Europe Union How Fit Are Romania and Bulgaria for the EU?

The Club of Brussels is about to get bigger again. Two of Europe's poorest countries, Bulgaria and Romania, where Mafia gangs and corruption are par for the course, will become its two newest members in 2007.

There is one star witness. He has already testified, on multiple occasions, in full public view and for everyone to hear. And anyone listening to his testimony could have drawn their own conclusions.

There were essentially two sets of circumstances that the witness had entered into the record. One was the following: "I would like to state, without hesitation, that virtually all institutions of the state are affected by corruption." The other statement related to the question of whether his country is truly ready to join the European Union in January 2007. "No," said the witness, with disarming honesty, "when the treaty is signed, Romania will not yet be prepared to meet the European Union's standards." No one questions the expertise of this star witness. His name is Traian Basescu, and he's the president of Romania.

The warnings were heard in Strasbourg, Brussels, Berlin, London and Paris, and in other European capitals, but they were consciously ignored.

Last Wednesday the European Parliament decided, with an overwhelming majority, to admit Romania and neighboring Bulgaria, where conditions are hardly any better, as the 26th and 27th member states of the EU. The two countries, among Europe's poorest, are expected to join the club on Jan. 1, 2007, or by Jan. 1, 2008 at the latest. On Monday the foreign ministers of the EU's current 25 member states will attend a formal ceremony to sign the two eastern European countries' accession treaties.

Parliamentarians and governments have rarely been so audacious in ignoring reality and the fears and concerns of their countries' citizens. While officials in Brussels and other European capitals are busy getting ready for Turkey's and Croatia's accession to the EU, Europe's citizens are becoming more and more uneasy about the candidates.

But their governments have essentially redefined resistance to the official position in Brussels as anti-European behavior. Anyone who believes that the EU could be stretching itself too thin with its constant influx of new members is considered small-minded, and those who question Brussels' escalating competencies are called obstructionists. Critics of Turkish membership are simply written off as being ignorant when it comes to strategy.

Even those European politicians who now seem to be floating in a completely different atmosphere than the citizens of their countries have noticed the disconnect. Speaking at the European Parliament last Wednesday, Finnish parliamentarian Olli Rehn was forced to concede that Europe is suffering from acute "expansion fatigue." Rehn ought to know what he's talking about. After all, he's the EU's new commissioner for enlargement. "We will have to take our next steps gradually and carefully," said Rehn, who, like most of his colleagues, becomes tense and more than a bit concerned when he thinks about May 29, the date on which nothing less than the future of the continent will be decided.

That's when the French will vote on the European Constitution. All the opinion polls say that opponents of the constitution are clearly in the majority. If the French vote against the constitution, it would also constitute a spectacular rejection of the European governments' expansion plans. "If the referendum fails, it would plunge Europe into a serious crisis," says Volker Rühe, chairman of the foreign relations committee in the German parliament and a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

A French rejection would mean that the planned intensification of the EU's role would have to be postponed for years, if it ever happens at all. But it's precisely this intensification that politicians in Europe's capitals see as an absolute prerequisite to expansion. "If the EU were to apply for admission," jokes Martin Schulz, a delegate to the European Parliament and a member of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), "it would be turned down, because we're still so deficient when it comes to democracy."

An EU that admits new members with abandon but at the same time is incapable of fundamentally reforming its own institutions would be a nightmare. Nevertheless, it's a reality that most EU governments already seem to have accepted. Paradoxically, in deciding to accept two of the continent's poorest countries, they've managed to make the EU more complex and ungovernable than ever before.

With their respective annual per capita GDPs of €2,500 and €2,700, Bulgaria and Romania are well behind other European countries when it comes to affluence. Latvia, the poorest of last year's ten new members, has a per capita GDP of €4,800, and in Germany the same figure jumps to €26,000. Although Bulgaria and Romania, both growing at an annual rate of about five percent, have already begun catching up, large portions of the population in these countries still live in deep poverty.

In the Romanian capital of Bucharest, for example, it's only a short drive from the imposing parliament building, the "House of the People" built by then-dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, to dilapidated, slum-like neighborhoods. Their residents are mostly gypsy families who live under the most degrading conditions. They get their water from fire hydrants. Underage prostitutes sell their bodies for bargain-basement prices, using drugs to drown out their misery. In these areas, there is little evidence of the dawn of a new, European, age.

The Bulgarian blues

The daily lives of citizens in neighboring Bulgaria are marked by both poverty and crime, and they've become accustomed to street scenes worthy of a Hollywood Western. Two weeks ago, Kiril Kirov was shot in the back by a professional killer. The bullet shredded Kirov's neck. The 41-year-old gangster, known in the underworld as "the Japanese," collapsed onto busy Vassil Levski Boulevard in downtown Sofia in broad daylight. There was no sign of the assailant.

Kirov, a well-known figure in the Bulgarian underworld, and the owner of shares in numerous businesses and one of the country's most powerful drug lords, later went into a coma. According to rumors circulating in the Bulgarian capital, the person responsible for the attack is probably Ivan Todorov, known as "the Doctor."

Bulgaria's warring Mafia clans have been involved in bitter feuds for months. Last year, hardly a week went by without someone from one of the clans being murdered. After a bombing attack that claimed four lives, a Bulgarian newspaper ran the headline: "Cosa Nostra in the Heart of Sofia." Experts estimate that almost 60 contract killings were committed throughout the country in 2004 alone. They attribute the rivalry to turf wars among warring drug gangs.

The cold-bloodedness with which killer commandos attack one another, even in full view of the authorities, dramatically exposes just how powerless the Bulgarian judiciary is. Criminal prosecution is the Achilles' heel of this country, with its just under eight million inhabitants. Bulgaria is still miles away from what's considered normal by European standards. The entire court system has been crippled by the sheer volume of criminal prosecution. Without a functioning judicial system, say critics in Brussels -- who are just as critical of neighboring Romania -- Bulgaria won't be joining the EU in 2007. The third element of public authority -- the judiciary -- would first have to be reformed and corruption contained. EU Commissioner for Enlargement Rehn has told Bucharest that reforming its judicial system should be its "priority among priorities."

According to Bulgarian journalist Boitscho Popov, the country's courts "often don't even make it to the point of sentencing. And if they do, they usually take a very long time to issue their rulings." Although criminal suspects are arrested, they're often released after a few days. In other cases, court files disappear under mysterious circumstances or records are simply shuffled from one department to another. High-profile cases, in which former members of the communist elite are charged with unjustified enrichment, can drag on for years.

But the courts have every reason to act quickly and effectively. Corruption is rampant everywhere, ranging from bribery of traffic cops to customs officials' efforts to augment their meager salaries. Even doctors accept bribes from patients hoping for preferred treatment. Prime Minister Simeon Sakskoburggotski, a blue-blooded scion of the house of Saxony-Coburg-Gotha, has repeatedly declared war on corrupt government bureaucrats, partly in response to continuing pressure from Brussels. But legal experts are critical, saying that his measures are usually ineffective and amount to nothing.

Although Sakskoburggotski's reforms are gradually beginning to have an effect among lower-ranking officials, the far more glaring practice of political corruption remains unchecked. According to a report issued by "Coalition 2000," an organization that promotes democratic reform, corruption pervades "all political levels and affects both members of the administration and the opposition."

The high level of political corruption is "alarming," says Alexander Neofitov of Transparency International, an organization that fights corruption worldwide. In its most recent report, Bulgaria is ranked 54th (out of a total of 146 countries), next to countries like Mauritius and the southern African state of Namibia.

As corrupt as Iran and the Dominican Republican

Romania is also being taken to task because of widespread corruption. It's a problem that Brussels has placed at the top of its list of deficiencies. On the worldwide corruption index, Romania ranks 89th, a far cry from all other EU countries. When it comes to corruption, Romania is considered to be on par with Iran and the Dominican Republic. Nevertheless, the newly elected liberal government of Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, which has been in office for all of four months, is at least sending out positive signals. Romania's new president, Traian Basescu, is unusually frank in naming the problem at face value: Corruption, he says, is one of the "biggest threats to our national security," and the government must declare war on Romania's widespread culture of bribery. It's an ambitious goal in a country in which greedy officials have practically instituted bribery as a national pastime.

"Corruption is a general phenomenon in this country," says Cristian Parvulescu of the organization "Pro Democratia." He claims that the network of corruption extends to virtually every level within the government bureaucracy, including businesspeople, district attorneys and police officers. "They're all part of the system. And it's a powerful system."

Former communist party groups took advantage of the political and economic changes that occurred in 1989 to enrich themselves. In fact, when privatization began, they even managed to grab the most sought-after pieces of land for themselves, a strategy that eventually proved to be enormously profitable. This helps explain the immense wealth that's concentrated in the hands of very few people.

Judging by the government's stated intentions, this criminal chapter in the country's transformation first has to be systematically addressed. In late March -- a day before the ultimatum imposed by the EU Commission was set to expire -- Bucharest presented an action plan designed to be implemented over a two-year period. In the fast few weeks, a newly-created anticorruption authority has already begun investigating representatives and party members from the socialist government that was voted out of office.

A large number of local magnates are now being taken to task for corruption and misuse of public funds. The former mayor of the eastern Romanian city of Bacau, Dumitru Sechelariu, is charged with funneling government contracts to companies owned by members of his family. Sechelariu became infamous throughout the country when he decided to bestow his name on the local soccer stadium.

Many of those being investigated have one thing in common: They're members of the Socialists (PSD), the party of former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. He and his comrades are being called to task for a long list of political misdeeds. In 2003, Nastase fired the minister who was responsible for EU integration. The former prime minister himself is nicknamed "Seven-house Nastase," an allusion to the politician's amazing and extensive real estate holdings.

During last November's parliamentary elections, Nastase's party was surprised to find itself on the losing end, when Romanian voters decided to turn their backs on the scandal-laden ruling party. In the view of political scientist Mungiu Pippidi, the liberal opposition's victory is also a victory for the popular movement against the socialists, "so that democracy does not continue to disintegrate."

The judicial system is a perfect example of this disintegration. While the previous Romanian government was busy announcing reforms in Brussels, it continued making inroads into the courts at home. According to the most recent EU progress report, the majority of Romania's judges and judicial officials were pressured by the then government. The socialists used party affiliation, and not competency, as the key criterion for appointing even high-ranking officials, such as the president of the Bucharest high court.

The press is another example. In recent years, critical journalists throughout the country have been threatened and even physically attacked, reports the Bucharest-based Media Monitoring Agency. To silence reporters pursuing stories about the unsavory practices and dealings of the corrupt political elite, the same corrupt officials blanketed editorial offices with a wave of lawsuits.

The US State Department, in a 21-page report on the status of human rights in Romania, lists many examples of journalists who were threatened. In the city of Bacau, for example, the former mayor threatened to have a local journalist killed because he had contributed to his being voted out of office. In Movileni, the State Department report alleges, a journalist received death threats because he had reported on the local mayor's penchant for poaching.

The ghosts of communism

Finally, dealing with the country's totalitarian past is yet another example of democratic disintegration. Former members of Securitate, the notorious former secret service that served as one of the key supporters of the Ceausescu regime, are back in important positions in politics, business and society. The socialists, themselves involved with the secret service, have been widely criticized for systematically obstructing efforts to take a fresh look at the repressive communist system. "When you deal with Romania, you can be sure that Securitate will always be at the table," says a high-ranking diplomat in Berlin.

In light of the many unsolved problems in the country, Romanians have extremely high expectations for membership in the EU, with just over 80 percent in favor of membership. "Many people hope that this will make it easier to control decrepit and corrupt structures -- from Brussels," says Anneli Gabanyi of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

Even the new president, Basescu, who likes to present himself as a clean figure in Brussels, is not immune to criticism. In the 1990s, he was allegedly involved in the dubious sale of the Romanian commercial shipping fleet, a venture that cost the Romanian treasury an estimated $300 million. Aside from Basescu, who claims he is innocent, 80 other suspects are being investigated. If indicted, they'll be charged with abuse of official power, forgery, money-laundering and embezzlement.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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