Eastern Europe’s troubled democracies: what corruption and human rights violations say about the effectiveness of EU policy


Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

A disheartening global trend of human rights violations and persistent corruption which undermines democracy worsened amidst the COVID-19 pandemic around the world (Amnesty International, 2019; Transparency International, 2020). 

While the EU, as well as other parts of the world, are battling to protect democracy, countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have been in the spotlight for quite some time. The reason for this is that many governments of particularly new member states resist efforts to respect the rule of law when it comes to EU funding. Corruption and human rights violations have also raised concerns about the effective application of their democratic systems. 

Hungary and Poland have been investigated for limited judicial independence and absorption of EU agriculture funding by oligarchs. The conservative policy choices of the Polish government lead to mass protests against the abortion ban. Both Hungary and Poland scored highly on the corruption perception index (Transparency International, 2020) and have received recommendations from the EU to initiate judicial reform to prevent judges from making discretionary or biased decisions and improve media pluralism. 

Mass protests have shaken Bulgaria and Romania in the past few years, backed-up by European bodies’ warnings to follow the rule of law and respect international human rights. The European Commission raised concerns over Romania’s legislative changes harnessing the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. The European Commission’s recommendations allude to acts of systemic discrimination, particularly for the Romanian Roma, as well as the use of excessive force to impede protesters’ freedom of assembly in 2018. 

Signs of hope were sparked when Laura Kövesi, former chief prosecutor of the National Anticorruption Directorate of Romania, was appointed European Chief Prosecutor. This has reportedly had an impact on Romanian politics and resulted in a decision to sentence Liviu Dragnea, former leader of the Romanian Democratic party to three years in prison. However, the situation is still far from the EU’s demands. 

Neighbouring Bulgaria was ranked lowest among EU member states in the 2019 corruption perceptions index (Amnesty International, 2019). The state has been under the control of oligarchs since the 1990s when the country began its political transition from the Eastern European postsocialist regime. While considerable developments have been taking place since then, their connections with current politicians persist. 

A video exposure by the political opposition in Bulgaria in July 2020 sparked weeks of mass protests in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria. Hristo Ivanov was broadcasting live how guards were threatening to sink his boat while he was trying to access official public land, which was revealed to be an illegal property supposedly used by former politician Ahmet Dogan (The Economist, 2020). The mass protests were also motivated by suspicious court-issued warrants ordered by Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, which led to a raid of the secretaries’ offices of President Rumen Radev – a seemingly outspoken critic of the majority in parliament. 

The protests were symptomatic of the inefficient democratic system of Bulgaria and were a depiction of the government’s efforts to stay in power (Hopkins & Peel, 2020). Protesters pinpointed issues of corruption, dependence of the judiciary, human rights violations and police violence that have now come under the lens of the European Commission and the European Parliament. Some protesters, including journalists, were beaten, handcuffed and illegally detained. 

Despite the evidence of these instances in live broadcasts on social media and independent commentators, the Bulgarian police denied these accusations and commented on the violence of protesters on police officers. Dimitar Kenarov, an outspoken journalist and writer, was one of the protesters subject to police violence. He was denied an investigation from the prosecutor’s office. In response, the international organisation ‘Reporters without Borders’ demanded a fair investigation. Council of Europe Commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, also issued recommendations to investigate police violence against journalists (Council of Europe, 2020), but so far, the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office has remained rather silent. 

Eastern Europe’s democratic deficiencies are illustrative of how European policy can be inefficient when applied to newer member states. This is partly because CEE countries have less transparent bureaucratic systems that can more easily be subject to political dependence (Majone, 2010). The growing corruption affects the efficacy of the Union – every country has the right to veto specific policies, one of them being the EU budget that represents taxpayers’ money. Without the necessary administrative capacity and monitoring mechanisms, these funds are at risk of being potentially redirected for personal gains (Schmidt & Wood, 2019). Moreover, European judicial bodies can only do so much – their influence in demanding investigation and enforcing the law is limited and dependent on internal states’ mechanisms to complete certain court trial stages in order to proceed on an European level. 

Part of the process of European integration is to tackle this problem at its source and impose more demanding regulations that limit corruption, human rights violations and media dependence. Whilst the current EU mechanisms demonstrate inefficiency in Eastern Europe, the EU is ultimately a force for good. Perhaps in such instances the EU should be willing to incorporate a more tailored approach to policy making to ensure young democracies are set for respect of human rights, limit corruption and ensure media independence.


1. Amnesty International. 2019. Human Rights in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Available at: https://reliefweb.int/report/world/human-rights-eastern-europe-and-central-asia-review-2019 ;

2. Council of Europe. 2020. Statement of Dunja Mijatovic: Bulgaria must investigate police violence against journalists. [ 03 September 2020]. Available at: https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/bulgaria-must-investigate-police-violence-against-journalists ;

3. Hopkins, V., Peel, M. 2020. Bulgaria Joins Europe’s Awkward Squad. [29 November 2020]. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/a3d8f49b-82af-4ea9-8bd8-65b0cc7daf36 [Accessed 17 March 2021] 

4. Majone, G. 2010. Transaction-cost efficiency and the democratic deficit. Journal of European Public Policy, 17(2), 150-175. 

5. Schmidt, V., & Wood, M. 2019. ‘Conceptualizing throughput legitimacy: Procedural mechanisms of accountability, transparency, inclusiveness and openness in EU governance.’ Public Administration, 97(4), 727-740. 

6. Taub, A. 2020. In Poland, Protests Over Abortion Ban Could Revolutionize Politics. [7 December 2020, Updated 28 January 2021]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/07/world/europe/poland-abortion-protests.html [Accessed 17 March 2021] 

7. The Economist. 2020. A seaside-villa scandal sparks huge protests in Bulgaria. [25 July 2020]. Available at: https://www.economist.com/europe/2020/07/23/a-seaside-villa-scandal-sparks-huge-protests-in-bulgaria [Accessed 16 March 2021] 

8. Transparency International. 2020. Corruption Perception Index. Available at: https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2020/index/nzl [Accessed 16 March 2021] 

By Remina Aleksieva

Remina Aleksieva is pursuing an MSc in International Public Policy at UCL. She is interested in behavioural science based policy-making, education and environmental policy, and Central and Eastern European politics.

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