Sofia's crackdown on crime ALL - 2004/9/1
Source: Radio Netherlands Wereldomroep

Bulgaria maintains that its bid to join the European Union is still on course despite a sharply worded EU report criticizing the country's efforts to fight organised crime. The report, which comes two months after the conclusion of entry negotiations and three years before Bulgaria's expected membership, accuses the Sofia government of failing to co-operate closely enough with the judiciary and police.

The EU's message is clear: Bulgaria needs to clean up its act if it's to qualify for membership in 2007. But in this interview with Radio Netherlands, Ognian Shentov of the Bulgarian Centre for the Study of Democracy stresses that Sofia has recently made substantial headway in its long struggle against crimes ranging from corruption to gang violence.

"A couple of years ago, the US Ambassador in Sofia famously said that organised crime in this country is too organised and too visible. And this is more or less what strikes everybody who comes to Bulgaria in the post-Soviet era, especially the Balkans. You have all these black Mercedes with tinted windows, jeeps or other fancy cars, and there are the highly publicised shootings between different gangs in Sofia."

"As usual - and this was part of the EU criticism - the executive branch tried to shift the responsibility for this law enforcement process to the judicial system. So, it's the usual - and I agree with part of the criticism - problem we face when different branches of the government are blaming each other for the deficiencies and problems of the law enforcement."

RN: "But the government believes that it is doing everything it can to fight organised crime, doesn't it?"

"They're saying that publicly and they're vehemently denying they are to blame for these current activities of organised crime, but generally I would say there is an improvement in the government's response even when it comes to countering corruption within law enforcement, especially within the interior ministry. Scotland Yard is working with our interior ministry as part of an EU-funded project. So there's some basis for the defensive reaction of the Bulgarian government. But still, much more should be done."

RN: "Is it possible that Bulgaria's failure to satisfactorily tackle its organised crime problem could actually block the country's accession to the European Union?"

"Yes, although I don't believe that there's going to be a failure. But if we really don't meet the requirements, the accession process might be delayed. And don't forget that the organised crime issue is not just a social phenomenon falling solely under law enforcement; it's a deeply rooted social and economic issue. For example, the size of the informal economy, the informal sector of this country, which breeds corruption and helps organised crime, should be tackled."

"Another aspect of the problem is the black market, which is also an important element of the government programme. For example, the issue of duty-free shops - and this is a system in which roughly 60 million euros are siphoned off for petrol alone - is an important segment of the supply chain for organised crime."

"So, it's really not a economic and social problem which can be tackled by a single report from a law enforcement official of the EU, but it's a rather complex social and economic issue.

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