Bulgarian minister quits after judicial reform plan rejected

Hristo Ivanov [L] with Frans Timmermans and Boyko Borissov [European Commission]

Bulgarian Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov resigned on Wednesday (9 December) after parliament watered down changes to the constitution in a vote which he said would prevent genuine reforms to the country’s graft-prone and inefficient judiciary.

Hours after Prime Minister Boyko Borissov accepted Ivanov’s resignation, a couple of hundred people protested and blocked roads in Sofia. Most had taken part in anti-graft demonstrations that put down a previous governments.

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Ivanov is a close ally of the Reformist Bloc, the junior partner in Borissov’s centre-right government, and his resignation is likely to raise tensions within the coalition, analysts said.

But in fact only one MP from the Reformist Bloc, Radan Kanev, said he abandons the pro-government coalition (see background).

“The situation is turbulent, but logically neither he nor the Reformist Bloc are looking for new elections,” said Parvan Simeonov, political analyst with Gallup International.

The resignation came after parliament rejected by a large majority a proposal by Ivanov that would have limited the influence of the country’s chief prosecutor within the Supreme Judicial Council, the justice system’s ruling body.

“Despite the fact that today is a day of important steps towards the supremacy of law, this vote now becomes a symbolic step towards suspicion that we may speak of the supremacy of the chief prosecutor in Bulgaria,” Ivanov told parliament.

He blamed Borissov’s party GERB (Citizens for a European Development of Bulgaria) for having betrayed the reform.

Under changes that parliament did approve, the Supreme Judicial Council will split into two separate entities, one overseeing judges and the other prosecutors, in a change aimed at increasing transparency and judicial independence.

Ivanov wanted both parliament and the prosecution service to appoint an equal number of members to the oversight body for prosecutors in an effort to ensure its accountability, but only the Reformist Bloc backed his proposal.

In contrast to neighbour Romania, where a crackdown on graft is under way, Bulgaria has made little progress in prosecuting tainted officials or crime bosses despite being one of the most corrupt countries in the European Union.

The deficient judiciary system is a problem that has deterred foreign investment since communism collapsed in Bulgaria in 1989.

Borissov promised to introduce judicial reforms when he returned to power after a snap election in October last year.

>>Read: Borissov wins ‘last chance’ election in Bulgaria

>>Read: Bulgarian parties approve coalition agreement, cabinet

The European Commission has repeatedly criticised Bulgaria for failing to go after corrupt officials and for a lack of progress in overhauling the judiciary since joining the bloc in 2007.

In September, plans to set up a Romanian-style special agency to investigate high-level corruption were voted down by lawmakers, who said it could lead to a witch-hunt by prosecutors. 

In opinion editorials published in Dnevnik, the EURACTIV partner in Bulgaria, the rejection of the judiciary reform was called a “coup d’état” in favour of the country’s general prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov, who is seen as providing protection to Delyan Peevski, a media mogul and shady power broker, and to his political force. Peevski is an MP from the DPS (the Movement of Rights and Freedoms), the ethnic Turkish party, which is laregly seen as a byzantine economic empire.

Borissov recently criticised Ivanov on national television, saying that he had engaged “in too many personal conflicts”. In fact, Ivanov had asked that leaked wiretaps alleging collusion in which the name of the prosecutor general was mentioned to be investigated.

Bulgaria and Romania are the only EU countries monitored by the Commission in an attempt to help improve their law enforcement systems.

In the 5 October parliamentary election, Borissov’s GERB won 32.7% of the vote, more than twice as much as their main Socialist opponents. A total of eight parties entered the the 240-seat parliament:

  • GERB (Citizens for a European Development of Bulgaria): 32.7%, 84 MPs
  • BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party): 15.4%, 39 MPs
  • DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedoms): 14.8%, 38 MPs
  • Reformist Bloc: 8.9%, 23 MPs
  • Patriotic Front: 7.3%, 19 MPs
  • Bulgaria without censorship: 5.7%, 15 MPs
  • Ataka: 4.5%, 11 MPs
  • ABV (Alternative for a Bulgarian Renaissance): 4.15%, 11 MPs

After long negotiations, Borissov secured a 7-page coalition agreement with the centre-right Reformist bloc. But as those two centre-right forces have 107 MPs, short of the required majority of 121, two more parties agreed to support the cabinet. The centre-left ABV even obtained the post of Deputy Prime Minister for Ivailo Kalfin, a former MEP well-known for his role in negotiating the 2014-2020 EU budget on behalf of the S&D group. The nationalist Patriotic Front offered its support, although it is not represented in government. 

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