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Can Bulgaria achieve its Balkan ambitions?

Bulgaria’s new role as president of the Council of the EU has started with a bang – quite literally.

lead Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (1st R) speaks at the ceremony held in the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria on Jan. 11, 2018 to launch Bulgaria's six-month rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU). Wang Xinran/ Press Association. All rights reserved.Bulgaria’s new role as president of the Council of the EU has started with a bang – quite literally. Just days after the country stepped up to the plate for the six-month rotating presidency on January 1, one of its most influential businessmen, Peter Hristov – a 49-year-old said to have close ties to Bulgaria’s ruling party – was shot dead outside his office in broad daylight.

Making matters worse, that same week saw thousands marching down the streets of Sofia, chanting “Mafia”, “Resign” and “Corruption” in protest to the country’s plans to build a ski resort in the cherished national park of Pirin.

Sadly, such incidents are by no means unusual in a country that continues to struggle with deep-seated cronyism, weak law enforcement, and organized crime. And Hristov’s death is a painful reminder that Bulgaria’s presidency of the EU will be more likely be dominated by Sofia’s own problems than about its leadership of the group of 27 member states.

Bulgaria wants to use its EU presidency to accelerate the accession process for the western Balkans. Those efforts will come to a head during a May summit in Sofia, where officials will meet with heads of state from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia to discuss the accession process. The summit is intended to give each hopeful member state a tailored action plan to achieve membership.

Wishful thinking?

But is it actually wise to fast-track the talks with these western Balkan states? As laudable a goal as it is to bring these countries into the EU fold, Bulgaria shows once again that it’s better to err on the side of caution. Ever since Sofia joined, the pace of reform has lost steam, and the hope that Brussels’ soft power will be enough to set the country on an even keel proved to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

Indeed, Bulgaria’s report sheet 11 years after joining makes for disappointing reading. According to Transparency International, the country is the most corrupt in the EU. Organised crime and graft is endemic – research shows that 24% of the Bulgarian population over 18 had been pressured into a bribe and that the country’s society is permeated by “powerful actors capable of acquiring preferential treatment through complex corruption deals and other violations of the law”.

Protest outside Council of Ministers in Sofia, January 4, 2018, with posters saying: "We do not give the centuries-old Pirin forests to the oligarchs," and "We want legality, Bansko is a balloon." NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.Not surprisingly given such ubiquitous corruption, the Bulgarian economy is not an appealing prospect for foreign investors – one factor that explains why the country remains the poorest in the EU.

Most recently, the government hit two Austrian and Czech energy companies, EVN and CEZ, with a total of $3.63 million in fines for allegedly breaking competition rules. For CEZ, this proved to be the final straw and the company has started packing up due to its long-standing disputes with Sofia. In a separate case, Indian investor ANJ was asked to pay a €1 million bribe to buy a local chemical fertiliser plant. When they refused, the company was sold off to a Bulgarian oligarch.

Given these kinds of issues, there is little wonder that Bulgaria, alongside Romania, remains subject to special monitoring under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) to ensure the country meets its commitments in judicial reforms and the fight against corruption. With such plodding progress on key indicators, how can Bulgaria credibly push for further advancement for Montenegro and Serbia, the two Balkan states that have already opened accession talks – and which struggle with the very same issues?

Montenegro and Serbia in the same boat

So far, Montenegro has provisionally closed three out of 35 chapters in accession negotiations for the EU and Serbia has closed two.

In September, the European Commission said it planned to draw up a strategy for the two states to accede by 2025, emphasizing issues such as corruption and rule of law.

It’s easy to see why they have focused on these areas. For one thing, politicians in Montenegro – up to and including heads of state – are notoriously corrupt.

The perennial Milo Djukanovic, who has served six terms as either prime minister or president since the 1990s, has been accused of enabling trafficking, gang activity, and other shady dealings in the country. Unfortunately, his plans to make a comeback and run for president this year don’t bode well for the country’s reform prospects.

What’s more, for over a year opposition lawmakers have been boycotting parliament in protest over alleged irregularities during the 2016 elections. The stalemate raises the question of how the EU can credibly put what has essentially dissolved into a one-party state on the fast track to membership.

Additionally, like Bulgaria, Montenegro has had a difficult time courting western investors and expanding its economy. Last year, Italian energy company A2A sold its shares in the country, saying the government had failed to guarantee adequate investment returns, management autonomy, and transparent regulations. These kinds of difficulties have compounded shaky growth and expanding government debt, which is expected to reach over 80% of GDP this year.

Serbia is in the same boat. A recent EU report noted that while Belgrade has made some progress, “prevalent corruption and an inadequate institutional set-up continue to hamper political and commercial development”. The country currently has a corruption ranking of 42, placing it 72nd among 176 countries – an indicator of “endemic” corruption, according to Transparency International.

Stealing Bulgaria’s thunder?

Of course, none of these obstacles are insurmountable. For all of its enduring issues, Bulgaria's EU ascension ushered in transformative economic growth. Its status as one of the EU's newest members continues to intrigue outside capital looking for dynamic European markets with room left for growth.

The other Balkan states will surely have that example in mind when they meet in Sofia, and the action plans should generate momentum towards reform.

Could trustworthy, transparent business climates in countries like Serbia steal Bulgaria's thunder and end its window of opportunity to catch up with its western counterparts? If Bulgarian lawmakers let the country list further away from European standards, they may have the answer to that question in short order.

About the author

Marcu Niculescu is a Romanian-born PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Maastricht. He has developed a strong research interest in social movements, with a particular focus on digital activism.


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