Bulgarian anti-corruption bill suffers new setback

Bulgarian anti-corruption bill suffers new setback

Sofia, May 13, 2016/Independent Balkan News Agency

By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of The Sofia Globe

An amended draft bill meant to create a new government body to fight corruption and conflict of interest has suffered yet another setback even before it hits the House floor, failing to receive the endorsement of the legal affairs committee of Bulgaria’s Parliament.

Last year, the bill – one of the signature initiatives of Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Kouneva – was rejected in a vote that saw two junior partners in the ruling coalition choosing to abstain. It has been reworked and has now been submitted to Parliament anew, but the draft received only four votes in favour, with six abstentions, after debates in the legal committee late on May 12.

Speaking to Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) on May 13, Kouneva said that the National Assembly could still pass the bill, amending the main areas of concern – such as the extensive provisions on anonymous corruption reports – between the two readings, as long as new amendments did not change the spirit of the proposed law.

Justice Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva and Dessislava Atanassova, deputy chairperson of the legal committee and an MP for senior ruling coalition partner GERB, have both expressed hopes that the bill would pass on the House floor despite the committee’s reservations. Meanwhile, the head of GERB’s parliamentary group, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, sounded a more cautious note, saying that the bill required wider support if it were to pass, as quoted by BNR.

More than eight years after joining the European Union, Bulgaria remains under monitoring by the European Commission through the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism and has been repeatedly told that it must do better in fighting corruption and reforming its judiciary. As part of the latest reform strategy, the government has sought to merge the cabinet’s anti-corruption office Borkor and the conflict of interest commission, as well as parts of the National Audit Office that investigate elected officials’ asset declarations.

But the amended bill has also received extensive criticism, including from the Supreme Court of Cassation, whose official stance on the draft is that the extensive authority entrusted to the new anti-corruption body, when coupled with the legal option to report corruption anonymously could “lead to serious shifts in the balance of institutions and protecting people’s rights”. The high court also said that too many terms used in the bill were not properly defined, giving the example of “unexplained wealth” – in the absence of a clear definition in the law, this could “open the door for arbitrariness, unauthorised pressure, political attacks and populism”.

Meanwhile, the Access to Information Programme non-governmental organisation warned that the flaws in the bill could have a negative impact on the fight against corruption – if only by restricting the number of public officials who are required to submit annual property declarations to fewer than 7000, compared to more than 100 000 civil servants who are required to do so under the current regulations.