Bulgaria, at the helm of the EU Council of Ministers for this year’s first semester, under many aspects appears to be lagging ten years behind EU East-European member countries. Thanks to the European Union a lot has changed in Sofia since adhesion in 2007: economic growth remains strong but many reforms are yet to be launched along with measures against corruption and poverty.
A new face. Churchill said that Europe ends where they start eating tripe and drinking bosa (a traditional drink of the Ottoman Empire), that is, the Balkans. But Balkan Countries today want to show a new face: they want to show that European values and ambitions have become a fundamental part of their political and economic life. Such attempt is evident especially in Bulgaria, that took over the Presidency of the EU Council of Ministers as of January 1st, whose program focuses on the Western Balkans.
Two sides of the same coin. Presenting the program of his six-month Presidency to the European Parliament, Bulgarian Minister Boyko Borissov highlighted his Country’s high economic indicators: almost 4% GDP, 6% unemployment, zero budget deficit. These achievements are mostly a result of EU support and Community funding. Nonetheless Bulgaria remains the poorest EU-28 Member Country, with modest household income and a purchasing power amounting to 53% below European average. “These are two sides of the same coin. Economic data mentioned by Prime Minister Borissov corresponds to the truth, but it is equally true that Sofia has struggled to reach the levels of the other member States”, Georgi Angelov, economist at the “Open Society” Institute, told SIR. In his opinion “all East-European countries register economic growth, but Bulgaria started from zero in 1997, when the Country experienced an economic collapse and hyperinflation; wages at one point did not exceed 10 dollars.” This past decade, with high deficits and high inflation, prior to accession to the EU in 2007, has taught Bulgarian politicians to be cautious and “today many of them don’t want to take risks.”
Unfulfilled reforms. Bulgaria remains the poorest Country in the EU. This is also due to the fact that reforms were launched 10 years after the fall of Communism, in 1997. “Unlike Poland, whose progress was set in motion in 1988, Bulgaria is ten years behind, as its economic indicators show”, Angelov said, pointing out that there’s still a long way to go. “Some of the reforms are burdensome, unpopular – he said – especially with regard to public health and security: governments fail to implement them because they know they will spark off protests and discontent. But it’s equally true that money is obviously being wasted in poorly efficient systems.” On the bright side, the economic expert pointed out that education is an absolute priority for Borissov’s government, which launched a strategy to double teachers’ incomes and ensure school education to all children. In fact as many as 15 thousand Roma children have returned to school past September.
The problem of corruption. “There could have been greater progress – Angelov pointed out – but several factors caused a slowdown” in Bulgaria’s reform process. “Today foreign investors criticise the Country’s bureaucratic and administrative delays along with its judicial system, that with great difficulty is striving to carry out the reforms requested by the European Commission.” “Bulgaria’s yearning to be more integrated in the EU, to join the Schengen area and ensure ERM-2 membership, the “waiting room” of Euro currency adoption, will compel national authorities to comply with the minimum required by the Commission to achieve these goals”, said the “Open Society” expert.
Corruption remains a serious issue
stressed by all foreign observers. It is present at grassroots level – policemen soliciting bribes to cancel a car ticket – as well as at the level of bid rigging in public procurement. “Unfortunately the environment sets the grounds for corruption and the public administration has a great possibility of influencing business”, Angelov remarked.
Accomplished projects. In the meantime, thanks to European funds, Bulgaria has undergone major transformations in the past ten years: hundreds of kilometers of highways were built, the second bridge was built on the Danube connecting the Bulgarian side to the European one, in Sofia there are two subway lines while the third is under construction. “Indeed, projects are much less expensive in Sofia than in other European Countries – Angelov said, agreeing with the Bulgarian president. – But we don’t have to thank politicians for this: labour is cheaper and investment costs are lower. Foreign investors are attracted by the fact that the Country is poor and there are good opportunities for development.”
Another Country outside Sofia. However, the wealth produced by a thriving economy is concentrated in the capital city, Sofia, and in other 12 large urban centres, but the latter are surrounded by depopulated villages and helmets, whose youths migrated abroad or to urban areas leaving their older fellow-inhabitants alone and with monthly pensions below 100 Euros. “Foreign colleagues often ask me how these people manage to survive. I have no answer”, said Caritas Bulgaria Secretary General Emanouil Patashev. Patashev said that Bulgaria’s senior citizens, especially those living in small villages, have difficulty accessing health and social services and live in conditions of isolation. “Strategies and social projects exist in theory but not in practice”, he went on. “Caregivers for old people, who can help distribute warm meals or provide support in daycare centres, are hired thanks to European projects…”. But once the funds are spent municipalities fail to cover the expense and thus this form of support is no longer available. “That is why–Patascev said –under the Bulgarian Presidency the government will ask support from the European Social Fund so that the projects may be extended beyond the year 2020.” It is hoped that in the next 10 years Bulgaria may be able to achieve alone what is being done today only thanks to European solidarity.