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1 external assessment as a slap in the face of the civil society in Bulgaria after 20 years of transition

Published on , , Sofia

Personality has this very specific characteristic - to be ashamed more when someone would discover the internal problems which the personality is desperately trying to hide instead of to solve. Exactly this type of shame I felt after reading the latest publication of the Centre for European Policy Studies - an influential think-tank based in Brussels. My first confusion was provoked by the title of the publication "Democracy's Plight in the European Neighbourhood: Struggling Transitions and Proliferating Dynasties". But the real shock came after I read that beside the countries, covered by the so called European Neighbourhood Policy (the EU's neighbouring countries), the publication also covers Bulgaria and Romania.

The title of the Chapter for Bulgaria is called "Bulgaria: Rule of Law Wanted". The author of this chapter is the Bulgarian CEPS researcher Gergana Noucheva. And slogan below the title is a quote from the Bulgarian right MP Atanas Atanasov from his interview for the New York Times from the 15th of October 2008: "“Other countries have the mafia… In Bulgaria, the mafia has the country" - more eloquent than can be.

According to Gergana Noucheva Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007 with serious unanswered questions about the quality of its domestic governance. Two issues in particular cast a shadow over the picture of this new democracy – massive high-level political corruption and the curious incompetence of the authorities to tackle organised crime. Linked to both problems is the still
lumbering and inefficient judicial system that fails to create the perception among Bulgarian citizens that it stands as a guarantor of social justice rather than a protector of private interests. While it is normal for unconsolidated democracies to experience certain difficulties on the road to democratic governance, the case of Bulgaria stands out for the persistence of these problems and the suspicion of close ties between the political establishment, big business and even the criminal networks of the
underworld, the publication goes.

The text goes further and becomes more and more unpleasant to read because it reminds that only for a year - 2007-2008, Bulgaria scored down significantly in the The Transparency International corruption perception dropping to 3.6 in 2008 from 4.1 in 2007. The country
dropped from 57th place in 2006 to 72th place in 2008 in the world ranking of corruption-clean countries.

This sad score is also proved by the annual European Commission's reports. Gergana Noucheva reminds with the coldness of the external analyst the freezing of EU' pre-accession money for Bulgaria against the background of the lowest GDP per capita of the country - 29% of the average in the EU and the underdeveloped transport and institutional infrastructure. The assessment is that in Bulgaria rules the politics of partial reform. According to the research, the reasons for the slow progress in our country is that the Bulgarian society was not prepared for a deep and fast transition to democracy and market economy. And also for the fact that it did not produce clear pro-reform political majorities at election times.

As a result, the the communist-era elite not only continued to govern at all levels in the critical first years of transition but also took the opportunity to profit economically from the situation at a private level. The publication also quotes the research of Joel Hellman from 1998, writing that the politics of post-communist transition challenges the conventional wisdom of initial reforms breeding further reforms and created monopoly rents unwilling to share those gains with other societal groups, thus become the major impediment to comprehensive reforms in the later years of transition.

And if there were any hopes that this would end with the end of the process of privatisation, the publication point out that, indeed, the access to EU money motivate even better the elite in question for more and bigger profits. "Bulgaria’s accession preparations to the EU can be explained by this model of partial reform – just enough to make it to the club but not enough to be a respectable member of it", as the assessment of CEPS goes on.

Corruption and clientelism are the outward face of rent-seeking. Bribery is used in hospitals to obtain services from medical staff; in schools and universities from teachers; in municipalities from local officials; on the roads from traffic police; in courts from judges; in public agencies from
civil servants and so on.

The discouraging lack of consequences for the numerous corruption scandals that wrapped through the former coalition government, especially in its last year in power is also reminded - the scandal with the Road Agency, the freezing of the European funds for transport infrastructure, the scandals surrounding the former minister of the interior Rumen Petkov, who reluctantly resigned after it was unveiled that he met the two brothers Galevi from Dupnitsa, the biggest mafia bosses in Bulgaria; the publication does not spare the OLAF's report - for those who might have forgotten, this report unveiled a corruption scheme with money on the SAPARD pre-accession programme, called Nikolov-Stoikov. The research continues with reminding the confession of Ahmed Dogan (the leader of the Turkish minority party DPS) about the "circles of companies", filling the coffins of all political parties in Bulgaria.

And the publication does not end here - it quotes the lack of any results in discovering the perpetrators of the tens of murders in the underworld, by particularly mentioning the murder of the writer Georgi Stoev. He was killed only a day after he had announced on TV that he had more interesting information to discover. Georgi Stoev used to write about Bulgaria's criminal world. "The logical question is: if evidence about the criminal acts of certain individuals is available, why are the state institutions not doing more to sanction them?", CEPS asks in its latest research.

The weakness is severely criticised in the publication for creating complete parliamentary comfort of the tripartite coalition during its governance. GERB (the current ruling party) is also not spared in the research of CEPS: "That GERB represents a true opportunity for change is highly unlikely, given the opportunistic nature of party formation in Bulgaria in the last decade."

However, the harshest assessment is for the civil society. "What has been most regrettable in the Bulgarian transition story is that civil society has remained fairly weak and has grown more disillusioned with politics over time. As a result, there has been marginal domestic pressure on office-holders to raise governance standards and improve the quality of public life in the country. Elections could have been the time to show discontent with the ruling parties but the sanction vote has not been sufficient to change the nature of politics in Bulgaria profoundly."

The conclusion of Gergana Noucheva is that Bulgaria’s democratisation is a partial success story that leaves much to be desired in terms of good governance. In theory, the fundamental conditions of democracy do exist in the country – free and more or less fair elections, relatively independent media, checks and balances within the institutional set-up to guarantee the separation of powers, freedom of association and a high number of civil society organisations. Yet this does not amount to a system in which the rule of law always prevails.

To put it mildly, reading such an assessment after 20 painful years of transition is quite unpleasant. Years when I had hopes, had plans for me and my family and now I am forced to admit that 20 years of my life are gone for good in waiting for Godot (according to the Samuel Beckett's play). And no more hope. But the worst part is that I don't see any adherents among my fellow citizens - everybody prefers to sit in his pseudo cosiness of his home and indulge with less and less while not striving for m

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