• The proposal of opposition Socialists is bolder and if adopted (no chance) it might (by accident) create an independent anti-corruption agency
Talk of fighting corruption was a taboo subject for political parties in Bulgaria only a year ago. Probably nothing would have disturbed the silence if the European Commission - one of the main reform drivers in Bulgaria nowadays, had not insisted on a change. In the last monitoring report on Bulgaria's progress in judicial reform and the fight against corruption, published at the beginning of 2017, the Commission was crystal clear - by the end of the year the government should adopt a new anti-corruption law.
The pressure from the EU executive body has motivated not only the governing coalition of GERB and the United Patriots but also the opposition to jump into the fray and win some points. GERB aims once again to demonstrate resolve and keep its pro-European image, while BSP has found a good opportunity to flex their muscle on anti-corruption issues.
First unsuccessful attempt
The first attempt was supposed to be spearheaded by former Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Kuneva - again under pressure from Brussels and from the public demands to root out high-level political corruption voiced during the 2013 protests. Mrs. Kuneva was one of the leaders of the Reformist Bloc which had brought together several centrist and right-wing parties and had the pursuit of bold reforms high up on its agenda. The Reformist Bloc joined GERB to form a governing coalition in 2014, claiming it would be a driver of changes. Despite their fiery anti-corruption rhetoric, Mrs. Kuneva's team bowed to the general reluctance for change in the main party in the coalition, GERB, and drafted a bill that would have put several anti-corruption institutions under one umbrella but wouldn't have changed much in substance.
Even this toothless bill was rejected in the parliament in 2015, and after it was re-introduced in the spring of 2016 it stalled in the assembly, because obviously it was not a priority for the government which resigned after the GERB candidate lost the presidential elections in November the same year.
1 + 1 + 1 is not always 3
The new bill that was presented for public discussion in July 2017 by the Ministry of Justice is in essence a carbon copy of Mrs. Kuneva's previous work, floating again the idea of setting up an anti-corruption mega-agency by grouping several institutions tasked with fighting graft.
The main one is a Court of Auditors' department, which is responsible for collecting and checking the statements of property ownership and conflicts of interest submitted by several thousand senior civil servants each year. So far, there is no case in which this reporting process has led to meaningful actions.
The new body would be joined by the commission for prevention of conflict of interest set up in 2009 in response to pressure from the European Commission. Until now, it has generated more corruption than successful battles against graft. It is enough to recall the case of its former director, Philip Zlatanov. He was accused in 2013 of manipulating inspections conducted by the commission to shield some politicians or blackmail others. It was found that Zlatanov had kept a personal diary with instructions to take or not to take action against persons denoted with initials only, some of which could be interpreted as belonging to the names of two high ranking politicians, in opposition at the time. Zlatanov was given a suspended sentence but the Prosecutor's Office miraculously lost his diary, so the investigation never proceeded to those who had actually given the orders.
The third institution that would enter the new anti-corruption body is the commission for the forfeiture of illegally acquired assets. It is supposed to determine whether there is a mismatch between the income statements and the actual expenses of suspects who are under investigation for corruption, organized crime, smuggling, drug trafficking, etc. In the case of discrepancy above a certain threshold, the commission has the authority to request the court to seize the suspect's assets, regardless of whether the investigation has resulted in a conviction.
In practice, GERB is proposing to set up a new agency which, in addition to looking into potential conflicts of interest and ensuring publicity of the civil servants' assets, also looks for instances of corrupt behavior but has no powers to conduct a criminal investigation. However, the proposal fails to answer the question in what way the new institution will be more effective than its existing building blocks.
Something like the Romanian model
The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), now the main opposition force in parliament, unveiled a project that calls for the creation of a structure that strongly resembles Romania's National Anticorruption Directorate, DNA. The main difference in comparison with GERB's proposal lies in the scope of the powers of the new institution. In addition to ensuring prevention by comparing the incomes and expenditures of politicians and other public officials, the new body proposed by the Socialists will also have the power to conduct criminal investigations and will even be able to use wiretapping and tracking of suspects.
Another key difference between the proposals of GERB and BSP is who will appoint the head of the new ant-corruption mega-structure.
GERB says that the director and his or her deputies should be elected by the parliament. GERB has floated the name of Plamen Georgiev, who currently is heading the commission for the forfeiture of illegally acquired assets, as a possible director of the new agency. As a prosecutor, Mr. Georgiev the investigation of alleged interference of the Prime Minister Boyko Borissov in Customs Agency probe into tax evasion scheme. The investigation was dropted, because the main evidence - the wiretapped conversation between Mr. Borrisov and the late director of the Agency was dismissed as illegal.
The Socialists say that the head of the future Special Anti-Corruption Agency should be appointed by the president, while his or her deputies would have to be voted into office by a qualified majority in parliament. Given the proximity of BSP to President Rumen Radev who ran as a candidate backed by the Socialists and the fact that no qualified majority can be achieved in this parliament without them, it is a politically sound strategy of the Socialists. And by chance (albeit a small one), it might produce an independent anti-corruption agency.
What will happen
Following the controversial election of the new head of the Supreme Administrative Court and the hasty hearing of the candidates for the Supreme Judicial Council (the governing body of the Bulgarian judicial system), the adoption of anti-corruption legislation remains the only concrete action for the government to take in response to the demands of the European Commission by the end of the year.
GERB and the United Patriots (in power) and their strategic partner, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (nominally in opposition) have enough votes to push through the government's project, as they control 147 of 240 seats in parliament among themselves. So far, the draft bill has drawn criticism from the non-governmental sector but this is unlikely to stop the government.
The big question that both BSP and GERB have failed to address is what they intend to do with the Prosecutor's Office, which has the ultimate power to investigate suspected cases of corruption. Not only is the number of investigations of suspected high-level corruption less than negligible, but they are directed mostly against people who have lost political protection.