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The article explores patterns of democratic backsliding in postaccession Eastern Europe, with a particular focus on "constitutional retrogression" in Bulgaria. It shows that the political marginalization of the middle class has led to diminished social demand for the rule of law, which has in tum facilitated the silencing of independent media and the capture of key components of the judiciary by oligarchic networks bent upon embedding economic illiberalism in Bulgarian society. This article also introduces the concept of "soft decisionism," a personalistic form of governing practiced by incumbent Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.

What Marc Plattner has called "'declinist' sentiment" about democracy is becoming more and more widespread.1 Many scholars approach the recent metamorphoses of the countries they study like mistrustful protagonists who, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare's Othello, "follow still the changes of the moon with fresh suspicions," vaguely anticipating vile schemes that will end in democracy's suffocation. Such suspicions should not bar the way to clearheaded analysis, however. In Central and Eastern Europe, at least, the reconfigurations of the terrain of democratic politics have not taken the form of a tragedy that reveals the extremities of modern politics: There have been no "promissory coups," "authoritarian reversions," or "endogenous terminations."2 Instead what we have been seeing in the region are shifts that are incremental and partial—tinkering with legal frameworks, but not their destruction.

This is why the urge to come up with categorical statements about democratic decline should be resisted, while more attention should be paid to complexity, nuance, and careful mapping of political arenas. If the parameters of national politics are modified, which aspects of democratic governance are affected and which are not? If an element of hybridity emerges—if there is a mixture of democratic and authoritarian practices—which areas of the political field become less democratic, and what games exactly are played there? If a particular individual or a group of elected decision makers becomes especially influential, what would be the most accurate way to describe the goals, style, and source of legitimacy of this person or group? Do efforts to narrow the identifiable dimensions of a country's "democraticness" trigger political and social conflicts, and if so, who is likely to prevail and why? [End Page 91]

It is around such questions that my remarks about recent political developments in Bulgaria will revolve. Situating this country within the debate about democratic backsliding is not easy. On the one hand, political fluctuations there have not been as dramatic as those that have transpired in Poland or Hungary. On the other hand, however, various actions of important powerholders have done visible damage to certain components of the armature of democratic governance and have empowered oligarchic and illiberal forces.

A survey of the changes that have occurred in Bulgaria over the last several years supports the notion that democratic backsliding is related to the rise of a particular form of governing that we might call "soft decisionism." Its key feature is a capacity to neutralize critics who insist that democracy is in crisis by declaring that the status quo is in fact "normal." The idea of "soft decisionism" owes something to the influential German legal theorist Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), who contended that "like every other order, the legal order rests on a decision," and that "sovereign is he who decides on the exception."3 Schmitt's ideas are not directly applicable to the current Central and East European context, but his criticisms of democratic legalism do have a certain diagnostic merit, and his warning that a myriad of challenges threaten to derail liberal-constitutional systems remains cogent. A number of these challenges are present in the Bulgarian case.

Winners and Losers

Whatever problems Bulgarian democracy may have, illegitimate intrusions into the electoral process are not among them. The integrity of the country's competitive elections—held under a system of proportional representation featuring a 4 percent threshold—has not been breached. Gerrymandering is practically unknown. There have been occasional rules changes, but no systematic efforts to guarantee future success to temporarily empowered incumbents. Electoral officials are neither threatened nor manipulated. No person or organization has been barred from running (this includes parties representing the Roma and ethnic-Turkish minorities); ballot boxes are not stuffed; and votes are fairly counted. Bulgarian citizens living abroad do face worrisome logistical and legal obstacles to voting, but this problem falls short of proving that there is something deeply wrong with the way in which Bulgarian political elites vie for and acquire the right to rule. The quality of Bulgaria's electoral process remains high.

The configuration of parties that has crystallized over the last dozen years does not fit easily onto a left-right continuum. The main left-wing party is the ex-communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and there are several small groups that identify themselves as right of center. Putting similar labels on other participants in national elections would be [End Page 92] misleading, however. Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) is currently the largest party, but it espouses no particular ideology. Its rhetoric favors the EU and NATO, and it belongs to the generally conservative transnational European People's Party. Yet at the same time, GERB seems unperturbed by the ever more visible Russian presence in Bulgaria's economy, has no interest in promoting markets and entrepreneurship, and favors massive public spending. As noted, the Bulgarian political scene also features several parties that represent ethnic minorities, and these do not fit the left-right map all that well either.

Then there are a number of increasingly assertive nationalist-populist formations. These have been fixtures on the scene since the early 2000s, but until recently they have been shut out of the highest echelons of power. In the aftermath of the March 2017 parliamentary election, however, an alliance of three of them called the United Patriots (UP) joined the ruling coalition headed by GERB. The UP now holds several key cabinet posts, including the defense and economy portfolios.

How has the presence of nationalists in government affected Bulgarian democracy? Lamentably but hardly surprisingly, the UP routinely slurs ethnic and sexual minorities. In a December 2014 speech in the unicameral, 240-seat National Assembly, for instance, UP legislator Valeri Simeonov (now deputy premier for economic affairs) called Roma "humanoids" who survive by "stealing and thieving."4 In March 2018, Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov declared that he would reintroduce compulsory military service for "men with insufficient education who live in ghettos."5 Vigilantes inspired by the UP, meanwhile, sporadically brutalize refugees and immigrants.6

If key members of Bulgaria's political class deploy rhetoric suffused with prejudice and hostility toward "others," it should be noted at the same time that none of the worst-case scenarios of xenophobia and ethnic hatred has materialized. Anti-refugee vigilantism has been on a downturn since 2016, and many of its ringleaders have been arrested. Karakachanov's compulsory-service plan seems to have been permanently shelved. Most significantly, in October 2017 a court convicted Simeonov of creating a "hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment" for Roma with his abusive 2014 speech.7 In the big picture, what matters more: that a Bulgarian politician made vicious remarks about a minority, or that Bulgaria's 2004 Protection Against Discrimination Act was duly enforced? This is not an easy question to answer.

What might be easier to show is that, thanks to the UP's entry into government, Bulgaria's political center of gravity has visibly shifted—to the left. The notion that chauvinistic populism is a "right-wing" phenomenon is very popular among Western academics; it is also wrong. In fact, the Bulgarian case suggests that sometimes the proper way to construe populism is as a form of left-wing radicalism.8 Perhaps the [End Page 93] concept that best captures the UP's political stances is that of "welfare chauvinism": The exclusion of "others" parallels a sustained effort to turn "authentic natives" into the beneficiaries of the state's largesse.9 Viewed through this lens, the contrast between the nationalists' evident lack of interest in passing antiminority legislation and their active pursuit of an ambitious redistributive agenda is rather striking. As already mentioned, none of the UP's xenophobic ideas has become law—but many of their social-welfare initiatives have been implemented (including hikes in pensions and Christmas and Easter cash subsidies for poor retirees).

More generally, today Bulgarian populists are just as likely to rally against capitalism, neoliberal austerity, and Western profiteers as they are against Turks, Roma, and Middle Eastern "jihadists." Undeniably, they have brought into Bulgarian politics a large dose of étatism: Their credo is that the state should control and steer not only all key sectors of the economy, but also the business interactions of important private economic actors. Traditionally in Bulgaria, causes such as private entrepreneurship, economic freedom, and stable property rights have had very few champions; today, such causes seem to be enduringly sidelined.

A Trio of Trends

Apart from empowering Bulgaria's left-wing populists, the 2017 election brought into sharper relief three trends that may affect the quality of Bulgarian democracy.

First, the influence of the main ethnic-Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), is fading. Until recently, it could rely on the massive support of a disciplined and loyal electorate. This solid voter bloc enabled the DPS to establish itself as a formidable player that was often invited to join coalition governments. The 2017 balloting, however, saw a sharp drop. The party went from almost 15 percent of the vote and 38 seats in 2014 to just under 9 percent and 26 seats. The decline can be attributed to the increasingly erratic guidance its 64-year-old "honorary president" Ahmed Dogan as well as the more than 100,000 votes "taken away" from the DPS by a smaller formation that also appeals to Muslims.

The DPS's troubles have wider significance, for since its founding in 1990 the party has served as a crucial element in the configuration of factors that has made ethnic peace possible in Bulgaria. As Antonina Zhelyazkova argues, Bulgaria is no "ethnic idyll," yet it does display a "relatively high level of religious toleration and open-mindedness with regard to minority issues" and in this stands "apart from its more troubled neighbors." One reason for this is the major ethnic-Turkish party's decision to forgo playing the irredentist card. (Ethnic Turks make up about 9 percent of Bulgaria's roughly seven-million people, and many [End Page 94] live in the southeastern part of the country near the 259-kilometer border with Turkey.) A second reason that Zhelyazkova highlights is the way the DPS's participation in government "has provided an impetus to integrationist processes in Bulgarian society."10 If the DPS's dimming electoral prospects start keeping it out of governing coalitions, this impetus may be lost.

The second trend is the reversal of the BSP's "social-democratization." Through most of the 1990s, the ex-communists remained unrepentantly neo-Bolshevik in terms of their ideology (which remained rooted in the organization's "revolutionary" past); their policies (adamant opposition to any measures that might smack of free-market capitalism); and their geopolitical orientation (hostile to NATO and loyal to Moscow). Under the leadership of Georgi Parvanov (1996–2001) and especially Sergei Stanishev (2001–14), the BSP began to move toward West European social democracy. When Korneliya Ninova became the new leader in 2016, the party shifted back. Her first act as party leader was to make a highly symbolic and heavily publicized pilgrimage to the birthplace of Todor Zhivkov, the communist dictator who had ruled from 1954 until 1989.

During the 2017 campaign, Ninova's main promise was that the BSP would give back to the people what "democracy took away: healthcare, education and security."11 Whether this strategy worked or not is hard to tell. The BSP did improve its vote share from 15.4 percent in 2014 to 27.2 percent in 2017, and more than doubled its National Assembly seats, going from 39 to 80. This suggests that in Bulgaria, at least, communist nostalgia is still a resource that can be successfully exploited.12 Yet the BSP received fewer votes than expected and was forced to remain in opposition—even in nostalgia-addicted Bulgaria, it seems, juxtaposing "good communism" and "bad democracy" is still not enough to sway most voters. What is easier to ascertain is that under Ninova's leadership the Bulgarian left is embracing bigotries and prejudices: Its position on refugees and migrants is indistinguishable from that of UP; it maligns sexual minorities; and it seeks to distance itself from the allegedly exploitative and degenerate European Union.13

The third trend that is key to understanding why certain democratic practices are now eroding is the marginalization of the middle class. None of the parties that claimed to speak for this segment of the populace cleared the 4 percent threshold. For the first time since 1989, therefore, the middle class is not represented in parliament. The implications of this fact are analyzed below.

As senior member of the ruling coalition, GERB is the most important player in Bulgarian politics. Skillfully led by its charismatic, media-savvy leader, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, it has won a plurality vote share in each of the four general elections held since its founding in 2006, with performances ranging from just over 30 to just under 40 percent. [End Page 95] The 59-year-old Borisov is now in his third premiership, making him the most successful politician in recent Bulgarian history.

As already mentioned, GERB has no particular ideology. It supports the EU, but also emphasizes the country's "special relationship" with Russia. It pledges allegiance to NATO, but buys arms from Moscow. It purports to champion private enterprise while making clear its belief that large public spending is the key to economic growth. Despite having no coherent vision of Bulgaria's future, GERB has been methodically and rapidly pushing Bulgarian politics in a particular direction.

What is the fairest way to describe this push, and thus to encapsulate the changes that have begun to occur in Bulgaria during this past decade of GERB electoral dominance? In my view, Aziz Huq and Tom Gins-burg's concept of "constitutional retrogression" is particularly helpful here—or at least much more helpful than the claim that Bulgarians are simply sliding back into an embrace of their innate, primordial illiberalism.14 Constitutional retrogression, write Huq and Ginsburg, is "a process of incremental (but ultimately still substantial) decay in the three basic predicates of democracy—competitive elections, liberal rights to speech and association, and the rule of law."15 As we already saw, the quality of Bulgaria's electoral processes has not deteriorated—yet. In the other two areas that Huq and Ginsburg list, however, the setbacks are serious and very troubling.

The rights to free speech and association

Even though the exercise of free speech in Bulgaria is not subject to illegitimate legislative restrictions, over the last several years the media space in which voices critical of GERB can be heard has shrunk considerably. The method has been fairly straightforward: If the media outlet seen as too oppositional is privately owned, obscure investors buy it and force it to revamp its programs; if it is public, it is placed under the control of individuals loyal to the government. An example of the former is what happened with Bulgarian International Television. Widely recognized for the high quality of its political shows, it was purchased in 2017 by a little-known producer who announced that he would get rid of the "talking heads" and offer "entertainment to the young."16 An example of the latter is what happened with Bulgarian National Television, where staffing decisions are now made by Borisov's admirer Emil Koshlukov. Under his stewardship, opposition politicians and civic activists have less access, and nonconforming journalists have found themselves demoted. Such simple expedients are all that GERB has needed to bar much critical scrutiny of its actions and inactions.

Accompanying the neutralization of independent journalism has been the continued expansion of Delyan Peevski's media empire. The 37-year-old Peevski is a corrupt and unscrupulous oligarch who, though not a member of GERB, enjoys a special relationship with Borisov and [End Page 96] trades favors with him.17 Peevski's media outlets are nothing but a machine programmed to inject into the public sphere the poison of fake news. His newspapers and television channels assassinate the character of anyone who insists that serious reform is needed to reverse Bulgarian democracy's decline. They also heavily skew the public conversation against foreigners, liberals, and pro-Western intellectuals while generally degrading and lowering the tone of Bulgaria's political culture.

Among Peevski's constant targets is the "third sector" comprising civil society and nongovernmental organizations. In Bulgaria, therefore, freedom of association is practiced amid a climate of hostility toward NGOs. Civic and professional organizations determined to act in an autonomous fashion must overcome an ever-increasing number of obstacles and cope with an ever-intensifying animosity that is driven by elites. Once again, the tactics used to intimidate GERB's critics are not particularly original. Bulgaria's liberal NGOs are customarily depicted as "Sorosoids" that take money from foreigners to act as carriers of un-Bulgarian ideas that contaminate the country's authentic mores.

Professional organizations that pressure the government to make reforms deemed inconvenient by Borisov, meanwhile, can find themselves barred from receiving foreign funding. The most egregious example of this Putinesque drive to emasculate civil society was an effort to cut off the associations of judges, prosecutors, and investigators from access to U.S. funding.18 (The effort ultimately failed.) If Bulgarian citizens try to organize themselves in order to change policies or lobby their elected representatives, meanwhile, these citizens will likely find themselves smeared as local lackeys of the imperialist West. Journalists who are less free, civic associations that are more threatened, citizens vilified for exercising their right to free association—these put faces on the reality of constitutional retrogression in Bulgaria.

The rule of law: Bulgaria under GERB has seen systematic "packing" of the judiciary and key law-enforcement agencies, which have then been used to embed corrupt practices and economic illiberalism.

Back in the 1990s, controversies about who got what, why, and how were mostly resolved outside judicial channels.19 Today the situation is different. Law matters, and so (paradoxically) politicians are now motivated to "colonize" at least portions of the judicial system. This is exactly what GERB has been doing. Notably, it refrains from direct attacks against courts and judges. Bulgaria has yet to experience episodes as dramatic as the frontal assault on the Constitutional Tribunal in Jarosław Kaczyński's Poland or the dismantling of judicial review in Viktor Orbán's Hungary. The prevalent practice is simply to make sure that strategic judicial posts are filled by jurists ready to adjudicate as they are told. Key in that regard is GERB's control of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC). Established by the 1991 Constitution to facilitate [End Page 97] the self-governance of a supposedly independent judiciary, the SJC is today dominated by GERB loyalists. All important decisions related to judicial appointments, promotions, and demotions are made in such a way that the right people at the right time will handle any court proceeding that Borisov truly cares about.

Bulgaria's rapidly proliferating anticorruption agencies are also staffed exclusively by GERB loyalists. As a result, a status quo has been established where, as Alina Mungiu-Pippidi observes, "anticorruption strategies are adopted … in cooperation with the very predators who control the government and … the anti-corruption instruments themselves."20 A typical example is the Commission for Illegal Assets Forfeiture. Operating in the EU's most corrupt country, this cumbersomely named body has so far managed to target for investigation exactly one person. His name is Ivo Prokopiev, and he happens to be the owner of the only media conglomerate left in the country that still dares to take a critical stance toward GERB and its dealings.21

But GERB's most consequential accomplishment is the "conquest" of the procuracy, a Soviet-era institution that the 1991 Constitution failed to abolish. The procuracy's mission is vague. Article 127 says cryptically that it "shall ensure that legality is observed." From a practical point of view, two powers make it valuable. It can launch criminal investigations against any individual or company. Even more importantly, it can refuse to launch such investigations even if there are solid reasons for doing so. Run since 2012 by Borisov's confidante Sotir Tzatzarov, the procuracy with its ill-defined, discretionary authority is arguably GERB's most reliable political instrument.

Now that GERB has control over key parts of the nation's judicial edifice, what does it use them for? On occasion, it seeks to weaken political foes. As we have seen, public figures who oppose the government might run into legal trouble, and several former members of non-GERB cabinets have been placed under investigation. Yet in Bulgaria no one has been mistreated like Russian whistleblower Alexei Navalny, and the country has not yet seen anything like the elaborately prepared political abuses of judicial power that have been on display in the contrived cases into which the Kaczyński camp in Poland has dragged former premier Donald Tusk.

In my view, GERB's priority is to entrench various modes of corrupt behavior and economic illiberalism in Bulgarian society. The virtual immunity enjoyed by top party members allows them to demand and receive bribes without fearing prosecution. The threat of procuracy-initiated investigations is used to intimidate business owners. Some such owners—particularly those who do business elsewhere than in Sofia, the capital—find themselves pressed to give up their assets to local cartels promoted and protected by GERB. Market dynamism is deliberately suppressed in favor of rent-seeking quasi-monopolies. With their competitors driven out, such cartels usually become the most important job-providers in a [End Page 98] particular place or a region and the local populace is "captured": Residents are at the mercy of a single, politically backed employer. GERB's successful effort to transform judges and law-enforcers into politically dependent actors—a campaign clearly at odds with the rule of law—has led to the creation of an elaborate system of de facto immunities and prosecutorial menaces. This system in turn sustains corrupt practices, extortionist schemes, and rampant rent-seeking.

Is the embedding of economic illiberalism inimical to liberal democracy? This question is arguably open to debate. Most definitions of democracy, after all, avoid references to economic variables. Yet an independent judiciary is certainly a pillar of liberal democracy, and Bulgaria's judicial system is now "available" for misuse by politicians and racketeers with ties to them. Boyko Borisov misuses it with some restraint, and does so mainly for economic purposes. Others, however, might misuse it more aggressively, and seek to subvert democracy directly. Indisputably, however, the GERB-engineered capture of key components of the judiciary is the most important aspect of Bulgaria's constitutional retrogression, and a critical focal point for public debates about the direction in which Bulgarian democracy is headed.

Borisov the Decider

Over the last decade, Bulgarian politics has been dominated by Boyko Borisov's forceful presence. Before communism fell, he was a firefighter (and a member in good standing of the Communist Party). In the 1990s, he enjoyed a successful career as a bodyguard. His clients included Zhivkov as well as Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (b. 1937), the former monarch whom the Communists had deposed and exiled in 1946, but who reentered Bulgarian politics in the late 1990s. It was Simeon who launched Borisov's political career. When the ex-monarch became prime minister after his party won half the seats in parliament in June 2001, the ex-bodyguard was named to a high-ranking position in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Since then, Borisov has amply proved that he knows how to navigate the turbulent waters of Bulgarian politics on his own. He ran for mayor of Sofia as an independent in 2005 and won, and in 2006 he founded GERB.

Borisov is not openly disdainful of democratic institutions and legal procedures, but he never misses a chance to remind audiences that, in the end, the single most important factor shaping the Bulgarian political landscape is what he decides to do or not do. Any analysis of contemporary Bulgarian politics must therefore deal with the question of Borisov's decisionism.

The notion of decisionism is usually linked to Carl Schmitt's critique of liberal constitutionalism. According to Schmitt, the idea that polities might be governed by law is an illusion. What ultimately matters are the decisions of powerful leaders who, through dramatic displays of willfulness, [End Page 99] must confront and resolve the hard questions that every political community faces: Who is a friend and who a foe? What must be done to handle political emergencies that pose existential threats? How can a nation's survival be ensured?22

Borisov's behavior departs considerably from the modus operandi envisaged by Schmitt. Perhaps the most accurate way to describe the premier's style is to call it "soft decisionism." He does not try to play the role of an existential warrior engaged in epic battles with mighty enemies. He does not demand prerogatives that the constitution denies him. And he does not make providentialist claims connecting Bulgaria's future to his own persona.

At the same time, Borisov makes it clear that there is a gap between what the law prescribes and what is happening in practice, and that he will fill this gap with his discretionary actions. Disregarding established procedures and sidelining existing institutions, he intervenes constantly and obtrusively in order to reassert his role as the supreme decision maker.23 His rhetoric is not anti-law, but his behavior shows that his personal priorities far outweigh any sense of commitment to constitutional or legal norms.24 Publicly, he appears to be averse to executive aggrandizement and urges other politicians to do their jobs and be active decision makers; in practice, he concentrates power in his own hands.

So far, at least, there is no evidence that Borisov is trying, à la Putin or Erdoğan, to transform Bulgaria from one type of system into another. Yet his soft decisionism has negative repercussions for Bulgarian democracy. At present, the Bulgarian political milieu is very "plastic." The prime minister might quickly reshape it to accommodate his shifting agendas.25 His interpositions constantly disempower ministries and administrative agencies and increase indeterminacy. The only certainty is that his interventions will continue. Borisov's highly personalistic style of rule, moreover, infuses Bulgarian politics with a note of heightened plebiscitarianism that is impossible to reconcile with the idea of constitutionally limited power.

According to Schmitt, the most important display of power is the decision to describe a situation as "exceptional" in order to initiate the drastic measures necessary to handle it. In contrast, the source of Borisov's power is his ability to convince his fellow citizens that current Bulgarian political realities are not exceptional but "normal." In this way, Borisov is able to neutralize demands for the reform of a system increasingly dominated by corruption and the misuse of judicial power. The "normalcy" of Bulgarian democracy is the GERB leader's preferred excuse for dismissing his critics—political and civic alike—as hysterics [End Page 100] with no feel for the realities of governing. His ability to sell Bulgarians his vision of normalcy as something more compelling than his opponents' talk of "crises" is the linchpin of GERB's electoral hegemony.

In my view, as various countries around the world face the prospect of democratic backsliding, the significance of battles over how to define democratic normalcy will only loom larger. What the Bulgarian case suggests is that power might accrue not only to would-be dictators who invoke existential threats in order to demand more prerogatives, but also to democratically elected leaders who invoke normalcy in order to proceed with their constitutional retrogressions.

It bears emphasizing that in Bulgaria, the full-throated illiberalism of the UP, the policies of GERB, and Borisov's decisions have encountered the resistance of civil society. Private charities routinely provide help to refugees, several protests have been triggered by attempts to encroach upon journalistic freedom, and champions of the rule of law hold frequent rallies in hopes of keeping judicial reform on the government's agenda. It is against the backdrop of this confrontation between the rulers and some of the ruled that we should analyze a political development which is already making a profound impact on Bulgarian democracy: the marginalization of the middle class.

Western observers might find it hard to comprehend that a country's most effectively silenced constituency can be not an ethnic minority or the poor, but middle-class professionals. This, however, is exactly what is happening in Bulgaria. As we already saw, in Bulgaria's parliament and cabinet the middle classes are literally voiceless. In these institutions, demands for cash assistance are much more likely to be heard than demands for judicial independence. The electorate's mood has turned against "the well-off," whose vilification is a feature of the Europe-wide revolt against elites that Ivan Krastev has so brilliantly analyzed.26 None of Bulgaria's major parties seeks middle-class support.

In view of this, we should expect that social demand for the rule of law, independent courts, and respect for minority and individual rights will go into steep decline. "The rule of law," as Michael Oakeshott wrote, "bakes no bread, it is unable to distribute loaves or fishes (it has none), and it cannot protect against external assault."27 The inference is plain. Not all groups desire the rule of law in equal measure. Its appeal will mean less to those who want bread, fish, or security. It is precisely for this reason that historically—and certainly in Central Europe since 1989—the middle class has been the champion par excellence of liberal values. In countries such as Bulgaria, its political emasculation has eased the way to constitutional retrogression.

Alexis de Tocqueville once observed that "despotism often presents itself as the repairer of all misfortunes suffered."28 Currently, Bulgaria is not on its way to despotism. It is, however, a democracy where soft decisionism has supplanted constitutional procedures, where the space [End Page 101] for free speech and association has been made smaller, and where efforts to reform an increasingly corrupt judicial system have been thwarted. As a result, its misfortunes could multiply. It remains to be seen whether eventually a threshold will be reached where despotism will present itself as a repairer.

Venelin I. Ganev

Venelin I. Ganev is professor of political science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he is also a faculty associate of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies. He is the author of Preying on the State: The Transformation of Bulgaria After 1989 (2007).


1. Marc F. Plattner, "Is Democracy in Decline?" Journal of Democracy 26 (January 2015): 7.

2. On "promissory coups," see Nancy Bermeo, "On Democratic Backsliding," Journal of Democracy 27 (January 2016): 8; on "authoritarian reversions," see Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg, "How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy," University of Chicago Public Law Working Paper No. 642, available at; on "endogenous terminations," see Ko Maeda, "Two Modes of Democratic Breakdown: A Competing Risks Analysis of Democratic Durability," Journal of Politics 72 (October 2010): 1130.

3. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 10, 5.

4. For a transcript of Simeonov's speech in the original Bulgarian, see The translation of the words quoted here is by Venelin I. Ganev.

5. For a report of Karakachanov's remarks, see The words quoted here were translated by Venelin I. Ganev

7. Mariya Cheresheva, "Bulgarian Deputy PM Convicted of Hate Speech," Balkan Insight, 25 October 2017,

8. Venelin I. Ganev, "'Neoliberalism Is Fascism and Should Be Criminalized': Bulgarian Populism as Left-Wing Radicalism," Slavic Review 76, Supplement S1 (August 2017): S9–S18.

9. See Suvi Keskinen, Ov Cristian Norocel, and Martin Bak Jørgensen, "The Politics and Policies of Welfare Chauvinism Under the Economic Crisis," Critical Social Policy 36 (August 2016): 321–29.

10. Antonina Zhelyazkova, "The Bulgarian Ethnic Model," East European Constitutional Review 10, no. 4 (2001): 63, 65.

12. See Venelin I. Ganev, "The Inescapable Past: The Politics of Memory in Post-communist Bulgaria," in Michael Bernhard and Jan Kubik, eds., Twenty Years After Communism: The Politics of Memory and Commemoration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 213–32.

14. For a version of the "innate illiberalism" thesis, see James Dawson and Seán Hanley, "The Fading Mirage of the 'Liberal Consensus,'" Journal of Democracy 27 (January 2016): 20–34.

15. Huq and Ginsburg, "How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy," 16.

17. On Peevski, see Venelin I. Ganev, "The Legacies of 1989: Bulgaria's Year of Civic Anger," Journal of Democracy 25 (January 2014): 35–37.

18. Mariya Cheresheva, "Bulgarian Judges Protest Proposed Foreign Funding Curb," Balkan Insight, 7 July 2017,

19. Venelin I. Ganev, "The Bulgarian Constitutional Court, 1991–1997: A Success Story in Context," Europe-Asia Studies 55 (June 2003): 597–611.

20. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, "Corruption: Diagnosis and Treatment," Journal of Democracy 17 (July 2006): 87.

21. Zach Campbell, "Is a European Government Censoring Independent Media?" Columbia Journalism Review, 2 April 2018, See also

22. On Schmitt's ideas regarding willfulness and law, see William E. Scheuerman, Carl Schmitt: The End of Law (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999).

23. Kalojan Staikov, "Solomonovite reshenija na upravljavashtite" [Solomonovite decisions on ruling], Institute for Market Economics (Sofia), Bulletin 875, 3 March 2018.

24. On facticity and normativity, see Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).

25. On "plastic" political environments, see Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Plasticity into Power: Comparative-Historical Studies on the Institutional Conditions of Economic and Military Success—Variations on Themes of Politics, trans. William Rehg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

26. Ivan Krastev, After Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

27. Michael Oakeshott, "The Rule of Law," in On History and Other Essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), 178.

28. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, trans. James T. Schleifer (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010), 393.

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