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Why cops in Sofia don't want your bribe

EU pressure has helped reformers crack down on corruption ahead of the countries' Jan. 1 accession.

By Michael J. JordanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 28, 2006


One night this month, Viktor Melamed was zipping down a boulevard in Sofia – a little too zippily, it turned out – when a cop waved him down.

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Expecting the officer to offer the infamous line, "What should we do now?" – a hint many Bulgarians respond to with a bribe – Mr. Melamed reached for his wallet. But the cop barked at him: "Don't even think about it. You're getting this ticket."

No protest from Melamed.

"I was so happy, because it meant that instead of my money going into his pocket, it would go to the state budget, maybe for a kindergarten," says the business consultant. "It also meant that something is changing here."

Indeed, as Bulgaria and her northern neighbor, Romania, ready to join the European Union on Jan. 1, there are signs that two of Europe's poorest and most corrupt countries are making headway on tackling graft. Analysts say that a key catalyst for that change has been the carrot of EU membership.

EU accession is attractive both to European leaders keen to bring stability to the troubled Balkans, and to Romania and Bulgaria, with their long histories of oppressive dictatorships and foreign rule. As the accession process, which formally began in 1998, has picked up steam in recent years, it's empowered reformers inside and outside government to press for progress.

Both countries have created special anticorruption agencies and passed key legislation, such as requiring parliamentarians and other top officials to disclose their assets and sources of income. In Romania, for example, the Coalition for a Clean Parliament forced some 100 candidates to withdraw from 2004 elections because of corruption allegations.

"EU pressure helped us grow from an army of thousands, into millions," says Alina Mungiu Pippidi, director of the Romanian Academic Society, a leading member of the coalition.

Incentive to shape up: exposure

On Sofia's streets, it's not just drivers like Melamed who are feeling the squeeze. A patrol officer named Viktor says his supervisors are leaning on the cops to shape up, despite salaries that remain low.

"Nobody can say there's no temptation for corruption, but pressure is coming from the EU," says the six-year veteran, his burly partner looking on.

Until recently, there was not a whisper of investigations, let alone prosecutions. Now, revelations of corruption are regularly splashed across the front pages. But, given years of silence, that has had an unintended consequence in Romania.

Rather than appreciating the new "spirit of justice," says political commentator Cristian Ghinea, "a perverse outcome of the public seeing various ministers under investigation is the impression that this government is more corrupt than previous ones. But it's more that a small majority of magistrates feel the freedom to pursue them."

One Bulgarian corruption fighter suggests that investigations and prosecutions, which are still hard to come by, can act as a deterrent.

"There are some in society who never even think of taking a bribe, and there's a minority that's corrupt to their guts and lives to take money," says Boyko Naydenov, head of the Prosecutor- General's Combating Organized Crime and Corruption unit. "Then there's this middle mass, neither very corrupt nor very honest, but could go either way. They need incentive to stay away from the bad guys, and go to the good guys."