The shooting of one of the country’s top bankers this week has taken on particular significance, coming just 24 hours after Brussels issued a strong warning that Bulgaria must clean up its act – or face a possible one year delay in accession.
The boulevards of downtown Sofia have been the scene of a series of killings in recent months, as Bulgaria’s organised crime rings descend into what some are describing as an all-out gang war.
Emil Kyulev, CEO of DZI-Rosexim, Bulgaria’s largest wholly -Bulgarian- owned financial group, was shot ten times in his car by an unidentified man on the morning of October 26 oin a busy central -Sofia thoroughfare.
While there is no indication that Kyulev had any ties to crime gangs, the murder of a respected and celebrated banker demonstrates the pervasiveness of the mafia’s influence in the Balkan country.
Less than two weeks ago, a senior official in the customs administration, Shinka Manova, was also shot dead in the first contract killing of a high-ranking government official. Manova's phone number had been found by police in the memory card of a mobile phone used by a Bulgarian drugs baron, Konstatin Dimitrov, who was murdered in Amsterdam in 2003.
The spate of public killings, which have so far been carried out with impunity, is a cause for serious concern in Brussels, where the European Commission (EC) is set to make a recommendation in just six months on Bulgaria’s suitability to join the European Union in 2007.
On October 25, the EU released its monthly Monitoring Report on Bulgaria’s progress toward EU membership, in which it laid out five areas of serious concern, and urged Bulgaria and Romania to redouble efforts to fulfil criteria for membership by April 2006 in order to achieve accession in January 2007. If the EC is not satisfied with the two countries’ progress, it can recommend that member states to invoke a safeguard clause, delaying accession by one year until 2008.
Chief among the five areas of concern was the fight against corruption and organised crime. The report said urgent and forceful action is needed to demonstrate the ability of Bulgaria and Romania to combat corruption effectively. Corruption in the two countries could threaten the EU single market and EU-funded programmes, it warned. Neither country yet has the administrative capacity to manage the billions of euros in EU subsidies and grants that will come their way on accession.
Bulgaria in particular has also failed to curb organised crime, the report added. Here too the unambiguous enforcement of the rule of law must prevail. This was seen as a very forceful criticism of Bulgaria, which has hitherto been perceivedseen as far ahead of Romania on the way to EU membership. But EU Commissioner for Eenlargement Ollie Rehn said the failure to obtain even a single significant conviction for high-level corruption in recent years is a serious concern in both countries.
Speaking to deputies at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on October 26, Rehn made clear that the Commission would seek a delay to membership if the two Balkan states remained below EU standards in April or May next year.
“Unless the countries take immediate and decisive correctiveon action,” he said, “they will not be ready at the envisaged date of accession and we may recommend postponing membership.”
Although any delay to the accession of Bulgaria and Romania is in the hands of national governments and not the EC, the Commission’s recommendation could prove decisive in a growing climate of uncertainty among many member states about the enlargement process.
Influential EU countries with sluggish economic growth, such as Germany and France, have shown concern at allowing more poor nations into club. Meanwhile, this month’s controversy over the start of talks with Turkey may have shifted the focus of the enlargement debate east, but some fear it may backfire on Bulgaria and Romania by heightening anti-expansion feeling within EU states.
The Commission’s report also criticised Bulgaria and Romania on a number of other fronts. Both countries suffer from high levels of piracy and counterfeiting, it said. The insufficient border infrastructure of both countries might require specific restrictive measures to be imposed to prevent the internal security of the EU from being compromised.
With growing panic about the spread of avian flu throughout Europe, the EC’s further concerns about animal disease control, agricultural standards and food safety are also particularly poignant, and may also prove a vital stumbling block when the EC makes its final recommendations in the spring.
Stern words were largely expected in this report, which has served as a final warning to Bulgaria and Romania that they both have much to do before they will be ready to take their places in the family of European nationsEU. However, the two countries can take heart from the Commission’s statement that areas of concern amount to just 10% of the full membership criteria, and that both countries have already achieved the economic criteria.
Nonetheless, many in Sofia are privately saying that delay is inevitable. Indeed, as police gather evidence from witnesses and forensics in downtown Sofia in the capital’s most recent high-profile murder, the prospects of an early entry into Europe look increasingly bleak.