BALANCING OUT IN CORONAVIRUS CRISIS

BALANCING OUT IN CORONAVIRUS CRISIS

Tue, 03/31/2020 - 08:43

Are Bulgarian government restrictions on citizens too little or too much?

Political science students all over the world are being taught in the early stages of their studies that the best way for an authoritarian government – any authoritarian government – to enhance its own powers is to use a crisis – any crisis – as a justification. The bigger the crisis, the bigger the opportunity. At a time of a huge crisis it becomes easier to take away citizens freedoms and rights not only with a couple of decrees, but also with the general public applauding from the sidelines. Obviously, the process becomes easier in a country with few democratic traditions, a weak if at all existent civil society, and one where Western-style checks and balances on the various government branches have never been particularly efficient.

coronavirus meme bulgaria

Is this what Boyko Borisov's government has been doing since it declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus, on 13 March? The answers to this are of course not easy and never black-and-white. To understand the various pro and counter arguments, one needs to look into the details because in a undeveloped democracy the devil very often hides just there.

Let's start with the panic. As the crisis unraveled, the government appointed an army doctor to head an emergency staff with unlimited powers to direct the minister of public health to issue orders, impose restrictions and enforce sanctions, military style. From the very beginning that staff was supposed to manage the crisis as it unfolded without creating a sense of panic. Did they do it? A general in dress uniform surrounded by stern-looking officials appeared at emergency news conferences, and told TV viewers a pandemic of unprecedented "rage and fury" was about to obliterate the world. Speaking from his offices, the chief prosecutor approved. To what extent a chief prosecutor can command what is essentially a medical emergency never became very clear.

Parliament was quick to adopt a law to impose a state of emergency, severely curtailing citizens' rights to limit the pandemic. The Bulgarian state of emergency is similar to the measures being enforced elsewhere, including in the developed democracies. In some respects they are laxer (in that the country, at the time of this journal going to press, was still not in complete lockdown). In others they are not. The chief prosecutor immediately broadcast his views. He enhanced his thoughts that the restrictions were too meek by calling for the imposition of "semi-martial law."

What really makes Bulgaria stand out from the rest of Europe is the obviously disproportionate punishment for anyone who strays away. In Italy the police can impose a fine of up to 360 euros. Spain has enforced a much heftier fine of up to 5,000 euros for anyone caught violating the restrictions. In Bulgaria, if you walk into a park without a dog, you will be ordered to cough up from 10,000 to 50,000 leva (5,000 to 25,000 euros) – presumably, quite a lot of money in what is the EU's poorest state. Plus offenders may be sent to jail for up to five years...

Notwithstanding calls by the Council of Europe to unwaveringly honour human rights during the crisis, some senior members of the government called for the "abrogation" of some "non-essential" human rights. The definition of "non-essential" was left to Facebook to ruminate over.

The biggest strike to democracy came with the approval of the State of Emergency Act last week. The act gave the law enforcing agencies of the state unlimited and uncontrolled powers to monitor people's movements through their smartphones. In addition, the act sought to criminalise what it called fake news about the coronavirus crisis. Even in a country like Bulgaria, that prompted some public commotion. Some people saw the oncoming of a Communist-style police state. Others said any legal bans on news and opinion amounted to censorship, especially in a country where media freedoms under Boyko Borisov have been at an all-time low. Significantly, regarding matters such as the coronavirus often there is no such thing as "correct" news or opinion.

The only official who stood up against the new legislation was... President Rumen Radev, another general. The president vetoed the legislation and sent it back to parliament for "reconsideration." Using characteristically strong language, the president said he considered the legislation an "overture to uncontrolled governance." "No war has been won with fear," Radev added, and went on to say "a total blockade will generate more problems than it will solve." Radev was particularly critical about the news and opinion aspect of the legislation, which according to him could be used to suppress "even the last vestiges of free thinking" in Bulgaria.

Boyko Borisov, who sees the only real challenge to his powers in the face of President Radev, was furious. "A stab in the back!", he intoned. "You [Bulgarians] should be glad that we do not issue decrees like [Viktor] Orban [in Hungary], who is a friend."

It is important to note that forcing telecom operators to disclose data from the smartphones of citizens without a court order was not envisaged as a temporary measure.

To make its point very clear, the government needed an appropriate example – someone who was sufficiently famous, a bogeyman, to indicate the police would not be cutting corners with anyone. And it found it in the face of Vladimir Karolev, an economist and a TV personality who generally supports Boyko Borisov's policies. Karolev was caught outside Bansko, the mountain resort town in total lockdown because of the number of coronavirus cases there. He was promptly arrested. A court released him on a 50,000-leva (25,000 euros) bail. Karolev was charged with two offences. First, he violated the movement restrictions. Second, he promulgated opinion on social media that was at variance with what the government said. Is the lesson learned?

All Western governments have already produced various emergency packages to assist citizens and businesses in these hard times. The Bulgarian government has also produced a package where it said banks would be giving interest-free loans of up to 1,500 leva to citizens in need. It also said it would support the businesses it selects. In his inimitable style Boyko Borisov "advised" business owners to "sell their Maybachs" to be able to pay employee salaries.

"One day this war is gonna end...," an infamous movie character once said. The state of emergency is also going to end one day, in Bulgaria and elsewhere. Will Europe and the world recover? Probably yes. Some countries will do it faster than others. What seems certain at this point in time, however, is that Bulgaria – and the world – will never be the same again. If emergency legislation continues beyond the actual state of emergency, and if it gets misused – as it inevitably will unless there are written-in-stone checks and balances – the damage to democracy and citizens' freedoms may be irreversible.

Issue 162 Boyko Borisov coronavirus

Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

0 comments

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

boyko borisov wanted
BORISOV'S DOWNFALL?
Some analysts were surprised, others were not: the 11 July snap election, called in the wake of the failure of Bulgaria's 45th National Assembly to set up a government, returned more or less the same results.

WHERE TO FROM NOW ON?
The month of June, officially the election campaign month ahead of the early ballot scheduled for 11 July, has been extraordinary even in the standard of Bulgarian politics.
WILL BOYKO BE GONE FOR GOOD?
Following the failure of Bulgaria's "short" parliament, which sat for less than a month, to fulfil its basic constitutional duty, form a functioning government, President Rumen Radev stepped in and appointed a caretaker administration.
boyko borisov hospital
BULGARIA'S BALLOT SHOWDOWN
Most public opinion agencies got it wrong. Following a month of an exceptionally tepid (even in Bulgarian standards) election campaign, in which the coronavirus pandemic was hardly mentioned, Bulgarians went to the polls to elect their new parliament.

TO VOTE OR NOT TO VOTE?
One of the topics debated in what was an exceptionally tepid election campaign was how Bulgarians abroad should be enabled to vote.
boyko borisov.jpg
DESPITE GAME OF MUSICAL CHAIRS...
Some media try to represent the upcoming election as a titanic battle of a major anti-Communist, pro-democracy and pro-Western establishment (Boyko Borisov's GERB) and a renegade leftist party (BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party) that stems from the erstwhil

Prof Dr Kosta Kostov, MD
BULGARIAN POLITICS OF HEALTH BELIE HEALTH OF POLITICS IN BULGARIA
Professor Kosta Kostov is one of Bulgaria's leading pulmonologists. He has specialised in Germany, Switzerland and the UK, and has taught for many years at the Medical Faculty of St Kliment of Ohrid University in Sofia.

01052014-5980.jpg
ISSUE OF NORTH MACEDONIA
In Bulgaria, Winston Churchill (who held southeastern Europe in contempt) is sometimes quoted as saying the Balkans have more history than they are able to stomach.

15072009-1170053.jpg
TRAVELS IN DOGANLANDIA
A circle of privileged companies formed around whoever happens to be in power? Construction of EU-funded guesthouses that in reality are luxurious private villas?

CAUSE WITHOUT REBELS
Things in Bulgaria are rarely what they seem to be, but of course there are exceptions. Look at Boyko Borisov's government and his most loyal GERB-ers.
A rare appearance: Ahmed Dogan after the 2009 general election
CRACKING THE AHMED DOGAN CODE
For the past 30 years there has been one unavoidable factor in Bulgarian politics: Ahmed Dogan and his DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms.

LIBERAL DEMOCRACY SUSTAINS FURTHER BLOWS IN BOYKO BORISOV'S BULGARIA
Yet few expected something as dramatic as that: iPhone snaps of a half-naked prime minister sleeping across his bed, a bedside cupboard full of wads of 500-euro bills. Plus several gold ingots. Plus his favourite gun positioned on top.