Bulgaria to allow anti-graft surveillance by EU

June 20th, 2008 - 9:38 am ICT by IANS  

By Elena Lalova and Boris Babic
Sofia, June 20 (DPA) Faced with rampant corruption in Bulgaria, the European Union (EU) is slapping special cash flow controls on a member country for the first time. Bulgarian and EU officials plan to launch Friday software to help track EU aid in the Balkan nation, whose pledges to clean up graft and embezzlement have failed to satisfy Brussels.

With the clampdown, computers in Bulgarian ministries and agencies that handle EU money will be under watch from Brussels - once the EU unfreezes aid programmes reportedly worth some 450 million euros ($697 million) that it suspended amid corruption suspicions.

Incidents such as a 50-million-euro job that Bulgaria’s roads agency awarded to a firm run by the agency head’s brother have eroded trust and prompted harsh EU criticism.

“No similar control measures were ever imposed on any EU country,” Germany Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler said on a visit to Sofia last week. He warned the Balkan country that it was on the verge of an “image disaster with long-term consequences”.

On top of the surveillance system known as LOTHAR, agents from the EU anti-corruption body OLAF are combing 19 cases of suspected embezzlement. In yet another offensive, European Commission experts are checking documents in the Bulgarian agency handling EU money.

Bulgaria - the poorest of the 27 EU members - hopes that by allowing LOTHAR, a crucial EU report card expected in July will go easier on its record.

Bulgaria was allowed to join the EU in 2007 despite shortcomings in its judiciary, which reflects a corruption epidemic plaguing all aspects of the country’s life - but with a clause allowing sanctions if it fails to meet the terms of entry.

But today, 18 months after it became a part of the elite club, if a verdict in Bulgaria cannot be bought, it can be delayed for months and years. Serious crimes such as the gangland-style slayings of murky “businessmen” go unpunished.

Well more than 120 people were murdered in Bulgaria in organized crime turf battles in recent years, but not one case ended in a conviction.

On an everyday level, Bulgarians still go to the doctor with gifts and weasel their way out of traffic fines with a bribe.

Under the circumstances, the European Commission has grown increasingly wary of dispensing portions of billions of euros it earmarked to help Bulgaria catch up with richer members.

So, now more then ever in the past 18 months, local media speculate whether Brussels has had enough to actually invoke the sanctions clause in the upcoming biannual report.

Socialist Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev’s governing coalition has proposed draconian measures against corrupt officials. Under the bill, expected to pass parliament this year, people caught red-handed risk long prison sentences.

Stanishev also introduced Meglena Plugchieva, dubbed “The Iron Lady,” as the deputy premier in charge of handling EU funds.

She quickly started pointing fingers, most recently accusing the ministries of agriculture and environment of effectively killing several projects worth nearly 40 million euros.

Also at stake in the standoff with the EU are larger highway projects, such as a ring road around Sofia that is meant to ease traffic in southeastern Europe.

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