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American diplomacy’s comeback and Bulgaria’s institutional trench war

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

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Even though many mainstream media outlets have not noticed it, US diplomacy has staged a gran comeback in the Balkans. The Biden administration chose Bulgaria as the stage on which to reaffirm America’s hold on the region. Putting strong sanctions on Bulgarian oligarch, Washington is signalling not-so subtly to Russia that its reach goes far and wide. But there are sensible implication for the little South-Eastern European country’s future as well. Perhaps, the fight against systemic corruption is finally reaching its apogee. Could this be the end of misgovernance?

A corrupted country — Introduction

Many argue that corruption in Bulgaria and South-Eastern Europe is but a remnant of national Communist Parties’ half-century long rule. Thus, the EU’s threat to metaphorically swap the carrot for the ­­stick should have favoured a thorough clean-up. Instead, it merely yielded some short-term successes for anti-corruption campaigners, activist judges and specialised procurators. Yet, State capture and malpracticesremain endemic for one reason or another amongst post-socialist countries inside and outsidethe Union. More specifically, these efforts were vain and Bulgaria was still ill-equippedwhen it joined the Union on January 1, 2007. Hence, Brussels allowed in a deeply corrupted country where hidden interest behold even those occupying the highest echelons of power.

If not membership in the European Union, at least internal politics could have helped the country fend off endemic maladministration. Yet, the status quo has preserved itself intact despite calls and promises to root out corruption having been getting louder. In a sense, corruption’s pervasiveness is a feature and not a bug embedded in Bulgaria’s imperfect liberal free-market democracy. These conservative – and, in a sense, perverting – forces have found their embodiment in Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his associates. Therefore, governmental agencies, political parties, courts and the entire extant structure of power contribute to prevent any change.

The wind of change: Popular unrest and institutional trench war

That notwithstanding, the proverbial ‘wind of change’ may have begun to lash across Bulgaria in summer 2020. After having taken to the streets against the party of power’s abuses and failures, voters abandoned Borisov in the April 2021 elections. Conversely, new parties and loose coalitions of civil-society organisations, formed shortly before the contest, won a relative majority of preferences. And, as many analysts noticed, these newcomers do not share much besides the desire to “dismantle the Borisov system”.

Nonetheless, these new actors failed to form a governing coalition due to the heterogeneity and inherent negativity of their agendas. Thus, President Rumen Radev scheduled new elections on July 11 and appointed a caretaker government.

Political reconfigurations

Indeed, there is an institutional custom prescribing such cabinets to limit their activities to managing current affairs. Nonetheless, these technocrats – many of whom supported Radev in his feud with Borisov – started an extensive review of past governments. In the process, the cabinet reshuffledbureaucracies, suspended Sofia airport’s concession and halted other public tenders for suspected irregularities. More importantly, the ministry of interior has confirmed prior suspects that Borisov-appointed officers may have illegally wiretapped opposition politicians.

In a word, President Radev’s ministers are endeavouring to tear apart the ‘Borisov system’ before the next elections. However, simply ousting most – or even all – of the previous government’s men in key positions within State apparatuses is uncomplicated. Especially when pushing such an agenda is the President,with the palpable backing of an absolute majority of the population. But the Borisov system has also an economic component. In fact, the party of power has set up a tentacular network of supportive oligarchs funding and favourable media coverage. Putting them out of the game is equally, if not more, important than firing bureaucrats — but also much more difficult.

Chasing the oligarchs

In other words, undoing the Borisov system’s appointments and putting trustworthy officers in those posts in just the first step. But real change requires leaving the wealthy individuals and organisations benefitting from the status quo clawless and teethless. Such a task entails deep economic transformations that would surely evoke immense opposition from powerful pressure groups. Evidently, there is not enough time before Bulgarians vote again and their representatives pick up a new executive. But the caretaker government is powerless in front of Bulgaria ‘s condemnation to persistent corruption no matter what.

On the contrary, the government has endeavoured to chase and derail some of these Borisov-connected oligarch. For instance, the finance minister appointed an Audit Committee with the task of reviewing the Bulgarian Development Bank’s (BBR) activities. As a result, the public discovered that oligarchs had steered the BBR away from its mandate of supporting small companies. In fact, eight large private companies have received more than half of the BRR’s total credits or ca. €473 million. On average, each of them has borrowed almost €60mln — and “this is not a small and medium business. In addition, these companies borrowed against a 2% rate instead of the average 5–7%. Following this leak, the Minister of Finance fired the entire board of the BBR. He also instructed the Bulgarian National Bank (BNB) to appoint a new directorate.

The US strike back

Quite surprisingly, the United States has just given Radev and his government a valuable assist. On June 2, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned several “individuals for their extensive roles in corruption”. In first instance, the sanctions target Vasil Bozhkov, a Bulgarian businessman currently hiding in Dubaito escape an arrest warrant for accusation of bribery; Delyan Peevski, prominent figure of and former member of the Parliament for the predominantly Turk Dvizhenie za Prava i Svobodi as well as the owner/controller four of the companies involved in the BBR’s scandal;  and Ilko Zhelyazkov, former appointee to the National Bureau for Control on Special Intelligence-Gathering Devices. Secondarily, the US have sanctioned “their networks encompassing 64 entities” with which no transaction in dollars is possible.

The US chose to hit Bulgaria, a NATO ally, with “the single largest action targeting corruption to date”. On the one hand, this falls within the boundaries of the current administration’s effort to restore America’s moral stewardship. More to the point, one may interpret the sanctions as a not-so/veiled message to Russia — which heavily influences Bulgarian politics. Still, those who had been looking at US-Bulgaria bilateral relations should have expected a similar decision. After all, the sanctions came after US ambassador Herro Mustafa’s reiterated criticisms of pervasive corruption in the country. Mustafa has also refused symbolically to meet Chief Public Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, who embodies systemic corruption in Bulgaria.

Consequently, the game has scaled up to a whole new quality now. The BNB barred all Bulgarian banks to entertain commercial relationships with people under US sanctions. Moreover, the BNB had already froze some of Peevvski’s, Bozhkov’s and Zhelyazkov’s deposits, means of payment, and assets earlier. However, after the OFAC’s decision, the block extended to their entire network of affiliates and related entities.

Conclusion: The US are reclaiming the Balkans, and it may not be bad for Bulgarians

Officially, corruption’s malign influence on democracy provides the US with a moral justification to sanction any corrupt individua. Namely, the Treasury argues that it

undermines the values that form an essential foundation of stable, secure, and functioning societies; ha[s] devastating impacts on individuals; weaken[s] democratic institutions; degrade[s] the rule of law; perpetuate[s] violent conflicts; facilitate[s] the activities of dangerous persons; and undermine economic markets.  

Surely, the soon-to-come meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also played a role in this decision.

Yet, the sanctions’ timing suggests that there might be other forces at play. Rather, it seems that Washington decided to pick a side in the ongoing institutional trench war between Presidency and Government.

From Bulgaria’s perspective, even though most American media have not noticed it, the impression is quite clear. To quote President Biden: “America is back, diplomacy is back”. Specifically, this resurgence has a special meaning in the Balkans, a region of immense relevance for Europe’s energy security. Concretely, the US is taking the lead in the West’s effort to keep China, Russia, and Turkey out.

True, whether this external support will suffice for Bulgaria to finally eradicate corruption is debatable. Nevertheless, the US’s return may spur a positive competition dynamic in which Washington and Brussels compete for limited normative power. If this was the case, increase international pressures on Bulgaria to limit corruption may reach a breaking point relatively soon. At which point, either a fundamental shift will take place; or Bulgarian elites will entrench further

Fabio A. Telarico was born in Naples, Southern Italy. Since 2018 he has been publishing on websites and magazines about the culture, society and politics of South Eastern Europe and the former USSR in Italian, English, Bulgarian and French. As of 2021, he has edited two volumes and is the author of contributions in collective works. He combines his activity as author and researcher with that of regular participant to international conferences on Europe’s periphery, Russia and everything in between. For more information, visit the Author’s website (in English and Bulgarian).

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Is European humanity skin deep?

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At the border crossing between Ukraine and Moldova at Palanca, refugees stand in line. © UNICEF/Vincent Tremeau

When talking about security the most common line of thought tends to be war and the actors involved in the attack, however, all the people who had regular lives within those territories that are jeopardized are as important. With the increasing tensions and armed conflicts happening within the Twenty First Century, the movement of people searching for shelter has increased. More asylum seekers leave their home countries every single day and contemporary politics is still struggling to find a way to catch up. Europe, history wise, is the zone of the world that deals with more refugees wanting to enter the continent due to different factors: geography, proximity, democratic systems, level of development and more. Nevertheless, with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, true sentiments towards refugees are now being put on display.

Even though all refugees are fleeing their countries because their lives are in mortal danger, authorities and government officials do not seem to care. Processes to apply for the refugee status are getting harder and harder. In Europe, to apply for a refugee passport, people are asked for identifications, online questionaries and many other unrealistic aspects that if not answered correctly, the whole process is cancelled. It is ridiculous to believe that when people are scaping in order to stay alive, they will take under consideration all these requirements to receive help, sometimes even from neighboring countries. Which inevitably leads to the following question: why are refugees accepted based on the legality of their applications and not of their status?

By 2016, nearly 5.2 million refugees reached European shores, which caused the so called refugee crisis. They came mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq: countries torn apart by armed conflicts. Similarly, with Russia’s invasion over the Ukraine in 2022, only few days deep within the fighting,  874,000 people had to flee their homes. Nonetheless, the issue seems to be that, for Europe, not all refugees are the same. When the refugee crisis in 2015 was declared, the European Union called for stopping and detaining all arriving refugees for around 18 months. There was a strong reluctancy from Europeans towards offering them shelter. On the contrary, countries such as Poland and Slovakia have said that Ukrainian refugees fleeing will be accepted without passports, or any valid travel documents due to the urgency of the situation. Therefore, stating with their actions, that Ukrainian refugees are more valuable or seem to be more worthy of help than refugees from Asia, Africa, or the Middle East.

Correspondingly, it is true that not all countries inside Europe deal and act the same way towards refugees, be that as it may, with the current refugee crisis it has been proved that they all share strong sentiments of xenophobia and racism. For instance, Hungary is a country that refused to admit refugees coming from outside Europe since 2015. In 2018, Prime Minister Viktor Orban described non-European refugees as “Muslim invaders” and “poison” to society, in comparison with Ukrainian refugees who are being welcomed without hesitation. In the same way, Jarosław Kaczyński, who served as Prime Minister of Poland and is the leader of the Law and Justice party, in 2017 said that accepting asylum seekers from Syria would be dangerous and would “completely change our culture and radically lower the level of safety in our country”. Furthermore, Germany in 2015 with Chancellor Angela Merkel in charged said that they would accept one million of Syrians. Although, as time passed, Europe’s solution was to make a deal with Turkey, who is not part of the European Union, to close the migrant route. Moreover, the promise of letting refugees integrate into German society was not fulfilled since. Seven year later, an impressive amount of refugees are still in camps and centers, with their lives frozen in time. Sadly, most European governments gambled towards the idea of sending them back once the armed conflict was over, without caring for the aftermath of war’s destruction.

The common narrative until now pushed by leaders, politicians, and mass media has been that Ukrainians are prosperous, civilized, middle class working people, but refugees coming from the Middle East are terrorists, and refuges from Africa are simply too different. Despite, refugees are all people who share similar emotions and struggle to grasp the fact that their lives may never be the same; having lost their homes, friends, family and so much more. Plus, being selectively welcomed based on their religion, skin color or nationality by the continent which’s complete rhetoric is universal rights, just adds another complex layer to the issue. Conjointly, the displacement of people due to war displays how regular individuals are always the ones who suffer the most in consequence to the interests of the few that represent larger powers. Hence, greed, envy, and cruelty are stronger than recognized, even in a developed continent such as Europe.

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What Everyone Should Know About Preventing Ethnic Violence: The Case of Bosnia

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Image source: srebrenica.org.uk

When the Balkans spiraled into violence and genocide in the 90’s, many wondered what caused this resurgence in militant ethnic nationalism and how a similar situation may be countered.

***

The 1990’s were a vibrant decade, that is unless you were living in the Balkans. 1995 was especially bad, as the 11th of July of that year marked the Srebrenica Massacre, which saw Serbian soldiers murder over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims over the span of two weeks. This shocked the world, as it was the first case of a European country resorting to extreme violence and genocide on ethnic lines since World War II. After World War II, the idea that a European country would resort to genocide was unthinkable. As Balkan nations continue to see the consequences of the massacre after over 25 years, it is increasingly evident that more needs to be done to curb ethnic violence.

We must first investigate key causes of ethnic violence. According to V.P. Gagnon, the main driver of ethnic violence is elites that wish to stay in power. Ethnic nationalism is easy to exploit, as creating a scapegoat is extremely effective for keeping elites in power. This is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia, which had previously seen high levels of tolerance and intermarriage in more mixed areas that saw the worst violence during the war. Stuart J. Kaufman argues that elites may take advantage of natural psychological fears of in-group extinction, creating group myths, or stereotypes, of outgroups to fuel hatred against them. While they may take different approaches to this issue, Gagnon and Kaufman agree that the main drivers of ethnic violence are the elites.

David Lake and Donald Rothchild suggest that the main driver of ethnic conflict is collective fears for the future of in-groups. Fear is one of the most important emotions we have because it helps secure our existence in a hostile world. However, fear can easily be exploited by the elites to achieve their personal goals. In a multiethnic society such as Yugoslavia, the rise of an elite that adheres to the prospects of a single ethnic group could prove dangerous and sometimes even disastrous. The destruction of Yugoslavian hegemony under Josip Broz Tito and the resulting explosion of ethnic conflict at the hands of Serbian elites in Bosnia underline this because of the immense fear this created.

Regions with high Serb populations in Bosnia sought independence from the rest of the country when they found themselves separated from Serbia by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Republika Srpska was formed by these alienated Serbs. The leadership and elites in Serbia riled up the Serb population of Republika Srpska by stereotyping and demonizing Bosnian Muslims as “descendants of the Turkish oppressors”. This scared the Serbs in Bosnia so much so that they obeyed the elites of Serbia in supporting and fighting for the independence of Republika Srpska by any means necessary. As was seen in Srebrenica, they were not opposed to genocide.

We know how the elites fuel ethnic tensions to secure power as well of the devastating effects of these tensions reaching their boiling point. But what could be done to address ethnic conflict? David Welsh suggests that a remedy for ethnic conflict could be the complete enfranchisement of ethnic minorities and deterrence towards ethnic cleansing. This means that we must ensure that ethnic minorities are able to have a say in a democratic system that caters to all ethnicities equally. Fostering aversion to genocide is also vital toward addressing ethnic conflict because it is the inevitable result of unchecked ethnic conflict.

There is also the issue of members of ethnic groups voting for candidates and parties on ethnic lines. For example, in the United States, White American voters have shown to prefer White candidates over African American candidates, and vice versa. Keep in mind that the United States has a deep history of ethnic conflict, including the centuries-long subjugation of African Americans by White Americans.

Ethnic violence is horrifying and destructive, but it can be prevented. The first measure would be the establishment of a representative democracy, where members of all ethnicities are accurately represented. Another measure would be to make ethnic conflict and ethnic stereotyping taboo so that the average person would not resort to genocidal behavior once things go wrong. Lastly, making people feel secure is the most important step towards preventing ethnic conflict. If the people feel secure enough, they will not even need to think about ethnic violence. In short, while it is important to consider the differences of the various ethnic groups in a multiethnic society, it is vital that each group is kept represented and secure, free of any fears of subjugation.

While the case of Bosnia was extremely unfortunate, it provides an integral view into what could happen if perceived subjugation and fear of eradication reaches a breaking point. As was seen in Bosnia, ethnic violence can be extremely violent, resulting in untold suffering and death. That is why we must take necessary steps towards de-escalation and remediation of ethnic conflicts. These measures can, quite literally, save millions of lives.

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French Presidential Election 2022 and its significance for Europe

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Eugene Delacroix’s infamous painting “la liberté Guidant le Peuple” reminds the whole world of the July Revolution of 1830 that toppled King Charles X of France. The lady in the centre of the painting with the French tricolour still symbolizes the concept of liberty and reminds the whole world of revolutions and sacrifices made for freedom. France indeed has a long journey from revolting against “if they have no bread, let them eat cake” in 1789 to establishing a modern democratic society with the principles of “liberty, equality and fraternity”.  

France and the United States are rightly considered the birthplace of modern democracy. The French revolution taught the whole world lessons about revolution, freedom modern nationalism, liberalism and sovereignty. In 2022, France celebrates the 233rd year of Bastille Day which led to a new dawn in the French political system. From establishing 1ere Republique (1st Republic) in 1792, France has evolved and is currently under the 5eme Republique (5th Republic) under the constitution crafted by Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

Today, France is holding its presidential elections. As the French believe, ‘You first vote with your heart, then your head’, the first round of voting was concluded on Sunday 10th April and the Presidential debate on 20th April 2022. While the whole world waits for the 24th of April’s second round of elections and their results, this article attempts to understand the French electoral system and analyze Why French Presidential elections are important for Europe?

French electoral system

France is a semi-presidential democracy; the president is at the centre of power and Prime Minister heads the government. The president of the French republic is elected by direct universal suffrage where all French citizens aged 18 and above can vote, whether residing in France or not. In France, there is a two-round system in which voters vote twice on two Sundays, two weeks apart. This two-round system is widely practised in central and eastern Europe as well as Central Asia, South America and Africa.

In order to apply, a candidate needs 500 signatures of elected officials and they should be at least from 30 government departments. A candidate can be an independent or he or she can represent a political party. There is no limit to how many candidates can run for presidential elections. For instance, in 2002 there were 16 candidates, in 2017- 11 and in 2022 there are 12. While all the candidates have the right to equal media presence, the amount of spending on campaigns is also monitored; for the 1st round, the spending must not exceed 16.9 million euros and for the second round, it has been limited to 22.5 million euros.

This year, the 1st round of voting was concluded on 10th April while the second one is scheduled to be held on 24th April 2022. In the first round, all 12 candidates were eligible but for the second round, only two candidates who got the maximum votes are qualified for the second round.

A brief overview of French presidential candidates

Emmanuel Macron, five years ago at the age of 39, became the youngest French president of the French republic. In 2017, he broke the dominance of the two major French parties- Republicans and Socialists- by running a campaign “neither left nor right”. During the tenure of Emmanuel Macron, a hardcore centrist, France has witnessed a 7% GDP growth, unemployment dropped by 7.2% and the crime rate has fallen to 27%.

A far-rightist, Marine Le Pen is the other presidential candidate who succeeded her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as leader of the National Front (later National Rally) party in 2011. She was also contesting against Emmanuel Macron during the 2017 elections and before that in 2012, against Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande. While she embraced the party’s anti-immigration stance, she rebranded the party’s Euroskepticism as French nationalism.

This year, in the April 2022 elections, the current President of France, Emanuel Macron and far-right leader, Marine Le Pen are the two candidates with Macron running ahead with a lead of 4.7 per cent votes (Emmanuel Macron-27.8% & Marine Le Pen- 23.1%).

Why French Presidential elections are important for Europe?

While European defence is primarily assured by the US-led NATO military alliance, of which most EU states are members, French president Macron said,  “Europe needs to finally build its own collective security framework on our continent…”, advocating for a ‘European Security’ framework amid tensions with Russia over Ukraine.

On the other hand, Le Pen’s party has been looked upon suspiciously that it might have received financing from a Russian bank connected to the Russian President Putin. In an interview with French public radion, Le pen said, “It will be necessary diplomatically, when the war [in Ukraine] is over, when a peace treaty has been signed, to try to avoid this tie-up which risks being the largest danger of the 21st century for us,” she even further added, “Imagine … if we let the first producer of raw materials in the world — which is Russia — [create an alliance] with the first factory of the world — which is China — to let them perhaps constitute the first military power of the world. I believe that it’s a potentially great danger.” These statements only further reinforce the claims that Le Pen is more pro-Russia.

While Macron is anti-Brexit, Le Pen, on the other hand, has been known for her ‘Frexit’ plan, meaning, that she wanted France to leave the EU and abandon the euro. However, during the 2022 elections, it appears that Le Pen has softened her stance on Frexit. Another important issue pertaining to immigration has been significant not only for France but the whole of Europe. This issue of immigration is directly linked with the “economic and cultural concerns” which raises an important worry about immigrants’ socio-political and economic integration into the French society and abiding by the principle of laïcité (secularism with French characters).

As for Macron, he wants to create a “rapid reaction force” to help protect EU states’ borders in case of a migrant surge and is also pushing for a rethink of the bloc’s asylum application process. Macron also said that he urges the EU to be more efficient in deporting those refused entries. On the other hand, Marine Le Pen during her campaign stated, “I will control immigration and establish security for all.” It is pertinent to note that Macron has introduced strict laws pertaining to immigration and controlling Islamic radicalization. For instance, he introduced the bill to ban foreign funding to mosques.

What is more interesting to mention is the concerns about ‘energy’ in the presidential election. Evidently, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has gained more attention on the economic and geopolitical consequences of existing national and European energy supply chain choices. In France especially, there is a major rift between the pro and anti-nuclear power fractions. Interestingly, France has the second most nuclear power stations in the world after the United States.  Besides, in the last week of the elections, Macron has been attempting to win the hearts of the French voters with his proposal for a “complete renewal” of his climate policy. He has also promised to build up to 14 nuclear reactors by 2050 and regenerate existing plants. Meanwhile, Le Pen has promised to build 20 nuclear plants and aim to have nuclear power provide 81 per cent of France’s energy by 2050. While the current president Macron and far-right candidate Le Pen have both committed to the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming, it is evident that their approaches differ particularly on energy. Since France is Europe’s second-biggest economy, France’s climate policy could echo right across the EU.

Besides, in light of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis, Macron has played a significant role as he is the bridgehead for Russia and the US. He has also negotiated talks between Washington DC and Moscow and has also condemned the crisis by making the statement, “Russia is not under attack, it is the aggressor. As some unsustainable propaganda would have us believe, this war is not as big as the battle against, that is a lie.” Indeed, he has played the role of Europe’s de-facto leader vis-à-vis the Ukraine crisis. Nonetheless, with a marginal win in the first round against Marine Le Pen, winning the 2nd term is not as easy as it was five years ago.

More importantly, it is pertinent to note that France has the 2nd strongest military and 2nd biggest economy in Europe, further the 5th biggest economy in the world. France is not only the most visited country in the world but also ranks 1st in the global soft power index. It is also the founding member of the United Nations Security Council, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union which makes it an important player in European politics. Consequently, the policies of the French leadership not only direct the political, social and economic lives of the French but also reverberate in Europe.

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