OPINION: Can Romania and Bulgaria tame corruption?

OPINION: Can Romania and Bulgaria tame corruption?
Bulgaria's president Ruman Radev
By Henry Stanek in Paris October 4, 2017

Facing down allegations of rampant corruption tearing apart at the seams of his country, Bulgarian president Ruman Radev is pressing for radical action from the top down and has drafted a new anti-corruption law. In his own words, the draft legislation is meant to serve as a prophylactic measure for the body politic: “prevention is for a healthy body... when you have gangrene, you need a scalpel.” 

But make no mistake: despite Radev’s bluster, the country is not acting out of some sense of rekindled moral fervour. In reality, Sofia is cynically trying to placate critics before assuming the Presidency of the European Council in July 2018.

Seemingly unaware of the irony of the situation, both Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s centre-right GERB party and the opposition Bulgarian Socialists are tabling rival versions of the anti-corruption law. As expected, because of political infighting, it is unlikely that either will pass - but the fact that even the creation of an anti-corruption law is tainted by self-aggrandizement is further evidence of the rot that has set in at all levels of political life.

Much like neighbouring Romania – which is due to take up the EU presidency in January 2019 – Bulgaria is certainly not in a position to act as a role model for its neighbours, especially since it is supposed to oversee the final stretch of Brexit negotiations ahead of the planned March 2019 divorce date. Sofia is in the curious position of effectively being promoted hall monitor while still having to spend lunchtime in the principal’s office.

Both Bulgaria and Romania are currently being monitored by the EU because of sprawling corruption that permeates society at every level, the prevalence of organized crime, and their ineffectual judicial systems. In spite of EU monitoring, venal elites have managed to capture the state(s) and have actively sought to derail reforms and weaken institutions. For example, Bulgarian politicians will play a major role in setting the EU’s agenda for the last six months of 2018 – but those same figures are the ones enabling or even engaging in corrupt acts. In December, Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov quit in desperation and accused his fellow lawmakers of deliberately torpedoing anticorruption reform efforts.

Bulgaria’s most notorious case however involves Deylan Peevski, a former MP and media mogul that has been described by Der Spiegel as “the iceberg of corruption in Bulgaria.” He is widely suspected of being a leading figure of the Bulgarian underworld and an eminence grise in Bulgarian politics. His reputation is so noxious that a 2013 attempt by then-Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski to appoint him as head of Bulgaria’s national security agency DANS led to the massive street protests and the fall of the Cabinet.

Romania boasts an equally long string of spectacular corruption cases. The country’s anti-corruption body, the DNA, has so far put dozens of government ministers, MPs, and even a former Prime Minister behind bars. Its no holds barred campaign has made it a natural target for politicians, which have sought to either discredit it or weaken its powers. The left-leaning government of Mihai Tudose has recently unveiled a wide-ranging judicial package aimed at weakening the DNA. Tudose’s proposals are being compared to Poland’s subversion of the rule of law.

The DNA has also been beset from abroad. Businessman Alexander Adamescu, whose father was sent to prison following the implosion of Romania’s second largest insurance firm, has flouted a European Arrest Warrant issued by the DNA by escaping to London, where he and his supporters are leading a campaign to try to discredit the DNA. Surprisingly, they’ve been helped by credulous British newspapers such as The Guardian.

This rot that has left both countries faltering on shaky ground, even after 10 years of EU membership. Bulgaria is facing its third parliamentary election since 2013, and still is the poorest country in the EU. Romania’s government, meanwhile, is constantly threatened by mass protests. The stagnation and instability are rooted in a simple reality: in countries where money and power talk instead of merit, the best and the brightest have voted with their feet and left for the West.

The brain drain that accompanied Bulgaria and Romania’s 2007 European integration, which saw many academics from the countries emigrate, has left a deep mark in their capacity to reform. According to German statistics database Statista, more than 225,000 Bulgarians were living in Germany in 2015 – many of whom have an above average education and were working in professions such as engineering or medicine. In fact, the Bulgarian Academy of Science estimates that within five to 10 years, the county will have lost some 400,000 qualified workers.

Romania’s brain drain is even worse. Between 2000 and 2015, the country registered the second sharpest drop in population due to immigration after… Syria. As a result, the healthcare system is disintegrating: Romanian medical workers take their skills and experience to hospitals elsewhere in the EU, where they can often earn ten times more. Romania is now effectively trying to “bribe” its people to stay put or return, offering 270 top students scholarships of up to €3,500 per year if they study in Romania, as well as grants of up to €50,000 to returning overseas Romanians who want to set up businesses in the country.

Even carrots like this aren’t enough to make up for the suspicion many Romanian and Bulgarian émigrés (or would-be émigrés) feel towards their home countries. These countries’ institutions and elites have served as primary drivers in sending people packing, and neither country has made much headway in reforming those deep-seated issues. Set against this backdrop, it is hard to imagine how Sofia and Bucharest will use their EU presidencies to set Eastern Europe on a path to progress. If they cannot get their own house in order, how can they be a positive influence on others?

Henry Stanek is an independent EU affairs consultant based in Paris and has worked extensively on EU enlargement and the internal market issues.