Could the E.U. Lose Bulgaria to Russia?

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Peter Petrov / AP

A man drives a horse cart while pulling a cyclist on a road near the village of Vetren, east of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia

As Bulgaria's incoming Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov can assume copious congratulations when he takes up the reins of government on July 23. Less welcome, however, is what he received on the eve of his investiture: a report effectively designating Bulgaria the most corrupt and crime-ridden member of the European Union. And for good measure, it warned that Bulgaria, already the E.U.'s poorest member state, could slip under the sway of Russia if it fails to turn itself around.

According to the European Commission, Borisov will inherit a country where mobsters murder with impunity and where fraud and corruption have seeped deep into the political and legal establishment. "Killings linked with organized crime continue, and known criminals are not apprehended," the commission says in its report, released on July 21.

The report calls for a full redraft of the country's penal code, special units to combat corruption and organized crime and constitutional amendments guaranteeing an independent judicial system. "Although indications of fraud and corruption (including collusion with organized crime) are abundant in the public domain, law-enforcement agencies seem reluctant to take the initiative to start an investigation," it says. "What is still missing is sufficient political commitment for broader initiatives which could form a more decisive, strategic approach."

The political drift could have other consequences. Another report, by a panel of E.U. experts advising the Bulgarian government, says Bulgaria is spinning out of Brussels' orbit. As yet unpublished, the report by the International Advisory Board for Bulgaria says Russia could regain its historic hold on the country if political forces and civil society fail to spell out a strong European agenda. It warns that Bulgaria, which depends on Russia for 92% of its gas supplies, is uniquely vulnerable to Moscow.

The six-member board, chaired by former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, says that without strategic direction and clear priorities on issues like security and energy, the Bulgarian state could face populist revolts. And that instability "could undo the ties between the E.U. and Bulgaria, prompting a shift toward Russian political and economic interests."

The two reports paint a portrait of a country stuck at the bottom of the class just 2½ years after it joined the E.U. Bulgaria's lack of progress is all the more glaring given the initial assumptions, in both Brussels and Sofia, that E.U. accession would lock in the reform process, pulling Bulgaria into the European mainstream. But the country is still plagued by corruption, gangland violence and feeble law enforcement. The system's failings were all too visible earlier this month, when two men indicted for running a criminal mob involved in racketeering and extortion were freed on bail to run as candidates in the parliamentary elections.

"We are deeply concerned," says Jana Mittermaier, who heads the Brussels office of anti-corruption group Transparency International. She says Bulgaria has long been saddled with a non-functioning judiciary and a lack of political will to fight corruption. "We hope that the new government will be able to take the signal from Brussels to radically change the system," she adds. "It needs to start cleaning things up so that serious sentences can be enforced against corruption and organized crime."

For the European Commission, Bulgaria's languid efforts to clamp down on graft and crime are especially dispiriting. Although the commission's report points to piecemeal progress by the authorities, it effectively acknowledges that the carrot of E.U. accession has failed to deliver the promised results: while the scent of membership prompted loud reformist rhetoric, the momentum slipped once Bulgaria joined.

And the stick of sanctions over the past year hasn't worked either. Last November, the commission stripped Bulgaria of $310 million in funds for failing to tackle corruption; the move had a barely discernible effect on reforms. E.U. officials have also grumbled that Bulgaria's yawning failures have undermined the E.U.'s own credibility as an authority to lay down the law on wayward members.

Fighting crime was Borisov's winning campaign theme, and the Prime Minister–elect has vowed to end corruption, saying he will imprison anyone involved in embezzling funds. But as a former bodyguard with a black belt in karate, Borisov will have to use all his fighting skills if he is to defeat Bulgaria's demons and keep the country in Europe's fold.