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European elections are a chance to accelerate reform in Bulgaria

A ballot box in Bulgaria [Dnevnik]

Commentary by Krassen Nikolov

On Thursday, the chairman of the anti-corruption agency (Commission for Combating Corruption and the Withdrawal of Illegally Acquired Property – KPKONPI) Plamen Georgiev announced his unprecedented decision to take an unlimited leave so that he could be investigated for the scandal with the apartment he bought at suspiciously low price. The Minister of Justice Tsetska Tsacheva has also resigned because of a similar deal.

Such decisions have no analogue in the most recent history. And it is not а coincidence that the scandal affected mainly the justice system. There are two reasons for that – the political pressure of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov on Georgiev and Tsacheva due to the forthcoming European elections, and the monitoring of the European Commission on the progress in Bulgaria under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism that was established in 2007.

Plamen Georgiev is a protégé of GERB. That is why all the scandals that he is involved in are reflecting directly on the ruling party’s score less than two months before the vote. Borissov should not discrediting KPKONPI – the anti-corruption agency was established in the beginning of 2018 under the pressure of the European Commission, which criticised Bulgaria for lack of results in the fight against high level corruption. This is how the commission’s chairman had to be temporarily removed from his position. Later he will be fired, most probably.

The chief prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov was in a similar situation 4 years ago. Wiretaps of two high-rank judges of the Sofia City Court were leaked in the media. The recording showed that Prime Minister Boyko Borissov had ordered Tsatsarov, who should be independent from the executive power, to start an investigation against a magistrate. Many callеd for the temporary removal of Tsatsarov from his position and holding an independent inquiry. The European Commission also insisted on that, although it made it discreetly. Borissov, however, refused to intervene. Tsatsarov was too important for him, and the elections were far away.

Now the situation is different. The election on 26 May will be a test for Borissov, and the anti-corruption agency will be assessed by Brussels under the CVM. The polls will reveal the degree of confidence in the government of GERB and the United Patriots. But there is another very important political reason that the Bulgarian voters underestimate: the direct influence of the European Parliament and the Bulgarian MEPs on the justice system in the country.

On 16 March 2016, Bulgarian MEPs from GERB, DPS and BSP, the Chief Prosecutor and the Chairman of the Supreme Administrative Court attended a conference in Brussels. They all defended the thesis that European monitoring on the country’s justice system was exhausted as an instrument. They stated that CVM was humiliating for Bulgaria and that the CVM reports were used for domestic political purposes rather than for real improvement of the fight against high-level corruption.

This thesis is partly correct. For 12 years now, Brussels’s monitoring has failed to force Bulgaria to make decisive reforms in its justice system. There are no convictions in high-level corruption cases. So the monitoring has become a humiliation not only for Bulgaria (which is the result of its own efforts), but also for the European Commission.

Although Bulgaria has only 17 MEPs, their vote matters. Half a year after the Bulgarian MEPs raised their voice, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the creation of a new monitoring mechanism on the state of democracy and the rule of law in all member countries. The new mechanism is planned to be much wider and without time limits than the present monitoring.

The Commission is not legally obliged to implement the European Parliament resolution, however the replacement of the current monitoring is seriously considered. One of the ideas to punish the counties that break the rules is suspension of European funds. The new monitoring would presumably also focus on media independence. The Bulgarian authorities won’t like that, but this would be beneficial for the Bulgarian citizens.

Because of all these it is important that Bulgarians vote in the 26 May European elections. Electing pro-reform MEPs would improve the country’s international image, and help accelerate the much-needed reforms. The 17 MEPs are among the most influential lobbyists for Bulgaria in the EU and the chance to send quality people should not be wasted.

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