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19th Aug 2018

Bulgaria's corruption problem mars EU presidency start

  • 'I refute this simplistic idea that all Bulgaria is corrupted,' EU Commission president Juncker (l) said in support of PM Borisov (r) (Photo: eu2018bg/Flickr)

Last Friday (12 January), just as Boyko Borisov's government was hosting the European Commission in Sofia's communist-era palace of culture to launch Bulgaria's presidency of the EU Council, domestic politics cast a shadow over the country's efforts to shake off its image of a dysfunctional post-Soviet state.



In a 146 to 80 vote, MPs overruled president Rumen Radev's veto of a new anti-corruption bill, after a debate in which they traded accusations of who was sabotaging the country's fight against corruption.

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"Today, by rejecting the president's veto, our country will fulfil a commitment to the European Commission," said Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the head of the GERB, Borisov's centre-right party.

He said that Radev, an independent, and the main opposition party, the Socialists, were in tandem against Bulgaria.
 But Socialist leader Kornelia Ninova accused the government of "covering up" corruption in the country.

She said that "the president's veto was like the last chance to adjust" the government's policy on the issue.

Radev, an independent politician who was elected in 2016 with the support of the Socialists, had vetoed the anti-corruption bill on 2 January.

He said that the law "not only does not create an adequate legal basis for tackling corruption, but will even make it difficult to fight it".

The text, which was adopted by the parliament on 20 December, establishes a new unit to investigate top officials when there is a suspicion of corruption or conflict of interest.

But critics say that its members would not be independent because they would be appointed by the parliament. They also point out that the unit would be allowed to do wire-tappings, which could be used to pressurise people.

Opponents of the bill also say that whistleblowers would not be protected enough, in particular because they would have to provide personal information.

After the parliament overruled Radev's veto, Ninova said that her party would table a non-confidence vote on Wednesday (17 January) - which has little chance of passing.

Corruption network

The dispute highlights one of Bulgaria's main problems, 11 years after it joined the EU.



Bulgaria is 75th in the annual ranking published by Transparency International (TI), an NGO.

"Corruption remains the universal explanation for all the problems in Bulgaria," said Anthony Galabov, a political scientist who works with TI.

"Saying that corruption is everywhere means that we don't know where corruption lies," he said, adding that "corruption is a process, not an act."

He noted that corruption was "developed in a network", which makes it "very difficult to have an idea of its scale."

The phenomenon has not prevented the Bulgarian economy becoming the fourth fastest-growing in the EU.

But with Sofia and much of Bulgaria booming with brand-new shopping malls, business parks and roads, there are many opportunities for corruption.

"The real place where political corruption is generated is the link between the political offices and the administration," Galabov noted.

He said that corruption starts with "trading with political influence, abuse of power" and is fuelled by "brokers who are interested in having new customers."

A first step to fight corruption, he said, would be to make the funding of political parties and campaigns more transparent.

The government and its supporters, however, argue that corruption is not so widespread.

"Unfortunately that is being used as a political weapon," said Simeon Saxe-Cobourg, a former king of Bulgaria in the 1940s, who was prime minister in 2001-2005.

He helped launch the political career of Borisov, who started working for him as a bodyguard.

"When I hear the generalised word 'corruption'… My God, I have traveled a lot and I still have to find a country that fortunately has no corruption," the former monarch told EUobserver.

He argued that "Bulgaria being a modest economy and a reasonably small country, the chances for huge kickbacks are rather small".

Simeon admitted however that there are kickbacks in Bulgarians' daily life.

'Simplistic idea'

"The guy who gives five leva [€2.50] to a civil servant to do something for him is just as wrong or corrupted as the poor fellow who takes the five leva," he said.

He said that making the law "more efficient and faster, with a big fine as soon as something is found, and not after six years of trial … would wake up [Bulgarians] a lot and eliminate a good amount of corruption."

On Friday, Borisov also got the support of the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.

"I refute this simplistic idea that all Bulgaria is corrupted," he said in a press conference with Borisov, adding that he was satisfied that the Bulgarian government "has made significant progress".

Sofia nevertheless remains under EU pressure to step up the fight against corruption and the reform of its judiciary.

Since it joined the EU in 2007, Bulgaria has been under a special monitoring from the commission, the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM).

In its latest report, last November, the commission noted that the fight against corruption was "the area where least progress had been made in Bulgaria over the ten years of the CVM."

Schengen decision

In December, EU affairs ministers welcomed "the significant positive steps taken by the Bulgarian authorities" but said that "much still needs to be done, and overall progress now needs to be further accelerated urgently."

Speaking to journalists last week, the minister for the EU presidency, Lilyana Pavlova admitted that "'efforts are needed".



She assured that the government was committed to make them and hoped that the CVM could be ended "at the end of this year".

Exiting the CVM is important for Bulgaria, as it has been set as a political condition by some member states to accept the country in the passport-free Schengen area.

Bulgaria, as well as Romania which has also been under the CVM since 2007, meets the technical requirements over the control of its borders and police cooperation.

Borisov said last week that he hoped that the question of Bulgaria's accession to Schengen would be "solved quite soon".

This article was corrected on 15 January. It stated incorrectly that former king Simeon was prime minister in the 1990s. He was prime minister from 2001 to 2005.

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