Bulgaria's New Government: National Priorities and the Trans-Atlantic Agenda
THE NEW BULGARIAN GOVERNMENT – NATIONAL PRIORITIES AND EURO-ATLANTIC PARTNERSHIP
Address by H.E. Georgi Pirinski, Chairman of the National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria
at the Woodrow Wilson Center,
September 6th, 2005, Washington
Today, September 6th, Bulgaria celebrates the Day of Unification. This time it is a jubilee – it is 120 years since the day in 1885 when the reuniting if the Principality of Bulgaria and the so called Eastern Rumelia was achieved. Those were two of the three parts of Bulgaria into which the country was dismembered as a result of the well-known Berlin Congress of 1878.
The cause of national reunification triumphed at the time thanks to the joint efforts of both the leading political personalities of the day together with the broadest spectrum of society in both parts of the country. The success of this cause therefore lives on in the minds of contemporary Bulgarians as a vivid example of success in realizing their paramount national priority through agreement over the objectives and the action needed to achieve them.
The words "Unity Begets Power" stand inscribed over the main entrance of Parliament building in Sofia today. Although in practice over its 126-year history rarely has broadest unity prevailed within it, the words ring as a constant reminder in the minds of both citizens and representatives.
The new National Assembly elected on June 25th this year proved much more diverse than the previous five ones over the past 15 years. Seven parliamentary groups were formed from the outset without a single one having a clear majority.
Elections were followed by a period of intense consultations and sharp reversals before agreement was reached by early August on forming a broad coalition of the first three parliamentary groups. This coalition then proceeded to form the new Government of the country.
Yet, despite this diversity, Parliament was able, from the very beginning of its work, to come together around a set of national priorities broadly shared by Bulgarian society. Only three days after its constitution, on July 14th, the National Assembly adopted by an overwhelming majority a Declaration on the basic priorities of its work over the coming four years of its mandate, namely:
• Membership and meaningful participation in the institutions and activities of the European Union as of January 1, 2007 in accordance with the Accession Agreement concluded on April 25th, 2005;
• Urgent judicial reform and effective sanctions against crime and corruption;
• A favorable legislative framework for sustained economic development and investments;
• Development of a social model providing health care, education, decent incomes and quality of life for every Bulgarian citizen;
• Effective integration of the various social and ethnic minorities into Bulgarian society and measures to tackle the demographic challenge;
• Upgrading electoral law in order to ensure fair and democratic elections;
These priorities in the Declaration are clearly spelled out in the context of the international relations and commitments of Bulgaria. The document underlines the decisive importance, along with European integration, of successfully completing the process of Euro-Atlantic integration.
It is in this regard that the message of congratulations addressed by President Bush to the new Bulgarian Prime Minister Stanishev on August 23rd is of such importance. In his letter, after noting that Bulgaria has become a model for Euro-Atlantic integration in South-Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the President of the United States goes on to state his hope that the two countries can build on the cooperation that has developed over the past several years both bilaterally and through their partnership in the Atlantic Alliance.
The basic challenge facing both Parliament and the new Government is to combine continuity of basic policies, that have born valuable results, with the change needed to solve the pressing problems and expectations of the people. This combination of stability, predictability and continuity on the one hand with new programs and action on the other will have to be achieved over the three broad priority policy areas around which the present governing coalition came together – European integration, economic growth and social responsibility.
Looking from across the Ocean, the question regarding future Bulgarian policies has at times been posed in terms based on Bulgaria's moving up the international agenda and thus asking what sort of role a country like Bulgaria would play in recalibrating Trans-Atlantic relations and to what degree it would be acquiring a more Eurocentric orientation.
Probably the valid answer as to the desired policies for the country in the coming years should be built upon the need to realize the Bulgaria's national priorities while fully utilizing the advantages of strategic integration partnerships.
The goal for European integration has consistently enjoyed the broad support of the Bulgarian people over the whole period of the last 15 years. It has continued to be so up to the present not because Bulgarian citizens aren't conscious of the price of membership, or because they are unaware of the heavy losses due to the premature closure of the first four unites of the country's nuclear power stations. Yet, for the large majority of Bulgarian citizens membership means successful modernization of the country, a place for Bulgaria in the rapidly globalizing world as part of a powerful political, economic and social unit.
At present, Parliament is engaged in intensive process of adoption of EU legislation into national law, since progress achieved by the end of September will be of decisive importance for the annual report of the European Commission on Bulgaria's readiness to assume the rights and obligations of membership.
At the same time we are well-aware of the need to combine EU membership with new initiatives to develop further our strategic relationships with partners like the United States. We see encouragement in this direction in the message of President Bush mentioned above, in which he welcomes Bulgaria's entry into the EU.
Integration is directly linked to the priority objective of achieving higher rates of economic growth. From 2001 onwards Bulgaria has been achieving GDP growth of above 4.5% p.c. with 5.2% expected for 1005, 5.4% progrand for 2006. This has set Bulgarian in the middle of the range of growth rates achieved by the new EU member states. Inflation has been kept low, with projections for 2005-2008 of rates between 3.5 – 4%.
However even registered unemployment has remained unacceptably high. Fully 24% of those below 25 years remain unemployed, as well as 16% of those above that age group. A full 14% of the population between 18 and 59 live in households where no one holds a job.
The above means that the stability of the financial system achieved still rests on the functioning of the currency board in force since 1998, while the real economy remains underdeveloped. The result is a deficit on current account, which is difficult to sustain over the longer term and has run above the 7% GDP ratio programmed for this year.
The problem has been diagnosed by the World Bank as coming down to two gaps -those of lagging competitiveness and of lacking infrastructure. The major part of the answer lies in properly elaborating a National Development Plan for 2007 – 2013, which Bulgaria must submit to the EU in the course of 2006. It would seem to be of use to orient the new Country Support Program that the World Bank is working on for the period of 2006-2009 in support and enhancement of the country's longer term development planning.
The third policy area - social responsibility - is particularly complex due to the severe disruptions in basic social services and depressed levels of household incomes both from wages as well as pensions. In the analyses of the World Bank mentioned, a third incomes gap has also been identified. P.c. GDP for 2004 amounts to only 29.6% of the EU average. The average monthly wage is only 1/10 of the EU average. What is more, the average income of women is 22% lower than male wages. This category of problems is particularly severe among the Roma population and the gravely depressed regions of the country.
The changes needed to vigorously tackle the deep problems in the area of social policies will have to be built into a framework of prudent and sustainable macroeconomic and fiscal policies.
Yet it should be also recognized that overcoming these problems is the principle way of preventing organized crime from developing and taking hold.
Bilateral relations between Bulgaria and the US have over the past years reached a level of development unprecedented in previous history. This fact was given due recognition on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations celebrated in 2003 and recognized by acts of both the Bulgarian Parliament and the Congress of the United States.
Today we are faced with the task of taking a further step in the all-round expansion and deepening of the partnership between the two countries as a means of realizing national interests and priorities through joint action and strategic cooperation.
The area of political-military relationships has been the one of most active cooperation. Bulgaria offered support and took part in a range of operations and activities together with the US.
Today political-military cooperation is entering a new phase. The upgrading of the Bulgarian Armed Forces in line with the objectives of Strategic Analyses for the period up to 2015 requires major rearmament programs. These obviously will be the subject of intensive negotiations with American and other potential suppliers over the coming months.
Another priority area of forthcoming bilateral discussions is connected with the strategic redeployment of US forces throughout Europe. The previous Bulgarian Parliament gave its agreement for the Government to enter into dialogue on the subject connected to the possible deployment of infrastructure in Bulgaria. It will be this Parliament's duty to fully inform itself on the preparations and progress in forthcoming bilateral negotiations since it will be called upon to take a decision on possible future agreements.
The previous Parliament has also adopted a decision on May 5th of this year determining that the Bulgarian batallion serving in Iraq terminates the mission which it has been carrying out under the mandate of UN Security Council Resolution 1546 by December 31st, 2005. The decision proceeds from the position, spelled out in the text, that the changes in the parameters of national participation by the Republic of Bulgaria will be effected on the bases of consultations within the framework of the international coalition and while observing international commitments that have been undertaken.
In fulfillment of this position the decision charges the Government with undertaking consultations and negotiations within the coalition in order to determine appropriate forms for the further participation in the initiatives of the international community for maintaining the security and stability in Iraq and while taking account of the subsequent resolutions of the Security Council of the UN and the positions of the EU and NATO. The new Bulgarian Parliament therefore will be involved in the monitoring of the implementation of this decision while informing itself of the new Government's positions.
In comparison with the intensive devolvement in the political-military sphere, cooperation in the economic and technological domain has relatively lagged behind. It would seem appropriate at this point in time to devote serious effort towards a longer-term strategy for joint implementation of investment and partnership projects in such areas as the defense-related industries, power generation and distribution, transportation networks and information and communication technologies. A lack of space and time does not permit more detailed examination of the possibilities in these areas, but it should be noted that there is much untapped potential justifying serious joint examination and action.
A third priority policy area is the one concerning human rights and people-to-people contacts. The involvement of the US in efforts to secure the human rights and due release of Bulgarian medical personnel held in Libyan custody is deeply appreciated both in political circles and throughout Bulgarian society.
A most important imitative launched by President Bush in February this year has been the US Visa Waiver Program. Bulgaria is fully committed to implementing the "roadmap" towards complying with the requirements under the program so that exchanges between our two countries become even more open.
The new Bulgarian Parliament is faced with a particularly heavy workload over the coming months till the end of the year. Besides European harmonization, Parliament will have to tackle new tax laws and also a new tax procedures code necessary for the full-fledged operation of the National Revenue Agency from the beginning of the next year.
Besides, in the last two months of the year, Parliament will be occupied with discussing and adopting the budget for 2006. In the budget exercise it will have to find the proper balance between expenditure on social programs, investment projects and a more proactive incomes policy, while at the same time maintaining the 2.6% share of defense expenditure in line with NATO objectives and observing overall fiscal discipline by means of a budget surplus.
This set of objectives will have to be met while also dealing with the huge losses caused by the disastrous floods that hit Bulgaria in July and August causing numerous deaths, the destruction of hundreds of private homes lacking any insurance and devastating roads, railways, water supply and other infrastructure throughout the country.
Thus the 40th National Assembly of Bulgaria will be charged with seeking national consensus over conflicting objectives, while at the same time examining and giving its consent on important new international engagements.
In the coming months and years Bulgaria will be working to enhance and rely upon the strategic partnership that has developed between it and the United States of America. The forthcoming official visit by the President of Bulgaria Mr. Georgi Parvanov to America upon the invitation of President Bush should prove to be the impetus for new departures in this partnership to the benefit of the peoples of our two countries.