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.
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.
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."
Part of the incentive – for government officials, at least – is that the two countries' EU funding is contingent on fighting graft. By April, they must install a mechanism to track billions of euros in EU aid, and make their judicial system more independent and accountable in cracking down on corruption and organized crime.
According to a recent report by Transparency International (TI), a global corruption watchdog, 20 percent of Romanians said that someone in their household had accepted a bribe in the past year – the highest of any EU country. Bulgaria fared better, with only 8 percent. In another TI report on perceived corruption, Romania ranks last among EU members while Bulgaria ranks two spots above.
Entrenched corruption worries Brussels for several reasons. Taxpayer money – sent in by citizens across the continent – may disappear down a black hole. Graft could also infect Western companies competing for big-budget contracts. And it undermines faith in the rule of law – and thus in democracy itself.
So, even locals view the imposed conditions as a necessary evil.
"As a Bulgarian, it's shameful someone has to tell us what to do – imagine having these red flags waved in your face," says corruption expert Alexander Stoyanov, of the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia. "On the other hand, people here know where we come from – communism – and we still have a lot of reform and catching up to do."
Indeed, the past casts a long shadow over anticorruption efforts.
During four decades of the ancien régime, absolute government control of the media kept high-level corruption shielded from the public. Meanwhile, at the lower rungs of society, "what belonged to everybody, belonged to nobody," since all property was state-owned. With deprivation widespread, people pinched what they could, when they could.
The communist collapse of 1989-90 then ushered in "Wild West" privatization. As elsewhere in the region, well-connected individuals swiped wide swaths of state assets. But unlike their ex-communist neighbors, Romania and Bulgaria were slow to implement free-market and institutional reforms that could have helped curb graft.
Meanwhile, the economies stagnated, salaries bought less and less, the public became poorer and poorer. Everyone from doctors to professors to judges began essentially taxing the public to subsidize measly earnings that today range roughly from $200 to $300 per month.
But it's at the higher levels where corruption does the most harm, as cronyism and kickbacks typically deprive the national budget of cash, biting into education, healthcare, and social services. Thus, many urge the EU to keep the heat on.
In the Vitosha mountains south of Sofia, Resmy Resmiev says he yearns for competition – to which he is no stranger. He grew up skiing in these mountains, was the pride of Bulgaria at the 1972 Olympics, and then spent 30 years designing and managing the state-run ski resorts in Borovets.
During privatization, local officials divvied up the goods, offering him a slice. He balked. Today, he runs his own restaurant where, over sumptuous grilled lamb, he explains his dream for developing – as a consultant to the European investors he believes will come after Jan. 1 – Olympic-caliber ski slopes here.
"I hope the EU will oblige our government to follow the rules," he says. "And then I hope our government will oblige us to follow the rules."
• Part 2 of three. Tomorrow: Immigration.