Turning Off the EU Tap: a Chance for Bulgaria to Fight Corruption

It is not the man who eats the entire cake that is the fool, but the fool who gave the cake to the man. - Bulgarian proverb

, by Courtney Lobel, Margarita Lazarova

Turning Off the EU Tap: a Chance for Bulgaria to Fight Corruption

A mere 13 months after Bulgaria’s accession to the EU in January 2007, the European Commission has taken decisive action and frozen Bulgaria’s funding in three different programmes. The spending holds – in the PHARE, ISPA and SAPARD programmes - follow as a result of corruption scandals in Bulgaria’s Road Infrastructure Agency (BRIA) and perceived irregularities in the management procedures of Bulgaria’s EU funds.

The latest allegation comes in the form of two officials from the infrastructure agency caught demanding a 25,000 BGN bribe from a local landowner during the construction of the Hemus highway. The resulting cuts in spending have largely inhibited Bulgaria from tapping into the European Commission’s 2007-2013 Bulgaria budget of 6.67 billion Euros. As a result, everyday Bulgarians are left grappling with the fallout while the European community tries to formulate a response to Bulgaria’s looming corruption crisis.

The initial response to the BRIA scandal within Bulgaria came by way of Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev. Stanishev immediately appointed a new Deputy Prime Minister, Meglena Plugchieva, whose sole task is to deal explicitly with the issue of rightful assimilation of European funds. Before Ms. Plugchieva even stepped into her office, Bulgarian journalists conducted their own investigation into where the contents of EU coffers has actually gone in Bulgaria. The results are quite shocking.

A team from a daily newspaper, Trud (eng. Labour), focused on one of the smallest EU funds, PHARE, and more specifically on one of its branches called “Educational and Medical Integration of Vulnerable Minority Groups with a Special Focus on Roma.” Through this programme, Brussels funnels 4 million Euro to Bulgaria and, for its part, the Bulgarian government tacks another 1 million Euro onto the programme. This money is intended for projects that equip educational facilities serving large numbers of Roma students. Indeed, the funding from this programme managed to reach some Bulgarian Roma students, but in what form?

A kindergarten in a village Sokolare received basketball baskets for adults; a school in Shumen was surprised with a cooking range and a freezer despite the fact that they don’t have a kitchen. Meanwhile, a daycare in neighboring Biala has put in several requests for equipment to prepare meals for students, only to be left empty-handed. Another school ordered a variety of musical instruments for a new “talent class”, but instead received a large shipment of child-sized plastic drums. In another gaff, an elementary school mistakenly received high school textbooks. The list goes on.

The violations are countless and sometimes even dangerous, as in the case of a kindergarten that received toys from China banned EU-wide instead of the replacements for broken heat generators they requested. This is Bulgaria, however, and nothing is perfect. Many Bulgarians responded to the article by proclaiming it is amazing that the kids got anything at all.

The problem of Bulgarian accountability in PHARE and other programmes is compounded by the fact that Brussels has very little recourse in regards to monitoring funds. There is no real way to verify if what is written in Bulgarian project reports is accurate. In their investigation, Trud pointed to a physics class that ordered equipment with which to conduct experiments and instead received erasers and an abacus that cost nearly 200 Euro. When one considers that, in Bulgaria, one hour of labor costs 2.10 Euro, compared to the average EU-wide labor wage of 22.80 Euro/hour, 200 Euro for an abacus seems excessive. Hopefully, it is these kinds of perceived irregularities which will arouse the suspicion of EU bureaucrats and prompt more intervention into management of Bulgarian EU funding. Moreover, it is safe to say that the new deputy prime minister will have plenty to investigate.

Corruption and political patronage is endemic not only to the system of governance in Bulgaria, the problem is also cultural

Corruption and political patronage is endemic not only to the system of governance in Bulgaria, the problem is also cultural. The intractability of the rule of law is due not to what is written in the law books, but the acute lack of enforcement of such laws on the part of communities, municipalities and federal institutions. Bribes and various subversions of the legal system are simply a day to day reality of Bulgaria and permeate every level of society; the problem not only plagues business and government, but corruption is an acknowledged function of the personal relationships of many ordinary citizens.

When a young person from “Generation X” graduates from school, full of idealistic motivations and ideas on how to change their country for the better, they enter the workforce in the private sector or civil service only to find that their previous generation bosses immobilize them and demand that they accept the inertia caused by the status-quo system of bribes and payola. In order to safeguard their jobs, young workers are forced to become participants in the system of corruption. It is for this reason that the pressure to change must come from outside of Bulgaria, or the newer generations of European-minded Bulgarians will never be able to accomplish the reforms necessary to cure the ills of the country.

Which way out?

Several steps can and must be taken on the European level to ensure that Bulgaria overcomes its problem with corruption. Freezing EU assets to Bulgaria is the crucial first step in the process. Next, a non-partisan delegation of European experts must be sent to Bulgaria with the sole task of investigating, alongside Ms. Plugchieva, where the European Union funding has gone. This means not accepting at face-value the information logged in project reports, but talking directly to schools and other recipients of funding to determine what they were given, and a thorough market analysis of the cost of these purchases to determine if grants administrators are marking up the prices, forging false receipts and skimming money off of the top. An analysis must also be made of how much a community’s input into the process of assessing their needs is taken into consideration. Why are elementary schools receiving high school textbooks and what can be done to decentralize the allocation of funds to ensure the right equipment reaches the right communities? Will be there any EU funding left for ordinary Bulgarians?

The findings of this commission must be made public and, Bulgaria – politicians and citizens alike - must be publicly condemned for these actions. For this proud nation of 8 million, only illumination and public scrutiny will rid the scourge of corruption from ordinary Bulgarian life. Generations coming of age now must be highly motivated to induce a revolution that will change not only the institutionalization of corrupt practices, but their cultural roots as well.

it has become clear that accepting a tolerable evolving status quo will not suit to change Bulgaria

This will surely be a painstaking process. However, it has become clear that accepting a tolerable evolving status quo will not suit to change Bulgaria. The precipitating factor must be a shock to the system so intense that it prompts immediate and widespread change. The economic catastrophes in some post-war societies in Europe had this effect upon their civil societies and culture. Their citizens were forced to rebuild their countries from the ground up, in a way that would force reformation and ensuring them success in a European context. So, too must the same drastic rebuilding take place in Bulgaria.

In the end, Bulgaria’s ongoing issue with corruption following its accession to the EU can be chalked up to a lesson learned for the European community. Candidate countries should be held to a higher standard and forced to deal with entrenched corruption before an invitation for membership is extended.

As the Bulgarian proverb goes, is it he who eats the whole cake that is the fool, or the fool who gave it to him? In other words, is Bulgaria to blame for becoming a veritable black hole for EU funding, or the European Commission for not imposing stricter controls and issuing Bulgaria – a state well known for its problems with corruption - a blank check?


  • original photo and illustration, Margarita Lazarova

Your comments

  • On 9 May 2008 at 10:45, by Petko Fenersky Replying to: Turning Off the EU Tap: a Chance for Bulgaria to Fight Corruption

    On 22 of May 2008 in Supreme Administrative Court in Sofia will be heard the case against Minister Valchev. He did not respond to a previous Supreme Courted Decision to provide public information about the way an application to him (an application for meeting the minister) is considered in his Ministry.

    Welcome to see how judges try to cover a minister and do not respect their own decision!

    Brutal and vulgar corruption is a fact in Sofia, and the collapse between Courte and Government is absolutely obvious.

    Petko Fenersky, Sofia pfenersky at hotmail.com, +358-888-388-876

  • On 9 November 2021 at 20:39, by Colin Webster Replying to: Turning Off the EU Tap: a Chance for Bulgaria to Fight Corruption

    The fact that excluding me, only one person comments on something so hugely important speaks volumes about the interest Bulgarians have in politics and lack of understanding of their ability to make change through protest

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