Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Good Governance and Bulgaria

Stefan Ralchev, Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS), Sofia, Bulgaria is introduced by Prof Octavian Ticu in Chisinau; you can read his presentation here

  

Good Governance Conference Series, Black Sea Region www.go-governance.com

May 22-25, 2014

Good Governance and Bulgaria 

Stefan Ralchev

Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS),

Sofia, Bulgaria

 Introduction

For some in my country putting ‘Bulgaria’ and ‘good governance’ in one sentence would look like an oxymoron, if not an outright blasphemy. Indeed, Bulgaria, together with Romania, has been notorious for its poor performance as an EU member state. It wasn’t ready to join in 2007 (it was a political compromise); reforms have been slow (no Schengen or Eurozone yet); corruption is high; dependencies and illegitimate links among politics, businesses and criminal networks are still present and sapping public institutions. Yet my goal here is to share with you some positive examples of practices related to good governance in Bulgaria based on concrete achievements of the administration and the active citizenry, which countries in the Black Sea region can benefit from. They are not an overwhelming number but, believe me, they have had a tangible and healthy effect on the democratic discourse in the country, helping keep public trust at least at some decent levels amidst the numerous crises and hardships which every Eastern European country has faced in its transition. Most of these good examples are directly associated with the European Union integration process, and thus its hugely beneficial effect on Bulgaria’s development.

 

Financial discipline

 One more general and the most commonly mentioned merit in Bulgarian transition has been the achievement of financial stability post-1996/97 financial and economic crisis and the consistent policies of all ensuing governments to adhere to the established principles of strict financial discipline and prudence. Some of you, especially the economically more left-leaning, would probably frown at the notion of how financial discipline can be uncritically viewed as a good practice. But I will try to look at it from the good governance perspective. So, in late 1996 and early 1997 Bulgaria experienced one of the worst economic crises in its modern history, with the national currency (the lev) depreciating almost 600% for the entire year and inflation hitting a monthly record high of 243% in February 1997. A third of the banking sector went bankrupt, and people lost most of their savings. However, after mass protests early elections were held and national consensus re-established, and in July 1997 Bulgaria introduced a currency board. The situation improved immediately, with inflation reined in and growth and positive sentiment in the economy returning. Since then, the currency board has been the most sacrosanct component of the Bulgarian transition, with even jokes about removing it sounding sacrilegious. Financial prudence expressed in budget surpluses, low foreign debt and tight banking rules has been the tune of day under all changing governments since 1997, and there have been six of them. This helped weather the Great Recession of 2009, and Bulgaria did amongst the best in the EU financially (keeping deficits low and debt even lower, despite a clear drop in GDP in the beginning of the crisis). This made a contrast with our southern neighbour Greece, which wasn’t as happy countering the debt crisis exactly because of imprudent borrowing.  What does it mean for good governance? Clearly, the policy of the currency board and financial discipline has proved a good practice in the case of Bulgaria, and as such it was followed by all governments, regardless of their political colouring: centre-right, centre-left or even populist. What is more important, it was successful because it had the genuine support of the citizenry: most people lost their savings back in 1997 and were willing to accept tighter rules in order to avoid a new disaster. That’s why the banking sector in Bulgaria today is one of the most stable and reliable, exemplified by the huge and steady rise in deposits (record of some €21bn in Q3’14).

 

Visa liberalisation

Bulgaria had its own EU visa liberalisation fight prior to membership back in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the issue is topical now in Moldova – I congratulate my Moldovan friends for their successful conclusion of the process last month. This is a case of good governance in Moldova and in Bulgaria, because it’s to the direct benefit of the citizens. This experience can also be very useful for our friends from the other Eastern Partnership countries which are now in the process of negotiation, especially for Ukraine and Georgia. I’d like to share some insights from the Bulgarian process and how a good governance practice looks from the inside. I asked a colleague of mine in Sofia, who participated in the process, to pinpoint for me the most important elements of Bulgaria’s strategy so that I can present it here to you. They are:

 

  • Emphasis  on visa liberalisation as an institutional-technical process as well as a  political process (not just lobbying but also institutional, legal reform; change of ID documents, etc.);
  • Concentration of the strategy on the Cabinet and Interior Ministry level (clear input  from PM, coordination by IM);
  • ‘Infiltration’  of EU partners in the process (inclusion of EU consultants in the  Ministries and Agencies);
  • Uniform  engagement by MemberStates / compartmentalisation of work (e.g.   border police work with Germany,  IT work with Spain,   etc, creating a broad basis for the effort);
  • New generation of bilateral cooperation agreements (more agreements on the lower, agency level, more exchange of personnel, etc.);
  • Political   leadership (an indispensable element is the permanent, insistent pressure,  coordination and involvement of high-level officials such as the PM,  etc.);
  • Generation of information (We are not just a victim of others’ information – we generate our own information; e.g. publish surveys on emigration sentiments according to our own methodology).

The Schengen visa requirements for Bulgarian passport holders were officially abolished in April 2001, one month before I graduated from University, so I could hit the road for Thessaloniki without any worries immediately after the state exam.

 Current institutional arrangement

National Audit Office and the Ombudsman

What are some positive examples of good governance in the current institutional arrangement? If you look at the previous two examples I gave, you will see that the first one (financial discipline) can be only remotely associated with the EU and its favourable impact on Bulgaria (the IMF played the decisive role in the 1996/97 crisis, while the EU was a general ‘civilisational’ model to follow anyway), while the second one (visa liberalisation) has everything to do with the EU, but is a bit out of the way, or an external issue. Well, the good practices we are going to look at now are internal and almost entirely the result of reforms required by the EU in Bulgaria accession negotiation process. I want to give you the examples of two institutions which are a comparative success story for Bulgaria, with all its caveats of course.  A comprehensive study by Transparency International, the corruption watchdog, named the National Integrity System, was also held in Bulgaria in 2011/12. It provides a framework to analyse the robustness and effectiveness of a country’s institutions in preventing and fighting corruption with a holistic approach, portraying the state of affairs in 13 main so-called pillars of the state: legislative, executive, judiciary, public sector, law enforcement, electoral management body, ombudsman, audit institution, anti-corruption agencies, political parties, media, civil society and business. A well-functioning national integrity system provides effective safeguards against corruption as part of the larger struggle against abuse of power, malfeasance, and misappropriation in the 13 pillars – all elements of good governance. The NIS report on Bulgaria showed that all pillars of the integrity temple in Bulgaria are standing, although their overall strength is around the middle of the scoring table (50). Scores around 50 reflect well the general perception of citizens and analysts of the state of anti-corruption activities and integrity mechanisms in Bulgaria: a lot has been done, but still there are important deficiencies and lasting problems. However, my point here is to show you which were the top-ranking pillars – sectors or institutions – as examples of good governance, and these were the National Audit Office with a 61.11 score and the Ombudsman with a 58.33 score. Indeed, the professionalism and the trust in the NAO has been noticeable in the media as well, and the current Ombudsman, former Chairman of the Supreme   Administrative Court, Konstantin Penchev, is one of the most popular public figures. The NAO does not hesitate to publish irregularities about the finances of many politicians and political parties, and the Ombudsman has been receiving an increasing number of signals form citizens and has the authority to even invoke the Constitutional Court in some instances. Just for your information, the lowest-ranking pillars were ‘Business’, ‘Anti-corruption Agencies’ and ‘Electoral management body.’

e-Census 2011

My personal favourite for an example of good governance is the successful partially electronic census that was carried out in Bulgaria in 2011. In line with EU recommendations for e-governance, a new system was introduced that made gathering data on the population faster, cheaper, safer and more precise. As a result, 3.1 million people, or 41.2% of the population, was counted online. This is hugely impressive, given this type of solution on this scale is something new for the country. An extensive information campaign was essential for this effort. Filling the forms was made easy – users only had to register with an email and personal ID number, enter all relevant information and then receive a unique code identifying the data submission. Then, the census workers only needed to collect the codes. This allowed for fewer errors in the data, less time spent for questioning, greater security as people didn't need to let anyone in their property, and finally an estimated €2m of saved costs. Lots of lessons can be learnt from this experience. Firstly, the age distribution of e-Census was interesting – a third were aged 30-39 and another third 40-49. This indicates the openness of older generations (the so called “digital immigrants”) in Bulgaria for such Internet services. Secondly, governments should listen to and engage with their citizens online. Like any other system, this one wasn’t without it flaws. The Bulgarian blogger community responded quickly with reports and advice on how to avoid the issues. The main takeaway here is that this experience showed both the public and the government are ready for digital solutions to Bulgaria’s pressing problems.

Three small but nice achievements

And finally, let me show three, little examples of good practices but in the end we know that it’s the little things that make the big change. One is a tiny amendment in the Law on Normative Acts in Bulgaria which came into force in January 2008. Article 26 of the law says that “Before submitting a draft law for the issuance or endorsement by the competent authority, the initiator of the draft shall publish it on the website of the relevant institutions together with the reasons, so that the interested parties shall have at least 14 days for proposals and statements on the project.” This regulation has made possible many public debates on specific pieces of legislation and has facilitated civil society in participating in the public process. The second thing is the opening of the online Portal for Public Consultations at the domain address www.strategy.bg. This is an effort supported by the EU’s structural funds providing a forum for publication of every single government or municipal project with the aim of provoking public discussion and debate about its qualities, at the same time guaranteeing transparency and accountability after endorsement. And the third tiny little positive practice is Bulgaria’s membership of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) since 2012. This is a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. The Open Government Partnership formally launched on September 20, 2011, when the 8 founding governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States) endorsed the Open Government Declaration, and announced their country action plans. In just two years, OGP has welcomed the commitment of 56 additional governments to join the Partnership. In total, OGP participating countries have made over 1,000 commitments to make their governments more open and accountable. Moldova is also a member of this initiative. You can check the reports and action plans published by every member country at the website, www.opengovpartnership.org.  The good thing is that evaluation is constantly carried out online about individual progress and future tasks.