Conflict over transparency concerning EU funding overshadows relations to Brussels

Bul­gar­ia was the Euro­pean coun­try that suf­fered from the con­se­quences of the Jan­u­ary 2009 three-week “gas war” between Ukraine and Rus­sia to the great­est extent. Thus, in the very begin­ning of 2009, both Bul­gar­i­an polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic elite and Bul­gar­i­an cit­i­zens real­ized that the coun­try is 100 per­cent gas-depen­dant on Moscow. The reac­tion of Bul­gar­i­an offi­cials to the cri­sis proved to be inad­e­quate and lack­ing com­pe­tence. As a result, Bul­gar­i­an com­pa­nies lost about 200 mil­lion Euros and Bul­gar­i­an cit­i­zens felt a strong impact of the gas-war on their well-being and every­day life. At the same time, Pres­i­dent Par­vanov, as well as some Bul­gar­i­an politi­cians and new­ly estab­lished polit­i­cal par­ties (“Leader”), and nation­al­is­tic for­ma­tions (VMRO, Inter­nal Mace­don­ian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Orga­ni­za­tion), tried to prof­it from the cri­sis launch­ing a cam­paign for the re-open­ing of two closed nuclear reac­tors in the Bul­gar­i­an nuclear pow­er plant, “Kozlo­duy”. The focus of the prob­lem thus shift­ed from Moscow to Brus­sels, putting one more time the Bul­gar­ia-EU rela­tions to the test. In the view of many ana­lysts, such an aber­ra­tion of the debate was under­tak­en with a many-fold pur­pose: (i) It was a delib­er­ate attempt by some polit­i­cal cir­cles to divert domes­tic crit­i­cisms away from Rus­sia and Bul­gar­i­an-Russ­ian rela­tions towards an “easy tar­get”, which is “Brus­sels that forced us to close Kozlo­duy”. (ii) It was to be used as an instru­ment of pres­sure on the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion in order to extract addi­tion­al EU funds for the con­ver­sion of the closed reac­tors and for the con­struc­tion of a sec­ond nuclear pow­er sta­tion near Belene (on the Danube riv­er). (iii) It was a sort of retal­i­a­tion in response to severe crit­i­cism com­ing from the Com­mis­sion about mis­use of EU funds and about con­sis­tent fail­ures in the func­tion­ing of the police and the judi­cia­ry. The Jan­u­ary gas-war, and the crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in which the coun­try found itself, showed once more the lack of strate­gic vision by Bul­gar­i­an offi­cials for the future devel­op­ment of the Bul­gar­i­an ener­gy sec­tor and for the Bul­gar­i­an nation­al secu­ri­ty as a whole.

Anoth­er cur­rent issue wor­thy of pub­lic and media atten­tion relates to the con­tin­u­ous attempts on part of Bulgaria’s pol­i­cy mak­ers and high gov­ern­ment offi­cials to resist the increas­ing demands by Brus­sels for more trans­paren­cy and account­abil­i­ty with­in the Bul­gar­i­an min­istries and agen­cies involved in EU fund­ing pro­grammes. Polit­i­cal actions of some lead­ing Bul­gar­i­an politi­cians demon­strat­ed fla­grant refusal to com­ply with EU require­ments and rec­om­men­da­tions. The deci­sion (week 2–6, Feb­ru­ary 2009) of the Bul­gar­i­an Par­lia­ment to stop the imple­men­ta­tion of the law on con­flict of inter­ests with­in the state admin­is­tra­tion can be inter­pret­ed along those lines. EU response to this reluc­tance was to block huge part of finances com­ing from SAPARD (Spe­cial Acces­sion Pro­gramme for Agri­cul­ture and Rur­al Devel­op­ment) and ISPA (Instru­ment for Struc­tur­al Poli­cies for Pre-Acces­sion) pro­grammes leav­ing the coun­try to face pos­si­ble block­age of struc­tur­al and cohe­sion funds. Thus, at the begin­ning of its third year as an EU mem­ber, Bul­gar­ia is becom­ing more and more iso­lat­ed from the EU deci­sion mak­ing process with no per­spec­tive for con­sid­er­able improve­ment of its rela­tions with Brussels.

Ongo­ing cor­rup­tion scan­dals with­in the Bul­gar­i­an gov­ern­ing coali­tion and the inca­pa­bil­i­ty of the judi­cial sys­tem to deal with them, pro­vide the ground for grow­ing social dis­con­tent. Jan­u­ary 2009 was marked by civ­il protests in Sofia and oth­er cities. Bul­gar­i­an stu­dents, farm­ers and inter­net users, expressed strong dis­ap­proval with the gov­ern­ment and its pol­i­cy fail­ure in areas such as edu­ca­tion, agri­cul­ture, health care and civ­il rights pro­tec­tion. The cul­mi­na­tion was on 14 Jan­u­ary 2009 when more than 3,000 cit­i­zens were vio­lent­ly dis­persed by police. These protests can be under­stood not only as an issue-dri­ven reac­tion, but also as an expres­sion of spread­ing deep dis­trust of the cur­rent polit­i­cal class with­in the Bul­gar­i­an soci­ety. In this respect, the results of recent soci­o­log­i­cal sur­veys, indi­cat­ing sta­ble elec­toral sup­port for nation­al­is­tic and pop­ulist par­ties, are not surprising.

The upcom­ing Euro­pean Par­la­ment and gen­er­al elec­tions are the oth­er impor­tant polit­i­cal events in Bul­gar­ia this year. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, cur­rent dis­cus­sions are focused not on par­ty pro­grammes and can­di­dates, but on the exact date when these elec­tions are to be held. Two of the gov­ern­ing par­ties, BSP (PES) and DPS (ELDR), have declared sup­port for a two-month time scheme (EP elec­tions in June and Nation­al Assem­bly elec­tions in July 2009). These posi­tions are based on “cal­cu­la­tions” that a low turnout at the gen­er­al elec­tions will help the par­ties in receiv­ing bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the next par­lia­ment. The oth­er gov­ern­ing par­ty, NDSV (ELDR), and some right–wing par­ties’ mem­bers of EPP, sup­port the idea of the two elec­tions tak­ing place in one day (“2‑in‑1” for­mu­la). Their opin­ion is that gen­er­al elec­tions in July will fail to gain many cit­i­zens atten­tion and this will result in low turnout.

Oth­er elec­tion-relat­ed issues such as the mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the elec­toral sys­tem with inclu­sion of the major­i­ty ele­ment, the right of cit­i­zens to ini­ti­ate ref­er­en­da and the elab­o­ra­tion and enforce­ment of par­ty financ­ing leg­is­la­tion are at the moment neglect­ed and have not achieved any con­crete results.