Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines

CORRUPTION: Romania and Bulgaria In the Dock

Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, Jul 23 2008 (IPS) - After putting up a reformist face in order to join the European Union (EU) in 2007, Romanian and Bulgarian politicians have quickly returned to fostering corruption. And there is little the EU can do about it.

In its bi-annual reports on the state of justice system reforms in Romania and Bulgaria published Jul. 23, the European Commission (EC), the executive arm of the EU, admonished both countries for failing to achieve concrete results in fighting corruption.

In an additional report on the management of EU funds in Bulgaria, the Commission suspended hundreds of millions of euros in structural aid by discontinuing the licences of two agencies in charge of distributing the funds.

Romania and Bulgaria were allowed to join the EU on Jan. 1, 2007, in spite of their insufficient progress in fighting corruption and organised crime. They have been closely monitored since, under the threat that if reforms are not continued European funds could be withheld, and sentences passed by courts in these countries might not be recognised in other EU states.

The report on Bulgaria says that “institutions and procedures look good on paper but do not produce results in practice.” Especially worrisome are “the connections between a part of the political class, business and organised crime,” which led to the defrauding of EU taxpayers’ money that should have been used for infrastructure programmes to benefit the Bulgarian people.

In the week preceding the EC report, the European Anti-Fraud Office had issued its own report on Bulgaria, emphasising links between the government and the criminal network ‘Nikolov/Stoikov’, which is currently under investigation for projects fraudulently funded with 6.5 million euros (10.2 million dollars) from the EU.

While Bulgarian prosecutors have started investigating cases of high-level corruption, the EC says few convictions have been made to date. The police and prosecutors remain overburdened and underfinanced.

The report on Romania had a more neutral tone and brought no immediate sanctions against the country. However, the Commission criticised the politicisation of high-level corruption cases.

Romanian legislation stipulates that former dignitaries who are still in parliament can only be investigated if two-thirds of the house they are currently in gives its approval. This legal loophole was recently used by the parliament to delay the prosecution for corruption acts of former prime minister Adrian Nastase and former minister of transportation Miron Mitrea.

As in the case of Bulgaria, the EC praised the activity of Romanian prosecutors but said that “the strong will of the prosecution to achieve results at the pre-trial phase is not demonstrated throughout the judicial process.”

A step forward for Romania in comparison to Bulgaria is the recent creation of a national agency to check the legality of the fortunes of public office holders, although the institution has still to show its muscle. More importantly, Romania never had problems with organised crime to the same extent as Bulgaria.

Asked about the consequences of being in the EU for justice system reform in Bulgaria, Antoinette Primatarova, a former Bulgarian ambassador to the European Communities and currently programme director at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, talks less about direct impact over decision-makers and more about raising awareness among Bulgarians about the negative consequences of corruption and organised crime.

“The suspended payments and the negative evaluation of the Commission have already provoked wide debate in Bulgaria,” Primatarova told IPS. “More and more voices are heard that it is not only about losing EU funds but about how to spend public funds in general.

“The two main reasons for EU’s financial sanctions,” he said, “are big deficits in the Bulgarian legislation on conflict of interest and public procurement and on its implementation and enforcement. Progress in this regard would have an even bigger positive impact on public spending of Bulgarian funds that by far exceed EU funds. Pressure from below, from media and civil society, increasingly complements pressure from Brussels. In combination, they might trigger reforms not only on paper but also in practice.”

While Primatarova is rather optimistic about the impact, even indirect, that EU warnings and sanctions can have on Bulgaria, other commentators are more skeptical about the difference reports such as the ones published by the EC this week can make.

British historian Tom Gallagher from Bradford University, who has been studying Romania for decades, thinks that the mild tone of the report on Romania illustrates not so much the progress made by the country as the inability of the EU to really check the evolution of its member states.

In a piece ‘How the EU Let Romania Off’ published Jul. 21 in the Financial Times, Gallagher explains how successive Romanian governments “have launched numerous action plans and other reform rituals which were essentially just public relations gimmicks in order to satisfy Eurocrats that Romania was busy internalising European norms and values.”

Appearing to make reforms, writes the historian, Romanian political elites, regardless of party allegiance, have focused on amassing wealth, including EU funds, while offering enough contracts to infrastructure companies well-connected in Brussels to keep the EC rather lenient.

“The European Union still prides itself on being a progressive entity capable of projecting eastwards into once inhospitable terrain values and institutions essential for good governance and economic success,” says Gallagher. “But the two reports being released this week on Romania and Bulgaria, members since 2007, show how hollow such rhetoric is becoming. Corruption remains entrenched and efforts to counter it are blocked at high level.”

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