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Author: Delaney Hurley
Date: Wntr 2021
From: Harvard International Review(Vol. 42, Issue 1)
Publisher: Harvard International Relations Council, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,813 words
Lexile Measure: 1360L

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On the night of July 7, thousands of protesters faced off with police in Belgrade. Incensed over a snap COVID-related lockdown that they viewed as another self-serving move of a government already known to modify the system for its own benefit, the crowd attempted to storm parliament. The air filled with tear gas and repeated chants of "Ostavka! Ostavka!"--a word meaning "resignation" in many Slavic languages.

Just two days later, Bulgarians took to the streets of the capital en masse after a journalist reported on yet another act of corruption within the political elite. As they stood in front of the National Assembly waving flags and staring down state security forces, they rallied around a familiar cry: "Ostavka! Ostavka!" While the EU has locked its eyes on the Belarusian and Hungarian cases of democratic backsliding, threats to institutions in the Balkans have continued to grow. The EU has failed to recognize how declining democracy on the peninsula will erode civil rights protections, undercut the legitimacy of both national governments and the EU, and cause it to lose control over human rights norms in Europe.

Causes of the Current Protests

Both Serbia and Bulgaria, two neighboring states on the Balkan peninsula, have watched their democracies quietly erode for years. This July's protests marked the end of that silence. As Bulgaria is an EU member state, but Serbia is not, examining these case studies side-byside can provide a valuable perspective on the EU's role in the protection of democracy.

Although the largest wave of protests in recent Bulgarian history started on July 9, its citizens' frustrations have existed for much longer, especially over government corruption. During Bulgaria's Communist era just a few decades ago, the mafia controlled much of the business and political worlds. Oligarchs still control much of Bulgarian society today, despite the judicial and economic reforms that were instituted prior to the country's accession to the EU in 2007. A prominent mobster has accused Prime Minister Boyko Borissov of having strong ties to the mafia, an allegation that protesters, and even President Rumen Radev, give weight to. The consequences of corruption on this scale are staggering: according to a Eurobarometer poll from 2019, 78 percent of Bulgarians believe that the "only way to succeed in business is to have political connections," and an estimated 11 billion euros (approximately US$13 billion) are lost from the economy to corruption every year.

Beyond corruption, Bulgaria's track record with human rights is reprehensible. The country has by far the worst press freedoms in the EU: it ranked 111th in the world in 2019, trailing behind many widely-criticized countries such as Kenya and Malaysia. Just last year, Bulgarian journalists protested the suspension of reporter Silvia Velikova from a...

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