Council of Europe: The Fight against Corruption at the Highest Levels in Bulgaria is Ineffective
Inefficient justice, loopholes in the rules for people at the top of power and dependent media are distinctive features of the situation with the fight against corruption at the top of power in Bulgaria. Such conclusions were reached by the Group of States fighting corruption “GRECO” of the Council of Europe.
The report, published on Thursday, assesses Bulgaria's anti-corruption legal framework for the first time since 2014.
The Group of States Fighting Corruption of the Council of Europe is an anti-corruption monitoring organization that monitors the compliance of legislation in its member states with the anti-corruption instruments of the Council of Europe. Bulgaria has been part of it since 1991 and has been evaluated four times so far - in 2001, 2004, 2009 and 2014.
GRECO found numerous loopholes in the state's anti-corruption system that make it ineffective.
The following are indicated as such:
- executive impunity,
- absence of lobbying law,
- the way in which the property declarations of senior officials are checked,
- lack of rules of conduct and assessment of the risk of corruption,
- opacity for political cabinets and advisers.
It is pointed out that the absence of convictions for corruption at its highest level remains a weakness of the justice system, with the report stating that "the lack of an effective criminal justice response against high-level corruption consistently stands out among the main shortcomings of the Bulgarian anti-corruption system".
It also recommended strengthening the operational independence of the police "to prevent undue political influence on their actions", as well as introducing "comprehensive legislation to ensure effective protection of whistleblowers".
GRECO experts found that the media were made dependent on advertising revenue provided to them by the state, non-transparent distribution of funds and threats and vilification of investigative journalists.
The political peak
The report found that politicians at the highest levels of power are often left out of the rules that govern public administration. Thus, the code of ethics does not apply to them, and their property declarations are checked only against the documents contained in the available databases. GRECO points out that there are no rules for communicating with lobbyists and other parties influencing government policies and that there is no transparency about the people who advise the state elite and their accountability.
Experts note that there is no system for checking the integrity of the employees in the administration occupying positions with a high corruption risk. Senior posts are excluded from the central administration code of conduct adopted in 2020. They report that they have been promised this will be rectified by January 1, 2023, when such a code is also adopted for senior public office holders in executive power.
"Given the scale of the corruption problem in Bulgaria, and the need to increase transparency and accountability in the central government, the lack of applicable rules of conduct for persons holding high government positions is a serious shortcoming that should be addressed as a matter of priority," it was written in the report.
It is recommended to introduce comprehensive rules of ethical behavior and integrity for the state elite and their advisory apparatus, to publish the names of the prime minister's advisers and the other activities they carry out.
During the on-site inspection, GRECO found that there was a lack of clarity about the functions of the various anti-corruption bodies.
They find that the Anti-Corruption Commission has many competencies, but "is largely ineffective". Remarks are also made to the procedures for appointing its management.
It is said that the law on access to information is not applied consistently, and that the rules on prior consultation of bills are being circumvented by giving them to MPs who are exempt from the requirement to do so.
The lack of rules for the contacts of the representatives of the authorities and the administration with lobbyists or other representatives influencing the formation of state policies is characterized as an "important omission". The authors of the report add that they have been assured that such a law will be proposed by the autumn.
GRECO finds that the internal inspectorates of the institutions are not independent enough to reveal violations and irregularities.
Similar problems are also found in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which is also the subject of the evaluation. Attention is paid to non-public donations, with which some municipalities try to win the favor of the police, and changes to the order for sponsorship and donations to the Ministry of Internal Affairs are recommended.
The report specifically notes that allegations of police brutality are not uncommon, citing cases of physical violence against protesters and journalists in 2020, adding that "the perpetrators of these acts appear to have gone unpunished, and in some cases have not even been identified".
The administration of justice is unsatisfactory
"Currently, the response of the Bulgarian criminal justice system to cases of corruption involving persons holding high public positions is unsatisfactory and needs to be urgently addressed," the GRECO report states.
The experts point out that they have listened to both sides - those who accuse the prosecutor's office of not conducting proactive investigations and the prosecutor's office itself, which complains about poorly collected evidence and the closing of the specialized proceedings.
They do not take sides, but recommend that investigations of corruption at the top be conducted systematically and that the procedural obstacles that prevent such reports be investigated be removed.
Freedom of the media
"Investigative journalists who cover organized crime and corruption are often subject to negative campaigns, strategic anti-public participation (SLAPP) lawsuits, threats and sometimes physical attacks, which do not appear to be followed by adequate legal and political responses from the authorities." experts conclude.
They add that they were left with the impression that "the scale of the corruption problem in Bulgaria is not adequately reflected in the media". And they point out that the political affiliation of the members of the Council for Electronic Media (which are broadcast from the quotas of the parliament and the president) "negatively affects the editorial independence of public media, and the independence of private media is threatened by the interests of their owners".
"Intimidation by politicians, as well as administrative and judicial pressure against publishers and journalists are common practice," the report states.
Why the GRECO report is important
Bulgaria is among the founding countries of the Group of States against Corruption of the Council of Europe (GRECO). The group's reports are structured in rounds and are on different topics. They provide a periodic assessment of the implementation of each recommendation addressed to the Member State, as well as an overall assessment of the degree of implementation of these recommendations.
The recommendations of the anti-corruption body of the Council of Europe are not binding, but, like those of the Venice Commission (also a body of the Council of Europe), they are highly recommended and expert and reflect on a number of decisions - political and legislative. For Bulgaria, these recommendations refer not only to the legislative body, but also to the activities of the Supreme Judicial Council, for example. (Currently, however, the SJC is functioning with an expired mandate and this will continue for the next six months at least until the parliament initiates a procedure for electing a new composition.)
In previous reports, Bulgaria has been criticized for the lack of sufficiently effective implementation of legislation to regulate the financing of political parties. Recent reports have focused on assessing corruption prevention among senior executive officials, as well as in law enforcement, the legal and institutional framework, conflicts of interest and asset declaration.
GRECO's report, the problems identified in it and the recommendations it makes may have an impact on the adoption of new anti-corruption legislation and the creation of a new anti-corruption body to replace the current Anti-Corruption Commission. A similar request has been made by the last few parliaments, but the bills have not yet been finally voted on and adopted. They are part of the Recovery and Resilience Plan, according to which Bulgaria has undertaken to consult the implementation of its measures both with the Venice Commission (regarding judicial reform) and with the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO).
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