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EU Focus: Bulgaria Faces EU Entry Hurdles

Brussels worried by slow pace of reform of judiciary and high level of corruption.
By Albena Shkodrova

While Bulgaria has concluded entry negotiations with the EU, opening the way to join the Union in 2007, it still needs to make progress in a number of areas, notably the completion of judicial reforms and reduction of organised crime and corruption, before securing membership by the target date, EU officials have warned.

Though Sofia finished the last two chapters of its membership treaty on June 15, ahead of schedule, Irish foreign minister Brian Cowen has warned that Brussels might still delay Bulgaria's accession if it saw "a serious risk" of the country not fulfilling all its reforms.

Bulgaria started membership negotiations with the EU in March 2000 under the right-of- centre government of the Union of Democratic Forces, UDF, led by Ivan Kostov. Talks continued under the current prime minister, Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha, and his National Movement Simeon the Second, NDSV.

They were planned to conclude at the end of the year but closed six months ahead of time.

Bulgaria's accession would be part of the fifth round of EU enlargement. The country is supposed to join alongside Romania, which is expected to conclude its own talks at the end of this year. The two states are supposed to sign their EU treaties in 2005.

But judicial reform - one of the government's most important and intricate projects - remains an unfinished business.

The country’s courts continue to suffer from political influence and inefficiency – many cases have not been brought to trial and just as many collapse - with reforms obstructed by squabbles between the police and judiciary and the judiciary itself.

One of the main points at issue is judicial control over pre-court proceedings, recently introduced at the EU’s request. The justice ministry wants a judge to be present during this phase of a case in keeping with best EU practice – something the interior ministry opposes.

In March, EU enlargement commissioner Günter Verheugen warned that Bulgaria would have to complete its judicial reform in its entirety if it wanted to join the EU in 2007 and should not expect concessions on the matter.

Bulgaria's minister for European affairs, Meglena Kuneva, insists there is no cause for alarm in Sofia's rate of progress so far. "The process is in development and I don't think it is time to draw pessimistic conclusions," she said.

Most analysts, however, are sceptical. According to Dimitur Markov, project coordinator of the law programme at the Center for the Study of Democracy, CSD, "The resistance of different judicial institutions to improvements is obviously slowing the reform and undermining its efficiency."

Andrey Raychev, a political analyst at Gallup International, agreed, "The judicial system will certainly improve by 2007 but the process is slow and will hardly get us exactly where we expected to be."

According to the CSD, the judicial system's inefficiency has a direct relation to the high level of organised crime in Bulgaria, which is "among the strongest impediments to the development of Southeast Europe”.

A recent CSD report said 30 to 35 per cent of petrol-based products consumed in Bulgaria had been smuggled into the country. So too each month were 150 and 200 trucks' worth of goods from Turkey and Dubai respectively.

In the 2003 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index of 133 states, Bulgaria was ranked in 54th place.

This suggests there is a fair amount of corruption in Bulgaria. There is also no sign of improvement.

"The legalisation of dirty money continues," the CSD report said. "It is accomplished by buying off politicians, senior magistrates and public officials authorised to administer services of considerable public interest, including the issuing of licenses or permits."

Many analysts are deeply critical of what they say are the political establishment's feeble attempts to tackle the problem. "I don't see any efforts being made to fight corruption," said Krasen Stanchev, of the Institute for Market Economy. "And all they do is make a lot of noise to cover their deeds."

Corruption is bound up with the illegal financing of parties, which means the establishment has no interest in solving it, says political scientist Andrey Raychev.

Numerous - mainly legislative - measures have been undertaken recently to fight corruption and organised crime. But here lies the core of the problem, for according to Dimitur Markov, at CSD, only a reformed judiciary can ensure their application.

Albena Shkodrova is a freelance journalist in Bulgaria.