SOFIA – The ongoing war in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of protecting citizens, human rights and taking necessary steps for an effective fight against corruption, it is one of the main conclusions from the policy forum “Anti-Corruption and National Security”, organized by the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD), under the anti-corruption cohort of the Summit of Democracy. The conference is held as part of Bulgaria’s commitment to the Year of Action initiated as a result of the Summit for Democracy in December 2021.
The event in Sofia aimed to provide a platform for cooperation for government and civil society representatives from Southeast Europe and their international peers. The Summit for Democracy Cohort on Anti-corruption Policies has developed an action agenda to promote evidence-based anti-corruption policies and models for collective action.
The group recognizes the importance of civil society in preventing and countering corruption. They also acknowledge regional cooperation’s relevance and regional organizations’ role in preventing and fighting corruption. The Cohort intends to focus its efforts on monitoring systemic corruption, preventing corruption, and thwarting strategic corruption. They plan to promote sustainable communication channels and robust partnerships with the private sector, multilateral institutions, regional organizations, civil society, and media.
During the event, the participants agree that corruption is a disease that knows no borders and requires coordinated action at the national and international levels.
President of Bulgaria Rumen Radev said that modern corruption has a broad international character. “Only together, in the strong interaction, cooperation, exchange of information and useful practices, can we effectively fight this negative phenomenon of our times,” Radev said.
President Radev highlighted some of the aspects of the political context in which the conference is taking place.
“In the summer of 2020, after a prolonged period of accumulation of public intolerance towards corruption in government, restriction of media freedom and low trust in the independence of the judiciary, protests erupted in Sofia demanding the resignation of the ruling coalition,” the President said.
The protests lasted for more than two months and expressed the will of the Bulgarian public to uphold democracy and the rule of law as its values, Radev said. According to him, the ensuing political crisis has not yet found a lasting solution.
Addressing a Sofia conference on counter-corruption and national security Tuesday, US Chargé d’Affaires Andrea Brouillette-Rodriguez said that Bulgaria was faced with huge challenges but showed its resilience and remained a committed partner and ally.
She assessed that the country has made three commitments within the Year of Action: to strengthen its judicial system, ensure accountability of its General Prosecutor and increase trust in the media and the state institutions.
However, she said that the last Parliament failed to carry through the legislative changes regarding the reform of the judiciary, the prosecution service and the Supreme Judicial Council, which changes are called for by the National Recovery and Resilience Plan.
She noted that the USA is ready to support the country’s efforts by helping to build capacity, providing technical aid, and otherwise helping to carry through the changes. USA diplomat added that some individuals continue to try to take advantage of the US financial system and have been blacklisted for these attempts.
“These sanctions are not aimed against Bulgarian and the people of Bulgaria: they are aimed against individuals that the US believes to be responsible for misusing hundreds of millions in taxpayers’ money”, Brouillette-Rodriguez said.
Corruption – a borderless disease
“Corruption is a phenomenon that has a devastating impact on any country, which is why we should fight corruption to ensure the rule of law. If we understand corruption as a disease, it is extremely important to fight it systematically by creating a system for the prevention of corruption,” said Serbian Justice Minister Maja Popović.
She stressed the importance of corruption prevention, which is a “difficult and long process” that should be well organized at all state levels, “with the long-term implementation and measures set out in strategic documents”.
According to her, the best way to combat corruption is through prevention. She said that Serbia is working to strengthen its institutional framework.
“The consequences of corruption lead to the lower trust of citizens in institutions, legal uncertainty, destabilization of the economic system and security”, Popović said.
Justice Minister of Montenegro Marko Kovač assessed that corruption is a disease to which no country is immune. Speaking about the situation in Montenegro, he pointed out that institutions should tackle corruption at the highest level, “no matter how difficult that task may be”.
“Strong national anti-corruption policies should provide a qualitative basis for an adequate response by government authorities. Montenegro is in the process of improving legislation in relation to forfeiture of illegally acquired property, as the previous reform did not have the necessary results and has moved towards adopting a law that will allow confiscation before a final court ruling”, Kovač said.
He added that if a conviction for corruption is followed by the forfeiture of assets, this will have a deterrent effect. He expressed the readiness of the Montenegro government to cooperate at all levels with other regional countries in the fight against corruption.
Veronica Bradautanu, the adviser to Moldova’s President, assessed that it is “difficult to fight corruption without international cooperation. Speaking about the fight against corruption in Moldova, she said that most of the stolen money is no longer in Moldova and ways are being sought to bring those responsible to justice and recover illegally taken funds.
“We have made significant progress in strengthening democracy and confirming our aspirations towards Europe,” Bradautanu added.
Independent media important in the fight against corruption
During the conference, participants agreed that there is a need for strengthening media freedom, combating disinformation and fake news, and protecting journalists who report on corruption. Dutch Ambassador to Bulgaria Simon van der Burg focused in his speech especially on the freedom of media and freedom of expression, as necessary preconditions for functioning democracy and a proper fight against corruption.
He pointed out that nowadays there are independent media under pressure in various countries, “where journalists are harassed and threatened”. According to him, the digital age brings new challenges such as fake news and misinformation, when at the same time “each one of us can play the role of a journalist”.
Ambassador Van der Burg also recalled that the media plays an important role in national security issues adding that the economy and state can be free when the media is free.
The participants of the event agreed that corruption stays as one of the main obstacles to economic growth.
Deputy Prime Minister for EU funds management Atanas Pekanov said that the measures set out in the Bulgarian recovery plan are unlikely to solve the problems, but they will give a clear direction and signal that the state is countering and fighting corruption and improving the judiciary.
Asked where the biggest problem is as far as corruption related to EU funds is concerned, Pekanov said that “there are many things that need to be corrected in terms of the laws in Bulgaria so that we can more clearly identify where there is a problem, how the funds are being spent and so that the whole judiciary can do its job”.
“We have made a proposal now to improve public procurement procedures so that there are no in-house procedures so that everything is more transparent,” Pekanov said.
The event is organized by the Ministry of Justice in cooperation with the Basel Institute on Governance and the Center for the Study of Democracy. The forum is being held within the framework of the initiatives included in the Year of Action announced by US President Joe Biden at the closing of the Summit for Democracy in December 2021.