Beyond the Brutal Journalist Murder: Bulgaria Is Going Very Bad and the West Isn’t Noticing
Bulgaria doesn’t stand out much against the backdrop of all other major international worries for the West but its situation warrants closer attention in order to avoid potential trouble down the road.
The brutal murder of journalist Viktoria Marinova as she was jogging along the Danube one sunny day in the fall of 2018 recently focused global attention on Bulgaria.
Marinova’s murder occurred right after as a regional TV station head and host she aired a report on a large-scale corruption case involving EU funds. Not unlike other inconvenient stories for Bulgaria’s ruling oligarchy, that case has been ignored by the country’s mainstream media.
After a suspect was arrested in Germany and repatriated, Bulgaria’s leadership eagerly declared the horrific murder a “regular” criminal offense, not a contract killing of an inconvenient journalist.
Whichever proves to be the case, Marinova’s murder once again put Bulgaria in the international spotlight as “the poorest and most corrupt” EU member state.
Those labels aren’t untrue but the reality is much more gruesome: Bulgaria is going very bad, and nobody in the rest of the West seems to be noticing.
Despite the tirelessness of its leadership, Bulgaria hasn’t been able to top the concerns list of the European Union and the United States for one simple reason: lots of stuff are going even worse for the West all over the world map.
The grave failure of Bulgaria’s principal allies and partners to notice its troubles, however, may cause serious trouble for the entire West further down the road because of the Balkan country’s geopolitical position, which lends it greater importance than its own potential does.
Brussels, Washington, and Berlin simply aren’t justified in taking Bulgaria’s Western belonging for granted.
Apart from the worsening international environment, there are two main reasons Bulgaria’s deteriorating domestic situation remains largely unnoticed by the EU and the US.
First, Bulgaria’s economy has been growing by nearly 4% per year since 2015, coupled with macroeconomic stability in its state finances. For the first time, in 2018 Bulgaria’s GDP surpassed the benchmark of BGN 100 billion (EUR 50 billion or USD 56 billion). (Which isn’t that impressive keeping in mind that’s just 0.3% of the EU’s total GDP. And, of course, without the oligarchy’s abuses, Bulgaria’s growth would have easily doubled.)
Second, the oligarchy-dominated regime in Sofia is docile within the EU (often parroting Berlin’s positions) as long as high-level corruption and embezzlement in Bulgaria remain unscathed.
That differentiates Bulgaria from other former communist Eastern European EU member states who stir major trouble for Brussels: most notably, Hungary and Poland where Orban and Kaczynski have styled themselves global pioneers of the “illiberal democratic order”.
The Borisov regime in Sofia has had no such ideological ambitions, and finds those of Budapest and Warsaw perplexing. Its main concern has been preserving and expanding the status and wealth of the post-communist oligarchy against the backdrop of Bulgaria’s EU membership.
In international politics it keeps kowtowing to Brussels, Washington, Moscow, Ankara, and Berlin, often simultaneously, while seeking to steer clear of hard choices among them.
Positive economic developments in Bulgaria have resulted from foreign and some decent domestic investments in manufacturing, the fact that the IT sector has been left out of political interference, and the inflow of EU funding (a fair share of which likely ends in the Bulgarian oligarhcy’s greedy pockets).
Yet, a close look at Bulgaria reveals a far uglier bigger picture. To begin with, for many years, Bulgaria has had the fastest shrinking population out of over 200 countries in the world. According to the post-communist propaganda, which categorically dominates public life, the culprits are “democracy”, the West, and capitalism.
Bulgaria’s rapid population decline actually began in the mid-1980s, and is entirely due to what was the worst communist regime in Europe outside the Soviet Union, and to the ensuing worst post-communist ruling “elites” who haven’t even tried to reverse it.
Then comes the reason journalist Viktoria Marinova’s murder caused such an international outcry: the post-communist oligarchy’s tightening grip over Bulgaria’s society epitomized by the horrors of Bulgarian “media”. Their abysmal state has been captured truthfully by the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders.
With key oligarchy figures consolidating their media ownership, and imposing outright censorship on once relatively free outlets, between 2003 and 2016, Bulgaria collapsed from #34 to #113 (out of a total of 180 countries) in the World Press Freedom Index. In 2017, it moved up four spots (only because other countries saw even worse developments!), only to go down anew in 2018.
Bulgaria’s main TV stations and the press are entirely dominated by the agenda of the government and its allied oligarchs, and the Bulgarian-language Internet expectedly remains the last refuge of free thought and free speech, though less and less so.
Mainstream Bulgarian media happily ignore inconvenient topics. For example, US diplomatic cables talking about Borisov’s “murky past” leaked on WikiLeaks in 2010 have been reported only by a couple of small online media. (That was in Borisov’s first Cabinet, and Bulgaria is now in his third.)
It’s even worse that Bulgaria’s oligarchic media are dominated by anti-Western and anti-democratic propaganda often directly parroting messages from Moscow. Its ferocity coupled with existing layers of anti-Western sentiments meticulously nurtured by the communists during the Cold War make it unbelieve how Bulgaria even managed to join NATO and the EU.
Bulgaria’s institutions appear to epitomize the dominant oligarchy syndrome. Separation of powers and the rule of law work here and there. If the matter at hand isn’t major or doesn’t concern some oligarch, they might work as they should. Otherwise, don’t count on it. This “model” was best demonstrated by the EUR 2 billion bankruptcy of “Corporate Commercial Bank” (KTB), Bulgaria’s fourth-largest, back in 2014.
In this textbook case, one branch of the Bulgarian oligarchy seemed to use state institutions and media outlets in order to destroy another after some falling out, with no regard for the ramifications. The government barely did anything to prevent that or punish those truly responsible.
Then there is Bulgaria’s abject failure to integrate its sizable Roma minority, a highly complicated issue which also seems somewhat relevant to the case of journalist Viktoria Marinova’s murder.
All those developments should’ve been catching EU and US attention. The mass murder purges of communism left the Bulgarian society unable to formulate true moral stances and resist evil, and positive changes after 1989 have been largely due to outside, Western influences.
A decade after Bulgaria’s EU accession, its post-communist oligarchy is getting stronger by the day. EU funding helps make it richer, and EU institutions haven’t restrained it. (They weren’t meant for that but try explaining the semi-supranational gist of the EU to the millions of once hopeful Bulgarians.)
The star of journalist Viktoria Marinova shined bright as she decided to give greater glasnost to high profile corruption cases the mainstream Bulgarian media had mostly kept silent about.
Whether it was a “random” offense or a contract killing, her murder should focus the EU and the US on Bulgaria. The regime in Sofia might appear to listen to Brussels, Washington, and Berlin but the democratic gains achieved in 1990s have been severely eroded by oligarchs, ex-communist secret agents, and organized crime bosses aided by outside powers hostile to the West.
Because with all the trouble across the Middle East, Eurasia, and the Western Balkans, any serious crisis of EU and NATO member Bulgaria would be an outright disaster for the entire West.