Bulgaria edges forward in fight against corruption

Bulgaria edges forward in fight against corruption
A study found that 22.2% of Bulgarians aged over 18 were involved in corrupt activities and 24.4% were asked for a bribe.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest July 11, 2016

Bulgaria has fallen far behind neighbouring Romania in tackling corruption, and hopes are not high that a new draft anti-corruption law will change that anytime soon.

The Bulgarian parliament recently approved the new draft anti-corruption law at its first reading, after rejecting a similar bill in September. Sofia has been under pressure from the EU to adopt the legislation this time around as it lags behind the rest of the bloc on combatting corruption and organised crime.

Under the bill, the existing anti-corruption agency BORKOR, a unit of the national audit office, and the commissions dealing with conflictd of interest and the confiscation of criminal assets will all be rolled into the new national bureau.

However, there are concerns that the plans to roll all anti-corruption functions into a single institution could be over-ambitious. Moreover, whether the body will have a significant impact on corruption in Bulgaria will in any case hinge on the highly political issue of judicial reform.

Back in early 2015, when Bulgaria’s new anti-corruption strategy was first proposed, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said that Bulgaria was aiming to overtake neighbouring Romania, which has pursued an aggressive anti-corruption drive in recent years spearheaded by Laura Kovesi, the head of the highly active National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). Bulgaria’s new national bureau could be intended to play a similar role to Romania’s DNA.

However, Rositsa Dzhekova, coordinator of the security programme at the Sofia-based Center for the Study of Democracy, warns that the government’s ambitious plans “could potentially create a mess”. She points out that compared to the initial bill rejected in 2015, yet another institution - the Commission for Confiscation of Illicit Assets - has been earmarked for inclusion in the bureau. “Judging by previous experience in Bulgaria, where we have been talking about corruption for many years, it’s just a recipe for creating a mess. We are very sceptical,” she told bne IntelliNews.

While a narrow majority of 130 MPs in the 240-seat parliament eventually voted in favour of the new bill, it also came in for heavy criticism within the parliament. In particular, MPs objected to the possibility for virtually anonymous tip-offs and the potential they claim this creates for the law to be abused. This was also the main reason why the initial bill was rejected. There were further criticisms of the way the head and deputy heads of the bureau will be appointed.

Both bills were put forward by Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Kuneva, a former European commissioner and leader of the Bulgaria of Citizens Movement (DBG). She says the 2016 bill is even stricter than the original. However, she has now proposed that a working group be set up to improve the bill before its second reading.

Bulgaria has long been under EU pressure to step up its efforts against corruption and organised crime. The parliament’s decision to reject the first bill was criticised in the European Commission’s January 2016 Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report, which said the adoption of a new anti-corruption law should be an urgent priority.

In the report, the European Commission pointed out that many of the recommendations in the previous year’s report still needed action, which it said highlighted “a lack of determination in the efforts of the Bulgarian authorities in key areas of judicial governance”.

No convictions

A new report from the Center for the Study of Democracy shows that despite progress in a handful of areas, administrative corruption has increased steadily since the 1990s, peaking amid the months of political turmoil in 2014. The study finds that 22.2% of Bulgarians aged over 18 were involved in corrupt activities in the year before the report was compiled, and 24.4% were asked for a bribe.

Romania, also among the most corrupt of the EU member states, is clearly drawing ahead of its neighbour. The two countries were on a par in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions index, but a year later, Romania was ranked 11 places higher, while Bulgaria remains the lowest-ranked EU nation in 69th place. There are also discussions about removing Romania from CVM monitoring. Most significantly, numerous high-ranking officials have come under investigation (including Victor Ponta, Romania’s sitting prime minister at the time the probe was launched) and a significant number have also been convicted. By contrast, there have been no convictions of top-level Bulgarian politicians.

It is not clear whether fear of being targeted by a more effective new anti-corruption body is the reason why it has been such a struggle to pass the anti-corruption law in Bulgaria.

The original bill was turned down in September 2015 mainly because of fears it was too repressive and could be abused. The second bill also suffered a setback when the parliament’s committee on fighting corruption also voted against the bill, though its verdict was not reflected in the parliament vote.

The issue has already resulted in tensions within the government, with Kuneva’s DBG, part of the Reformist Bloc, saying it would end its support for Borisov’s minority government if the parliament rejected the new bill.

Dzhekova warns there could be further difficulties ahead as the bill is reconsidered in advance of the second reading. “The political environment is complicated and not easy to navigate at the moment ... We have previously seen ambitious ideas softened a lot during negotiations.”

More importantly, she warns that the goal of reducing corruption cannot happen without successful judicial reforms. “Even if we have a great anti-corruption body which starts investigations, it is then up to the prosecutors and the courts to bring the process to a conclusion, and we don’t see much changing on that end,” she says. The issue of judicial reform has been “so controversial and so political” and has faced “huge resistance”.

Bulgaria has stepped up its efforts to reform the judiciary in the last year, in particular with the adoption of constitutional amendments in late 2015, but progress has been erratic. Former Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov resigned in protest over what he said was a watering down of the reforms, and attempts to ensure the independence of the prosecution have foundered.

The anti-corruption bill may have been successfully steered through its first reading, but there is still a very long way to go.