Bulgaria’s PM Has Both The Will And The Potential To Carry Out Reforms
Wednesday, May 28th, 2008 @ 7:41PM
THIS TIME BULGARIA IS DETERMINED TO SUCCEED
Corruption and organized crime is a worldwide vice, not just a Bulgarian phenomenon, says Chris Braham, Law Enforcement & Management Consulting Global Services
Chris Braham is a member of the international team headed by Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, the Director of the American Center for Democracy, who was on a visit to Bulgaria at the invitation of Bulgaria’s PM Sergei Stanishev and made her recommendations on how corruption is to be fought. Mr. Braham describes himself as an international expert with a rich experience. He was an employee at the UK customs agency and before that he worked in the European Commission on the Balkans for four years. He has visited Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, and Bosnia. He is a reliable advisor on legal problems, management of state institutions, a consultant in customs practices and an expert in international relations.
Q: Mr. Braham, what is your impression of Bulgaria? Is this your first time here? It is now the second year that our country has been a member of the European Union.
A: I have got some experience of the Balkans. I’ve been working in the Balkans for the European Commission and others since 2004. I’ve been here on two previous occasions but this is the first time that I’ve spoken in detail with the members of the Government. My impressions of Bulgaria are very positive and complementary and very impressive. Obviously, I see sophistication and I see huge development. I draw a parallel with other parts of the Balkans that I have visited. I think most importantly that within your Government I see a commitment to develop, I see a commitment to move quickly towards the European Union and I see a huge commitment in your senior Government to make that happen. The EU is making demands on Bulgaria. It could be argued that the demands that they make on Bulgaria in some ways are justified and in some ways are not. My overall impression is that there is a huge commitment to succeed. I have been most impressed in the few days that I’ve been here in Bulgaria I’ve been impressed with the will to make those changes, to drive Bulgaria forward and to be good Europeans.
Q: You are talking about the will of the Government, and what about it’s capacity to conduct the reforms successfully?
A: The reforms are coming very quickly and the reforms were necessary in many ways. I think we are all aware of the areas where Bulgaria has been criticized by the EU. There is some evidence to justify those criticisms and that is asserted. However with regard to reforms change the will to make it happen is there and in my view the capacity is there – to bring about the reforms. Bulgaria has been asked for fundamental root and branch changes and I think, by what I’ve seen in these last few days there are some very, very committed people here to bring about those changes. They are led by yours Prime minister. Of course, this is not just a Bulgarian problem. This is a problem for the democracies of the world and other countries of the world. Organized crime is not peculiar to Bulgaria, corruption is not peculiar to Bulgaria. Conflict of interests, misappropriation of funds is what happens in other places besides Bulgaria. Unfortunately the climate in the world has changed and it’s clear that Bulgaria has to demonstrate very clearly that the reforms are in place and more importantly, that the reforms can be delivered. That’s not easy for anybody but it must happen.
Q: Which of the demands are justified?
A: I don’t think it’s fair and I don’t think it’s right that I should comment on the justification of the demands of Brussels, They’ve been looking at Bulgaria microscopically, under the microscope. I found that Bulgaria is willing and ready to respond in many areas. It is true that corruption is a major problem. The recent scandals that you are aware of, that’s reality and organized crime is reality. Contract killings, murders, the strength of organized crime, this is reality. The EU funds have to be ruthlessly protected and it’s only right that Brussels asked for that protection. Is Bulgaria capable of delivering ……… My answer as an individual working for Dr. Ehrenfeld team is that it can and it will happen. Timing is the important thing. You’ve been asked for fundamental improvement in a very short time. We’ve been with your PM and your Deputy PM dealing with EU funds, with your Minister of Interior and with your Prosecutor General and the Head of the Judiciary and others. Throughout those meetings I see honesty and a desire to reform and reform quickly.
Q: Would you comment on the recommendations you are making the EC?
A: I think it’s not fair because we are halfway through our program. You know that we leave Bulgaria on Tuesday, you know that the PM has asked us to come and Dr. Ehrenfeld’s team has been requested by the PM to make recommendations on what we see and learn. I think that the PM wants it to be independent and think that perhaps this the important word “an independent view” of what the problems are. And more importantly, how and if these problems have been addressed. In such a short period of time it’s impossible for us and Dr. Ehrenfeld’s team to have a specific and clear view. We must look at the general picture. As regards the recommendations, that’s a matter for the attention of PM, but I’d like to say this: the very fact that your PM, Mr. Stanishev, wants to bring in an independent team to look at the existing problem and the problems to be being tackled, I think that’s brave. I think that’s honest. I think that’s very commendable. It’s just part of his response to Brussels. You know that your Deputy Prime Minister, a most gifted and able person, has a very short time to deliver the response to Brussels. I know that she is working very hard in that direction. It is clear that one of the things that we assist to the Deputy PM in her reply is the report of Dr. Ehrenfeld and her team. It’s just part of the reply that will be made this reform happened, that reform happened, this new institution has been changed, these new measures have been brought in, for instance, the conflict of interests, legislation that you are aware of, but in addition to all of these changes and reforms an independent team of international experts also says this, this and this. I think it’s very brave of the PM, but the PM must be satisfied in his own mind that Bulgaria has nothing to hide. Bulgaria can be justifiably pleased with the progress that has been made. Believe me, there’s a very long way to go. Your democracy is very new. The problems, we are all aware of what they are, but in the specific areas where you have been criticized I think it’s possible that we can help. The value of our assistance is for others to judge.
Q: How can we convince the public opinion that this time with your team and your recommendations this will be a reality?
A: I think this is a more complex question because you are asking me about the perception and the attitude of the Bulgarian people and I’m told that it is conservative by nature, I’m told that the Bulgarian attitude is reluctant to totally accept new changes and new reforms, I’m told that they see it as being driven by Brussels and not for the benefit of the Bulgarian people. If I’m able to say personally I think this is wrong. The government, senior government mission is, of course, to satisfy the demands of Brussels, but the primary driving force for them is for improvement for the people of Bulgaria. I’m told it is the people of Bulgaria who have an acceptance of corruption, they have an acceptance of the maladministration of the institutions. They have an acceptance that organized crime exists and there’s little you can do about it. There’s a feeling within the Bulgarian people, I’m told, that changes are made but results do not really happen. My view is that this time these changes, these reforms are very fundamental, as am example the creation of the new National Security Agency is an extremely important change. It has parallels in the Western democracies of Europe. Very important changes, including structural changes are taking place in the Ministry of Interior and more are planned. New laws are coming, following on from new laws such as the recent one on Conflict of Interest. The Prosecutor-General is making changes and is making Prosecution more effective. The Minister of Justice is tackling problems. There are problems here such as delay in the court system, adjournments and overloading of the system with misdemeanors and petty crime. There are many more examples of change. These are fundamental issues. In my view and a cant speak you the Bulgarian people but I think they can be assured that this time its appeals to be different. Very different and the result are already happening.
Q: You know that next month our PM is going to the USA and the main topic will be the lifting of the visa regime. How will your mission help the administration of the USA to lift the visa regime?
A: You ask me to comment on a specific issue of which I have no information. Bulgaria is not the only country in the world that the USA asks for visas. I have recently been to the USA myself and I’m well aware of the difficulties of entry into the States. And of course history tells us the reasons why for that. So I can’t say if Dr. Ehrenfeld’s mission here will assist in this particular area but Dr. Ehrenfeld has been asked to concentrate on is not necessarily the United States of America. It is clearly the EC, it is Brussels, it is the urgency of the date in June by which time the report has to be in from the Deputy PM. So, it’s against that background that Dr. Ehrenfeld has come. Whether or not she can assist your PM with these visa aspirations I really can’t tell you.
Q: You know that there’s a practice for the big manufacturers of alcohol to put original excise bands. What happens in other countries? How can we tackle these problems here?
A: Are you talking about the manufacture of illicit alcohol?
Q: Not only…
A: I don’t think I quite understand your question. If you’re talking about how the European countries assure the quality of the product, of spirits then I have the answer and that is that the manufacturers, the importers and the local producers of alcohol in many of the countries of Europe, they have a banderol, a fiscal stamp, which they use and in the Western Balkans they are adopting the use of the fiscal stamp on spirits. And that does many things, it raises revenue, excise revenue for the benefit of the Treasury and Ministry of Finance. It restricts, it makes it more difficult to produce illicit spirits with a base of ethanol, for instance, and of course, the important thing for the Western democracies, in fact the important things for the whole of the world is to protect the society. Society has to be protected from dangerous spirits.
Q: Yes, I mean that they also put false bands on legal alcohol.
A: That is an enforcement issue, Bulgaria is not the only country where it happens. If you have a fiscal stamp, if I have a packet of cigarettes with a banderol on them I want to be certain that I’m actually buying a genuine of cigarette and not a cigarette that is actually manufactured in China. If you buy a bottle of whiskey here in Bulgaria you want to be sure and be certain that it’s made in Scotland and not in Sofia. Yes, I understand your question, but that of course is a matter of enforcement. It’s a matter of law enforcement. It is necessary not only to introduce a fiscal stamp regime but to make sure that the regime is working. And we must have inspectors, we must have the public assisting us; and let me say this: it’s not just the job of institutions, it’s not just the job of government, it’s the job of the people of Bulgaria, as it is the people of the UK, to make sure that the products are what they say they are and if someone is certain that the cigarettes in fact are Chinese cigarettes made of very poor and often dangerous substances that has to be brought to the attention of the authorities and they must be sure that the authorities can act strongly, ruthlessly, quickly. They must sure that the danger is taken away. And let me say that it’s not just in spirits… we are talking also about tobacco products and perhaps the most dangerous area of all – the pharmaceuticals. If you are in hospital in Sofia, you want to be certain that the drugs and the medicines that you are given are the proper medicines and security fiscal marking on pharmaceuticals is another big area. And this is not just the job of government, it’s also the job of the public and public attitude.
Q: Yes, so, but I can’t be sure that that excise band is not original.
A: Absolutely, and let me tell you that the fiscal mark, the banderol has a sophistication, a convert and overt sophistication. It’s the simplest thing in world to determine if a banderol is counterfeit or not, but our inspectors must be trained to recognize this. We must work closely with the manufacturers, the Customs agency must have good rapport with and guidance and training from the manufacturers of fiscal stamps.
Q: What’s your opinion about the Customs agency in Bulgaria?
A: Well, it’s interesting you should ask that. This afternoon we are meeting with Mr. Assenov, Chairman of the Customs authorities and his team, so your question is a little early for me. We’ve met the Deputy Minister of Finance who of course is responsible for the Customs administration, as well as others and we are aware of the revenue collection and we are aware that the revenue collection is substantial. We are aware of the unemployment that has been reduced, we are aware of the GNP and economic growth that we have been advised of. Of course, the Customs in the collection of the revenues in Bulgaria is playing a very significant role. And what will be interesting to talk to the Customs chairman is about the corruption issue, the law enforcement issue and I think we have a pretty clear view: there is a black economy, a grey economy in every country. There’s no question of that. The extent of smuggling is one of the parts of organized crime is not only the use of narcotics and human trafficking. It’s also the evasion of duties and revenues, the big part of it is the smuggling. It would be interesting to talk with the chairman of the Customs how far Bulgaria is progressing in the fight against smuggling. I’m informed that significant results are being registered.
Q: You should ask him about the smuggling of petrol
A: Again, we have to be careful about perceptions. Is it possible that with regard to fuel and revenue duties on petroleum, that is something approaching 90%,95% even is the compliance right. Now, if 95% of Bulgaria is complying with respect to petroleum that is a very high figure. We need to be sure what our actions are against the 5% or the 10% that is not. So, is it a public perception that says that petroleum abuse and evasion of revenue on petroleum is a huge problem. But the reality may be different.
Q: There are small gas stations that sell gasoline at very low prices …..
A: Well, if that is the case then that is the matter of immediate action and it is the responsible law enforcement to make sure and aware of the duty free shops issue in Bulgaria, which is a very big issue. And it was not an easy issue for the PM to deal with. But it was dealt with. It was a fundamental change that was quick and was ruthless and the perceived problem of the duty free shop has gone away. If you are telling me that there is abuse that is well known in the petroleum area then it is for the responsibility of those agencies involved to make sure that it does not happen. Dr Ehrenfeld’s team can do that, but of course the customs and the police and the law enforcement agency can.
Q: What about the revenue collection to be responsibility of the Custom Agency or does it have to be the responsibility of other agencies?
A: No, traditionally on a worldwide basis the collection of revenue at the frontiers, at the borders is the responsibility of the customs administration. That is where the expertise is, that is where the tradition is, that is where the genuine knowledge is. I think it would be unusual for that collection to be anywhere other than in Customs but we must make sure that the systems that are in place for the collection of revenue are the right systems. That there is enforcement, there is punishment if it is not done properly. If there is corruption at the borders and believe me, there is corruption at every border, not just Bulgarian. I can tell you of instances, unfortunately within the UK of corruption within those agencies but if there is it, then must be rooted out, it must be dealt with. So, I think your question is if it would be unusual for the collection of revenue and if you speak to the Deputy Minister of Finance responsible for that area and indeed to the Minister of Finance, they did not indicate to us that there was any possibility or thinking that the Customs were performing properly in the revenue collection areas.