FT REPORT - BULGARIA 2007: Fight against crime has long way to go Financial_Times - 2007/10/11
Seated in a comfortable armchair in his wood-panelled office, Rumen Petkov, interior minister, reads a long list of statistics purporting to show Bulgaria's crime rate is lower than many of its European Union partners.
The report claims, among other things, that 150 organized criminal groups, 16 forgery and cyber-crime gangs and 40 drugs and trafficking organisations have been busted, sometimes in co-operation with law enforcement agencies from the US and western Europe.
Mr Petkov says: "The current state of the fight against crime indicates that Bulgaria will avoid EU sanctions," referring to a review next year by the European Commission of progress by Bulgaria and Romania in reducing high-level corruption and organised crime.
If progress is deemed inadequate, measures against Bulgaria could include the non-recognition of decisions by Bulgarian courts and cuts in EU grants and subsidies.
In Mr Petkov's view Bulgaria has little to fear. "One has to take into consideration the opinion of our EU partners," he says, adding that Bulgarian law enforcement officials have taken part in 200 international operations against human trafficking and drugs smuggling alongside colleagues from 20 European countries.
However, the police have failed to solve any of the high-profile killings that have conveyed an image of Bulgaria as a country in which violent crime is tolerated.
Victims have included owners of football clubs, businessmen with political connections and local government officials.
The effort to crack down on high-level corruption also appears to have run out of steam. Last year nine deputies were stripped of their parliamentary immunity for alleged involvement in corruption but none has been brought to trial.
In June Rumen Ovcharov, economy and energy minister, was sacked amid a scandal over privatisation of the state-owned tobacco processor. But he retains a prestigious post as head of the governing Socialist party for the Sofia district. No high-ranking official, past or present, has been convicted on corruption charges.
Judgments are still awaited in two test cases, involving respectively the former head of the Sofia central heating utility and two alleged hitmen for organised crime groups. Both trials have dragged on for more than a year.
"Bulgaria is a state of stabilised corruption. Unlike other former socialist states it didn't improve its rating after joining the EU," says Dimitar Kyumyurdjiev, deputy head of the Bulgarian chapter of Transparency International.
In spite of a marginally improved score from last year, Bulgaria slipped from 57th to 64th of 180 countries in TI's annual Corruption Perceptions index published last month, equal with Croatia and Turkey. "The figures indicate that anti-corruption rhetoric has not evolved into anti-corruption efforts," Mr Kyumyurdjiev says.
Bulgarians rank politicians, the customs service and the judiciary as the "most corrupted" segments of society, according to a survey by TI's local chapter.
Boyko Naydenov, head of the anti-corruption and organised crime unit at the prosecutor's office, says co-operation between prosecutors and the police has improved over the past year. He cites progress in several cases involving money-laundering and embezzlement of EU pre-accession funds.
But corruption is still pervasive among judges and prosecutors, even at senior levels, he says.
"The court system is the biggest problem. Judges can hand a file back to the prosecutor saying there's not enough evidence, or they can postpone cases indefinitely. Sometimes a court hearing doesn't take place until 10 years after the crime."
Corruption in the form of excise and value-added tax evasion costs the budget around Lev400m yearly, according to a recent report by the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a Sofia-based think tank.
Increases in excise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol required to bring Bulgaria in line with the EU have encouraged widespread smuggling.
The task of tackling corruption among politicians, bureaucrats and local government officials has become more urgent given that Bulgaria is set to receive ˆ500m more annually in EU grants and subsidies from next year.
Ognian Shentov, CSD's director, says that under current conditions an average 20-25 per cent of funding allocated to public procurements disappears because of administrative corruption.
"There is still virtual impunity in cases of political corruption. It's hard to believe there's political will for reform when you see senior politicians on television shaking hands with senior members of organised crime groups," Mr Shentov says.
Author: Kerin Hope and Nikolay Petrov