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Harry Cassin
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Andy Spalding
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Jessica Tillipman
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Richard L. Cassin
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Elizabeth K. Spahn
Editor Emeritus

Cody Worthington
Contributing Editor

Julie DiMauro
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Thomas Fox
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Marc Alain Bohn
Contributing Editor

Bill Waite
Contributing Editor

Shruti J. Shah
Contributing Editor

Russell A. Stamets
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Richard Bistrong
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Eric Carlson
Contributing Editor

Bulgaria’s window of opportunity to break systemic corruption

When we established the We Continue the Change alliance, and when I became the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, I had one interest in mind: to make Bulgaria a truly prosperous European nation – one that achieves its full potential as a country with a skilled labor force, a strategic location and a high productivity ratio. The only obstacle holding back my country from achieving this is the legacy of corruption that is still practiced by the very few – people in high positions, mostly from the previous government and their private sector friends.

For ten years, as a citizen of Bulgaria, I had been protesting on the streets. Finally, I had a chance to start the reversal of this trend and to help Bulgaria become a transparent, predictable country where nobody is above the law. I knew there were many challenges, and as a graduate of Harvard University, I knew that Bulgaria was basically a textbook example of how corruption stood between the country and its opportunities. My determination and hope is to turn Bulgaria into a positive case study – one that illustrates how a government was able to eradicate corruption within the shortest period of time.

For too many years, the people of Bulgaria have had to watch how corruption strangles the country’s economic development. When corruption captures state institutions, they serve individualism rather than the people’s collective well-being. While the current political crisis is for Bulgaria and its people to manage, the survival of a tangible anti-corruption agenda matters far beyond the country’s borders. It matters to all who care about the integrity of the European Union – integrity in terms of both unity and ethical values. And it matters to all who want to live in a world where citizens, not organized criminals, are in charge of democratic institutions.

Corruption not only steals money from the people, but also impacts the health and environmental standards that we as Europeans all strive to reach. Here are two examples that demonstrate how.

The first story takes place at the external land border for the European Union, at a checkpoint named Kapitan Andreevo. Under previous governments, it has become widely reputed to be controlled by organized crime. The official border crossing had been operated by a private company with a monopoly over unloading, loading, phytosanitary and veterinary checks. The conflict of interest and the vulnerability to corruption was obvious. Organized criminals and corrupt officials can generate vast profits by allowing food that does not comply with relevant safety standards to flow freely into the EU and its single market.

Earlier this year, as part of our wider set of strategic anti-corruption priorities, our government regained control over the EU border Kapitan Andreevo and re-established functioning controls. What we found was alarming, including the potential health and safety implications for consumers from Bulgaria and the rest of the EU. Data from our laboratory analysis showed that, as suspected, checks were being bypassed or forged. For example, it is extremely likely that foods with abnormal levels of pesticides were permitted to enter the EU market for consumption for the past ten years during the previous government.

 Over the past six months, we have been working hard to restore the rule of law, economic prosperity, and safety for our citizens. We took action and are now ensuring food safety for all Bulgarians and European citizens and preventing an estimated future monetary loss of more than €250 million ($256 million). We invited foreign customs officials and a delegation from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety to examine the situation. We have started to build a new state laboratory and hire new staff.

The second example of how corruption can affect people’s everyday lives is the coal-fired power plant Brikel in Gulabovo, which I inspected together with the Deputy Prime Minister for Climate Policies and Minister of Environment and Water Borislav Sandov. Our inspection showed that Brikel reported 15 times more air pollution from sulfur dioxide emissions than permitted by the regulations. Similarly, the limit for fine particulate matter emissions is 50 µg/m3; when I visited, the value was 1367 µg/m3.

These are extremely disturbing facts. It was the first time there was a comprehensive inspection from the responsible representatives of a number of institutions involved in environmental protection in the country. This happened after dozens of citizens’ reports were ignored, 51 punitive decrees against Brickel were issued over the last six years, and blatant sabotage of our efforts to solve the problem. The company, left undisturbed by local courts and agencies, has not felt the need to correct its environmental impact. Now this company will be under strict regulation and will require investigation.

We need to ensure that both the lives and livelihoods of the local communities are preserved. This means stopping the negative impact of corruption on people’s health and on the environment – something that we as Europeans are all responsible for. Our government needs to ensure that Bulgaria meets its green goals, which are also part of Bulgaria’s Recovery and Resilience Plan agreed with the European Commission.

In both of these stories, and many more that are still untold, we have done all this in the face of fierce resistance from those who benefit from the status quo. And we have pursued these anti-corruption efforts without support from state prosecutors or the judiciary. So, what does this mean?

First, breaking systemic corruption in Bulgaria is essential to maintain security and standards in Bulgaria and the entire EU.

 Second, windows of opportunity to tackle institutionalized corruption are infrequent. It is important to take decisive action, as we did.

When Bulgarian citizens went to the streets in 2020 to demand a change in leadership, they hoped the fresh air would blow out the old, corrupt ways of doing things and shine a light on some of the darker forces holding back our country’s great potential.

I believe that Bulgaria is a country with great potential. Our government introduced critical reforms in the short six-month window of opportunity given to us, small as it now turned out to be. Many of these are already recognized in the July 2022 European Commission’s Rule of Law report. But the reforms are still fresh and fragile. Achieving sustainable anti-corruption reform is a long and difficult journey. Electing a government that prioritizes anti-corruption is only the start. Persistent support from both domestic and international allies is required to battle the inevitable hurdles along the way.

This is why we are seeking to strengthen cooperation with the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) as part of a package of essential amendments to Bulgaria’s anti-corruption legislative framework. Our government has taken decisive steps in this direction in the past months. For example, the Council of Ministers became a direct contact point for reports from Bulgarian citizens about potential criminal activity to be channeled to the EPPO. Last week the National Assembly adopted at first reading the draft law for amendment and supplementation of the Judiciary Act on European delegated prosecutors, proposed by the Council of Ministers. It aims for European delegated prosecutors to be separated into an independent structure with its own administration and budget, which will be designated as an organizational unit under the Classified Information Act. This bill has been supported by the EPPO and assessed as fully complying with the regulation that establishes the EPPO.

We have also signed a partnership agreement with the Basel Institute on Governance which supports our legislative reform agenda and helps build the capacity to investigate and prosecute corruption and recover money stolen from the public purse. More support is still needed, and we hope that the international community rallies behind our anti-corruption agenda so that the important reforms my government has started are not lost, no matter the outcome of our current political situation.

Anti-corruption measures are part of the Bulgarian Recovery and Resilience Plan agreed with the European Commission. It is the first time that a Bulgarian government has interlinked reforms as a condition to receive EU funds under such a plan. Restoring justice and rule of law has always been a priority of our government, which is why we insisted on introducing new mechanisms like strengthening oversight over the prosecutor general, reform of the AntiCorruption Commission, and reform of public procurement. My aim was to ensure transparency and accountability, even if another government steps into power.

The situation has now reached a crucial point, as our decisive anti-corruption efforts in the last six months of our government led to fierce resistance by the status quo and the collapse of our coalition. Now, we all, once again, have to decide on the direction our country should take. And most importantly, we need to act in a united way, both at the local and European level, to restore justice and eradicate corruption for the sake of Bulgarian and EU citizens and for the sake of democracy.

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