In November 2021, Bulgaria held parliamentary elections for the third time in the same year. Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), which had been in power for the past twelve years, was forced into second place, while a new party, We Continue the Change (PP), was victorious. Yet, what is remarkable is that PP was formed a mere month before the election. How did such a new party end up gaining enough popularity to form a government? The answer: the party’s platform. The party’s only policy goal is anti-corruption: to stamp out governmental and judicial corruption in all its forms. This shows the Bulgarian people’s overwhelming desire to eliminate corruption in their country.

This is not a phenomenon isolated to Bulgaria. Corruption has also been a focus in other Eastern European countries in recent years, for example in Czechia, where the Pirate Party (with policies in favour of government transparency and anti-corruption) led in polls before coming third in the 2021 Czech elections. Why is corruption so much of a hot topic in Eastern Europe, and what impacts does corruption have on the region?

Corruption in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, political trends in Eastern Europe shifted significantly. Democratic elections were held for the first time in decades, and free-market capitalist policies were adopted. Unfortunately, these changes also opened the door for corruption to become entrenched in many Eastern European government structures, as newly-rich oligarchs took advantage of power vacuums to gain control of governmental mechanisms and become “power brokers.” To extend their reach beyond government, many oligarchs bought large shares of media companies; 80% of Bulgarian media is controlled by Deylan Peevski, a member of parliament in Bulgaria. Meanwhile, the government and pro-government oligarchs jointly control 90% of news in Hungary, with the remaining free media often being cracked down upon by the government.

Governmental corruption in Eastern Europe tends to take many forms, although a few general trends are present. Usually, bribes are necessary to access (or accelerate access to) governmental services, both at the local and national levels. The independence of law enforcement agencies is also generally compromised in order to prevent the persecution of corrupt officials, and political parties may also cooperate together in order to preserve the corrupt status quo.

Bulgaria’s corruption problem is, however, worse than many in the region. The country was recently rated as the most corrupt nation in the entire European Union (EU), and various Bulgarian companies and individuals were sanctioned by the United States Treasury Department over corruption allegations in 2021. Bulgaria’s corruption situation has been described by politicians as having “a climate of impunity,” with newly-elected Prime Minister Petkov even saying that “twenty people dominate corruption in Bulgaria.”

The Impacts of Corruption

Perhaps the most well-known example of oligarchic corruption in Eastern Europe is Russia. President Vladimir Putin has retained his hold on power in part thanks to oligarchs, who control large sectors of the economy and often hold political offices. In its extreme forms, corruption can undermine the rule of law and the democratic process, such as in Hungary (as mentioned above). However, corruption also contributes to other issues in Eastern Europe, such as emigration (also known as “brain drain”). Partly aided by the EU’s policy of free migration throughout the bloc, millions of Eastern Europeans have left their home countries in search of better conditions, often in Western Europe. This is partly driven by economic reasons, but also often due to frustration with the political situation and lack of reform in Eastern Europe. 

Anti-Corruption Efforts in Bulgaria

Calls for action against corruption are not new in Bulgaria. Protests broke out in 2020 over corruption allegations against the ruling GERB party, which eventually led to its defeat; GERB was widely seen as being a symbol of Bulgaria’s oligarchs and its associated corruption. Another anti-corruption party, There Is Such A People (ITN), was formed in early 2021 and briefly gained national prominence, even winning an election in mid-2021. President Rumen Radev, who won a landslide re-election in November 2021, also ran on an anti-corruption platform. 

Since their election in 2021, Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and his PP party have reaffirmed their intentions to “completely eradicate corruption in Bulgaria.” This election promise has faced some setbacks recently, however. Former prime minister Boyko Borisov, who led the GERB government until last year, was arrested on corruption charges soon after Petkov and his PP party took power. Yet, Bulgaria’s Prosecutor-General released Borisov merely a day afterward, much to the outrage of the Bulgarian government. Furthermore, Bulgaria also faces other serious problems, such as the pandemic, and the invasion of Ukraine and its associated wave of refugees, which has delayed progress in dealing with corruption. Regardless, Petkov’s government has already pushed ahead on reforming the country’s anti-corruption bodies, a campaign promise. 

Past Anti-Corruption Efforts: Is Change Possible?

Given that anti-corruption efforts have failed in Eastern Europe in the past, is change even possible? Yes. Examples can be seen both in and out of the region: most prominently, in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In 2002, the three Baltic states were ranked on the Transparency International integrity ratings as being 28th, 50th, and 65th. In 2021, they had improved to 13th, 36th, and 34th. Why is this, and what did the Baltic states do to succeed where other nations failed to combat corruption? 

The Baltic states mainly instituted transparency policies and independent investigation agencies in their fight against corruption. These are tactics that have also been proven to work in other areas around the world, for example in Hong Kong and Singapore. Can other nations in Eastern Europe copy the Baltic model? Yes, but several challenges still remain. Firstly, enforcement mechanisms need to be free from corruption themselves, as seen from the example of Boyko Borisov. Second, governments need to be truly committed to fighting corruption, which is not always the case across Eastern Europe. Finally, enforcement mechanisms need to function well in order to maintain low levels of corruption, which often necessitates a robust democracy. 

Bulgaria’s new government certainly has the will to fight corruption, and has implemented some of these policies already, but will these policies succeed in Bulgaria? The results will have implications across Eastern Europe.

Edited by Esmé Graziani

Jonathan Chan

Born in Hong Kong and living in Vancouver, Canada since 2016, Jonathan (he/him) is a Science student majoring in Pharmacology at the University of British Columbia. He is passionate about many subjects,...