One Year of Borisov - Brussels Speaking

Special Report |Author: Milena Hristova | June 8, 2010, Tuesday // 13:14|  views

Boyko Borisov always wanted to make history and he did during the elections for European and national parliament in the summer of 2009. One year later approval ratings in Bulgaria are still soaring despite criticism over the “wobbling Hercules” style of his party. Milena Hristova went to see what is the mood in Brussels.

From Sofia with indifference

Exasperated voters boot out bad rulers and install relatively unknown ones - that is in a nutshell last year’s Bulgarian elections. The center-right GERB party swept both the general and European vote thanks to the macho, action man appeal of its charismatic leader Boyko Borisov.

Brussels however does not hold much charisma for Bulgarians.

One year after the elections the center-right Bulgarian politicians working in European institutions are still facing an uphill struggle to convince Bulgarians that European topics can be sexy and restore Brussels’ trust in a country, which has been known so far best for its rampant corruption.

“In Brussels, our top priority is to restore the trust in Bulgaria. In Sofia, it is to draw attention to the European topics,” says Andrey Kovatchev, member of the European Parliament from the ruling party GERB.

Bulgaria is not an exception in this attitude. Over the past 30 years, since the first EU elections, the Parliament has gained more powers, but many citizens still see the ballot as another chance for casting a protest vote.

“The European Union is a business giant and a political dwarf, but its members know how to pool their forces and become stronger in times of crisis,” argues Kovatchev. “Party color does matter, but nobody falls into extremes. It is the text of the proposals that matters.”

An example of the good cooperation between the European People’s Party, of which Bulgaria’s ruling GERB party is a member, Socialists and Liberals is the green light that the European Parliament gave to an extra EUR 300 M in EU financial support for decommissioning the Bulgaria's Kozloduy nuclear power plant.

“We had the full understanding and cooperation from all groups in the European Parliament and Bulgaria will benefit from what we have achieved,” says Vladimir Urutchev, who is in his second term as member of the European Parliament.

Can the seventeen Bulgarian members of the European Parliament wield power and influence key decisions such as the proposal for Kozloduy?

“Yes”, says Kovatchev. “And it is important that people in Bulgaria are aware of that.”

Bulgarian blushes

Sometimes however even the MEPs forget on which side of the fence they should stand.

At the beginning of the year the weak performance of the first candidate for the next European Commissioner Rumiana Jeleva quickly took the shine off her proud party. Then came the disgust – a political opponent at home in Bulgaria, Antonyia Parvanova, said at the hearing that the information that EU lawmakers had heard from Jeleva was “not the truth.”

“Smearing somebody’s name with no particular reasons does nobody any good,” Kovatchev recalls. “The domestic political wrangling was just projected onto the events in Brussels.”

True, in terms of its image Bulgaria paid a very high price for using the European scene as an arena for settling domestic and political issues, while the unsavory tactics of sabotage made it clear that the longing for retaliation is everywhere.

But Europe doesn't care about this. It cares only if Prime Minister Boyko Borisov instills order in Bulgaria.

The price of the crack-down

Borisov has won praise across the EU for his decisiveness and strong determination to crack down on crime and corruption and implement difficult reforms. But recently things have got quite complicated. The welcome onslaught on corruption raised fears of a police state and prompted criticism over what has been called the government’s passivity in the economy sector.

“It is very difficult to find the middle way between the police state and the fight against corruption combat and organized crime. What is important is that the democratic state guarantees the security of its citizens and their rights,” comments Joseph Daul, chairman of the European People’s Party Group in the European Parliament.

He is generous in his high assessment of the Bulgarian government’s efforts to lead an all-out war against the mafia and high-level corruption, but stresses it is very important that the justice system does its part and work as good as the police.

“It is not enough to just arrest those, who have abused European funds. These people should hear their sentences quickly, not after ten or fifteen years,” says Daul.

“The combat against organized crime and corruption is a top priority and we feel that we are going in the right direction. The word is now spreading that Bulgaria is now trying and succeeding in making changes,” says Antonio Lopez-, Secretary General of the European People's Party.

Borisov has certainly made a difference. The television news now features police operations with such labels as “Octopus”, arresting people with such names as “the Tractor”. The culture of impunity that once plagued Bulgaria has largely gone, the coverage of the raids in the media is impressive.

“The combat against organized crime and corruption is the most visible part in the policy of the government,” according to Bulgaria's European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, who believes the cabinet has the potential to implement reforms in key sectors.

The huge progress that the Bulgarian government is making in its efforts to shake off the image of a country with rampant corruption and organized crime has however turned out to be a two-sided coin. Pitched against the background of flashy police raids with ominous code-names, the reforms in the economy sector seem lackluster at best.

“Since we are in a very difficult economic situation the government may easily find itself in the tricky position to score huge successes in one field, which seem to be in stark contrast with what it has achieved in other sectors,” warns Georgieva.

The economic dilemma

Georgieva, who served as Vice President of the World Bank and was an economic advisor to Prime Minister Boyko Borisov before her appointment as commissioner, is convinced that the government should be more determined in the implementation of reforms.

“It is very important that the government focuses on the key economic reforms. We all know which they are and why they are important. Yes, we are right to expect determination from Finance Minister Simeon Djankov, but it should not be just him.”

Asked about the government’s plans to reach in to the fiscal reserve to fill in gaps, Georgieva stresses “it is very important that the seeds of growth are not frozen.”

“The money from the fiscal reserve should be used for co-financing projects under European programs, since this will stimulate the economy.”

According to Georgieva Bulgaria is one of the few countries, which can afford to swell state spending to boost the economy.

“This is a right and needed step, but it should be taken very carefully.”

Slash and burn

A month after the European Commission launched a discipline procedure against Bulgaria for exceeding the deficit ceiling of 3% of GDP, the country's commissioner in Brussels warns that keeping the figure under EU rules won't be easy, but it is a manageable task.

“My expectations are that the government will try to reduce the deficit to and below 3% by the end of this year or the beginning of next year,” she says, adding that the first scenario will unfold only if the Bulgarian, European and global economy record a growth.

In May the Bulgarian government adopted a draft bill, which targets a deficit of 4.8% of GDP on a cash basis and 3.9% of GDP under EU accounting rules, far wider than initial estimates.

The move marked a notable change of course in the government's policy as in the early months of 2010 it insisted it would do its best to keep the deficit as low as possible, or at least under 3%, in order to meet the criteria for applying to join the euro zone waiting room, ERM II.

Asked about the revision of the budget, Georgieva sides with the government, citing the much more optimistic forecasts for the European economy from last autumn, when the budget 2010 was drawn up.

Daul shares this view.

“Borisov and his government deserve to be praised for the low budget deficit they keep, low at least in comparison with the other members of the European Union,” says Daul.

Daul and Lopez are unanimous that the eurozone will survive this crisis and reject stark warnings against what some have called its “inevitable break-up”.

“Bulgaria will be in the eurozone. This is not a boat you can get in or out at your convenience," stresses Lopez.

Two months ago the newly revealed budget data which sharply revised upwards Bulgaria's 2009 budget deficit caused by unaccounted procurement deals turned into the latest hurdle before Bulgaria's application to join the euro zone, which has been put on hold.

Borisov placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the country's former Socialist-led administration, saying the government has lied to the EU colleagues about our readiness for the euro zone, being unaware of this trap.

Borisov's allies in Brussels however prefer to turn their backs on the past.

“Let’s forget about the past and look into the future,” says Lopez.

Managing the fog

Put the house in order, this is what Borisov has been trying to do and have achieved pretty much. In a country that has been repeating a particular pattern – one of the worst records on crime ever in EU history - he said he wants to be out of the trap. He has been revved up to make big changes this year, especially when it comes to transforming the way the country is viewed in the European public eye.

“I have not been recently to Bulgaria, but this is a good sign. The countries I visit often are those pestered by problems,” says jokingly Joseph Daul.

Lopez joins the chorus of praise.

“When I first met Borisov I was fully convinced that he was the appropriate person to change Bulgaria,” says he.

Still the going is tough.

“Most of them don’t have the needed experience and they need to build it. They are navigating through the fog that's all around them, but being consistent would certainly help.”

“The Bulgarian government tries to do its best to cope with the situation. What remains to be done is to organize the administration in such a way that the European funds go to where they are meant to be,” says Daul.

Asked about the criticism from the right-wing Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB), which have been widely perceived as allies of the ruling GERB party, Daul said this is what true democracy is all about.

“The center-right parties should be unified, because otherwise we can not win the elections. But that does not mean they all should be the same,” said Daul.

Borisov's nine-month tenure has been marked by a series of u-turns on important issues, leaving the impression that the government rules by tests and trials. His allies in Brussels however are ok with that.

“Looking for the solution of a problem and doing it openly creates the opportunity to see what can be done. I find the suggestions Borisov makes fully acceptable,” argues Daul.

“Sooner or later, but rather sooner, there will be positive attitude from Brussels,” Lopez adds.

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Tags: EC, budget deficit, budget discipline procedure, eurostat, Eurozone, economic growth, Simeon Djankov, Boyko Borisov, EC, European Commission, finance minister, Convergence Program, Eurozone, ERM II, budget deficit, recession, GDP, Kalin Hristov, Andrey Kovatchev, Rumiana Jeleva, Kristalina Georgieva, Antonio Lopez, Joseph Daul


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