeing the rule of law – since it joined the EU in 2007. Photo: European Commission

Here is why the EU monitoring reports on Bulgaria’s “post-accession progress” in judicial reform and fighting corruption and organized crime are useless but necessary.


On January 1, 2018, Bulgaria marked its 11th full year of membership in the European Union, the club of rich and democratic (originally Western) European nations which was supposed to make it just as rich, democratic, and western. Or at least so most of the Bulgarians have hoped.

Not just that – Bulgaria actually assumed the rotating EU Presidency! While the Bulgarian Presidency of the European Union is certainly a great honor for a proud nation with a long and really hard history, sadly, it is also the first time the European Union has been presided by a country without recognized rule of law.

Nonetheless, it is indisputable that in geopolitical, political, and partly in economic terms Bulgaria’s EU membership has been a success story for the country, the entire EU, and the European institutions in Brussels.

The simplest rationale for this claim is imagining the alternatives: had Bulgaria not been admitted in the EU back in 2007, it would have become another Belarus but at a much more important geostrategic location, in the middle of the Balkans, the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa since the dawn of civilization.

Or, even worse, it would have become another “former Yugoslavia”, a geopolitical black hole sending “gravitational waves” of instability across three continents.

There is no doubt that for the single most important of reasons, the geopolitical one, Bulgaria’s admission in the EU has been the right decision, and that will always be true.

However, in some of the top aspects of being an EU member, namely, having rule of law, division of powers through checks and balances, and accountable institutions cracking down on corruption and organized crime, Bulgaria was nowhere near meeting the EU standards back in 2007, and it is still nowhere near meeting them today.

The Plight of Oligarchy-Ridden Post-Communist Bulgaria

It isn’t hard to understand why that is. Let’s rewind to 1989. Over the four preceding decades, Bulgaria had been turned into the “People’s Republic of Bulgaria”, the staunchest satellite of the Soviet Union. Before that, having had the worst geopolitical luck imaginable, it had been occupied by the Red Army during World War II, and had ended up in the Soviet Bloc.

Using the alleged historical closeness between the Bulgarians and the Russians, which is increasingly being questioned by today’s free historians, the Soviet Bolsheviks and their Bulgarian communist lackeys managed to build such a robust communist regime in Bulgaria that by the time Soviet communism began to crumble under the weight of its own absurdity, Bulgaria, unlike Central Europe (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia), had neither the hardened dissidents, nor the public resolve to rid itself once and for all of the communist plaque and its bacteria.

Instead, what happened in Bulgaria after 1989 was that the senior functionaries of the Communist Party and agents of the State Security Committee (the DS, a de facto arm of the Soviet KGB), the intelligence services and secret police of the regime, have been extremely successful in engineering the transformation and retention of their power.

As the Berlin Wall was knocked down on November 9, 1989, the Bulgarian commies staged overnight (November 10) an intra-party coup (technically, a “palace coup”) removing Eastern Europe’s longest ruling communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov (in office 1954/56-1989).

Subsequently, they orchestrated the Transition (ah, the “Transition” with a capital “T”!) to a façade democracy with the trappings of rule of law, separation of powers, a multiparty system, and a partially free market economy.

The red aristocracy consisting of former senior party functionaries, intelligence agents, and secret police collaborators (and now their offspring) has thus remained Bulgaria’s ruling elite in the form of a post-communist oligarchy.

Bulgaria has ended up having no anti-communist revolution, peaceful or otherwise. It is technically being ruled by the younger generations of the same elite installed in power by the Red Army occupation and bloody coup back in 1944.

(So don’t be surprised if you hear that 30 years after the supposed end of communism, anti-communism is still a major issue in Bulgaria. Or at least that it should be.)

An important historical side note here: it is believed that as early as February 1990, during a brief visit in Sofia, then US Secretary of State James Baker made it clear that the United States would not seek to disband the communist elites in Bulgaria or other Soviet Bloc countries but would allow them to “transform”. Or something to that end.

Naturally, this has been a terrible decision for everyone – except for the communist elites!

Ever since its post-communist mimicry, Bulgaria’s “former” communist elite has held the political power by infiltrating or engineering all major political parties and creating the illusion of an opposition; holding control over all major media outlets; preserving control over key sectors of the economy; entrenching itself deeply in the judicial system; and holding the reigns of organized crime.

Another side note: during the Communist Era, the DS seems to have controlled international trafficking of drugs, weapons, antiques, etc., for both practical (funding the regime) and ideological purposes (such as hurting “the decaying West”).

After the communist palace coup, in the early 1990s, it “privatized” this state-sponsored organized crime by establishing a symbiosis with the new mafia in Bulgaria in which the “muscle” became unemployed sportsmen (mostly wrestlers but also boxers, martial arts experts, soccer players, etc.) collectively known as “mutri”.

(Actually, “mutras” is the grammatically correct plural in English; this Bulgarian word meaning “a wry face” or “an ugly face” acquired the meaning of “a thug, mobster, gangster” because of the former wrestlers’ looks).

Some former marines also joined in to spice things up. Some of these mafia bosses have made “successful careers” (of course, over 150 have been assassinated… “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”!), becoming oligarchs in their own right, and joining those DS operatives and ex commie functionaries in the oligarchy ranks.

It is this highly inspired and inspirational “elite” that has been in charge of post-communist Bulgaria, which has the façade of a western liberal democracy but only part of the substance.

Bulgaria’s institutions often work directly in favor of the oligarchy, and can be extremely energetic or apathetic depending on what it needs them to be.

Take the bankrupting of the Corporate Commercial Bank (KTB) in 2014, formerly Bulgaria’s fourth largest (it is a whole other story how it grew), which seems to have resulted from a feud between two or more oligarchs. In this conflict, the stronger side seems to have utilized major government institutions and oligarchy-controlled “media” to crush the weaker side, with lots of ordinary bank clients losing money as collateral damage.

Bulgaria’s rule of law works here and there. Take the competition watchdog, the Competition Protection Commission. It won’t do squat to investigate suspected media and fuel market monopolies or cartels but it occasionally fines wafer or detergent producers for “unfair practices”.

So, you might ask, if Bulgaria has been ruled by that post-communist oligarchy, given the high European democracy and rule of law standards, how did ever end up in the EU?

Why Did the Bulgarian Oligarchy Want to Get in the EU?

The ruling elite of post-communist Bulgaria has been smart in seeking to become legitimized as a western elite, gaining the freedom of capital flows, unfettered travel, and all the other benefits the West has to offer to the extremely wealthy regardless of the origin of their money.

If you were part of the communist aristocracy (which was not an oxymoron but a reality!) and the old system was gone, it’d be much better for you to gain the status of the ruling elite of a western country (even if you don’t abandon your old ways of “doing business”, which the Bulgarian oligarchy has not) than to stick to a post-communist nothingness of international ostracism.

Why would that be the case given that in a western country you could, at least theoretically, be investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced? The short answer is: ask the elites of Russia, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, you name it.

In addition, the majority of the Bulgarian people have longed to “return to Europe” and that little time smidgen of freedom their country enjoyed in the early 20th century, between the end of the Ottoman Yoke and the start of the communist regime.

Of course, in the minds of the Bulgarian political oligarchy, the wishes of the Bulgarian people count no more than the wishes of gravel (paraphrasing a quote from the great US satirist Dave Barry here*). But it has made good use of the public’s general desire for westernization and returning to Europe to further its own interests.

Then there is the added benefit of EU funds. It is worth reminding what the EU funds are: the good people of (Western) Europe set aside part of their tax euros to help the poorer parts of the Union catch up.

Apparently, living for decades under the horrifying experiment of communism makes you dirtbag poor. There are powerful examples all over the globe, not just in West Germany – East Germany and South Korea – North Korea. And, apparently, the more hardcore communist and Soviet-satellite you were, the poorer you end up being which is why Bulgaria has been the poorest EU member state in history.

As a result, the EU has been slating lots of development aid (“EU funds”) for Bulgaria. Guess whose companies have been around to “absorb” them, i.e. win the public procurement tenders and project funding, in various sectors? That’s right, companies owned directly or indirectly (through offshore firms or figurehead owners) by the post-communist oligarchy (including both professional politicians, and “businesspeople”). This was the second big reason for them to acquiesce to and even seek EU membership for Bulgaria.

(Part of the problem with EU funds ending in the pockets of the Bulgarian oligarchy has to do with fact that they are administered by the authorities in Sofia. In contrast, the Norwegian and EEA development aid is administered to a greater extent by Norwegian officials, and is much more efficient. Just food for thought for the next big EU reform.)

Why Didn’t Russia Prevent Bulgaria’s EU Accession?

You may be thinking that, having stemmed from the communist regime, today’s ruling Bulgarian oligarchy must still have connections with Russia, the successor of the former Soviet Union, and you would be right. After all, it has largely replicated the model of the Russian oligarchy, though in a less extreme form. So why did Moscow let Bulgaria slip into the EU (and NATO, for that matter)?

After the peaceful but messy implosion of the former USSR, for the better part of the past quarter of a century Russia wasn’t really in a position to intervene (remember the Kosovo Airport humiliation back in 1999)? It was only after the oil prices spiked in the late 2000s that Russian leader Vladimir Putin could afford to act upon what Moscow perceived as its interests in Georgia and Ukraine.

What is more, there have been indications that Bulgaria’s EU (and NATO) membership has been viewed as an opportunity by the Kremlin counting on old Communist Era allegiance among the Bulgarian political oligarchy, and on misguided pro-Russian sentiments among portions of the Bulgarian population.

Both the Russian Ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, and the former Russian Ambassador to NATO, now a Deputy PM, Dmitry Rogozin, have been credited with coining the catchphrase that Bulgaria is Russia’s “Trojan Horse” in the West (in the EU or NATO, respectively) which illustrates this line of thinking.

(The claim itself has been mostly untrue, or only partly true, but that is a whole other topic.)

Why Did the EU Ever Let the Oligarchy-Ridden Bulgaria In?

So why did the EU ever agree to admit oligarchy-ridden Bulgaria?

Western European leaders and EU bureaucrats (Eurocrats) aren’t stupid or blind (in spite of what some of their constituents might be thinking), and even though they could be terribly delusional on some issues, they weren’t on this particular one. Back in 2005, when the accession talks were completed, they were fully aware of the situation in Bulgaria.

However, they just had to get Bulgaria into the “Western Sphere”. This became especially obvious after the Yugoslav Wars in the Western Balkans, and Bulgaria (which happens to make up the “Eastern Balkans”) has been the key to cordoning off the former Yugoslavia and creating a corridor of stability and security all the way down to Greece and east to the Black Sea coast.

In the fall of 2006, right before Bulgaria’s EU accession, I studied for a semester in Berlin with a group of my American college classmates.

(By the way, on the way back from a school trip to Vienna, it was not fun being one of only two passengers on the bus who were inspected at the Austrian-German border. The other one was a humble looking African man…)

One weekend, the younger son of my German host family came home from his university in Western Germany where he was majoring in web design (if I am not mistaken). When I raised the topic of Bulgaria’s upcoming accession to the EU, his blunt and concise comment was, “Es ist alles Sicherheitspolitik” – “It’s all (about) security policy!”

I am still startled how this young German web designer summed up Bulgaria’s EU membership in one line better than any politician or political scientist I have ever heard. I was convinced back then he was right, and I am even more convinced today.

Of course, the EU leaders and EU enthusiasts have believed in the Union’s power to reform even countries with deeply entrenched hardcore post-communist oligarchies. So has the emerging Bulgarian middle class. These believers have been right but only to a certain extent.

During Bulgaria’s EU accession negotiations, for several years it was relatively easy: the EU could pressure the ruling oligarchy for certain reforms; otherwise – no accession.

It was the period of accession talks that generated the greatest reform momentum in Bulgaria’s recent history. Some were real, some were faked, but the Eurocrats did manage to extract lots of concessions from the bureaucracy in Sofia. Of course, on the most important issues the Bulgarian governments often happily dragged their feet so that the positions of the oligarchy wouldn’t be endangered. The fact that Bulgaria has had a weak civil society has not helped, either.

However, Bulgaria’s EU accession had to come some time, and sooner rather than later, because there were substantial risks of allowing the talks to drag on for too long. If that had happened, the Bulgarian oligarchy may have been tempted to return the country back into Moscow’s orbit. Such a “Belarus scenario” would have been very plausible for a non-EU Bulgaria in the late 2000s when Russia got rich on the high oil prices and took up foreign adventures once again.

Who knows what else might have happened in this corner of Europe, which from another perspective is no corner but a highway to and from the Middle East.

The EU leaders and the Eurocrats must have been aware that expecting Bulgaria to meet the Union’s criteria in full would mean expecting a revolution, and that was neither their job, nor their intention.

How to Force Post-Accession Reform on an Oligarchy? Come Up with an Insipid Acronym!

The EU let Bulgaria in with all of its ugly post-communist oligarchy, and its main bargaining chip to coerce it to reform further was lost. Now that you have gotten in the club, why bother to reform, or even pretend to reform, the rationale of the ruling circles in Sofia would go. Sort-of like staying in shape after getting married.

Of course, the EU is not completely toothless even though it was not designed for the primary purpose of uprooting corrupt ruling elites. For example, it has “infringement procedures” for misbehaving members which boil down to verbally scolding the respective member-state for years before finally sanctioning it, i.e. its people. This option might work where the ruling elite actually gives a damn about the people, which is hardly the case in Bulgaria.

A better tool in the EU toolbox is the freezing of EU funding. It was immediately employed against Bulgaria in 2008, right after its accession, during the Socialist-led Stanishev Cabinet (2005-2009).

It had to be because that particular branch of the oligarchy ruling the country at the time was too impudent. It was so excited that the EU funds were up for grabs that it went straight for embezzlement without having the decency to provide at least token services for EU’s money first.

That changed after the first Borisov Cabinet (2009-2013) came to power, when another branch of the same oligarchy figured they just ought to become “efficient” in the “absorption” of EU money (through the tenders they were going to win anyway), instead of seeking to embezzle them.

That way the EU rules are nominally respected, a huge amount of legal money flows right into their pockets, and even the Bulgarian people get to see some infrastructure built in their country.

Of course, the projects might be overpriced, the quality might be poor due to economizing on materials, etc., etc., but… the Bulgarian people should be grateful even for that. Or do they want to become Belarus, Yugoslavia, South Ossetia, or North Korea? Ha? (That’s what the oligarchy must have been thinking.)

However, the main tool which the EU engineered specially to continue stuffing reforms down the ruling oligarchy’s throat in a post-accession Bulgaria (and Romania), punishing them for having met the accession criteria only halfway, has been the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, the CVM.

This acronym sounds so insipid to me that for years, as I was covering Bulgaria’s EU membership as a journalist, I kept confusing it with CVS, that pharmacy hypermarket located near my college dorm in the US.

As it is often the case with the needlessly bureaucratic official language of the EU, which seems to be some kind of Franco-Germanized English, the CVM is an insipid phrase used to denote a toothless mechanism.

Under the CVM, during its post-accession period, Bulgaria was somehow magically expected to start being ruled by good-willed, God-fearing officials who would be so excited to work selflessly for making it a wonderful EU paradise that they wouldn’t be able to wait for every February when the Eurocrats would publish a brief paper on the country’s “progress”. (And a mid-term paper in July. The Eurocrats must have loved writing midterm papers in college.)

In those CVM papers, known as “monitoring reports”, the nice Eurocrats would explain in convoluted language designed to be as roundabout as possible the lingering problems (abominations, actually) in Bulgaria’s judiciary and fight against corruption and organized crime.

And if the Bulgarian elites, who are familiar with these “problems” because these are actually their modus operandi, method of operation, don’t rectify them, they will be severely threatened with… having to read another report next year! (Don’t forget the midterm report in July!).

You can understand that when the criminal Bulgarian oligarchy learned about the CVM, this tool the EU engineered specially for keeping them in check, it must have had a good evil laugh and more drunken orgies on its yachts.

This Eurocratic coercion has obviously failed to work because it has been 11 years now, and the “progress-or-lack-thereof” reports keep coming.

Side Note on Romania: A Neighbor with a Less Burdensome Communist Legacy

Bulgaria’s neighbor north of the Danube, Romania, has been the other problematic EU member. When the two joined the Union in 2007, it, too, was also placed under the scrutiny of the humbling “Cooperation and Verification Mechanism”. However, Romania has been in a much better position than Bulgaria for two major reasons (not counting its size).

First, Romania has had problems with corruption, not unlike Bulgaria. However, unlike Bulgaria, it hasn’t had problems with organized crime. That is really important because corruption entails handing envelopes with money under the table, while organized crime entails assassinating people.

Bulgarian criminal journalist Slavi Angelov offered a very plausible explanation for this difference between the two countries when I interviewed him in 2010: in Bulgaria, the communist intelligence and secret police, the DS, created and operated organized crime channels, and then “privatized” them after 1989. This was not the case with the Romanian equivalent of DS, the Securitate, which cracked down hard on any kind of organizations outside the official regime. So modern day Romania has had to tackle corruption only, whereas in Bulgaria it is top level corruption coupled with organized crime: a strong mafia with direct ties to the oligarchy, in seeming symbiosis with the political establishment.

Second, Romania has not had the links to Moscow engineered in Bulgaria through during the communist period.

In fact, many top-level Bulgarian communists saw themselves not as Bulgarians, and not even as Russians, but as Muscovites, a specific species of rulers of the Eurasian communist empire. This must have been true of Vasil Kolarov (1877-1950) and Georgi Dimitrov (1882-1949), both Secretaries-General of the Communist International, and other communist terrorists who stirred the September Uprising in 1923 and blew up the St. Nedelya Cathedral in Sofia in 1925, one of the bloodiest terrorist attacks on European soil. This Muscovite self-perception might be true even today of the descendants and disciples of communist Bulgaria’s most powerful families who still rule the country in one way or another.

Why the EU Cooperation and Verification Mechanism for Bulgaria Has Been Useless But Necessary

A “Cooperation and Verification Mechanism”? The name is not just insipid but it also reveals certain naiveté on part of some factors in the EU. Bulgaria’s ruling oligarchy begotten by the Soviet occupation and the bloody coup of 1944 is expected to just peacefully abandon its status, wealth, orgies, or whatever it is that it does in its spare time, just so the good people of Bulgaria and the EU could have another European democracy and a just society? And it is even expected to “verify” its self-dissolution. That must be really hard to say no to.

But enough bashing of EU naivety. As mentioned earlier, the EU leaders and the Eurocrats have been only partly naïve. What is more, it is not their responsibility to do the Bulgarians’ job for them such as carrying out revolutions (velvet), or at least quick evolution (the people of Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, and Hungary have done both).

My main argument here is that for the oligarchy-ridden Bulgaria the EU Cooperation and Verification Mechanism and its monitoring reports are both useless, and necessary. Here is why:

Useless: The CVM has been useless because it is unrealistic as a tool for change. As already noted, it’s like asking the oligarchy to dispossess its own self of its self-esteem, assets, yachts, banks, silicone-implanted bimbos, drugs, money, limos, political power, international connections, legitimacy, and send itself to prison and oblivion (if not worse).

It’s not like Bulgaria has ruling elites who are aspiring to do good by their people, and therefore need someone from the outside to tell them how to, and then verify their “progress”. To the contrary, they don’t want any progress on fighting corruption and organized crime because they are the corruption and organized crime.

It’s a matter of life or death for them to prevent any major reforms to that end (which they have), or at least to stall them for decades (which they have as well).

The ruling oligarchy in Bulgaria is both the culprit and the judge so there is no way it would ever sentence itself. These are not Christian martyrs repenting for their sins, as the CVM seems to assume; these as the monstrous offspring of hardened international communist criminals.

What is more, at present there even is no possibility that the Bulgarian oligarchy would agree to a grand bargain in which it would step down making way for European normalcy in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

That’s because it is so comfortably omnipotent and deeply entrenched in all public spheres, and neither the weak civil society, nor the EU institutions have been able to threaten its comfort in any tangible way.

Necessary: Despite having no chance of working out by itself, the CVM is still necessary for today’s Bulgaria simply because it is the only tool that the EU has managed to engineer for exerting pressure (at least on the perception level) on the corrupt oligarchy in Sofia.

It is an anchor of normalcy regularly reminding those Bulgarians who do understand what it stands for what an EU member state (or any decent state) should be like. Also, it does force the oligarchy-dominated governments of Bulgaria to pay at least lip service to the need for reforms.

For all those reasons, the CVM must not be abolished. It must be used as much as possible, and as harshly as possible, and if combined with a stronger civil society and middle class inside Bulgaria, a stronger EU, and political pressure from the West, it has a chance of making a difference. Of course, at present all of these seem like distant prospects.

Unfortunately, the Eurocratic language of the CVM progress reports makes no sense to the average Bulgarian citizen, and even to many of the seemingly ignorant reporters who are supposed to cover them.

This way the heads of the Bulgarian executive, legislature, and judiciary can always claim that the monitoring reports account for their progress, and that they are objective and positive. Of course, that is hardly ever the case, and the Bulgarian politicians and magistrates are well aware of that. They are also aware that the EU is only partly supranational, and it can’t go meddle into its states’ domestic affairs to fix them, even though a lot of Bulgarians have mistakenly hoped so.

If thе ruling elites in Bulgaria (who are part of or controlled by the oligarchy), ever had good will for “progress”, the country’s major issues would be fixable within months. Unfortunately, the only good will these people have is for perpetuating their own excesses, abuses, and privileges at the expense of the people, morals, decency, and all that is good and pure.

Keep Hope and the CVM Alive

In conclusion, Bulgaria’s EU membership might be the only thing preventing the country’s vicious oligarchy from plunging it into chaos and bringing it to self implosion with their excesses. Such a scenario would spell disaster for the entire West, and for liberal democracies because of Bulgaria’s geopolitical and geostrategic location.

(If you think this is an overstatement of Bulgaria’s importance in European and world history (having to do mostly with its location, but not only), think back to World War I. As a number of historians have concluded, Bulgaria’s entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers (Germany’s) extended the First World War by 2-3 years. The repercussions of that have been enormous: Lenin’s October Revolution in Russia, America’s active involvement in European and global affairs, the Ottoman Empire’s collapse and the birth of a Turkish nation-state (sort-of), to name a few. Had Bulgaria joined the Entente or remained neutral, World War I would have been over in 1915 or 1916 at the latest.)

Bulgaria’s NATO membership is seen as being part of a package with the EU membership. It is almost just as important. The problem is that the United States seems to have been even more cooperative with the former communist elites than the Europeans. That’s in accordance with their “our son-of-a-bitch” foreign policy approach. Except it’s not certain that these “sons of bitches” are theirs given their past and their willingness to serve even Satan if need be.

At present, the CVM (not CVS, I have finally managed to remember it!) is just part of the status quo of post-communist Bulgaria. But since there is nothing better to replace it, it should be allowed to linger on. It must remain in place for a very long time, and it might even end up having an important role if some other circumstances get changed.

Bulgaria’s EU membership of Bulgaria has not only done wonders for the security of the entire continent (and beyond), but it is also the major factor (combined with its NATO membership) preventing the Bulgarian oligarchy from slipping the country back into the nothingness.

If the EU survives, and Bulgaria’s civil society and middle class manage to stand their ground and even grow, there will be plenty of reasons for optimism.

Ivan Dikov


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