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A Difficult Final Year for EU-Bound Bulgaria?

December 7, 2005

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By Jan Buruma*

In this survey, Dutch journalist Jan Buruma focuses on some of the challenges remaining for Bulgaria in its quest for EU accession in 2007.

Will Bulgaria make it to Brussels in 2007? Back in March 1997, when former PM Stefan Sofianski filed his country’s formal EU bid, it seemed almost impossible. The Balkan country had not made any really considerable progress towards developing a market economy and democracy since former dictator Todor Zhivkov’s downfall in November 1989. However, the right-wing Kostov and Saxecoburggotski governments that followed Sofianski’s initiative worked hard from 1997 until the present, and it seemed until the June 2005 parliamentary elections that Bulgaria was on the right track. However, difficulties in forming a cabinet subsequently stalled vital reforms.

Now, a lot of work still needs to be done.The European Commission proved rather critical in its October 2005 report. Citing the report, the Sofia Morning News listed organized crime, corruption, a weak judiciary system and agricultural issues as Bulgaria’s main impediments. The BBC spoke of a “post-election impasse” as partially to blame. However, organized crime was only added to the list relatively recently. Although crime in post-communist Bulgaria has always been an issue, it was never considered a major problem.

However, a number of high-profile killings in September and October of businessmen in Sofia changed that view. It can hardly be a coincidence that the killings happened around the time of the EC-report. The victory of Boyko Borissov as mayor of Sofia in early November over Socialist candidate Tatjana Doncheva (68.2 percent to 32.8 percent) might be considered as a consequence of the killings. Borissov was general secretary of the Interior Ministry during the Saxecoburggotski-government (2001-2005) and became a symbol of the battle against organised crime.

In the October report, Brussels handed out several “yellow cards” in areas such as free movements of goods, persons and capital, freedom to provide services, as well as in agriculture and fishery. And the EU believes that improvements still need to be done in the social sector, for example in the areas of public health, anti-discrimination measures, and integration of the Roma minority. Bigger concerns – what we could consider “red cards” – were slapped down in the areas of freedom to provide services, company law, agriculture, regional policy, justice and internal affairs.

But Brussels warned not only Bulgaria. The other two candidate member states, Romania and Croatia, are also not quite yet ready. Corruption is the main hurdle for Bucharest, while Zagreb has been told to make further administrative and economic reforms, as well as to take all possible efforts to arrest alleged war crime general Ante Gotovina. However, the fact that Croatia was ushered in without the general’s arrest smacked of hypocrisy for some.

Down to the Wire

Nevertheless, Sofia’s situation has seen sudden fluctuations. When the European Commission decided to start formal negotiations back in 1999, Bulgaria was given clear signals that its reform process was on the right track. Like all the other candidate countries, Bulgaria was required to fulfil the so-called acquis communautaire, acquis in short – over 800,000 pages of demands that a country needs to meet in order to be ready for the European Union. Over the past 10 years, Bulgaria has generally kept in front of neighboring Romania on the realization of reforms. But with the final laps to go, the situation has reversed.

Socialist PM Sergej Stanishev has nevertheless tried to generate optimism. But there are doubts as to whether the 39 year-old Ukrainian-born BSP-leader is the right person for the job.

The political stakes are high. President Georgi Parvanov, PM Stanishev and minister for Euro-Integration Milena Kuneva – who started her job in 2001 and is the only who stayed on from the Saxecoburggotski-government after the elections – firmly announced that joining the EU in 2007 is now Bulgaria’s highest priority. Kuneva announced on 8 November that the government will tightly monitor the ministries’ work, to make sure that neither time nor efforts are wasted.

External factors outside of Sofia’s control are also affecting the pace of accession. The crisis in the enlarged EU, caused by the French and Dutch “no” to the EU-constitution in May and June 2005, has acted as a brake against the ambitions of Bulgaria and other aspiring candidate states. The next wave of enlargement may be postponed until 2008, though too much longer than that seems unlikely. During a visit to Romania early November, Bulgarian president Georgi Parvanov and his Romanian counterpart Traian Basescu agreed to closer cooperation to meet the mutual 2007 deadline.

Meanwhile, anti-EU sentiment in Bulgaria is getting slightly stronger, as statistics show. In 1999, around 49 percent of the population was in favour of the EU; by 2003 this number had increased to 73 percent.

However, in the following year support dropped to 65 percent. The closer Brussels looms, the more some Bulgarians fear they might lose their culture, national traditions and heritage by Euro-assimilation. In fairness, however, viewing the situation in the “old” EU – from the retention of Frisian culture in The Netherlands to continuing bullfighting in Spain – that it not very likely to happen. But popular sentiments do have political weight and the Bulgarians are indeed very proud of their culture and history. After all, the nationalist party Ataka won a completely unexpected 8 percent of the vote in the June elections. Party leader and former journalist Volen Siderov has even called for reopening negotiations with Brussels. That is unrealistic, of course. Eurocritics note that Brussels does indeed have the final word on many of its member states’ important matters, from the measurement of bananas to the strong influence the EU Court of Justice has on national courts.

Nuclear and Political Meltdown: Kozloduj

Some of the most intractable negotiations concern the closure of the nuclear reactor in Kozloduj. It was built in 1974 in Soviet-style, glamorously initiated by the Communist Party. It contains 4 so-called VVER-440 megawatt reactors, and resembles the Chernobyl-reactor that caused the horrible nuclear disaster in Ukraine in 1986. For this reason, the EU would like to see it shut down. The International Atom Energy Agency (IAEA) considered the Kozloduj reactor to be one of the most dangerous in Eastern Europe.

However, the Kozloduj plant also produces 45 percent of Bulgaria’s electricity. It also exports energy to Albania, Greece and Turkey. Last but not least, many local people are currently employed because of Kozloduj. Back in 1980, Bulgaria started to built a second nuclear reactor in Belene, but due to financial difficulties and protests from environmental activists it was never finished.

As the Kozloduj reactor was one of the most dangerous in Europe, in 1993 the EBRD provided ECU 24 million for it closure. In 1999 PM Ivan Kostov agreed with the European Commission to close two reactors in 2003 and the last two in 2006. In 2004, the Narodno Subranie, the Bulgarian Parliament decided to close the last blocks when Bulgaria would be EU-member, reported RFE/RL. Bulgarians were aware of the dangers Kozloduj presented (though EU-financed modernizations in the 1990’s had somewhat diminished the threats) but they had no alternative sources for energy.

However, although they were supposed to function until 2012, due to heavy pressure from Brussels two of the VVER-reactors were closed in 2002. The last two are supposed to close next year. According to Focus News, Energy Minister Ruman Ovcharov said on 11 November that Bulgaria then won’t be able to export electricity to neighbouring countries- not to mention that electricity prices will rise. So, although there are serious plans to restart the Belene reactor project, Bulgaria still needs to find a real solution to its energy question.

The Judiciary

Another major issue is judicial reforms. According to TOL, there are currently three autonomous bodies that investigate crime. The prosecutor-general, the police and a special institution, the National Investigating Services (NIS). The latter was created by the BSP and is composed of magistrates who deal with crime and corruption by senior state officials.

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee described the three institutions as autonomous, not as cooperating bodies. This redundancy not only leads to overly bureaucratic and time-consuming work, but also it often does not guarantee criminal suspects a fair trial. However, the EU has not given any specific advice on how to reorganize these bodies more efficiently and fairly.

And there is more. TOL explains that these three institutions are overseen by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), an independent body. The idea was good, because under the old regime, judicial bodies were under Communist control. However, the SJC developed into a body in which politicians have hardly any influence, something that also makes it hard to reform.

But there are also good signs. Although the EC’s report cannot be misunderstood, the European Parliament is continuing with its preparations to receive Bulgaria into the European club. After the June elections 18 Bulgarians, among them former Sofia mayor Stefan Sofianski, became so-called “observers” at the European Parliament. And, abiding with the rules of democratic representation, even one Ataka MP went to Brussels. Under this scheme, the Bulgarian MEP’s can do the same work as their EU colleagues, but they don’t have the right to vote. And, having in mind that about 20 Bulgarians are working for the European Parliament as interpreters, the body needs to recruit more.

The political stakes are now so high that Bulgaria cannot afford to fail the 1 January 2007-deadline. The Balkan country should prove to be ready, though only just. But Brussels has the final word. The coming months until April 2006, when the European Commission will give its final verdict, will be crucial.

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Jan Buruma is a Dutch freelance journalist specializing in the Balkans. He has 15 years of experience with Bulgaria, including three years spent living there, and speaks the language. He has written for among others the Dutch Balkan Bulletin and the Czech-based Transitions Online.

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