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INTERVIEW - Bulgaria must urgently tackle corruption to enter fast track of economic development

INTERVIEW - Bulgaria must urgently tackle corruption to enter fast track of economic development Hristo Ivanov

SOFIA (Bulgaria), January 3 (SeeNews) - Bulgaria will either start to reform its judiciary and deal with corruption in the forthcoming political period to achieve the political and institutional capacity to resolve problems hindering economic development, or things will worsen sharply under the guise of maintaining the status quo, Hristo Ivanov, leader of newly founded political formation Yes, Bulgaria, told SeeNews.

“I do not see a middle way towards stability in the long term, and we should not harbour any illusions about that,” Ivanov told SeeNews in a recent interview.

“Critical masses of Bulgarian society acknowledge the need for a serious battle with corruption. We are only trying to offer a political tool to achieve this.”

Yes, Bulgaria plans to run in the next elections and the procedure of its registration as a political party will start in January, Ivanov, a former justice minister, said at a presentation of its founders in late December in Sofia.

Over 2,000 people have already declared their support on the party’s website, he added.

Bulgaria has been in a political deadlock since November when the coalition cabinet led by centre-right GERB party resigned following the defeat of GERB’s candidate in the presidential elections.

“The past few years saw a surge in civil energy and intolerance to the way Bulgaria is being run, which ultimately rests on corruption logic. The establishment refuses to acknowledge this fact and respond,” Ivanov said. “Huge corruption scandals break out, very serious corruption suspicions exist about certain people, and yet nothing is being done about it. There is a political consensus inside the system that these people should not be bothered and these issues should be ignored.”

These two factors – a growing pressure from below that something be done in regards to the corrupt model of governance, and a permanent resolve from above to ensure the stability of this model – prompted the emergence of Yes, Bulgaria on the political scene, Ivanov added.

In Ivanov’s words, Yes, Bulgaria emerged as the political quintessence of this civil energy, not as someone’s personal project or a lab formula, after all other means of civil pressure were exhausted.

“A wide group of people believe that Bulgaria should, and can, develop faster and better, that it can have stronger institutions, that it has the potential for stronger economic growth, that it has the potential to offer its citizens what the Bulgarian political system has always denied them - a future.”

Bulgaria has been repeatedly criticized by the European Union, international financial institutions and non-governmental organisations for its failure to address widespread corruption. Last month only the International Monetary Fund said persistent concerns regarding the rule of law and corruption add to challenges and undermine the business environment in the country.

Yes, Bulgaria has declared its strategic goals are to fight corruption and reform the judiciary, ultimately adding 2% to the current economic growth rate.

Asked how Yes, Bulgaria intends to achieve these goals, considering that it does not have the huge resources that other parties have, Ivanov said his party’s big ambition is to change the Bulgarian political landscape by putting all political players in a situation where they can no longer ignore the need for reforms and allocate public funding to entities and people who syphon money rather than invest it in the economy.

“The problem is that there is no debate, no intellectual competition on the Bulgarian political scene, and everything comes down to a backstage arrangement. We will change that.”

“Economic growth is not generated by party resources, contrary to what many other parties think,” Ivanov went on to say.

To unlock the country’s economic growth potential, state intervention should be drastically reduced in areas where individual economic entrepreneurship should take over, whereas strong state institutions and a competent and efficient administration should produce services which really serve businesses, he opined.

According to Ivanov, education is of primary importance as it should create the competent and skilled human capital needed to support economic growth.

“What we should start with as a precondition for the reform of any sector is eradicating corruption in decision making and policy making. The key to this, of course, is the judiciary, which is society’s immune system.”

The equation of a corrupt person’s motivation currently includes an expectation for almost complete impunity in case the person plays by the rules of corruption game. A change in this equation, where players will be forced to calculate in a much bigger risk of inevitable punishment if caught, will be a huge change in the environment, Ivanov commented.

He stressed that to achieve this goal the prosecuting magistracy and the interior ministry should be reformed top-down to ensure transparency, accountability and ultimately, a direct correlation between a person’s performance and his career development. “And what is most important, the prosecutor general should be made to understand that it is not God above him, it is the public, and he should in all earnestness and humbleness report everything he does or fails to do before the public which pays him his wage.”

Last month, the European Commission’s Structural Reform Support Service (SRSS) said in a report that taking measures for strengthening the accountability and transparency of the prosecutor’s office should be a top priority for Bulgaria.

Bulgaria should adopt a package of measures aimed at enhancing the effective performance of the prosecutor’s office, introducing safeguards to prevent inappropriate or arbitrary action and ensuring proper accountability, the SRRS said. The authors of the report highlighted the need for a detailed review of the involvement of the prosecutor’s office in non-criminal matters, as the compatibility of such cases with its main function as a public prosecutor is doubtful. According to the authors, active consideration should be given to the transfer of much, if not all, of this work to other public bodies, especially where its present remit in supervision involves decision-making on issues involving economic and commercial interests.

Parallel to this, all regulatory bodies should be reformed to start performing their duties in practice, Ivanov pointed out, adding that this should be paralleled by an overall administrative reform.

Asked about the potential partners the new party will seek, Ivanov said its ambition is to grow into a political factor of its own but it is open to teaming up on specific issues with anyone free of dependencies who is ready to join the fight against corruption.

“Our clear focus makes this discussion much simpler. We will not look for partners based on the European political family to which they belong or other doctrinal abstractions void of meaning. Our potential partners have one very simple distinctive feature – they have the courage to face the problem we have singled out and they are free of dependencies. […] Everyone who is ready to come to our trenches and wage this war is our partner, but parties which for years have chosen not to address corruption cannot be Yes, Bulgaria's partners without serious and convincing reconsideration of their course," Ivanov added.

Responding to a question where in business circles the new party will seek support, Ivanov stressed that Yes Bulgaria would have as its key priority the creation of entrepreneur-friendly environment in the country and that there has been a positive feed-back to the launch of the party by the business community. However, he also added that there is a certain line in the relationship between politics and business which should not be crossed. To that end, once it is able to propose new legislation, Yes, Bulgaria will submit to parliament a draft bill on lobbyism ensuring a clear framework for the communications between business interests and political players.

“I would like to highlight our efforts to introduce a very transparent model of fundraising and accounting for our expenses even before we have registered as a party. This shows that we are not dependent for resources on any single vested interest except a wide group of citizens for whom it makes sense what we are doing.”

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