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This week Bulgaria has a new government. This is the first step towards stabilizing our country; unfortunately the good news is limited. We are flooded by critical issues in every sphere of socio-economic life, many of which are systematic and require reforms backed by a long-term vision and require a broad national consensus. This will only be possible with a positive and constructive approach with the active participation of the civil sector. MOVE.BG, as part of the civil society in Bulgaria, has already been actively working for a year on the consolidation and agreement on effective solutions for the sustainable development of our country, and we will continue to contribute to overcome the strategic deficits of Bulgarian society and to contribute to monitoring public authorities and their promises.
What does Bulgaria look like today? Some of the critical challenges that require urgent, yet systematic intervention:
Economics and Finance
The prosperity of our country is now seriously compromised by the struggling development of our economy. Bulgaria is in the lead in negative statistics in Europe. Our economy is the poorest in the EU. Our GDP per capita, expressed in purchasing power represents 47% of the Union’s average. 49% of the Bulgarian population, 52% of children and 61% of retirees are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, as these levels are double the EU average. Public finances are in serious condition, and are under sharp criticism from international institutions and agencies such as the IMF, ERBD, Fitch, and S&P. In only 2 years the budget deficit has grown eight times, and in 2015 the deficit will become excessive, almost twice the allowable according to the Public Finance Act, and exceeding the maximum 3% of GDP, violating the European Pact for Stability and Growth which threatens to penalize us for the excessive deficit. This is particularly worrying given the increased levels of debt which increased by 4 billion levs during the reign of the ‘Oresharsky’ cabinet, spent largely unjustifiably, untransparently, and relying heavily on behind the scenes dealings.
Today’s unreformed and under-stimulated Bulgarian economy is threatened even further by colossal hidden deficits in many areas: public health, the energy sector, in pensions, railways, also in the cost to resolve the crisis with Corporate Commercial Bank, vague obligations in contracts signed for South Stream, suspended EU funds, and in the potential negative outcome from the Belene NPP arbitration.
In this extremely difficult economic situation the new government should first of all, and in the most transparent manner, work towards normalizing macroeconomic stability. The most important task, however, for the economic programme that could be made by the new government, would be to define strategic priorities for economic development. The lack of priorities at the moment is intentional, so politicians can avoid their responsibilities, not to cause frustration by sidelining priority areas. It is imperative to achieve consensus around a long-term vision in the direction of the Bulgarian economy, built on its strengths, in line with global trends and address current challenges. Today, given the difficulties of attracting foreign investment and the dire state of public finances, a realistic engine for economic growth, to increase living standards in our country needs to be based on competitiveness, based on concise strategies to achieve fair competition, and to synergize coordination in support of companies with export potential. This vision is the basis of the MOVE.BG Economic Programme, which will be focused on the need to improve the competitiveness of the Bulgarian economy.
Defence and National Security
Bulgaria is in a dangerous proximity to the intensifying war conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq. The instability of the southeast and the northeast is an immediate threat to Bulgaria’s national security. The Russian invasion in Ukraine is an aggression against Europe’s peace, energy security and economic prosperity. This should serve as a beacon for Bulgarian geostrategy and geopolitics. Therefore, the time has come to ensure the diversification of our energy supplies and to secure equal treatment of the relations with external partners from the standpoint of our national interest. The challenges faced by our defense system do not stop there and we must further our efforts towards an adequate inclusion in NATO’s policies and actions.
The new Bulgarian government struggles with the reaffirmation to both the Bulgarian citizens and our European partners that the European perspective is the only perspective for Bulgaria. It became clear that the forthcoming report from the Commission on the progress in Bulgaria under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), which will be released in January 2015, will again be critical, especially due to the symptomatic lack of judicial reform. Repeatedly blocked funds under the operational programmes (for instance, the payment for Axis 3 of OP "Regional Development" has been postponed to 2015) are a serious indication of the non-transparent and inefficient way of absorption and distribution and also constitute one of the reasons for the increase in the deficit for 2014. Moreover, the lack of clear vision and strategy for the next seven years has reflected in the delayed start of the new programming period 2014-2020. Our European partners’ undermined confidence in the country is a result of the persistently divergent foreign policy positions of Bulgaria on the crisis in Ukraine and the "South Stream". The responsibility and commitment of the new government to establish Bulgaria as a serious and loyal partner in the European project is huge. Therefore, if we really aim for Bulgaria to restore the confidence, we need to play an active role in the decision-making process at European level. The promises and declarations of the government must be accompanied by adequate actions that lead to effective judicial reform, restoring the rule of law and transparent absorption of EU funds. This is also the focus of our European programme, as the growth and prosperity of Bulgaria can only be achieved through the perspective of our European development.
Justice and Home Affairs
Judicial reform is vital for Bulgaria and its prosperity not only because of the pressure from the EU monitoring, but mostly because of the desperate sense of injustice and inequality, which is widespread in the Bulgarian society. From 2006 onwards there are virtually no decisive measures taken to improve the administration of justice in our country. Some unacceptable appointments in the security sector led by the one of Delian Peevski, series of outrageous decisions of courts and prosecution offices, the very recent disappearance of the “Zlatanov notepad" or the challenge of the judge in the case of CCB deepen the distrust in the justice system in Bulgaria. The Supreme Judicial Council continues to be a symbol of clientelism and political lobbies and the behavior of some senior figures in the system raises doubts in the ability of the state to ensure fair and effective Law Enforcement. The clearly expressed will of the Justice Minister and until recently a trustee of MOVE.BG - Hristo Ivanov, to reform the Judicial system and the already presented strategies, give hope that we might be able to move forward on this issue.
Social and demographic politcs
National Statistics Institute data revealed that 44% of Bulgaria’s population live in deprivation, whereas those living in poverty are around 1.6 million. According to CIA’s open-source library, Bulgaria holds 39th place worldwide in inequality of family income distribution, thus outstipping countries as Cameroon, Uganda and Nigeria. Along the social inequality, World Bank statistics stated that Bulgaria is facing great demographic problems, as the country has been recording continuous negative population growth. More than 2 million Bulgarians live abroad, and Eurostat estimates that in 50 years the population will shrink down to 5.5 million people! On the other hand, the region’s instability and the wars in Syria and Ukraine, as well as Bulgaria’s joining of the “Club of the rich”, foreshadows a strong immigrant wave and new challenges for our integration model.
The pension system is under pressure as well. Currently, the budget subsidizes nearly half of all pension payments (around 8 billion leva), and it is expected that the burden will increasingly be overtaken by the state at the expense of the ever diminishing size of the working population. It is urgent to take actions against social discrepancy and exclusion, as well as the brain drain of the country.
Bulgaria was positioned on 100th place by “Reporters Without Borders” in its 2014 World Press Freedom Index. The report paid special attention to Bulgaria’s lowest ranking status among EU member states. Violence against journalists, lack of ownership transparency and media ownership concentration were identified as main problems for the freedom of Bulgarian media. The current political majority declared media independence and pluralism as key priority, as lobbied by civil society in Bulgaria and Europe, yet we still await a media law draft and other relevant measures to believe in the government’s intentions.
The last elections were marked by a new record low turnout in Bulgaria’s recent history - 49%. The reasons for this anomaly may be traced in the delegitimation of public institutions and political power, and in the very specifics of the existing voting system. Citizens and experts have been condemning continuously and rightfully the system for being undemocratic and the electoral voting lists for being filled with “dead souls”, and have called for obligatory voting, more direct democracy and a number of other serious reforms.
Marked by the past years of transition, the lack of trust in public institutions peaked in 2014. Upon resignation, the former National Assembly scored the staggering 80% distrust. The Bulgarians have little faith in the state’s brighter future as only 15% of them believe that the country is heading in the right direction.
The “Education and science” sector in Bulgaria is in need of an urgent and complete reform on all levels of the educational system and should involve all stakeholders – students, teachers, principals, parents, experts, institutions, universities, NGOs and the private sector. Unfortunately, statistics show that 42% of the students are functionally illiterate and 41% of them are incapable of coping with simple daily tasks. Despite the new government’s placing of a budget boost in the education and science sector as top priority, it seems like education is regarded rather as an expense than as an investment. The perpetual idle promises and cosmetic system reforms will continue producing illiterate students, poorly motivated, aging and low-paid teachers, principals with no real power and autonomy of and many other, to put it mildly, unneeded “products”. While subjects such as programming, entrepreneurship and development of the so called “soft skills” are still absent from the educational programme, the educational minister's, prof. Tanev, latest proposal on two separate textbooks for each discipline sounds naive. Schools need to start recognizing and investing in the individual talents of children; principals and teachers need empowerment to design the educational process; parents need to be actively involved in their children's school lives; NGOs need to be granted an easier access to the educational process; the Ministry of Education needs to modernize existing educational programmes; the government needs to take full responsibility to conduct a holistic reform in the sector. All these and a number of other "needs" have to be addressed urgently or else the illiteracy and emigration rates will continue rising. One of MOVE.BG's themes of activity is “Education, science, innovations”. Simply because we want good education for our children.
Healthcare is one of the areas in most need of restructuring and reform in. We have excessive concentration of finances in hospitals with little attention being paid to the methods and tools for preventative care. We wait to be ill, and then take action. Public health expenditure as a GDP fraction is around 4%, whereas the EU average is 7.3%, and the state stubbornly transfers the obligations of the budget to the National Health Insurance Fund.
Over the past five years up to 2013, Bulgarians’ private health expenditure rose with 68% on average, whereas public spending increased by only 19%. Meanwhile, the cost of hospital care increased by 65.7% or more than 660 million leva, with no noticeable improvement in the population’s overall health. Unsurprisingly, over the past six years over 3000 doctors and medical professionals emigrated.
Today, the financial collapse in the cultural sector is evident as proven by the continuous budget cuts in the area (2009 - 121.9 million leva, 2010 - 92.3 million, 2011 - 104.6 million, 2012 - 117.9 million, 2013 – 103.7 million). The past quarter of a century has been marked by the lack of a national cultural strategy (paradoxically, Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna have such). The importance of contemporary cultural policy and strategic cultural management have been clearly overlooked. The new government's intention to identify the key priorities in the cultural sector, its decision to recognize culture as a national priority and the adoption of a National Strategy for the development of art, culture and creative industries, cultural heritage and cultural tourism 2014-2023, are a promising starting point. Simultaneously, the new-old minister of culture Vejdi Rashidov declared upon his inauguration that he will press on a larger budget, equal to at least 1% of the country's GDP. These intentions, however, need to be backed up not only by larger funds, but also by a strong public consensus, encouragement in cultural participation and holistic approach towards existing problems.
These objectives will not be met by media visibility and vain cultural PR. We should keep in mind that our country is third in number and diversity of cultural and historic landmarks worldwide. It has preserved the significant cultural achievements of seven civilizations which have inhabited our land in the past 4000 years. It is our duty to share this heritage with the rest of the world and to build upon it. Culture is the social link that establishes ethical paradigms and dignity and originates international reputation and acclaim.
The overall picture of the socio-economic environment in Bulgaria is marked by critical problems and challenges. The political configuration is not monolithic, potential conflicts are inherent and in it bodes instability and other problems in society. It is now, however, at the point at which we can show a strong spirit to overcome adversity and set aside our petty disagreements and dogmas, ignore the divisions and unite as a nation around our shared values, ready for constructive collective action.