The fight against corruption in Bulgaria has a long, but mostly fruitless history. A total of 19 agencies (according to newspaper 24 Chasa estimates) and bodies have either been empowered to fight graft, or have been created from scratch since 2001, with the same goal in mind. The pinnacle of its success so far has effectively been one sentence against Sofia district mayor Desilava Ivancheva, and a couple of suspended sentences handed out to mid-level officials.
Now, a 20th institution will join the fight against corruption. Last Thursday, MPs from WCC-DB, GERB and MRF greeted the creation of a new Anti-corruption commission that is separate from the existing asset forfeiture commission (CIAF) with an ovation. Bearing in mind the track record of the previous organizations and the way that the new institution was established, there is very little reason to believe it will fare much better
A trio of graft-fighters
The new body has been created after almost two years of deliberations and three days of discussion in parliament. MPs adopted the amendments to the anti-corruption law, according to which the new anti-corruption commission would consist of three people - lawyers or economists with at least seven years of professional experience - who will have investigative powers.
In addition, CIAF, which has existed for the past 5 years and has mostly acted as a register of what assets the politicians decide (or not) to declare will remain unchanged, at least for the time being. Until a separate bill on CIAF is approved, the current members of the commission will continue to work as usual and will remain responsible for confiscating assets.
MPs voted on a proposal by Hamid Hamid of the MRF that the commission members be elected three months after the law comes into force. Later, outside the hall, Desislava Atanasova of GERB told the media that this would happen next year. The main reason for the rushed changes to the anti-corruption legislation was that they are a prerequisite for the recovery and sustainability plan and they are seen as one of the steps on Bulgaria's path to join the Schengen area, which is why the MPs expedited them.
What will the new institution do?
The commission will be staffed by inspectors, who will have investigative functions, as well as carry out operational and search activities, and use physical force and aids. These can include the use of handcuffs, blank cartridges, rubber, plastic and shock bullets, devices for forcible stopping of vehicles, devices for opening premises, light and sound devices with a distracting effect.
They will only be able to use these when absolutely necessary - when the indicted person is resisting or refusing to comply with a lawful order, when escorting a person or when they are attempting to escape, endanger their own life or the life and health of others; assaulting members of the public and the Commission's authorities. While these limitations all sound eminently reasonable, it is enough to revisit some of the operations of the earlier anti-corruption authorities - and especially the infamous public arrest of Desislava Ivancheva - to have second thoughts over whether they will be observed in practice.
In Bulgaria, this often depends on who will head them - and there are few reasons for optimism on this front.
Who will be the anti-corruption triumvirate?
GERB's original draft envisaged that the anti-corruption commission would consist of seven people. Subsequently, during the second reading, WCC-DB proposed that this number be reduced to three. This was criticized by legal experts and even by MPs from the alliance, but in the end these voices were ignored and it was agreed that the committee should consist of three.
They are supposed to be elected by a qualified majority of two thirds of the MPs, a proposal that has received widespread criticism from across the board - from GERB MPs to the former interim justice minister Krum Zarkov. The latter believes this is anti-constitutional and will be attacked in the Constitutional Court. Despite the threat, Boyko Borissov's party supported the text.
The three will lead the commission on a rotating basis for two years within its six-year mandate.
The members will be elected and evaluated by a nomination committee, which will consist of five people proposed by the Supreme Court of Cassation, the Supreme Bar Council, the Ministry of Justice, the Ombudsman and the Court of Auditors. Members of the anti-corruption commission can be proposed by MPs or NGOs. Parliament will then cast the final vote.
Red flags ahead
Apart from the constitutionality of the selection process, it has at least one more problem - calling for a qualified majority vote of three people means that there will be a need for behind-the-scenes negotiations and approvals. This is even truer in the current fragmented parliament and especially so in the power configuration that relies on the "marriage of convenience" between GERB and WCC-DB that is informally backed by MRF. In short, we might get a new anti-corruption agency where these three factions choose one member each for an institution that is just as ineffective as the previous 19.
Another hint at what is coming came from MRF MP and Magnitsky Act sanctioned oligarch Delyan Peevski. While embracing the new anti-corruption law, he mentioned that the new triumvirate will act as a "sift" to "manage the [corruption] signals." Or, in other words, whoever is selected for the post will have the power to investigating - or not - particular signals. With two of the future appointees likely coming from GERB and MRF, the two parties that are the most accused of corrupt practices in the last decade, you don't have to be a fortune teller to imagine how this could end.