Bulgaria’s MPs passed at first reading a draft bill meant to create a new government body to fight corruption and conflict of interest, amid harsh criticism from opposition parties and despite criticism from one of Bulgaria’s high courts. The bill passed with 130 votes in favour, 28 opposed and 13 abstentions.
The bill – one of the signature initiatives of Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Kouneva – is an amended version of the draft law that was rejected by Parliament last year, but even the new bill failed to receive the backing of the legal affairs committee of Parliament when it was up for discussion in May.
More than eight years after joining the European Union, Bulgaria remains under monitoring by the European Commission through the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism and has been repeatedly told that it must do better in fighting corruption and reforming its judiciary.
Often referred in the media as “Kouneva’s law”, the bill is part of the government’s latest judiciary reform strategy and envisions the merger of the cabinet’s anti-corruption office Borkor and the conflict of interest commission, as well as parts of the National Audit Office that investigate elected officials’ asset declarations and the asset forfeiture commission, creating one single body to fight corruption and conflict of interest.
Some of the provisions of the bill, however, have come under sharp criticism, most notably the fact that it allows anonymous tip-offs about government and civil service officials. Opposition socialists even went as far as to describe as “a return to the times of Vyshinsky” – a reference to the Soviet prosecutor-general who presided over the Stalin-era purges (ironic, given that the socialists, who are the linear successor of the Bulgarian communist party, are often very defensive whenever the topic of communist-era crimes is raised.)
Bulgaria’s Supreme Court of Cassation has said that the extensive authority vested in the new anti-corruption body, when coupled with the legal option to report corruption anonymously could “lead to serious shifts in the balance of institutions and protecting people’s rights”. The high court also said that too many terms used in the bill were not properly defined, giving the example of “unexplained wealth” – in the absence of a clear definition in the law, this could “open the door for arbitrariness, unauthorised pressure, political attacks and populism”.
Meanwhile, the Access to Information Programme, a non-governmental organisation, warned that the flaws in the bill could have a negative impact on the fight against corruption – if only by restricting the number of public officials who are required to submit annual property declarations to fewer than 7000, compared to more than 100 000 civil servants who are required to do so under the current regulations.
Answering the criticism, Kouneva told MPs that the bill’s shortcomings could be fixed with amendments between the two readings in Parliament, as long as “the philosophy of the bill” remained unchanged.