That’s why two court cases in the past fortnight are such a landmark, and a sign that steady European Union pressure on the small Balkan country is producing results.
On March 18, Asen Drumev, former head of the State Agricultural Fund, was sentenced to four years in prison for embezzling $34 million worth of EU assistance. Then on Monday, businessman Mario Nikolov received 10 years for defrauding Brussels of $8.3 million of agriculture and rural-development funds.
They were the first officials to be punished in an effort to placate an increasingly irate Brussels, which has for years criticized Bulgaria's widespread vote-buying, shady financing of political parties, money laundering, and failure to seize financial assets of alleged gangsters. As many as 150 mafia-related murders have netted no convictions.
'EU was fed up with Bulgaria'
Bulgaria routinely vows to crack down, but has never done so.
“The EU was already fed up with Bulgaria for failing to deliver on its promises, so it couldn’t be delayed any longer,” says Ruslan Stefanov, of the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, the capital.
Brussels is now more vigilant about the funds it will provide Bulgaria to modernize – funds only available if Sofia can earn back the EU's trust. Up to $15 billion over the next few years is at stake for Bulgaria, which is also the union’s poorest member. But EU officials, while offering praise for Sofia, say much more needs to be done.
“In the past, we’ve seen steps forward, then stalling, steps forward, then stalling,” European Commission spokesman Mark Gray told the Monitor. “This is a step in the right direction, but let’s see this political will turned into more and substantial convictions.”
The rest of the Balkan states – all of them aspiring to join the club – have watched closely to see how Brussels deals with a misbehaving member, especially one of its newest. (Bulgaria entered the union in January 2007.)
With pressure comes progress
In July 2008, Brussels took an unprecedented step and froze up to $500 million in aid to Bulgaria, a blow when so much of the population continues to endure economic hardship. “As they say, the man’s gotta do what the man’s gotta do,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said then.
The July 2009 election brought to power Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, an ex-bodyguard, karate coach, and mayor of Sofia who talked tough about cleaning up the mess. Brussels saw enough follow-through that last September it “unblocked” €140 million ($190 million) in funding.
“Ending the culture of impunity by ridding the streets of criminals is essential to strengthening rule of law,” the embassy said.
Bulgarians want more reforms
Just last week, a top judge accused of protecting the mafia stepped down. And today, former Defense Minister Nikolay Tsonev was arrested for attempted bribery of a judge.
As for the Bulgarian public, long disillusioned by pervasive corruption, impatience remains.
“Of course, it takes time to investigate and prosecute anybody,” Ivan Dikov, editor of the online news site Novinite, wrote on Monday. “But one does not see them going about investigating and prosecuting them with sufficient vigor and zeal.”
Indeed, more than EU pressure, Borisov’s administration must answer to voters.
“They won because of their anti-corruption campaign,” says Stefanov. “So they can’t forget where all those votes came from.”