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.