AFP: Bulgaria – Powerless to Curb Corruption

“We are in the same boat as Romania, but they have rowers”, Lozan Panov, a senior Bulgarian magistrate, is lucid but pessimistic about his country’s ability to contain the corruption that impedes the development of the poorest member of the European Union.

While the Romanians staged mass protest rallies in February to defend the progress of their anti-corruption justice threatened by the government, their Bulgarian neighbors watched this movement with envy. However, the streets of the country remained empty.

In the program of the main parties running in the snap parliamentary elections that will take place on Sunday (March 26 – editor’s note), the fight against bribes and other misappropriations of public money figures prominently, but the political formations have so far disappointed all expectations.

Since joining the EU in 2007, together with Romania, Sofia has been subject to a strict monitoring mechanism by Brussels related to the fight against corruption. While the progress of Bucharest has been applauded, Bulgaria remains the dunce’s cap in the last report, published in January.

“The slowness and bureaucracy of the Bulgarian judiciary and the courage of the magistrates make the difference between Bulgaria and Romania,” Mr. Panov claims before AFP.

– Hollow Reform –

Atanas Tchobanov, one of the authors and people behind of the site for investigative journalism Bivol.bg, is even more stringent and points out “the lack of political will to set up an independent prosecutor’s office, as in Romania” and the resistance of magistrates “hostile to any change”.

Recent example: the arrival in Sofia, in mid-March, of the Romanian prosecutor that symbolizes the fight against corruption, Laura Kovesi, was boycotted by part of the senior Bulgarian magistrates.

Another example: when Parliament voted at the end of 2015 a judicial reform demanded by the European institutions, “it was emptied at the last moment of anything that could have advanced the independence of the prosecution”, according to Atanas Tchobanov.

This resulted in the resignation of the-then Minister of Justice Hristo Ivanov. A few months later, the 42-year-old lawyer launched a new political party with the aim of “reconquering the State from the mafia”.

Adding to the split of the right wing, “Da Bulgaria” will, most likely, have difficulty surpassing the 4% threshold needed to enter Parliament, “but it echoes popular discontent with the oligarchy,” political scientist Yevgeny Daynov notes.

This oligarchy “has captured the key public institutions” of the country, the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD), a Sofia think tank, analyzed in July 2016 in its eleventh report on corruption.

– Retreat –

The “widespread privatization of the government” affects an increasing number of sectors, according to this report: public procurement, the tax system, the media, the judicial system and the institutions’ oversight.

Worse, while a slight improvement was noticeable until 2011, the indexes of “resistance to corruption have deteriorated to return to levels comparable to 1999”.

One in five Bulgarians admits to paying a bribe last year, the largest share in 15 years. Customs, police, health, education, the judiciary: if corruption poisons the daily lives of Bulgarians, it also worsens the business climate in discouraging foreign investors, according to experts.

From 2007 to 2015, more than three-quarters of all contracts, signed in Bulgaria, were awarded to … 10% of the candidates, another Bulgarian think-tank, the Institute of Market Economics, has estimated.

Convictions of elected officials and leading businessmen are non-existent. And the scarce independent journalists investigating corruption are the target by “media serving political and economic interests” the CSD points out.

This is well-known to the site Bivol.bg that is regularly defended by the NGO Reporters Without Borders against the intimidation of its journalists in this country placed 113th among 181 countries (down by 75 places in 14 years) in the 2016 Freedom of the Press ranking.

A glimmer of hope? In 2013, for several weeks, the Bulgarians took to the streets against poverty and corruption, overthrowing the first conservative government of current outgoing Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, before sweeping his successor, supported by the Socialists. “Commendable awareness and outrage,” according to Atanas Tchobanov.

Vessela Sergeeva, Sofia, March 22, 2017, translation by Bivol, photo by Bulphoto ©

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