The World Bank has boosted its backing for Bulgaria as the country strives to meet the accession requirements of the EU.
The Bank voiced its support for the country's accession to the Union and committed further long-term financial assistance.
Following a meeting with Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev on June 26, the World Bank's vice president for Europe and Central Asia, Shigeo Katsu said that the Bank supported Bulgaria's upcoming EU membership and would assist the country in its integration efforts. Katsu also said that the bank believed Bulgaria would be able to deal with the changes it would experience after joining the EU, which is planned for January 2007.
"Bulgarian EU membership is almost accessible now, compared to 15 months ago when it seemed a distant thing," said Katsu. However, as January approaches he warned that the country would have to undergo a difficult and intensive period of preparation to fulfil the bloc's membership criteria, though he saw a bright future for Bulgaria after all the effort.
"We expect Bulgaria to assume a new role, to become a factor, a state that will play an increasingly important role in global terms, particularly as to urge future members to follow its example en route to EU membership," he said.
Also, on June 13, the Bank's new Country Partnership Strategy (CPS) for Bulgaria, set to run until 2009, was announced.
Under the new strategy, the World Bank will lend Sofia up to $300m a year to assist with implementing structural reforms and provide resources to invest in higher productivity and employment strategies. It will also provide significant analytical support and advisory services focusing on the country's economic priorities, focusing on strengthening the investment climate for private sector growth and boosting employment.
The CPS is further designed to support Bulgaria's efforts to narrow the divide between itself and EU member states by improving public expenditure management, investment planning, and the design of projects eligible for EU funds.
The Bank's last CPS programme in the country was successfully implemented. Observers expect Bulgaria to again benefit by taking further steps to bring its self in line with EU standards.
The previous programme focused on three Programmatic Adjustment Loans, worth $450m, which aimed to support structural reform and help clear Bulgaria's EU accession path. The loans contributed to the government's programme of reforms in the enterprise sector, emphasising improvements to infrastructure and reinforcing an environment conducive to business.
The outcomes of the 2003-05 programme included a major overhaul of Bulgaria's banking system, with the privatisation of many of the state's holdings in the sector and easing access to credit, a simplifying of the required bureaucracy for launching business ventures, and widespread reforms to the National Customs Administration, resulting in additional revenue of $700m.
According to Anand Seth, the World Bank's country director for Bulgaria, the country has come a long way in a relatively short time, though still has much to do.
"Bulgaria is performing well and now stands on the threshold of EU accession," he said at the launch of the new CPS. "But the country still has a long way to go to catch up with other EU member countries. Our goal with the new partnership strategy is to support Bulgaria in meeting its full potential as a member state of the EU."
However, Seth, in reference to the next wave EU membership candidates, Romania and Bulgaria, lauded the two countries for the reforms and adjustments they have made to their economies and political and legal systems. He qualified his reverence by explaining that the older EU states often faced what he described as "a barrage of opposition" when they broach this kind of structural change.
Among the "remarkable" achievements cited by Seth has been annual economic growth averaging 5% between 2000 and 2005, a return to single digit inflation and a 10% increase in private sector participation in the economy, with the public sector slice of GDP falling to 25%.
Bulgaria has demonstrated its commitment to its goal of EU accession. Along with the enormous efforts of the Bulgarian people, Prime Minister Stanishev acknowledged the World Bank as a "reliable partner" in the future of his country.