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Comment: Bulgarians Bored by Anti-Corruption Campaigns

Far from solving anything, their main achievement has been to further undermine public confidence in the institutions of government.
By Rashko Dorosiev

Ten years of international community and local awareness campaigns to root out corruption in Bulgaria have produced few results.


The expensive media initiatives over-estimated the ability of the general public and civic organisations to act against venal officials and politicians.


If anything, the international-led effort has backfired. The public has become bored by the endless campaigning; its ineffectiveness further undermining their limited trust in key institutions. Corruption is now used to explain all of society’s ills, and politicians, businessmen and the media regularly accuse their opponents of it.


Broad corruption awareness campaigns got underway in earnest in south-eastern Europe in the second half of the 1990s, when the international community started to focus on the problem.


In Bulgaria and Albania, the US Agency for International Development supported the establishment of anti-corruption coalitions, made up mainly of representatives of non-governmental organizations.


The wave of protests against Jan Videnov’s Socialist government in 1997 that ended with its resignation led donors to believe – wrongly as it turned out – that Bulgarian society was not prepared to tolerate corruption. This triggered yet more international projects drawing attention to the issue.


But, seemingly, to no avail. After all these efforts, Bulgarian society remains broadly tolerant of graft, and guilty of it themselves when dealing with inefficient state institutions.


Which is why, almost a decade after the campaign began, there is little sign that official corruption is on the wane. Indeed, the public’s confidence in state institutions is lower than ever.


According to a Vitosha Research survey in 2004, around 50 per cent of the public believes customs officers are corrupt and 40 per cent say this is also true of the judiciary. Some 35 per cent think healthcare officers are corrupt, while 34 per cent suspect the police and 20 per cent members of parliament.


Corruption is now perceived as the country’s third most pressing problem, after unemployment and low incomes.


As well as undermining trust in key institutions, the corruption awareness campaigning has become a weapon in the country’s internal political and corporate battles.


It has fueled grave corruption allegations, which have served the interests of the media, politicians and businessmen in pursuit of their various private agendas.


Such allegations for years blocked several important major privatisation deals involving, among others, the Bulgarian Telecommunication Company and the tobacco industry.


In the 2001 parliamentary election, the former Bulgarian king Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, lacking any real policies, won a majority in parliament by running a campaign accusing the political establishment of venality.


But over time, the continuous use of the word “corruption” has virtually deprived it of all real meaning, making the fight against it increasingly banal.


Even worse, the public has become indifferent. In a local election opinion poll last year, nearly 50 per cent of people said they suspected Sofia mayor Stefan Sofianski of corruption but backed his re-election because he took good care the city.


In short, recent analysis by the Center for Liberal Strategies and the Center for Policy Studies at Central European University in Budapest has concluded that corruption awareness campaigns are not an effective mechanism for dealing with the problem – and can, instead, cause unexpected difficulties for a healthy democratic system.


What then for the future? In the case of Bulgaria, it’s clear that targeting campaigns at ordinary members of the public and civic groups is not the answer. The focus should rather be on politicians, civil servants and business people. If the international community can persuade them to change their ways, then there’s a real possibility that the culture of corruption can be defeated.


Rashko Dorosiev is programme director at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia.


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