Bulgaria freezes 90 mln euros in EU funds

Frustrated by lack of progress, the EU Commission has already frozen some 450 million euros earmarked for Bulgaria from its pre-accession programmes for technical assistance, development and agriculture due to graft investigations.

Bulgaria freezes 90 mln euros in EU funds
Bulgaria said on Wednesday it had frozen EU-backed projects worth about 90 million euros to combat corruption and try to avoid sanctions by the bloc over misuse of funds.

The Socialist-led government said in a statement it had stopped the financing of 10 road infrastructure projects -- almost a fifth of the 550 million euros Bulgaria has contracted under an EU pre-accession technical assistance programme.

Brussels has stepped up scrutiny of Bulgaria, which joined the bloc along with Romania last year, and warned Sofia it may lose hundreds of millions of euros in aid if it fails to tackle corruption and organised crime.

Despite a declared "war on crime and graft", the poor Balkan country has failed to charge any high-level official with corruption or put criminal bosses behind bars.

It has also failed to solve more than 80 contract murders, including that of a football club owner and a banker, carried out in the country since 2001.

Frustrated by lack of progress, the EU Commission has already frozen some 450 million euros earmarked for Bulgaria from its pre-accession programmes for technical assistance, development and agriculture due to graft investigations.

Worries about losing more pre-accession funds as well as part of the 11 billion euros Bulgaria can tap on by 2013, have led Sofia to appoint an EU funds minister and promise to improve transparency and control.

The minister, Meglena Plugchieva, said an independent audit in one of the agencies handling EU funds -- the country's road agency -- showed conflict of interests and malpractice.

"Unfortunately it shows serious problems," she told foreign journalists late on Tuesday. "We will send a report to prosecutors."

She declined to provide details.

The head of the road agency has resigned and is under investigation for alleged abuse of power and misuse of EU funds. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Observers remain sceptical about Sofia's ability to show convincing progress in combating crime and abuse ahead of the European Commission's progress report due on July 23.

"All steps this government takes are just a response to Brussels' demands. There is no initiative, everything is done under duress," political analyst Rumiana Bachvarova said.

The European Commission's report can recommend sanctions against Sofia, which include stripping of EU aid.

Reuters
Last Mod: 18 Haziran 2008, 17:40
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