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.
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.