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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 12/23/15

Bulgaria on the Brink?

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In Bulgaria, a member of the NATO alliance and member of the European Union, the ruling coalition is currently locked in a spat over judicial reform that is threatening to take down the minority government and bring about more uncertainty in a country that has already had five governments since 2013. The Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB) party threatened to leave the government's coalition, the Reformist Bloc, over changes the Bulgarian parliament had made to constitutional changes meant to overhaul the corrupt judiciary.

Prime Minister Boyko Borisov responded to the threat by saying "I hope that they will reconsider, that they will realize that they can cause a heavy cataclysm in the country." If DSB follows through with its threats, Bulgaria may have to hold elections again as soon as February.

According to the results of Bulgaria's previous elections (in October 2014), the ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party won the largest share of seats in the legislature with only 32.7% of the vote. The Reform Bloc, of which the DSB is one of five members, won only 8.9% of the vote, but its members hold enough seats to help GERB form a government.

Founded by Ivan Kostov, a controversial ex-Prime Minister who ran Bulgaria's government from 1997 to 2001, the DSB has received accolades for its pro-European, center-right stances. However, while the DSB has dressed itself in 'freedom fighter' garb, by basing its political platform on the fight against corruption and on revamping the country's lagging judicial system, a closer look would beg to differ. Current party head Radan Kanev, keen to place himself in opposition to the "judicial status quo" and the corrupt forces that plague Bulgaria's society did a remarkable somersault earlier in December. On the sidelines of a scandal involving a series of wiretaps between a dismissed Sofia City Court Chair and a former judge, Kanev inexplicably sided with chief prosecutor Tsatsarov.

While this might not seem weird at first -- firebrand anticorruption politician defending the man in charge of prosecuting the corrupt -- it's worth mentioning that Kanev had always held Tsatsarov responsible for Bulgaria's woes, accusing him of meddling in the judicial process and picking sides. Kanev's change of stance is unexpected to say the least and casts a grim light on his credentials, exposing the DSB head as nothing more than an opportunist. As Novinite, a major Bulgarian news agency, said in a recent piece referring to Kanev, "there are no angels in this political battle".

The problem now is that this scandal seems to give credence to allegations questioning the supposed independence of whistleblower outlet Bivol (Bulgarian for "bull"), a media site that has always implicitly supported the DSB. Launched by Atanas Chobanov and Assen Yordanov, the online-based Bivol has set itself up as a Bulgarian affiliate of Julian Assange's Wikileaks. Since then, it has drawn accolades from organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists and formed partnerships with groups such as the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

In leaking Bulgaria-related cables obtained by the Wikileaks mother project and passed on to Bivol by Assange's group, the two journalists behind Bivol have neglected to release very much at all related to Kostov. While Kostov's name appears in more than 200 cables published by Wikileaks, the Bivol site has posted only one. As it so happens, the one cable published by Bivol outlines the creation of a center-right "Blue Coalition" and paints Kostov and his tenure in office in a favorable light. Other cables available on the main Wikileaks site but left out of Bivol's offerings, however, point to Kostov's "arrogant" and "authoritarian" style among other things. Curiously, the one cable unveiled by Bivol also deals with political advice offered by the U.S. ambassador to potential members of the coalition. These omissions appear glaring, considering that the Kostov government has faced repeated accusations of corruption and impropriety in the privatization of state assets. While the former PM's political rivals have faced regular scrutiny from the site, Bivol is apparently willing to allow Kostov and his political successors in the DSB to stay under the radar.

And therein lies the rub: Bulgaria's political crisis triggered by the DSB's retreat from the ruling coalition is now spreading to the country's already embattled media freedoms. In 2015, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) ranked Bulgaria 106 out of 180 in terms of press freedom, a very sharp drop from its ranking of 35 less than a decade ago and the lowest in the European Union. Kanev's somersault on the chief prosecutor coupled with the DSB's retreat from government over petty squabbles cast in high-brow disagreements over "principles" will surely trigger a media firestorm, whose first victim will likely be Bivol. Caught between its adherence to anti-corruption principles and its defense of a politician it had seen as righteous, Bivol will have to give up on one cause.

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Alexis is a a free spirit and aspiring political journalist. When he's not digging up fresh stories, Alexis is usually spending time with Spock, his Afghan Hound.

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Bulgaria on the Brink?

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