Bulgaria may finally be turning the tide in its struggle to rein in smuggling and the informal economy. At the “Business to the Rules” roundtable held in the capital Sofia on Monday, top government officials and employers spoke out about the scale of the problem and set new goals for combating it. According to Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov, nearly 70,000 liters of spirits, 11.8 million smuggled cigarettes, almost 3 tons of cut tobacco, and some 85,000 liters of unregulated fuels were seized in the first five months of 2015.
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov declared that the government’s main task will be to reduce the grey market to one third of its present size. “I think this could absolutely be realized on the account of what we have done and will not be an empty promise. I am convinced we will do it and optimistic about what we have done,” he emphasized. More personnel for enforcement would be helpful, but cracking down on corruption is more important. Goranov stated that a prerequisite for this will be “strengthening automatic control and eliminating the human factor.” He noted that 21 customs officers were dismissed for “bad practices” in a brief stretch of time at the Kapitan Andreevo border checkpoint, which has now become a textbook model to be replicated elsewhere on the country’s borders. Newly-installed machines precisely measure the weight of cross-border goods, and as of June 1, any fees must be paid via card (at no additional cost to users), thus eliminating the corruption-tempting flow of cash.
Already there have been positive results. The weight machines increased daily customs revenues 17-fold. And the slight reduction of the grey market, from 35% to 32% between 2010 and 2014, has now accelerated. “We can note a 20.8% higher nominal value of revenue as of June 18 at the National Revenue Agency and the National Customs Agency compared to 2014,” Goranov stated. Collectively, the measures already taken by Bulgaria have resulted in an additional $1.17 billion to the country’s budget in the first five months of this year, representing nearly 2.5% of GDP. “I guarantee we can organize another such event by the year-end and I guarantee there will be quite good results,” said Borisov.
However, the scourge of human trafficking was not given much attention, although it is major chronic problem facing Bulgaria (and neighboring Balkan nations). Refugees, many from Syria and different parts of Africa, cross from Turkey into Eastern Europe, which for many is just a pit stop on their way to Western Europe. Lacking visas, these illegal migrants are vulnerable to violence and abuse at the hands of smugglers and border guards, as well as resentful (and often xenophobic) locals. Bulgaria recorded some 38,000 attempted entries for 2014, spurring it to a forceful response.
Around 1,500 police have been deployed to a notorious part of the Bulgarian frontier known as the Green Zone, to stanch the flow of overland migrants from Turkey. This, along with the construction of a 33 km razor wire border fence (and another 82 km planned), has forced the Bulgarian route to evolve — and the demand for smugglers has risen accordingly. “Now, the majority of people are coming through the official crossings but concealed in cargo trucks and freight trains,” said Boris Cheshirkov of the U.N. refugee office in Sofia.
More manpower and less corruption won’t end the refugee challenge — but they may succeed in making it other countries’ problem.