Thursday

23rd May 2019

EU raises alarm on Bulgaria corruption

  • Sofia: anti-corruption measures 'in infancy' after seven years of special EU monitoring (Photo: Klearchos Kapoutsis)

Seven years after joining the EU, Bulgaria has done little to curb corruption and organised crime in a threat to its sovereignty and to European unity.

The Balkan country of 7.5 million people, the EU’s poorest, has a “serious” problem with high-level corruption, while preventive measures are still “in their infancy” the European Commission has said in a monitoring report due out on Wednesday (28 January).

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It also has a problem with organised crime, with little protection for witnesses and “very low” rates of conviction and asset seizure.

Lack of independence in the judiciary and political instability are making matters worse, the report added.

“The fact that the period covered by this report [since January 2014] saw three different governments and a deadlocked parliamentary situation has clearly contributed to a lack of resolve to reform”.

Drilling into more detail, the 11-page paper, seen by EUobserver, commended Sofia on recently drawing up an “honest assessment” of its shortfalls in the anti-corruption field. It also said the forced resignation of a top anti-corruption official for “trading in influence” is a good sign.

But it described efforts to clean up the administration as “piecemeal” and “unco-ordinated”, with “the impression that decisions … are being taken on political grounds” and with very few high-level prosecutions “despite the scale of the problem”.

It said “pressures at a local level” hamper the fight against the Bulgarian mafia.

It added that the “burdensome” and “formalistic” criminal code slows down courts, while use of outside experts in investigations raises “questions of … impartiality”.

It noted Bulgaria needs “more transparency and objectivity” on judicial appointments and that a new system on allocation of cases to specific prosecutors remains open to abuse.

Meanwhile, Romanian media say that a parallel commission report to be published also on Wednesday gives Bulgaria’s larger neighbour more credit for reform.

But it accuses the Romanian parliament of failing to respect Constitutional Court judgements and of acting too slowly to lift the immunity of MPs in criminal cases.

It praises the growing number of corruption cases against judges and prosecutors but, as in Bulgaria, it complains that conviction and asset confiscation rates lag behind.

It also says corruption in the education and healthcare systems remains an issue.

Romania last year elected a reformist president - ethnic German Klaus Iohannis - in what commentators say bodes well for future progress.

But the so-called Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) reports will make sad reading for Bulgarian and Romanian politicians hoping to join the EU’s passport-free Schengen travel zone after years of delay.

They also come in a climate of increased Schengen vigilance after the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris.

In Bulgaria’s case, high-level corruption was recently identified as a threat to the country’s sovereignty and to its ability to follow EU lines on foreign and energy policy.

Sofia last year abandoned construction of Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline due to EU legal objections. But the decision caused a backlash by pro-Russian elements in the Bulgarian elite, prompting a political crisis.

For his part, US secretary of state John Kerry, who visited Sofia on 16 January, noted that the fight against graft is “about providing the climate for investment and shielding the country from those who exploit the situation to gain undue influence over your choices as a sovereign nation”.

He said the US will help Bulgaria, which gets 100 percent of its gas from Russia, to be less dependent.

He also warned that “whether or not Russia were to choose, for whatever reason, some other form of retribution [against Bulgaria for its South Stream decision] is obviously something to be seen as we go forward”.

“We stand ready … to be supportive of Bulgaria in this time of economic and security challenge”, he said.

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