STATE OF THE UNION
Corrupt in SofiaBy ANTOINETTE PRIMATAROVA
FROM TODAY'S WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
July 22, 2008
For years the Bulgarian government has been promising Brussels and its own citizens that it would fight organized crime and corruption. But a string of leaked European Commission reports due out tomorrow come to a devastating conclusion. The country needs to "cleanse its administration and ensure that the generous support it receives from the EU actually reaches its citizens and is not siphoned off by corrupt officials, operating together with organized crime," one of them reads in part.
Some have argued that the EU was wrong to admit Bulgaria as a member last year, as Brussels now lacks the leverage to push the country in the right direction. But the leaked reports suggest that the EU might freeze up aid to its poorest member state, showing Brussels still has enough power to punish and shame Sofia. What's more, EU membership has invigorated civil society in Bulgaria, boosting domestic pressure for reforms. Euroskepticism may be a problem in the old member states. In Bulgaria and elsewhere in the region, though, it's a different picture. People here want EU involvement to help the country deal with its problems. And problems we have.
The European Commission will meet tomorrow to discuss its findings of Bulgaria's judiciary, management of EU funds and fight against corruption and organized crime. The Commission will also discuss possible sanctions against Sofia. The Bulgarian government, civil service, law enforcement and judiciary are all implicated in fraud, accused of links to the criminal underworld, according to the leaked reports. As a result, Brussels may bar two Bulgarian state agencies from handling EU funds, withholding up to €1 billion in aid.
Following the media reports about Brussels' findings, Bulgaria's European Minister Gergana Grancharova admitted in an interview that the center-left government is divided into two camps. Some ministers acknowledge the corruption problems and would like the government to fight it. Others would prefer that the government fight the European Commission.
It's no secret in Sofia who would like the status quo to continue. Unfortunately, President Georgi Parvanov falls into this camp. While paying lip service to the goal of fighting corruption, he and his political allies have been busier playing down the problem than eradicating it. They accuse the media and the opposition of being "hysterical" and unpatriotic. Arguing the charges of corruption are exaggerated, they like to appeal to the people's national feelings, urging them to rally around the government and its president.
They seem to overlook that ordinary Bulgarians are fed up with corruption and do not consider it their patriotic duty to defend the government against such accusations -- particularly when they are true. On the contrary, public awareness of the importance of combating corruption is on the rise in Bulgaria. According to the most recent Eurobarometer poll, 41% of Bulgarians consider fighting corruption a top priority for the EU. That's up from just 25% last fall.
While part of the government has been trying to stir up public resentment against the European Commission, others simultaneously tried to use the specter of anti-EU feelings to intimidate Brussels. Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev warned Brussels earlier this year that EU sanctions against his country could fuel Bulgarian euroskepticism and extremist parties.
Euroskepticism, though, is typically strong in those EU countries where public trust in national institutions is also quite strong. The Bulgarian case is different. According to the same Eurobarometer poll cited earlier, Bulgarians are among the EU citizens with the lowest opinions of their public institutions. Seventy-three percent of those polled mistrust their government, while 79% and 76% respectively mistrust their parliament and judiciary.
Ordinary Bulgarian citizens are no less critical of organized crime and corruption than Brussels is. Most of them see the EU as their ally. Being tough on corruption is not going to fuel euroskepticism in Bulgaria. The opposite is true. Brussels would be much more likely to turn ordinary citizens against the EU by being too lenient with the government.
The way the corruption scandals about EU funds are unfolding here in Bulgaria shows that Brussels has not lost leverage over Sofia. Brussels is actually playing an even more important role now than before Bulgaria joined the EU.
In the preaccession phase, the only real Bulgarian player was the government. The civil society and media were only incidentally involved in the corruption debate Brussels raised from the start.
Things changed, though, when it became clear that EU membership alone wouldn't bring an automatic end to corruption. Since January 2008, the questions of misuse of EU funds and corruption have been topping the news and public debates. The pressure from civil society and the media complements and enforces the pressure from Brussels in a way that promises to finally trigger real change.
Groucho Marx once said that he did not care to belong to a club that accepted people like him as members. I would claim that Bulgarians would not be happy with a European Union that accepts corruption, mismanagement and abuse of taxpayers' money. The Bulgarian government might be divided on how to react to the Commission's report. Ordinary Bulgarians, though, are ready to side with Brussels.
Ms. Primatarova, a former Bulgarian ambassador to the EU, is the program director at the Center for Liberal Strategies