If Trump Wins, America Could Look a Lot Like Bulgaria
Corruption, oligarchs, and media concentration have weakened Bulgarian democracy.
SOFIA, Bulgaria—On the evening of Oct. 16, the 100th consecutive day of anti-corruption protests in Bulgaria, ominous dark clouds hung over Sofia. Thousands of people gathered in front of the Largo, the national legislative center, even after the clouds unleashed a massive downpour. It felt like all of Sofia was there, from kids catching raindrops to grandmas in floral headscarves. This energized, intergenerational crowd is one of the main reasons Bulgarians think that this time the country’s oligarchic system will start to crack.
The last big anti-corruption protests forced Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to step down after four years of governing in 2013. His successor was in power for just over a year before protests kicked off by his nomination of a notorious oligarch as head of national security ultimately forced him out. Borisov was back as prime minister by the end of 2014. The revolving leadership didn’t solve the country’s deep-rooted corruption problem.
Now, Bulgarians are calling for Borisov to resign again. They want an end to the corruption that rewards a handful of insiders and an independent judiciary that will hold politicians accountable. Borisov has been in power for most of the past decade, and he has run the country to benefit an inner circle of cronies at the expense of the public. Last year, Bulgaria was ranked the most corrupt country in the European Union by Transparency International.
Borisov insists he will stay in power until the parliamentary election in March even though 66 percent of Bulgarians support the protests. But the political pressure created by the demonstrations means that whoever is voted in next spring won’t be able to govern the same way Borisov has.
Bulgaria’s corrupt and captured state could be a preview for the United States if President Donald Trump is reelected. Its current crisis foreshadows the long-term consequences of a government that’s even more beholden to the interests of a few business leaders close to the ruling party at the expense of everyone else.
“It is not only fascistic xenophobes who are capable of killing democracy,” wrote Bulgarian political scientist Evgenii Dainov. “This task can be very efficiently handled by semi-literate macho males bereft of any anti-democratic ideology.”
Before 2016, this parallel may have been unfathomable. The United States’ democratic institutions were generally seen as stable, if imperfect. Four years later, here we are.
Bulgaria’s latest wave of protests started this summer, when Hristo Ivanov, the former justice minister and leader of the anti-corruption Da, Bulgaria (Yes, Bulgaria) party, livestreamed himself trying to plant a Bulgarian flag on a Black Sea beach. All Bulgarian beaches are public, but this stretch of shore was near the summer residence of Ahmed Dogan, a former politician who remains extremely powerful behind the scenes. Ivanov was intercepted by security guards appointed to protect Dogan. After letting him plant the flag, they shoved him off the rocky beach.
The beach stunt embodied many aspects of Bulgaria’s corrupt system: that the rich and powerful are above the law, that the mechanisms of law enforcement serve them, that being aligned with the ruling party is rewarded with perks paid for by taxpayers. Bulgarians are also fed up with a judiciary that won’t prosecute corruption, a decimated free press, and institutions that are beholden to the ruling party, not the law.
On paper, Bulgaria is a democracy. It cleaned up enough to gain entrance to the European Union in 2007, although concerns about organized crime, corruption, and a partisan judicial system hung over its acceptance. After joining the bloc, the country has mostly benefited from funding without checks on its rule of law.
The current U.S. and Bulgarian administrations already have some unflattering features in common. Both Trump and Borisov run their countries with systems of favoritism, awarding large government contracts to personal connections with few accountability measures. They have both collapsed the separation of powers.
Borisov even has real estate scandals of his own: his center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria party was recently implicated in an apartment price-fixing scheme that allowed party members to buy luxury property in Sofia at extremely reduced rates. Some senior-level officials resigned, but Borisov remained in power.
Unlike Trump, Borisov doesn’t make blatantly racist remarks or disparage international institutions. He’s a fan of the EU and a part of the same center-right bloc in Brussels as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party. But that doesn’t make his machinations any less dangerous. It simply means that Western European leaders have been more willing to ignore Bulgaria’s corruption—although as the protests continue, it’s harder for EU lawmakers to look away.
The problem in Bulgaria and the United States runs deeper than the individual leaders dismantling their country’s democracies. The problem is a political system that puts a handful of people with concentrated power and wealth above the law and everyone else. Aspects of the current trajectory of the United States—where the leaders of nonpartisan public health agencies are ridiculed by the White House amid a pandemic and the president openly attacks journalists as enemies of the people—could easily lead to a system as corrupt as Bulgaria’s.
Independent institutions are critical to a functional democratic society, but Bulgaria’s institutions have been captured by the ruling party, to the point that food safety inspections are a partisan affair that can lead to extortion. By 2017, state institutions “were indeed ‘systems of rules,’ but these rules were the wishes of the Prime Minister and his allies, rather than the written laws,” Dainov wrote. “The institutions did what they were told to do, irrespective of any law.”
A strong independent press is another bedrock of healthy civil society. In Bulgaria, the collapse of media freedom was punctuated but not defined by violence. Instead, the financial stress facing news outlets worldwide helped concentrate much of the country’s media ownership into the hands of a single man: Delyan Peevski, whom Reporters Without Borders has called “the most notorious embodiment” of the collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs.
Many outlets not directly owned by Peevski are still part of the murky tangle of powerful parties and are invested in the status quo. Investigative reporters have been forced out of their jobs or faced smear campaigns by Peevski-owned outlets, while other journalists come up against the universal problem of non-paying or low-paying jobs. Freedom of the press in Bulgaria has declined over the past decade and is now ranked 111th in the world by Reporters Without Borders, far worse than other EU member states.
If Bulgaria’s current conundrum illustrates the risks facing the United States, the current protests are also instructive. Yes, the rallying call is for Borisov to resign. But the movement is about more than getting a single man out of political office. It’s about the system.
On the 100th night of protests, you could hear the chants of the Bulgarian word for “resign“—ostavka—over the pounding rain. The beach stunt that kicked off the protests is now months in the past, but the clear imagery it provided of a corrupt government removing citizens from what is rightfully public land remains.
In the coming months, as Bulgarians continue to push back against state corruption, Americans will have their own opportunity to do the same. Seeing Bulgarian flags draped over protesters’ shoulders and energetically waving in the streets is a reminder that national symbols and governments themselves can be reclaimed.