Originally appeared at A-specto, translated by Valentina Tzoneva exclusively for SouthFront
Did the fight against corruption and judicial reform turn into a commercial brand sold under the control of the global policeman?
Reforms in modern Bulgaria are starting to look less and less like an ideological and political course, and more like a diagnosis. For the last twenty-seven, twenty-eight years, against the background of modern-sounding slogans and thousands of cliches, we successfully reformed Bulgarian agriculture first. Today, the last step towards the completion of the cherished reform, is the scrapping of the remaining irrigation facilities and the amature of the former co-operative farms. Iron is needed to meet the needs of the reformed Bulgarian industry, which after its privatization, continues to fight for market share in the growing trade with nails, claw hammers and rolled iron. The competitive battle is difficult, since, as we know, the Bulgarian industry is among the highest energy consumers. What better reason than to reform the energy sector too? Green energy, brown energy (please, excuse me if I missed any color), the sale of the grid to those “foreign companies specializing in the sector” and the adoption of an “Energy Liberalization Package” successfully increased the price of electricity and isolated Bulgaria from any significant energy projects in the coming years. But the reforms do not end here. Today, part of the reformed Bulgarian political class, with signs of hysteria, is trying to impose another reform – the one of the judiciary.
At first glance, “judicial reform” sounds good – every citizen wants justice, but a number of controversial decisions in recent years have created the system that the political elite is untouchable and is not responsible before the law. Just processes and judicial independence are vital to business and investment, the reformists are convinced and rightfully so. However, after twenty-seven years we are convinced that good intentions almost always lead to not-so-good results. What lies behind the phrase “judicial reform”? What are the specific legislative proposals promoted by the media, NGOs and political parties? Who is behind these proposals and what is the purpose? Any average Bulgarian citizen without polished-by-the-liberal-clichés-brain could answer these questions.
Intensive talks about judicial reform started during the first few months of 2013. The cold February air did not stop about thirty judges, prosecutors, members of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) and leaders of NGOs, accompanied by an enviable amount of cameras and reporters, to make their way to the National Palace of Culture. The reason for the freezing experience was a conference organized by the NGO, Union of Judges, on the theme: “A new governance model for the judiciary. Measures for strengthening the independence and accountability of judicial authorities.” There were mostly young faces among the presenters from the magistrarial guild, such as magistrate judge Atanas Atanasov, and a member of the Supreme Judicial Council, Kalin Kalpakchiev. The program director of another NGO – the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives (BILI) – Hristo Ivanov, is another presenter. A big vinyl banner hung behind the young presenters with a wise inscription: “The conference is held under the project ‘Strengthening the capacity and solidarity of the judicial society’, supported by the foundation, ‘America for Bulgaria'”.
The participants at the event are adamant on the issue of power in the judicial system – it does not meet international standards. The conference is historic for the Bulgarian judicial reformation. Here, the proposals, which will become the core of the concept of judicial reforms in the form promoted by the media, NGOs and parties, are set out in detail for the first time. Among the measures are the separation of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) in two colleges – judicial and prosecutorial, turning the supreme management body in the system (of SJC – author’s note) into an intermittently-acting body, direct nomination for SJC members by NGOs, dropping the secret ballot, and limiting the powers of the chairmen of courts. Even then, observant analysts were asking what kind of reform this is when it will lead to ruining the supreme administrative body in the judicial system. According to the participants in the discussion, however, the changes will lead to the independence of the judiciary, a just and accessible process, and a responsible prosecution. Clichés are rarely understood by the serious audience in the judicial authority, but the sudden change in the political environment provides a chance for the reformers to attract public support.
The crisis that pushed the government of Plamen Oresharski after the summer of 2013, gave impetus for many political projects, some of which set judicial reform as a major point on their platforms, at that – surprisingly – exactly in the form that was developed by the NGO sector. “Movement 21” of Tatyana Doncheva, and the right reformist bloc was at the forefront of the efforts. The reformers for example, came up with a plan, “Clean hands”, and radical judicial reform, which were also funded by “America for Bulgaria”. The ideas include “modern proposals in accordance with international standards”. “International standards” obviously do not love the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office. Among the ideas of the Reformists Bloc (RB) are the selecting of the Chief Prosecutor by the National Assembly and his subordination to political power, the possibility of his early release under hypotheses which allow for fluid interpretation, the possibility of appointing members of the SJC from the quota of the National Assembly who are not jurists, and others. From the political projection of ideas for reforms to their implementation through the instruments of power, only one step was needed and it was made faster than expected.
After the fall of Oresharski’s cabinet, President Rosen Plevneliev surprisingly decided to hand over the justice ministry directly to the non-governmental sector, lobbying against the Supreme Judicial Council and the prosecution. The Program Director of the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives (BILI), Hristo Ivanov, was appointed as the acting minister of justice. The NGO has extensive experience working on the topic of judicial reforms. The organization received a grant worth 697,800 lev from the foundation, “America for Bulgaria” to support its development in 2012. The tranfers from America, the last of which is worth 142,360 lev (“contributes to the measurement of the index of reform in the Bulgarian Prosecution”), are regular and to date BILI has accuired 1.117 million lev from the foundation. The amount donated by “America for Bulgaria” to Hristo Ivanov’s NGO is greater than the grants for the Union of Judges, which has received the “modest” 436,000 levs. The record-breaker in the acquisition of funds for the reform of the Bulgarian judicial system, however, are the media publications of “Economedia” of businessman, Ivo Prokopiev. According to different sources, the various data sites and paper editions of the group have received between 5 and 6 million lev from the foundation. As a part of the funds are not directly intended for media support of judicial reform, it is difficult to specify the exact amount of aid allocated for Bulgarian judicial reform. However, the foundation “America for Bulgaria” has established itself as the undisputed number one partner in support of reform proposals.
The appointment of Hristo Ivanov serves as a signal that the projects of the NGO sector will be considered at the highest state level. The new political team, from the start, began frequent attacks on the Supreme Judicial Council and on Prosecutors of the Republic of Bulgaria, which were met with resistance. “Reforming the system has become their profession, generously funded by grants, projects and donations from local and foreign sponsors,” Attorney General, Sotir Tsatsarov , who gradually became the number one target of the attacks.
The entry of the Reformist Bloc in the coalition government with GERB, with Hristo Ivanov remaining the Minister of Justice opened the doors for the realization of the reformist ideas. The public debate about changes in the judicial system was accompanied by a powerful media campaign in support of the proposals of Hristo Ivanov and other lobbying NGOs. Traditional “protestors’ events” were also not alien to the campaign. In the midst of discussions on constitutional and legislative changes, in the summer of 2015, in front of the Court House, a protest was held in support judicial reform with a request for the resignation of Attorney General, Sotir Tsatsarov. The organizer of the event was another non-governmental organization, the Initiative “Justice for All” – a seemingly small NGO whose main donors, according to official reports, are individuals, the list of which begins with prominent actors in the “protest network”.
Their proposed reform of the judicial system passes through two stages – amendments to the Constitution and legislative amendments. After stormy debates at the end of 2015, some of the proposals in the draft for judicial reform by NGOs and the Reform Bloc were supported by the constitutional majority of the National Assembly, which ended the first stage. One of the amendments, however, met strong resistance – the one regarding the composition of prosecutorial staff in the supreme judicial process. The idea clearly demonstrates the contradictions between stated objectives and the actual result of the reform. Under the motto of guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary, Justice Minister, Hristo Ivanov and supporters of the ammendment suggested that the prosecution be placed under political control. Although the stance of the Venice Commission, according to which the European judicial standard is that the political quota in the higher administrative authority of the judiciary must not exceed the professional, the Bulgarian reformers had another plan. In terms of the prosecutorial quota, preponderance defined be given to political appointments to the Supreme Judicial Council by Parliament at the expense of magistrates directly elected by the guild, according to RB. Even more controversial was the apostate proposal to appoint an independent, deputy chief prosecutor, who in practice, would create a second power center in the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office. Dropping these ideas from the final draft has led to a severe crisis in the cabinet. Several members of the Reform Bloc immediately declared that they “will go into opposition”, the media promoting the reform began an aggressive campaign, and in front of the courthouse, an attempt of something similar to the experience of a “color revolution” was supposed to take place, headed by the standing chairman of the Supreme Court, Lozan Panov. The Minister of Justice, Hristo Ivanov, resigned saying “this vote has become an important, large and symbolic step towards the suspicion that, in Bulgaria more can be said about the supremacy of the Attorney General”.
In practice, experts in the field state that under the slogan of the independence of the court, the reforms attempt to sway the other two parts of the judiciary – the prosecution and the investigating authorities of political influence. A similar thesis was defended by the professional organization, the Association of Prosecutors in Bulgaria, according to which the proposals constitute legislative repression. The organization described the proposal that the Minister of Justice has the right to appoint leaders of the prosecution, as “direct intervention by the executive in the judiciary”. A similar position was held by the official and former acting prime minister, Prof. Georgi Bliznashki, who said that the proposals of Hristo Ivanov will lead to increased political influence on judicial independence. “When you give the media an opportunity to comment, the ambassadors to make speeches, then the independence of the judiciary is over. And when the mandate of the SJC is limited, these people will become slaves of the powers of the day,” he said.
What is the actual target of the judicial reform launched by some NGOs? This is the main question being asked by people who, reading the suggestions, realize perfectly well that the goal is not to ensure a fair trial and independence of the judiciary. The attempts to impose certain changes in the judicial system in Bulgaria are part of a more general process that affects the countries of Eastern Europe. After the start of the expansion of NATO and the European Union to the East from the beginning of the XXI century, a policy of placing the institutions of the “newly democratisised” societies under control is distinctly evident. Under the guise of reform, the key positions in political parties, armed forces and the security services of the countries of Eastern Europe were captured consistently.
Practice shows that judicial reforms conducted in countries such as Latvia, Romania and Croatia, did not resolve any fundamental problems regarding justice and developement, but the legislative changes were used as a lever for pressure. Last year, former Prime Minister of Romania, Adrian Nastase, in an open letter, accused the US ambassador, Hans Clem, of interference in the internal affairs of the country. According to him, the fight against corruption in Romania has become primarily an instrument to eliminate uncomfortable political opponents. Information appeared in the media that some Romanian magistrates specializing in combating corruption have dual citizenship – Romanian and American.
A fresh example of judicial reform is the experience in the “democratised” Ukraine. After the coup in the country, along with reforms of the security services, a prominent focus became the reform of the judiciary. The proposed project by close-to-Assistant-US-Secretary-of-State, Victoria Nuland, Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, provides for the firing of at least 5,000 judges. The total number of judges in Ukraine is about 7,000, but that does not prevent the Ukrainian reformers from planning to purposefully break the judiciary under the pretext (as you might guess) of “fighting corruption”.
The explanation for the attempts to curb the judiciary is simple and has been shown in an artistic way in the recent documentary “Snowden”. The revelations made by the former Fellow of the American intelligence services, CIA and NSA, Edward Snowden, a few years ago, shocked the world. Through secret programs like “The prism”, US authorities implement global surveillance of hundreds of millions of people on the planet. Three-time “Oscar” winner – director, Oliver Stone, shows how the control system of the “global cop” functions. Information published by the former assistant of US intelligence clarifies that the data collected on businessmen, politicians or persons in law enforcement are duly recorded. When necessary, the secret services, on the basis of compromising materials and fear of prosecution, recruit the person who begins to carry out the instructions of the service. As the documentary shows, using the information gathered through the internet and digital technology, the United States has built a powerful system for total control. The system works like a well-oiled machine between two components – a special office and a court. But there is one problem. It works flawlessly within the borders of the American jurisdiction, but outside of the United States, the Secret Service could hardly threaten a foreign citizen to cooperate for fear of prosecution. This model does not work in Bulgaria. Breaking the supreme administrative authority of the judiciary – the SJC – and containing the prosecution, will release a power vacuum that will quickly be filled with magistrates with the “right” orientation, delivered by the media and NGOs.
Hardly anyone has doubts about what the fate of every Bulgarian politician who tried to hold an independent national policy will be, if the judiciary came under foreign control. Thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden, today many different people from the elite – businessmen, bankers, public figures, journalists, military or security authorities, know that the special services of the USA can easily collect compromising information about them or their relatives. What you can surely guess is that given a controlled Bulgarian prosecution by the same services will make it possible to call them to the dock in case they have “gone astray”. Welcome to George Orwell’s dystopia!
Romania can be a really good example. In addition to the former Prime Minister, Adrian Nastase, who stayed in prison for a short time and even attempted suicide, another Romanian Prime Minister became a client of the reformed judiciary. Victor Ponta, who had been a supporter of the idea that the Romanian economy should be oriented east towards Russia and China, while in power, is accused today. According to Ponta, the ongoing recession in the Eurozone forced Bucharest to diversify its trading partners. Shortly before being indicted in mid-September 2015, the Romanian Prime Minister made a key statement. Ponta opposed the acceptance of refugees in the country, according to the plans of resettlement, and said that “Romania can not accept something for which it is not prepared”. Three days later, Victor Ponta was a client of the prosecutors in a corruption case. The charges state that in 2012, the former leader of the Romanian Social Democratic Party received €220,000 from businessman, Sebastian Gitsa, to ensure that he gets a position in the elective list of the party. According to Romanian anticorruption prosecutors, the “corrupt” Ponta did not use the money. He did something even more monstrous – he used the means to attract a popular face on foreign policy in his party’s pre-election campaign. It is clear to everyone that such superficial accusations threaten anyone who dares to contradict the official political line. The Democrats of the US can only be assured that stringent Romanian anticorruption prosecutors do not monitor the activities of the “Clinton” Foundation.
Today the Bulgarian judicial system is in the second stage of the reform – the adoption of legislative measures by the National Assembly. Changes in the justice system are necessary conditions to guarantee the rule of law, justice and citizens’ rights in the Republic of Bulgaria. The big danger of the day, however, is the threat of the Reform fervor, prevailing over common sense, and our country accepting external interference in the judicial process with open arms. In the event that this happens, Bulgaria will strike another nail in the wall of the failed experiments of transition – the judicial reform.