How voters shook up Europe’s most corrupt state

Mass protests last year, then two elections and an assist from Washington, led to Bulgaria becoming a model for fighting corruption in Europe.

Reuters
Slavi Trifonov, a TV host, is leader of the "There Is Such a People" party that won the most votes in Bulgaria's July 11, 2021, election.

A poll of 40,000 people in the European Union last month found a third say corruption has gotten worse over the previous year. That does not speak well for EU attempts over decades to instill honest governance in its 27 member states. Oddly enough, the bloc can now take heart from its poorest and most corrupt member, Bulgaria.

Over the past year, starting with mass protests last July, Bulgarians have voted in two elections to not only oust a longtime prime minister perceived as corrupt but also to choose an anti-corruption party as the largest vote-getter and the expected leader of a new government.

“This is a sign that corruption ... can no longer be tolerated,” Vessela Tcherneva of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank told a Bulgarian television station.

Before his victory in last Sunday’s election, Slavi Trifonov, leader of the winning party “There Is Such a People,” said that civil society over the past year has expressed “in an unequivocal way its intolerance of brutal corruption at all levels of government.”

Mr. Trifonov, a popular talk-show host who has satirized corrupt leaders, promised total transparency in government. “It is time that everything happens right in front of your eyes, in parliament,” he wrote on Facebook. In coming days, he will try to form a ruling coalition in the 240-member chamber.

Bulgaria’s momentum against corruption gained speed in April after an election ousted Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. A caretaker government took over and quickly exposed favoritism in public procurement under Mr. Borisov. Then in June, the United States imposed sanctions on two Bulgarian oligarchs, a senior security official, and 64 companies. The U.S. described its move as “the single largest action targeting corruption to date” under the Magnitsky Act, a law that punishes foreign government officials implicated in corruption or human rights abuses.

But as Mr. Trifonov pointed out, “It is not the U.S. sanctions that will change our country, but the awakened civil society.” For the rest of Europe, that’s a useful reminder of where honest governance begins.

Bulgarians may have lagged in the EU fight against corruption, political scientist Andrei Raichev told Deutsche Welle, “but now they are fomenting the change.” The rest of Europe can take note.

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