WITH BULGARIA AT THE HELM

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A first for the poor Balkan country, but also a first for the EU

The government in Sofia takes this very seriously. On 1 January 2018 Bulgaria will become the rotating president of the EU for the first time since it was accepted as a member in 2007. Boyko Borisov appointed a special minister for the EU presidency, creating a government post foredoomed to be rather short-lived. Millions of leva were spent on a variety of infrastructure projects, Borisov's favourite, ranging from renovations of the Communist-era NDK, where most of the EU meetings and events will be held, to making Sofia's central roads narrower in order to make way for bicycle paths. There will also be a "cultural" programme which includes the creation of a… carpet of Bulgarian roses.

The EU will also mark a first with Bulgaria at its helm. It has never before been chaired by a country that continues to be under special monitoring in key areas such as the much-needed but not even commenced judicial reforms. Organised crime, rampant corruption, nepotism, the sorry state of the media and the rapidly deteriorating quality of Bulgarian democracy under Borisov will all contribute to having an interesting chairman of the European alliance. Bulgaria is not – and has no real chance in the foreseeable future – to be allowed into either Schengen or the eurozone. So, officials attending the meetings in Sofia will have to have their passports checked and their euros converted into the local currency.

Politically, one needs to look no further than the composition of the current government. It includes pronounced extreme nationalists such as Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov, the leader of the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria; Defence Minister Aleksandar Karakachanov, who heads the VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation; and of course Volen Siderov, the notorious leader of Ataka. The language used by those often dwarfs Hungary's Orban, Poland's Kaczyński and the whole of the Le Pen family taken collectively. Whether the EU will take this as seriously as the Sofia government treats the city pavements remains to be seen.

There are a few indications that it won't, however. Ahead of the presidency, Boyko Borisov's government did a few things that should have made the eurocrats through the corridors in Brussels see red. One instance is the famed, much talked-about and enormously needed anticorruption legislation. Ever since Bulgaria started making noises to join the EU, back in the late 1990s, corruption and the fight against it has been at the top of the EU-imposed requirements. Various governments have enacted various rules and regulations, set up anticorruption councils and bodies, devised websites where citizens should have been able to report on corrupt practices. None of those have worked. Bulgaria has slid down to the rock bottom in the EU.

Now the Borisov government has pushed for, and parliament has adopted, new anticorruption legislation which will make it possible for those accused of corruption to sue the whistleblowers regardless of whether the reports of corrupt practices are true. Critics have immediately seen this as the end of any serious anticorruption effort. Worse, they have forecast yet another way to muzzle the media.

Under Boyko Borisov, the state of the Bulgarian media has hit lows unthinkable in the heady days of the 1990s and 2000s. Bulgaria is now at the bottom of the EU in terms of media freedoms. Fake news proliferates left, right and centre, media ownership remains at best hazy, and the government directly or indirectly uses repression to stifle criticism against itself.

The latest example of this involves Ivo Prokopiev, the entrepreneur who publishes the Kapital weekly and the Dnevnik daily newspapers.

To understand what is at stake, one needs to consider the background. A few years ago, at the insistence and with the blessing of Western governments Bulgaria established an illegal assets forfeiture commission. Its prerogatives are wide-ranging. It has the power to seize assets, without a court order, it considers illegally acquired. At the time, the ambassadors of major Western countries in Sofia were enthusiastic about the new agency. Such agencies exist in the UK, in Ireland and in other EU states, they pointed out, surmising that if they operated well there they would be able to operate well here as well.

However, in the heavily corrupt and nepotistic reality of Bulgaria, which lacks the checks and balances of the West and which has little or no democratic traditions, an agency with such powers can easily be turned into a bludgeon to cosh political opponents with.

This is what some see is now happening to Ivo Prokopiev and his media. Ahead of Christmas the agency ordered the seizure of his assets and froze some of his bank accounts over… a privatisation deal for a chemical factory dating back to the 1990s. That deal, which has already been tested and tried, was years ago pronounced by a court to be legitimate. The commission, however, now acts despite that court order.

Whether Kapital and Dnevnik will shut down as a result of this is not very likely. The dog is buried elsewhere. The importance of the exercise, as Boyko Borisov and his lieutenants in GERB know, is to show to this country's citizens who really pulls the strings. If this can happen to an entrepreneur of Prokopiev magnitude, money, political connections and so on and so forth, just think how we can deal with a small and independent publisher who can barely make ends meet because the government is not handing out any advertising revenue.

According to Professor Velislav Minekov, a sculptor and an outspoken activist, the situation in Bulgaria under GERB has become so hopeless that it can be compared to a junta regime. "There is no justice," says Professor Minekov. "There is no intention to start any judiciary reforms because the justice system as it stands is very convenient to… smash political opponents with, to repress the independent media, to crush citizens who have an opinion, to destroy businesses that may be seen as competitive. This country has reached the rock bottom and cannot be compared to any other European state and not even to some of the dictatorships."

As Bulgaria takes over the rotating presidency, the EU must not let all of this just pass. To do that would be short-sighted, and will sooner or later backfire in the face of the EU. Sooner rather than later.

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