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Bulgaria and Romania: Some Comparisons and Contrasts

As already noted, many outsiders, including the EU, tend to treat Bulgaria and Romania as essentially Tweedledum and Tweedledee when it comes to corruption. However, it was demonstrated earlier that, at least according to our imperfect measurement techniques, the picture is not so clear. While their scores in terms of perceptions have often been either identical or else similar, with Bulgaria sometimes appearing to be a little worse and at other times a little better than Romania, in terms of the general public’s direct experience of bribery, Bulgaria appears to be less corrupt than its neighbour.

Yet corruption is regularly identified by Bulgarian businesspeople as the number one problem in conducting business, whereas, while still a problem in Romania, it is not considered as big a hindrance as other factors. It is possible that the significant discrepancy between the general public’s experience of bribery and the business community’s assessment of the significance of corruption in Bulgaria is best explained in terms of ordinary citizens’ fear of honestly reporting their direct involvement. However, this explanation is unconvincing. The main reason is that Bulgarian freedom of speech is considerably greater than that of many other countries in which the incidence of reported direct experience of bribery, according to many GCBs, is much higher. The more likely explanation for the apparent mismatch is that corrupt officials both target and collude with the business community far more than with the general public; this point gels with the argument that there is a high degree of corporate state capture in Bulgaria.

The fact that Bulgaria and Romania were admitted to the EU more than two and a half years later than eight other post-communist states that had sought admission has been explained primarily in terms of the EU’s concerns about the two countries’ high levels of corruption and organised crime (Watt 2006). Corruption - in all the post-communist applicant states - had long been an issue for the EU. Thus, when it produced its individual country analyses relating to Agenda 2000, combating corruption was the only political variable the EU emphasised in all 10 studies (for the comments on Bulgarian and Romanian corruption see European Commission 1997a, p. 20, 1997b, p. 17). However, concerns about the corruption situations in Bulgaria and Romania were more serious than those for other states. For example, Brussels had been strongly criticising the corruption situation for years before Romania was admitted to the EU (Pridham 2007, passim), and eyebrows were raised in early-2006, when the Romanian parliament proved unwilling to pass anti-corruption legislation (Pridham 2007, p. 249). Yet despite severe reservations that neither Bulgaria nor Romania had adequately addressed these concerns, both were admitted in January 2007.

It is sometimes claimed that the EU loses its potential leverage over individual states once they have been admitted to its ranks; this argument has certainly been made about the post-communist states, including Bulgaria and Romania (Mungiu-Pippidi 2007, p. 16). However, in fact, the EU continued to monitor the corruption situation in the two states following their accession, and set new precedents in the way it addressed what it perceived to be a continuing problem. Thus, a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was established in January 2007 to monitor Bulgaria’s and Romania’s anti-corruption measures and judicial reform (as well as measures against organised crime in the case of Bulgaria) and report on these every 6 months. As Gateva (2013, p. 421) notes, this mechanism constituted ‘a new feature, that of post-accession conditionality’ (also see Gateva 2015). In July 2008, the EU released what Deutsche Welle (2008) described as a ‘scathing’ report on Bulgaria’s corruption and announced that it would be suspending certain payments to Sofia because of the latter’s inefficiency and corruption, including in the distribution and use ofEU funds such as the Special Accession Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development. The suspended funds have been estimated at between ‘at least’ €500 mn (Frankfurter Allgemeine 2008; BBC 2008) and more than more than €800 mn (Deutsche Welle 2008).12 Then in November 2008, the European Commission announced that it would permanently cut €220mn of funds originally allocated to Bulgaria (Spiegel Online 2008; for a brief but insightful analysis of all this see Freeman 2008). This move was described in the mass media as unprecedented (e.g. Hope and Troev 2008). However, in 2009, the delayed funds were unfrozen, for reasons that were later described in a leading German newspaper in somewhat sensationalist and possibly misleading terms as Bulgarian and Romanian ‘blackmail’ (Erpressung); the EU, it was argued, is ultimately unable to impose ongoing sanctions, since so many important decisions in the EU require unanimous decisions, which disgruntled member-states can threaten to vote against (Schiltz 2013).

The situation in Bulgaria has not really improved in recent years. A January 2015 report on Bulgaria’s progress since joining the EU made it clear that Brussels still considered corruption - particularly high-level - to be a serious problem in this Balkan country, and Sofia’s anti-corruption efforts to be quite inadequate (European Commission 2015a, pp. 2, 7-8, 9-11; Rettman 2015). Although the January 2016 CVM report praised Bulgaria for at last adopting a national anti-corruption strategy (European Commission 2016a, p. 8), Bulgarian commentators noted the EU’s continuing frustration with their country’s lacklustre efforts to address its corruption problem (Cheresheva 2016). Thus, the Bulgarian National Assembly (parliament) failed in September 2015 to pass a much needed law against corruption that was drafted by Bulgaria’s former EU Commissioner (now Deputy Prime Minister) and that would have permitted anonymous whistle-blowing as well as the establishment of a powerful Anti-Corruption Bureau similar to the well-regarded one in Romania (Zhelev 2015).

While the EU’s 2015 assessment of the anti-corruption drive in Romania was markedly more positive than that of Bulgaria, it is clear that Brussels believed that more could still be done there too, particularly concerning high- level corruption, and that the progress made to date had not necessarily been consolidated in all areas (European Commission 2015b, pp. 9-13). Although the January 2016 CVM report was more upbeat, and noted a number of improvements in Romania, it still identified aspects of anti-corruption in Romania that needed to be addressed (European Commission 2016b, pp. 10-12, 2016c). Nevertheless, the fact that a former Romanian prime minister, Adrian Nastase, was sentenced and imprisoned in July 2012 and then again in January 2014 for corruption, while the man who was prime minister from May 2012 to November 2015, Victor Ponta, was indicted for corruption in August 2015, has been noted favourably by Brussels.

One final aspect of the impact of their high corruption levels on Bulgaria and Romania’s attempts to be admitted to European ‘clubs’ is their ongoing and so far unsuccessful attempts to join the Schengen Area. As Vachudova and Spendzharova (2012) argue, admission to the Schengen Area ‘free movement’ zone may in recent years have acted as an incentive to Bulgarian and Romanian elites to curb corruption, even if the EU’s CVM has proved to be less effective than originally hoped for.13 In order to be admitted to this zone, the interior ministers of the existing 26 Schengen Area member-states must agree unanimously; the Netherlands, with some support from Finland, France and Germany, has been resisting admission for years, primarily on the grounds that too little has been done to combat high-level and judicial corruption in both Bulgaria and Romania. In fact, the reputation for (low-level) corruption among border guards and customs officers, especially in Bulgaria, is another reason for the resistance. If border officials can easily be bribed to collude with organised crime gangs involved with the smuggling and trafficking of drugs, arms and people into the Schengen Area, this significantly increases security problems for the existing members.

In September 2015, as the problem of refugees into Europe was growing almost exponentially, the Bulgarian and Romanian prime ministers Boiko Borisov and Victor Ponta indicated that their countries would be willing to accept migrant intake quotas if admitted to the Schengen Area (Zhelev and Bird 2015). However, by October, the Romanians appear to have given up hope of being admitted, at least for now (Chiriac 2015), whereas the Bulgarians were still anxious to join (Gotev 2015). In the light of both the Syrian refugee influx in 2015 and the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels in November 2015 and March 2016, it remains to be seen how long the Schengen Area will remain in its current form, if at all, anyway, so that there might be one less carrot outsiders can dangle in front of Bulgaria and Romania in the formers’ endeavours to curb corruption in the latter.

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