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Bulgaria must seize the moment and tackle Russian influence

Bulgaria has usually been viewed as one of the most corrupt states in the European Union. This has often been blamed on Russian influence, and it continues to challenge the country’s democracy. Despite this, Sofia now does seem to be making progress in tackling these closely connected problems.

November 13, 2023 - Eguiar Lizundia Graham Scott - Articles and Commentary

Central entrance to the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Bulgaria in Sofia. Photo: yevgeniy11 / Shutterstock

For former Soviet bloc countries, the toxic legacy of communism – and the Kremlin’s continued efforts to dominate and manipulate its neighbours – has been an enduring challenge to anti-corruption efforts. But there is reason for optimism. In Bulgaria, the two major parties – Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and We Continue the Change (PP) – reached a historic agreement to form a firmly pro-western coalition government focused on addressing corruption and resisting Russian malign influence. This follows in a series of promising signs that the region might be leaving behind ingrained opaque practices and steering itself away from institutionalised corruption.

A “transparency consensus” seems to be emerging on the Eastern Flank of both NATO and the EU. Until recently, the illiberal trajectory of Poland and Hungary, combined with the inability of other former Soviet republics and satellite states to eradicate corruption, served as evidence to many that Eastern Europe had not yet bridged the divide with Western Europe in terms of good governance. In recent months, Moldova’s reformist government and, particularly, Ukraine’s unwavering determination to intensify its efforts in combatting corruption, even amidst ongoing warfare, have cast doubt on this prevailing narrative. The agreement reached in June to establish a coalition government in Bulgaria, featuring rotating prime ministers and an explicit mandate to address corruption, suggests a potential shift in course and a genuine commitment to tackling its reputation as one of the most corrupt countries in the EU.

The ramifications of this shift can be felt across the region. Bulgaria has been notable for its lack of commitment to address corruption. In contrast with Romania, Bulgaria has seemed unable or unwilling to make the necessary reforms to improve public integrity. It also had the disreputable distinction of being the only EU member to not implement the sanctions in place since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. This seemed to be a symptom of the strong pro-Kremlin influence afflicting Bulgaria. This Russian influence is facilitated by corruption, both through the decline of public confidence in democratic institutions, opening the door for pro-Russian, anti-system parties such as Revival, and the allowance of preferential treatment for Russian energy and business interests.

Signs of progress

Over the past decade, overall perceptions of corruption in the country remained high, as shown in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. However, there are signs that Bulgaria has made meaningful progress toward addressing structural opportunities for graft and abuse. According to the Corruption Risk Forecast, which is produced by the European Research Centre for Anti-Corruption and State-Building (ERCAS) and the Center for International Private Enterprise, Bulgaria limited opportunities for corruption from 2008 to 2020 by improving budget transparency and reducing the administrative burden. ERCAS calculated Bulgaria’s administrative burden by measuring the average number of procedures and time required to start up a business, the number of tax payments per year, and the time allowed to pay taxes. As the administrative burden increases, so do the incentives for private interests to circumvent formal procedures by exercising relationships with those in power.

Bulgaria ranks ninth out of 114 countries in administrative transparency, an impressive showing. The Bulgarian authorities have also made significant progress in improving budget transparency. The International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Survey from 2021 features Bulgaria right below France and ahead of the United States, along with other countries that have “substantial information available”.

A brighter future ahead

With the formation of the GERB-PP government, Bulgaria has already made progress in the fight against corruption and Russian influence. Last summer, the government prompted the ousting of Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev, long thought to have been an enabler of systemic corruption. The government also recently ended a concession contract with the Russian oil company Lukoil, returning control of a key port on the country’s Black Sea coast to Bulgaria. The parliament also voted to end the Lukoil refinery’s processing of Russian oil by October 31, 2024, with a consistent transition up to that point.

The government is expected to continue this positive trajectory as it seeks to join the Eurozone and the Schengen Area, as well as unlock EU Recovery and Resilience Plan money. All of these will have reform requirements attached. Representatives from both government coalition parties have expressed a mutual commitment to reforming the judiciary and the state prosecution service, in addition to improving investment screening and whistleblower protections. If they come to fruition, these changes will strengthen the rule of law, keep malign foreign investment at bay, and empower people to call out corruption when they see it.

Bulgarian citizens have endorsed this reformist path in the recent municipal elections. Both governing parties performed well in the polls, with GERB maintaining its hold on a plurality of municipalities in the country. Meanwhile, PP did well in the first municipal elections since its founding, defeating the pro-Russian mayoral candidate from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) in Sofia, aided by its electoral coalition with fellow reform party, Democratic Bulgaria and the CSO-turned-political-party “Save Sofia”. This also marked the end of GERB’s 18-year hold on Sofia, demonstrating reinvigorated competition in Bulgaria’s local politics in big urban centers.

Newly elected local governments will hold an opportunity to materialize many of the changes voters are eager to see. IRI polling in ten municipalities indicates that addressing corruption will be one of these chief priorities. In five of the ten municipalities polled, over 75 per cent of respondents reported corruption in their municipality as a very serious or somewhat serious problem. However, a 2022 report by IRI assessing the same ten municipalities in Bulgaria suggests that while local governments have more work to do in tackling corruption, there are a number of positive developments that can be scaled up to the national level. From the availability of accessible key information regarding public procurement and financial management, to the growing use of feedback channels to communicate with the public, Bulgarian municipalities have laid the foundation for greater accountability.

Ultimately, corruption in Bulgaria is linked to Russian influence. Staying anchored in the Euro-Atlantic sphere and addressing graft are mutually reinforcing endeavours. In addition to positive developments at the national level, municipalities are also moving in the right direction. Delivering tangible and early results will be critical to persuading a sceptical populace that countering corruption is possible and rejecting Russian aggression is a contributing factor to that end.

Eguiar Lizundia is a senior advisor for governance and anti-corruption at the International Republican Institute.

Graham Scott is a senior technical specialist covering Bulgaria.

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