Bulgarian Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov is on the receiving end of a sustained campaign against him as he seeks to reorganise judicial system management as a key step against corruption.
Ivanov was appointed justice minister in the August 2014 caretaker cabinet and was retained when the second Boiko Borissov cabinet came into office in early November. A few weeks later, his proposed updated strategy for judicial reform was adopted by the cabinet.
Before his cabinet appointment, he was project coordinator of the Rule of Law Initiative of the American Bar Association and from 2006, Ivanov was programme director of the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives, the non-partisan NGO advocating reform in Bulgarian judiciary and adoption of international good practices in the field.
His efforts and critical statements in the months since taking office have drawn on him political and media attacks and, on July 9, a second call from the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) for his resignation.
“We are approaching an exceedingly important point at which we will take the important step towards reorganizing the judicial system management. This step is crucial for severing the systemic elements of the model that make possible corruption and influence in the court, for having a new level of responsibility in these institutions on which decision-making and working arrangements in the judicial system depends. Evidently, this is at the core of all problems,” Ivanov said on July 9, as reported by Bulgarian news agency BTA.
He said that resistance to reforms came from people who like the existing model: “But the existing model is not liked by Bulgarian citizens”.
The masks were coming off and it was time for everybody to take sides, Ivanov said.
Ivanov, who holds a cabinet seat as part of the quota of government minority partner the centre-right Reformist Bloc, was given stated public support by Prime Minister and GERB leader, Boiko Borissov.
Borissov, in a Facebook post on July 9, called on all political forces, including the opposition, to support judicial reform.
Responding to the latest round of media reports intended to discredit Ivanov, Borissov said that the government wanted to proceed with its judicial reform strategy and to implement the reforms necessary to ensure better functioning of the judicial system.
“I call on all political forces not to devote excess energy in unconstructive directions but to consolidate, including the opposition, to achieve consensus in Parliament and to support judicial reform. We must make a great effort to continue the strategy that we have adopted,” Borissov said.
The Prime Minister rejected as untrue – as the Justice Ministry earlier had done – allegations by MP Svetlin Tanchev that Ivanov had lobbied German MPs to hold off Bulgaria’s membership of the EU’s Schengen visa zone until judicial reform was voted on.
Tanchev is a former GERB MP who quit Borissov’s party to join the populist party headed by Nikolai Barekov, in turn parting ways with Barekov as his fortunes ebbed drastically, and now sits as an MP for the Bulgarian Democratic Centre.
Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Kouneva, in charge of EU affairs, also firmly rejected the allegation against Ivanov, underlining that it was inconceivable that a member of the cabinet would work against Bulgaria joining Schengen, and adding that she and Ivanov would be in the Netherlands next week working in favour of Bulgaria’s membership campaign.
The Tanchev attack coincided with a report in the Bulgarian-language media – allegedly, under a fake byline – that prosecutors were investigating contracts concluded by the Ministry of Justice.
Radan Kanev, co-leader of the Reformist Bloc parliamentary group, said that the allegations against Ivanov were an “absurd slander” and part of a sordid media campaign against Ivanov.
This campaign was led by opponent of judicial reform, said Kanev. “Resistance is very fierce,” he said, adding that some in the prosecution were making common cause with certain media in the campaign.
“I will not be surprised, if the SJC has asked for his resignation, because the problems of the judicial system are concentrated at the SJC,” Kanev said.
At an SJC meeting on July 9 – from which Ivanov was absent on official business in Brussels, although ex officio the Justice Minister attends council meetings – a declaration against Ivanov was adopted, in response to his media statements critical of the council, with SJC member Mihail Kozharev calling for Ivanov to resign.
The SJC went as far as inviting Prime Minister Borissov to come to its meeting, saying that it wanted to speak to him about “dialogue between authorities” and adding that it also wanted to talk about the salaries of the judiciary and security at court buildings.
Ivanov said that the SJC should sit down and do its work instead of analysing his media appearances.
Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov – who otherwise has differences with Ivanov over judicial reform – told reporters that the investigation into the Justice Ministry regarded officials and the minister was not the subject of investigation.
“I cannot understand why a routine prosecutorial task so excites you,” Tsatsarov said. He said that the investigation was not the first one that followed up a media report and neither would it be the last one.
“This inspection should not be linked with the minister or with his ideas for judicial reform,” Tsatsarov said.
“The judicial reform is a reform. Good ideas are being contested by better ones, while poor ideas are being contested by good ideas, not by a prosecutor’s inspection. The one thing is not linked with the other,” he said.
Hardly suprisingly, the judicial reform issue is being pursued not purely at political level by people like Ivanov, but also by civil society in Bulgaria, against a background of the more reliable opinion polls showing a persistent and profound lack of confidence in the country’s courts.
A public protest is to be held on July 14 at 6.30pm at the Palace of Justice in Sofia calling for the resignation of Tsatsarov as Prosecutor-General and in support of judicial reform, with more than 1500 people on the Facebook page of the event notifying that they will attend (allowing for the customary discrepancy between “going” notices on Facebook and people who actually go).
Similarly, there is a social media campaign to rally the 160 out of 240 MP votes to back constitutional changes towards judicial reform, with the hashtag #160от240.
Also drawing popular support in civil society is the “Justice for All” initiative, an independent organisation launched in May and which has held several high-profile events, in the months since the launch of its Manifesto for Justice.
In the days in which Bulgaria makes its latest steps towards judicial reform – however much there are those who want to thwart those steps – there are those who share similar goals to Ivanov, however much there are those who want him off the stage, the better to perpetuate what he calls “the existing model”.
(Photo: Bulgarian Ministry of Justice)