No Bulgarian Sanctions: Government Will Fight Corruption

By The Washington Times OPINION | by Rachel Ehrenfeld, ACD Director
Tuesday, June 10th, 2008 @ 7:34PM

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Bulgaria’s efforts to fight corruption have not gone unnoticed. On June 6, International Monetary Fund Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn praised Bulgaria’s economic stability. A day earlier, Bulgaria was accepted as a member of the World Bank’s “Reformers’ Club;” the nation ranks among the top 10 of the 200 countries surveyed. According to a recent survey by Ernst & Young, in 2007, Bulgaria ranked 17 in the world in foreign investments. Clearly, this economic stability and reform could have not been possible in a criminal and corrupt environment.

Yet, the European Commission (EC) is threatening Bulgaria with sanctions: the EC claims Bulgaria has not done enough to fight corruption and organized crime. Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union (EU) in 2007 included many conditions – above all to eradicate corruption and to fight organized crime. Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev readily admits his government could have done better. However, he insists media reports neglect his accomplishments.

Indeed, a March 2008 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report states that while corruption and crime are in steady decline, “disproportionate media coverage appear to be outweighing expressed concerns about crime and corruption.” This sensational media seems to be the source of the “150 contract killings since 1999” – often cited by the EC.

Bulgaria is struggling with the legacy of 46 years of a communism and 10 years of international sanctions on its neighbor, Yugoslavia (1990-2000). Bulgaria was turned into a major smuggling route of weapons, oil and other goods – thus fostering transnational crime and corruption.The penal code, which was adopted 40 years ago, should be updated to include modern serious criminal activities.

Bulgaria also suffers from a large number of low-paid, incompetent investigators and prosecutors. This was a direct outcome of the political decision taken after the collapse of the communist system: 2,000 professional policemen and prosecutors and 1,400 magistrates were fired overnight which left Bulgaria without functioning law enforcement institutions. The deficiencies of this outdated judicial system continue to hinder efforts to arrest, investigate and successfully prosecute corrupt officials and major crime figures.

Though some high-level arrests were made, there have been only few convictions. High profile cases were suspended due to collusion between corrupt lawyers and physicians; they continue to provide certificates of incompetence to defendants and their lawyers.

To improve the state’s investigative capabilities, the Stanishev government established a new State Agency for National Security (SANS). The agency is authorized to scrutinize and investigate all top Bulgarian officials in all branches of power, high-level corruption, suspected links to organized crime and alleged contract killing. SANS is already making a difference. The ministers of Justice and the Interior were replaced, and the head of the National Customs Agency – along with two of his deputies – resigned and are under investigation.

A new deputy prime minister took office last month to specifically coordinate, audit and control the disbursement of EU funds. New legislation addresses conflict of interest in the judiciary, local government and parliament. These reforms and initiatives receive widespread public support.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria is fast developing. Salaries are up 10 percent since last year. Unemployment is down to 6.5 percent from 17 percent five years ago. Also, the GDP grew 6.1 percent – with a noticeable rise in the standard of living.

An independent study of Bulgaria’s efforts to fight organized crime and corruption was conducted last month by the New York-based American Center for Democracy. The center recommends the establishment of a special court to prosecute serious crime and high-level corrupt officials. Another recommendation is to create a national campaign for ethics and civic behavior – including special school curriculum beginning in first grade. This would mobilize the public and help change deep-rooted conceptions about the individual’s role in a civic society.

Bulgaria’s premier reiterated his cabinet’s commitment “to fight corruption and bring criminal organizations to justice.” The EC “sanctions could undermine Bulgaria’s progress and deprive the pro-European Bulgarians from the benefits of their EU membership,” he argued. Moreover, such sanctions could destabilize the country, and “would affect the fragile stability of the region.”

Penalizing Bulgaria will be counterproductive. The most expedient way to help Bulgaria attain its comprehensive reform programs is not by EU sanctions; this will add political resistance to the Government’s efforts to intensify and accelerate clean governance reforms. The EU should instead provide the Stanishev government with constructive criticism, objective monitoring and auditing. After all, a successful Bulgaria would add value to the EU and help stabilize the region.

Rachel Ehrenfeld is director of the American Center for Democracy.

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Categories: Anti-Corruption