Athens, April 24, 2016/Independent Balkan News Agency
By Spiros Sideris
On the sidelines of the quadripartite meeting of the Foreign and Interior Ministers of Greece, Albania, FYROM and Bulgaria, the Deputy Minister of Interior of Bulgaria Philip Gounev gave an exclusive interview to IBNA. Mr Gounev spoke of the reforms taking place in Bulgaria in the fight against corruption and of the more effective treatment of crime and illegal movement of migrants, as well as of the cooperation with Turkey, Greece and the EU.
Mr Minister, you are undertaking reforms in your Ministry. In which direction will these reforms be directed?
Yes we are undertaking a reform at the ministry of interior. The focus of this reform is first making the ministry more efficient in terms of using the limited resources and budget that it has. Over the past year we’ve had a reduction in our budget and reduction in our personnel and we need to compensate this with reforms that will make it more efficient. Modernization of the ministry is a big agenda with electronisation of various systems and processes.
But in terms of increasing our effectiveness in the fight against crime, a number of reforms are pointed at providing police with more independence in terms of providing the secretary general of the police with powers to appoint most of the police officers.
Another range of reforms aim at increasing the control over the police by providing our internal affairs department with some additional powers to undertake, for instance, integrity tests, a type of undercover tests for the police, or for better control over personal assets that police officers have. That’s part of the corruption prevention mechanism, as well as assessment of the work of police officers, strengthening the system for assessment of the work of the police officers.
In addition, we are making some changes to respond to the new challenges such as the fight against trafficking and smuggling of migrants. For this reason the law foresees the amendment to the powers of our general directorate for combating organized crime which will now have the power also to investigate criminal groups involved in the smuggling of migrants. As well as getting rid of some limitations in the law which prevented the general directorate to tackle organized crime effectively, fighting cyber-crime, corruption, these were some of the comments that also the European Commission in its recent cooperation and verification mechanism report noted.
How is the cooperation between Bulgaria and Turkey in the borders regarding the immigration crisis? Are you orientated towards extending this cooperation and in which way?
I have to say so far we’ve seen pretty good cooperation with Turkey and over the past 3 months we’ve seen a reduction in the number of migrants that come from Turkey. Since the beginning of the year the overall reduction is by 20% and for instance for the month of March this year compared to last year the reduction is over 30% in the number of migrants that have come over from Turkey. This we attribute to the efforts of Turkish colleagues to prevent illicit crossings through our border.
In addition, the Turkish parliament very recently ratified a decision to launch trilateral cooperation center between Bulgaria and Greece. In a couple of weeks experts from the three countries will be meeting to discuss the operational routes of this center and we hope by this summer -today Greek colleagues also informed us that the Greek parliament will vote on Monday on the final ratification for the operation of this center – the center will be up and running and it will hopefully further facilitate our cooperation with Turkey to make investigations of cross border crime easier, and it will also further facilitate the reaction of Turkish border guards whenever we see migrants approaching the border. So, there will be this kind of coordination.
Also in the last two weeks we’ve had high-level visits; first from the prosecutor general of Turkey we had a meeting last week to discuss particularly the cooperation in investigation of migrant smuggling; also the head of the Turkish coast guard, which is a very high level position in Turkey who has the rank of a minister, was in Sofia, he met with the minister and border authorities to discuss cooperation and prevention of migrant smuggling.
May I have your comment on the Turkey-EU Agreement? The European Commission made an announcement for the visas with less than half of the 72 conditions being met. What would happen if Turkey does not have visas?
There is time, first of all, for both sides to work on these issues. The EU is clearly committed to provide such liberalization if Turkey meets the conditions. The Bulgarian Prime Minister has very clearly said that Turkey must show that it is keeping its part of the deal. I think in many ways it is showing that it can. The migrant flow towards Greece has fallen more than 10 times. Towards Bulgaria we have also seen a significant reduction. There are other parts of the deal that we still have to see how they are going to work, such as the return of migrants. We have to sign a bilateral protocol with Turkey and we hope we will be able to do that next month at the latest so that in June we can be able to start in effect to return migrants based on the EU – Turkey admission deal.
Of course if for some reason it all falls apart we need to have a plan B, and that is what the Greek minister said also. I think this is one of the reasons why Bulgaria has continued with the construction of border facility which now covers over 100 kilometers. By June the entire land border between Bulgaria and Turkey will be covered except the section where there are rivers between the two countries. At the same time the Bulgarian armed forces have been dispatched to the border in the past few days to support border police in its efforts to protect the border. We’ve received significant funding also from the EU as well as support from some member states. For instance, the British government decided to donate 40 Land Rovers for the use of the border police, so we continue to strengthen our border protection capabilities and I hope plan B won’t be needed.
Are you an optimist?
No, I am a realist.
Photo: Spiros Sideris/IBNA