If the EU is consistent on corruption, it mustn’t stop at Hungary
Last month the European Parliament voted 10 to 1 to trigger Article 7 sanctions against Hungary, meaning that Viktor Orban’s troubled regime could soon lose its EU voting rights over accusations of meddling in the judiciary and eroding free speech. However, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic quickly rallied to Orban’s aid, claiming the European Parliament’s verdict infringed on Budapest’s sovereignty. Beneath the veneer of solidarity between former Soviet satellites, there’s a deeper, more genuine reason for this support: Prague and Sofia fear that they’ll be next to feel the EU’s heat.
Like Hungary, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have struggled to emerge from the shadow of communism and fill the political vacuum left behind. Both are blighted by endemic corruption and chronic political instability, the very abuses that have left Hungary on the brink of being blackballed by Brussels. If the EU wants to get tough with Orban, it should take the same line with his two staunch defenders.
Of all the events that led to the downfall of the Soviet regime, Prague’s Velvet Revolution was among the most uplifting. Clean and bloodless, the student-led uprising appeared to augur a more enlightened period in Czech history. Yet nearly 30 years on, the country remains mired in problems: two-fifths of citizens feel their quality of life has not improved since 1989. Prague has bungled its way through nine cabinets in 16 years, and the reformed Communist Party has re-emerged as a key power-broker.
One politician who has eagerly taken advantage of this power vacuum is Andrej Babis, a billionaire populist and former collaborator with the Soviet secret police whose business background and vow to “drain the swamp” have drawn obvious comparisons with Donald Trump. The strict policies Babis has imposed in tandem with hard-drinking president Milos Zeman often hew close to Orban’s: banning migrants and intimidating the press – Zeman even posed with a fake AK-47 inscribed ‘for the journalists’.
Furthermore, Babis has faced a constant bombardment of corruption claims. He was forced to resign in January after being accused of embezzling EU subsidies, centring on a €2 million payment to a leisure complex owned by his own conglomerate Agrofert. The EU’s anti-fraud unit, OLAF, found that numerous laws had been broken, including the bloc’s transparency rules.
Although Zeman eventually reinstated his ally, the allegations persist. Transparency International recently filed a complaint with the European Commission accusing Babis and Agrofert of violating conflict of interest rules. Rather than submit to independent investigation, Babis has appointed himself chair of the government’s anti-corruption council— echoing the judicial malpractice the EU has so eagerly condemned in Hungary.
Given this blatant disregard for the rule of law, it’s hardly surprising that Czechs now view athletes, bankers and even YouTubers as more trustworthy than politicians. Yet their country’s problems pale in comparison with Bulgaria’s: as much as 40% of funding for large infrastructure projects in Bulgaria are siphoned off for bribes, with a local watchdog describing graft as “the new normal.”
Eleven years after Bulgaria joined the EU, the cooperation and verification mechanism – purportedly a temporary measure to smooth Sofia’s transition –remains in place. PM Boyko Borissov’s government ranks dead last among EU members for press freedom and has been thoroughly blighted by political interference in the judiciary. In one particularly infamous case, Borissov marched into a meeting of the Supreme Judicial Council to quash discussion of leaked recordings implicating the highest echelons of the administration in a scheme to trade influence. The scandalous tapes discussed Borissov directly, implying that he was wielding undue influence over the theoretically independent Chief Prosecutor.
The incident was a sign that Borisov and his government have hardly changed since they were forced to resign in 2013 following massive street protests—including self-immolations—over rampant corruption and exploits like the cigarette smuggling ring the nominee to head the state electricity regulatory commission was running online.
This culture of graft and arbitrary discrimination pervades most Bulgarian industries. Over half of defence contracts breach public procurement regulations, and there are ample examples of Bulgarian ministers handing lucrative contracts to family and friends. It is particularly egregious, however, in the energy sector: Western firms have been fined with little to no justification and have been forced to file arbitration cases against the Bulgarian government, while Borissov’s administration frantically builds bridges with Russia. Officials in Sofia are bidding to take gas from TurkStream2, the second branch of a pipeline from Russia to Turkey, and want to restart construction on the Belene nuclear plant using Russian technology, six years after EU pressure nixed the project.
Critics of Sofia’s eastward drift, notably the German government, have expressed concern that Bulgaria will become a doormat for Putin to infiltrate the EU. Sofia and Prague, however, seem more than happy to rebuild old ties. Bulgaria is almost totally dependent on Moscow for its energy supply, and the rise of anti-EU parties intrinsically linked to the old Soviet order has made Borissov even more amenable to Putin’s persuasion. In Prague, meanwhile, Babis and Zeman have both defended Russia against EU sanctions. Zeman has even been dubbed “Putin’s man” and the most influential Kremlin ally in Europe.
Thankfully, Czech and Bulgarian citizens are pushing back. Thousands of Czechs have taken to the streets to decry Zeman’s attacks on the media, in scenes reminiscent of the dawn of the Velvet Revolution. Meanwhile in Bulgaria, a string of foreign companies— including, ironically, Czech energy firm CEZ—are pulling out of the country and seeking damages from the government after it blocked the sale of CEZ’s Bulgarian assets on dubious grounds.
It’s too early to tell if these flickerings of change will lead to lasting improvement. One thing is for certain, however: instead of merely bringing up Article 7 against its errant members one by one, the EU must map out a long-term strategy to erase the stain of corruption throughout the bloc.