We are talking to Kalin Slavov, Executive Director of TI-Bulgaria immediately after the announcement of the results of the International Corruption Perceptions Index for 2020.

According to the announced data, Bulgaria has not seen any development since 2012 and continues to be the first in the EU in terms of perception of corruption. Are feelings of impunity and our own reading of corruption at the heart of our enduring position?

The citizen-voter-politician relationship has been severed for a while now. Politicians live in their own sphere, in which they have built their own nomenclature to support them. Top staff are moved from one “responsible position” to another “responsible position”.

Thankfully, the corruption index is not so sensitive to topics that pop up in the media, precisely because it is based on independent research measuring various functions of public life. If we were guided only by the public perception of corruption, we would probably have hit rock bottom drastically this year.

Research, based on macroeconomic indicators, allows us to breathe a bit more. This is because, this year, they are related to the positive expectations generated by entering the “eurozone waiting room”. Because of it, we manage to keep our positions, although at the very end of the rankings. Without it, we would have moved on to the next level, which is more typical for the countries of the Third World.

How did the pandemic “unlock” corruption?

This period, in which the focus of the media field is on pandemic problems, midnight orders and all the chaos that the administration and government cannot consciously or not control, is a very convenient screen, behind which very serious processes are taking place.

Legislative and normative changes pass in the dark, significant texts are introduced between the first and second reading, which often refer to different laws than those introduced. This bypasses public discussions, impact assessments, which should serve as a rational motivation for why we need this law, who it will affect, what are the expected effects, etc. Legislations made at 5 minutes to 12 and are changed at 5 past 12. Laws are adopted in one day, and then it becomes visible they can not perform their regulatory functions. COVID also proved to be very convenient for the infrastructure sector and public procurement, where the largest funds are, leaving key questions unanswered.

Parliamentary scrutiny of the executive has been lifted. Parliament stopped working for a long time. Administrative justice, which must ensure the legitimacy of the administration, has also stopped. Only a few texts from the Penal Code remained, on which there were actions of the judiciary. The authorities felt quite comfortable in this situation.

The pandemic was also used by the institutions to separate themselves and limit all communication with citizens and the non-governmental sector. Access to public information was mostly formal. We have already won several cases for either not providing the requested information at all or sending a text that is only formally called a “response” because it does not contain any of the requested. We also had a case in which we were officially invited to get acquainted with the materials on the spot, and at the same time they had restricted access by order.

However, the practice of amending and supplementing all possible regulations, bypassing the necessary changes to the basic law, is long-lasting and not only during the pandemic. Do you agree?

Unfortunately, this brings us to the flat base of political corruption in its form of electoral violations, of behind-the-scenes dependencies between business and politicians, due to the broken relations between public opinion – voter – people who want to be political players. They mastered the technology of creating their own election results instead of attracting and winning voters.

The controlled and bought vote, the colossal number of invalid ballots, the revised protocols – are all things we have been talking about for a long time. As well as the refusal of the Central Elections Committee, already in its second composition, to check why these ballots are invalid in such huge quantities – if there is a problem with the voting technology, let it be removed, because it concerns not only basic and most important civil law, but on such a large scale it also affects the legitimacy of the electoral process.

Judging by other countries in a similar pandemic situation, low levels of voter turnout are expected in the scheduled parliamentary elections – about 30-35%. This means that even if half of them vote for someone, he will be elected by 15 – 16% of the voters, which in no way can give him a legitimate mandate for governance or weight in society.

You insisted on guaranteeing the electoral rights of Bulgarians abroad, but in the meantime, there are fears of violating the rights of those placed under quarantine, just before the elections. What is the situation?

The situation is very delicate. On the one hand, there is a need for technological time to hold such a vote, to prepare a section, to gather members of the section commission, to provide materials. All this really cannot happen in a short period of time. For some countries, this did not prove to be a good approach and they chose another solution – lifting the quarantine for election day. People, under quarantine, but without symptoms, can vote quite easily and this is a completely rational approach. Accumulation in normally functioning sections is very rare.

The big tension, however, will come from not being able to vote abroad. In some places it is a matter of leaving their homes. On the other hand, it is the voting abroad that is the long queues and crowds of people. In recent years, we have repeatedly noted that there is an absolute inadequacy between the number of sections opened and the number of our compatriots who want to vote. Even though they travel even thousands of kilometres, sometimes they do not have the physical ability to enter the section – the queues are so big in places. I have a strong feeling that a significant part of the voters abroad, who we are used to participating in the previous elections, will be absent this year.

Can these factors lead to a challenge and cancellation of the election results?

It is too early to tell. These are objective obstacles that I am not sure would affect the legitimacy of the elections. But in elections won by symbolic turnout (conditionally won because in the last few parliamentary elections, we do not have a single party that has transferred 120 deputies), A government, formed with complex format and dynamics might not have much political weight.

There will be a big problem with double counting and double voting – machine and manual, which are already complicated and confuse the commissions. The numbers do not come out regularly and the protocols are compiled by the method of adjustment. In the difficult situation in which these commissions have to work, this will only prolong their working hours and put an additional burden on them. It is still very difficult to find members of the sectional election commissions.

Counting paper receipts from machines completely makes machine voting meaningless and does not even guarantee more security. These receipts, unlike ballots, are not protected in any way and rules must also be introduced for them.

Is there an easy solution?

A few years ago, we conducted an experiment in Boboshevo – the sectional election commissions probe the ballots, and they are counted in a counting centre where there are observers and journalists. The results are shuffled by each particular polling station and feedback to those trying to control and buy votes is not possible. Thus, they fail to control whether the votes they sought were actually cast for the particular section.

The experiment was successful, not even requiring any special effort. Machine counting of ballots can also be applied, if voted by hand, the ballot can have a machine-readable area and in the presence of observers, advocates and the media, security and fast counting can be guaranteed. And because this solution works, that is why it is not applied.

One of the recommendations is the promotion of civic participation as a counter-corruption, and in recent years we have witnessed a targeted attack on the civil sector.

The attack was carried out on a Russian-Hungarian model in an attempt to change the law on non-profit organizations in a way that would allow the entire repressive apparatus of the state to focus on the non-governmental sector with all the weight it is capable of. Namely – to assess the appropriateness of non-governmental organizations and how they work to exercise “financial control” (although the state can still exercise financial control if it has provided funding), to intervene in the procedures for taking decisions within the organizations themselves, etc., including closing them down and confiscating their property.

There is a ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union against Hungary on this type of legislation, in which the court has clearly ruled that this entry into the activities of non-governmental organizations is inadmissible from the point of view of Union law.

For one reason or another, it seems that this momentum against the civil sector is currently lost, but it is never known in a pre-election situation who can use this card to please the voter. The ruling media machine has also taken care in recent years to demonize the image of the non-governmental sector in the eyes of the average citizen.

Does the average citizen know what NGOs do?

In social or environmental organizations, for example, activities and proximity to the common people are very visible and have practical dimensions. In the sector of organizations that are in the field of protection of civil rights and good governance, the processes are more abstract, and it is a great challenge to find a form of dialogue. One of our activities was the so-called good practices in municipal governance. Only when the activities are materialized – when the citizens can more easily understand to whom to submit their file and follow how it moves – then you can acquire an image and density and show that you are useful. The challenge is to do practical things that are useful to people every day.

Is this trust the most important thing for you?

There is another trust that we have built so far and continue to build again – it is very important to show the administration that we can be useful. The idea is not to look for formal reasons for conflict, but to help someone who really wants to do their job better. It is not always that you are useful to the public, but by improving the work of the administration, this usefulness is proven. Unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult to achieve good communication, and it is increasingly difficult to come to the conclusion that the non-governmental sector is not an enemy of the state and the government, but a helper.

Despite these difficulties, you have been the Executive Director of the Transparency International Bulgaria for ten years now. Is this heroism?

It can be described as heroism or perseverance and a little stubbornness. Sometimes the work requires acting with the Chinese drop method. But this persistence does not lead to monotony. We manage to find new and interesting perspectives, to apply different approaches, to meet different people on different topics. Many young people from foreign universities are looking for internships with us and this also energizes and makes us very happy.

Despite the gloomy beginning, can we end optimistically with a focus on the younger generation?

They are smart, intelligent and very energetic. There are two main problems that make them stay away from social processes. One is that they feel a little alienated to society, leading force to them is individualism. And the second is that they wonder how it is possible that things that can happen in a very simple and easy way suddenly get complicated and turn out to be a tangle of complicated bureaucratic wheels.

What bothers me about young people are that they do not see a way for professional realization in Bulgaria. But the problem with the quality of higher education and realization is not only Bulgarian.

Do young people trust politicians?

They believe in themselves. They do not have this setting for hierarchy – I am not different or lower in the hierarchy than the politician, he is like me, and we are all on the same level. Maybe this suggests what the model of communication with politicians should be.

Kalin Slavov graduated with a law degree from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” (2000), obtained master’s degrees in Business Administration (Sofia University“St. Kliment Ohridski ”, 2004) and in International and European Law (Sofia University“ St. Kliment Ohridski ”, joint program with universities in Nancy and Strasbourg, 2008).

Since 2011 he has held the position of Executive Director of the Transparency International Bulgaria, the Bulgarian office of the international anti-corruption organization Transparency International.

He is also a Council of Europe expert. At the same time, he conducts exercises in tax and financial law at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. He was invited to the Higher Francophone School of Administration and Management. He is a member of the International Fiscal Association (IFA). His main areas of professional interest include capacity building and sustainable development of public institutions, anti-corruption expertise and analysis.