In the run up to Bulgaria's scheduled accession to the EU, the government is racing to meet the entry requirements. The country is presently banking on a positive outcome in the European Commission final report on progress, set to be tabled in October.
In its May report, the Commission highlighted a major area of concern, that of corruption, saying that the regulations currently in place fell way below those required for accession. With concerns raised that corruption has tainted all sectors of the Bulgarian economy, as well as being at least perceived to have infiltrated the country's political system, the report said that if Bulgaria wanted to enter the EU on January 1, 2007, it had to demonstrate some effective reforms and take anti-corruption measures within the next few months.
Taking the warning to heart, the government has been quick to act in response to the Commission's criticisms. On June 29, the Bulgarian parliament's legislation committee approved the first reading of a series of amendments to the country's penal code. Under the proposed legislation, there will be sharply increased penalties for money laundering, tax evasion, corruption and the commercial distribution of pirated products.
The amendments in turn are designed to upgrade Bulgaria's newly adopted penal code, which was not favoured by the Commission in its May report. Unlike the earlier version of the penal code, the opposition, who proposed some of the changes, supported the latest amendments. According to Maya Manolova of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, tightening some of the laws will do much to boost the state's coffers as well as thwart corruption.
"We are trying to stop value-added tax [VAT] fraud with these amendments," Manolova said in an interview with the Sofia Echo. "VAT fraud had drained millions of leva from the state budget."
Though the Commission has yet to pass judgement on the amendments, which are due to go before the parliament for a final vote by the end of July, they have been designed to fully comply with the requirements set out in the accession criteria.
On July 11, the cabinet acted to implement yet another EU mandated reform, this one would directly affect the country's politicians. The cabinet announced plans to boost political transparency and increase public access to information on assets declarations of high-ranking officials. Among the measures to be included in the new legislation is the obligatory declaration of sources of political financing.
The proposed reforms would, according to Yordan Tsonev, the head of the Bulgarian parliament's economic policy committee, counter the high level of political corruption that the country has experienced over the past 15 years and regain the trust of the people.
The government has also said it will ratify the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which sets out specific and efficient anti-corruption measures and the restitution of illegally obtained property. According to a cabinet statement issued at the end of May, only days after the critical Commission report was released, ratifying the convention is part of the government's strategy of transparency and corruption.
While warning Sofia for not having done more to eradicate corruption, the EU has been at pains to stress its commitment to Bulgaria joining the bloc, and to help it meet the accession criteria.
Speaking on the sidelines of a European-African forum on migration in Morocco in mid-July, the EU Commissioner for Justice, Franco Frattini, announced he would be visiting Sofia to measure Bulgaria's progress in combating corruption and money laundering, another issue of concern raised by the Commission in its May report.
"My intention is to help your country meet all the requirements this year and to join the EU in 2007", he said. "This is my institution's duty and I will do my best for Bulgaria to achieve it."
Further support for Bulgaria's fight against corruption has come from Washington, with an agreement announced on July 11 that will see the US assist Bulgaria meet its remaining EU-related judicial and internal affairs reforms and impose efficient measures to combat organised crime and corruption. The deal, made public by US Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky and Bulgaria's Prosecutor-General Boris Velchev during the latter's visit to Washington, will see Bulgarian prosecutors receive training in the US in order to aid them in combating, corruption, internet piracy and money laundering.
With an eye on EU accession and its forthcoming progress report, Bulgaria is working hard to change its image and improve the country's business climate.