How Corruption is Hindering Democratic Process In Bulgaria and Hungary

Corruption is a word synonymous with much of Eastern Europe. It was rampant in the communist era; political elites spent their time stifling innovation and promoting elitist policies to keep themselves in power at the expense of public welfare. With the fall of communism in the late 80s and early 90s, there was newfound hope that the resulting ‘revolution’ would bring in an era of freedom, prosperity, and security. Unfortunately for many countries in Eastern Europe, this hope would not be fulfilled. Few Eastern European governments have successfully transformed themselves into strong democratic states. Many, including Hungary and Bulgaria whom I will focus on, find themselves meddling somewhere between the cracks, failing as democratic states. Hungary and Bulgaria have struggled to improve the welfare of the mass public since their transition to democracy; they remain countries that are run by corrupt rulers who are intent on widening the schism between the prosperous elite and the rest of the country.

Prior to the fall of communism, Bulgaria’s government, led by head of state Todor Zhivkov, was widely known for its horrific treatment to the minority Turks in the country. However before Zhivkov’s attack against the Bulgarian Turks, he was somewhat popular among his people. Mortality rate, education, life expectancy, and other key statistics were all increased during Zhivkov’s regime. Zhivkov also gained strides in the Bulgarian intellectual community by promoting the writers’ union heavily, which granted members high stature and privileges. While it cannot be said that the quality of life for Bulgarians was the very best, Bulgarian’s had a stable ruler who provided decent care to the public (until the later part of his regime).

Unfortunately for Bulgarians, the aftermath of the communist collapse has turned Sofia into a political battleground as ex-communists, who remained in power after the first parliamentary vote in June 1990, battled against modern reformers to shape the country. It was obvious that things had not changed despite the government’s pronouncements of freedom and democracy. In fact, the Socialist party that won the first democratic election in 1990 was the previous ruling communist party who had just changed its party name.[1] Pursuing political reform has been nonexistent in Bulgaria since there has been no incentive to do so. The country received plenty of monetary aid from foreign investors and the European Union, but much of it went to the private bank accounts of the political elite rather spread out to the public. An example of this is the Special Accession Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development, or SAPARD, a national initiative where the EU provided monetary funds to Bulgaria’s agricultural sector. Although field equipment in Bulgaria was poor and hardly functional, vast amounts of money instead went to Bulgarian farmers and their families to buy SUVs and other luxuries. When asked how to recognize somebody who has gotten a SAPARD grant a local simply said, “Just look for the people driving the most expensive SUVs.”[2] [3] Another issue for the Bulgarian government is its blatantly corrupt judiciary. Judges were viewed as actors from the old communist regime and were accused of failing to prosecute cases of high corruption.[4] A political tactic called telephone justice, “party functionaries let judges know their desires for particular case outcomes, and the judges comply with their wishes,” was commonly used, further evidence of unequivocal corruption. Judicial officials even confirmed that acts of unfairness did occur but attempted to excuse them by saying that they view themselves as bureaucrats just as much as any other political officer.[5] This in itself is an issue that most would view as problematic, working completely against the popularly embraced concept of separation of powers. How can the Bulgarian public expect to live in security and freedom with such powers stacked against them? I think its more than obvious that things were not equal between the political elite and the public, and as we’ll see later, things could even be getting worse.

In the case of Hungary, corruption has been equally bad. A severe lack of effective political institutions and accountability has hampered Hungary severely, allowing the political elite to completely run over the public by cheating and scheming their way to the top. A new law was implemented in 2011 that allowed for unprecedented expedited law making.[6] This new law allowed proposed bills to be pushed through parliament without any debate and can be adopted as quickly as the following day. Such a severe lack of accountability is a detriment to the Hungarian political system, and the public is left with an unstable political environment and thus is placed firmly at the mercy of the political elite. Further proof can be seen when the political elite cheats their way to the top, “cheating taxes is also part of the culture. Nobody likes to pay, taxes and everybody tries to live by one’s wits. One of the biggest political scandals last year involved a member of the government who rented a restaurant for an afternoon event. His assistant allegedly paid the fee in an envelope, without including the Áfa (value-added tax), directly to the owner. When the scandal became public, everybody denied everything, and there were no repercussions.”[7] It is painfully obvious that a gulf remains between the rulers and the ruled in post-socialist Eastern Europe. In a poll conducted of businessmen in Hungary, nearly 20% thought that he or she had already lost business opportunities due to the corruption of his or her rivals.[8]

Such corruption and problems in democracy has been hard for the people of Hungary who took part in one of the most peaceful and stable transitions into democracy among many other Eastern European countries. The Hungarian activists had such a successful revolution that they were able to ceremonially ‘rebury’ former Prime Minister Imre Nagy, the man who led the 1956 Hungarian uprising.[9] Since then however, corruption has catapulted. Transparency International, a global civil society organization against corruption, uses statistics to give numerical scores to countries based on their corruption level. Their statistics say that nearly 80% of the public in Hungary believes that corruption has increased from 2007 – 2010. 6 That is a terrifying number for the public to hear and proves just how poorly the public feels about their situation. Furthermore, over 50% of the Hungary public feels that government efforts to curb corruption are ineffective. Bulgaria is not immune to these disastrous statistics either. A 2007 poll by the Eurobarometer revealed a public who was still wary of their government; the people’s trust in political parties was 7%, 11% in national parliament, and 16% in the government. Furthermore, 38% of Bulgarians were satisfied with the life they live, 17% happy with the economic environment, and more than 45% said that the country isn’t going in the right direction.[10] In a public survey, Bulgarian university students provided numerous examples of professorial abuse that they had witnessed. In one such example a student was “able to procure a place in a prestigious university for $7000.”[11] Similarly, the public’s level of trust in the government was very low.

The statistics paint an ugly picture about the situations in Bulgaria and Hungary, but not all is bad. In 2012 Hungary published it’s anti corruption program aiming to target corruption by creating new lobbying laws.[12] The new program also provides protection for whistleblowers, a very important thing for anyone in the public who doesn’t have connections to the political elite that can bail them out of trouble when needed. The State Audit Office of Hungary has also made progression towards curbing corruption by enacting a national strategy to control corruption. [13] Bulgaria has also made some strides, albeit slowly and arguably unproductively, towards success. The Copenhagen European Council’s conclusion in its 2004 report on Bulgaria’s progress towards accession: “Since the Opinion, Bulgaria has made steady progress and has achieved a high degree of legislative alignment. The administrative and operational capacity of the National Customs Agency improve considerably, although at a slower pace, especially as regards implementation and enforcement.”[14] This statement alongside with their previous statement in 2002 that described Bulgaria as having a “functioning market economy” eventually led to Bulgaria’s successful entrance into the European Union in 2007. These positives can promote the idea that the divide between the political elite and the public is not so bad, and even that corruption in general is not the issue that it’s been made out to be. This theory can be supported by multiple statistics and polls done in the early 2000s. However, they do not, and cannot, account for the negative progress made since Bulgaria and Hungary have ascended to European Union status, the double dip syndrome.

The largest problem for Bulgaria, Hungary, and other Eastern European countries, is preventing the double dip effect. After struggling with democracy initially, many countries have bounced back. This can often be attributed to these countries attempting to fit the European Union’s strict accession requirements. However, once entrance to the EU has been accomplished, Hungary in 2004 and Bulgaria in 2007, countries can fall back into their previous habits of corruption and political destabilization. Venelin Ganev discusses this syndrome in his paper Post-Accession Hooliganism: Democratic Governance in Bulgaria and Romania after 2007.[15] He notes that Bulgaria has reached a turning point after their accession to the EU and is currently falling back into their political trappings of the early democratic period. Bulgaria has had predictable electoral rules since 1991, a healthy sign of democracy and stable government, until the rules were changed suddenly in 2009. This has allowed the political elite to take advantage of the political system and has put the public at a disadvantage and at their mercy. Furthermore, there has been an abandonment of informal rules used throughout the government. While this may not seem so detrimental, the breaking up of political stability creates massive waves of issues that reverberate throughout the entire country, all because of selfish, corrupt political leaders.

In conclusion, both Bulgaria and Hungary have serious work to do before they can say that they have eliminated the culture of political elites cashing in at the expense of the public. Multiple examples have proven that corruption still presents a serious problem for both countries, especially in Bulgaria, and a change in political culture is needed to solve the problem. Furthermore, a double dip effect has already happened following these countries admission to the EU, and it is of the highest importance that these countries stabilize again and begin to make progress forward.


[1] Nichols, Philip, George Siedel, and Matthew Kasdin. “Corruption as a Pan-Cultural Phenomenon: An Empirical Study in Countries at Opposite Ends of the Former Soviet Empire.” Texas International Law Journal 39.215 (2004): 215-256. Print.

[2] Freeman, Colin. “Inside Europe’s corruption capital: how Bulgaria’s crime mafia plunders EU grant money – Telegraph.” Telegraph.co.uk – Telegraph online, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph – Telegraph. N.p., 15 Nov. 2008. Web. 8 Nov. 2012.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/bulgaria/3463957/Inside-Europes-corruption-capital-how-Bulgarias-crime-mafia-plunders-EU-grant-money.html

[4] Fish, M. S. and R. S. Brooks. Bulgarian democracy’s organizational weapon. East European Constitutional Review 9: 69–77.

[5] Melone, Albert. “The Struggle for Judicial Independence and the Transition Toward Democracy in Bulgaria.” Communist and Post-communist Studies 29.2 (1996): 231-243. Print.

[6] Transparency International. (2010). Transparency International, Transparency International Country Overview Hungary. Retrieved at November 1st, 2013

[7] Vajda, Éva. “Hungary.” Global Integrity Report . N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

[7]<http://report.globalintegrity.org/reportPDFS/2008/Hungary.pdf>.

[8] “Corruption Still a Fact of Business Life.” Budapest Sun 25 Sept. 2008: 1. Print.

[9] “1989: Hungary reburies fallen hero Imre Nagy.” BBC News. BBC, 16 June 1989. Web. 14 Nov. 2013. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/june/16/newsid_4522000/4522407.stm&gt;.

[11] Nichols, Philip, George Siedel, and Matthew Kasdin. “Corruption as a Pan-Cultural Phenomenon: An Empirical Study in Countries at Opposite Ends of the Former Soviet Empire.” Texas International Law Journal 39.215 (2004): 215-256. Print.

[12] “Official Journal of Hungary.” Hungarian Gazatte 6 Apr. 2012: 1 – 80. Print.

[13] “In the international arena, the SAO activity against Corruption .” Integritas.asz.hu.

http://integritas.asz.hu/index.php?page=hirek&id=132 (accessed November 14, 2013).

[14] Copenhagen European Council Report on Bulgaria’s Accession Progress (http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/archives/pdf/key_documents/2004/rr_bg_2004_en.pdf)

[15] Ganev, Venelin. “Post-Accession Hooliganism: Democratic Governance in Bulgaria and Romania after 2007.” East European Politics and Societies and Cultures 27, no. 1 (2012): 26-44.

 

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