Friday, July 25, 2008

Bulgaria/Romania corruption

Bulgaria, Romania and the EU

Balkan blushes
Jul 24th 2008 | SOFIA
From The Economist print edition

The European Union softens its criticisms of Bulgaria and Romania

BY THE polite standards of Brussels, it was quite tough. On July 23rd the European Commission issued critical reports on Bulgaria’s and Romania’s progress (or lack of it) in fighting corruption and spending European Union money. Yet after intense lobbying, the language was weaker than in the scalding drafts leaked earlier. And the commission dropped an explicit warning that Bulgaria was endangering its chances of joining the euro and the Schengen passport-free travel area.

Even so, the reports hit home, complaining of a “striking” absence of convincing results in Bulgaria’s anti-corruption fight, and of a “grave problem” over the “lack of accountability and transparency in public procurement” when spending EU funds. The commission announced severe sanctions, suspending aid worth as much as €486m ($770m). Without reform, the suspended sum will rise sharply by November.

Bulgaria’s prime minister, Sergei Stanishev, welcomed the softened language of his country’s report and promised an “action plan”. Outsiders treat all promises of improvement, along with such flourishes as the appointment of a well-regarded ex-ambassador, Meglena Plugchieva, to oversee the use of EU funds, with justified scepticism. Despite much shuffling of departments and expensively publicised initiatives, and what on paper look like the right laws and procedures, the glaring fact remains that Bulgaria’s efforts have shown almost no results in terms of convicting fraudsters or corrupt officials.

Indeed, public figures sometimes seem not just weak but malevolent. For example, the EU’s anti-fraud agency, OLAF, has accused high-ranking officials of being a “political umbrella” for gangs who have stolen millions of euros meant for Bulgaria’s backward and dirt-poor countryside. “Influential forces” in politics and the bureaucracy, suggested OLAF’s leaked letter, are “not interested” in punishing those linked to two notorious crime bosses.

Worries about Bulgaria and Romania, especially over their ability to administer nearly €38 billion promised by the EU up to 2013, are hardly new. In January it emerged that the man in charge of Bulgaria’s roads, Veselin Georgiev, had granted contracts worth hundreds of millions of euros to a company owned by his brother. The commission froze €144m for farming and road improvements, and Mr Georgiev resigned. So did the interior minister, Rumen Petkov, after reports that a drug gang had obtained secret internal documents from his ministry, and that illegal booze producers had traded money for favours from a senior crime-fighter. Mr Petkov is in charge of fund-raising for the Socialist (ex-communist) party, which heads the governing coalition and also won the presidential election in 2006.

Crime, corruption and a weak judicial system are overlapping problems. Not one of dozens of gangland killings since 2001 has been solved. The kidnapping of the president of a leading football club and, later, his wife within the past two months has highlighted the authorities’ seeming helplessness over organised crime.

What scandalises ordinary Bulgarians is that their country, the poorest in the EU, is missing a vital chance to modernise. Public services are dire—shown by a crisis this month in Sofia’s rubbish collection, which has left the streets piled with rotting piles of garbage. So foreign criticism, which in some countries might arouse defensiveness, is in fact welcomed. The EU’s popularity has rocketed, whereas the government’s negative rating is now as high as 73%. The country has lost, by some estimates, a quarter of its population since the early 1990s, shrinking from 10.5m then to as low as 7.5m now. That is a huge vote of no confidence by the public.

Parliament is another story. The government looks set to survive a no-confidence vote next week. A general election is due next summer, when a new centre-right party, headed by the mayor of Sofia, Boyko Borisov, is expected to do well. He attracts praise for his dynamism, though fastidious Bulgarians flinch at his background as an ex-wrestler, bodyguard and police chief: emblematic in their eyes of the political milieu that the country needs to dump.

In Romania, by contrast, politicians are relieved after escaping sanctions in a softly worded commission report on their anti-corruption and legal reform efforts. This too was watered down from the draft, itself weaker than some seasoned Romania-watchers had hoped. The commission bemoaned the lack of practical results but welcomed a “move in the right direction”. In Bulgaria, sadly, outsiders find it hard to see any movement at all.

If you wanted to discredit the EU, squandering taxpayers’ money in its most corrupt new members, Romania and Bulgaria, would be one way to go about it. Yet though Brussels is disappointed and even angry about the two countries’ performance since joining the club in January 2007, Eurocrats are not sure what to do. Sharp criticism and tough sanctions might merely demoralise those who are trying to make things better, as well as undermining the membership hopes of other Balkan countries. Despite everything, few believe that any of the new members would be better off out than in.

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