Bulgaria falling well behind on rule of law and the fight against corruption

Bulgaria falling well behind on rule of law and the fight against corruption

In particular, the country must address the principal concern for some member
states such as the Netherlands—Sofia’s consistent failure to efficiently crack down on
corruption. “Corruption and problems with organised crime in a Schengen country”, the
Dutch parliament warned late last year, “can cause serious problems in the functioning of
border control in that country and thus put the security of the Netherlands and the entire
Schengen area at risk”.

Publicly, Bulgarian officials have suggested that the country might be able to satisfy the
Dutch requirements by October—but a closer look reveals that Sofia’s efforts to stamp out
corruption are far from on track, and that the rule of law in the country in fact appears to be
on the decline.

The country is on extremely rocky political footing, having recently had its
fifth parliamentary election in two years, which left the graft-ridden GERB party coming in
first but unable to form a stable government. In the meantime, successive caretaker
governments are making scant progress on addressing Bulgaria’s corruption problem—a
failure to tackle the issue which in some cases may be deliberate.

Particular concern is brewing over Bulgarian prosecutor-general Ivan Geshev. Geshev,
appointed in 2019 following an election in which he was the only candidate, has long been
controversial in Bulgaria, but is now attracting international scrutiny, as suspicions grow that
he may be one of the single biggest roadblocks to Sofia’s anti-graft efforts, pursuing
politically-motivated prosecutions while throwing sand in the gears of legitimate and vital
corruption cases.

All show, no substance?

On paper, Geshev is an aggressive prosecutor, opening up several high-profile cases in
recent months. In January, he launched a probe into supposed financial improprieties at
popular cryptocurrency platform Nexo, sending police to raid more than 15 sites—allegedly
without presenting a search warrant for hours.

Last month, in a separate case Geshev captured headlines by unveiling a supposed mafia
plot that seemed like something right out of a crime novel, with code-named conspirators
plotting to pay enormous bribes in order to oust Geshev along with several police chiefs.
Though Geshev’s press conferences and police raids are certainly flashy and dramatic, they
often rest on decidedly shaky grounds. Geshev’s presentation of the alleged mafia plot, for
example, lacked any hard evidence, despite his claims that his team of investigators had
uncovered letters and recordings detailing the conspiracy. The editors of the Bulgarian
investigative news site BIRD described Geshev’s claims as “dramatic masked theatre,
comparable to the sprinklers in front of the parliament”, and found that the supposed plot
was based on the testimony of an extremely questionable witness who owes 4 million
Bulgarian leva in unpaid taxes, leverage which could have pressed the witness into testifying
to whatever Geshev wanted.

There are serious flaws in the case against Nexo, as well, sufficiently so that the company
may very well prevail in its goal of seeking $1 billion in damages from the Bulgarian state. A
number of the allegations levelled by the prosecutor’s office can be easily debunked through
publicly available information, and a number of Bulgarian government institutions, such as
the Ministry of Finance, have reported that they have no reports of any problems or
wrongdoing at Nexo. The Sofia City Court, meanwhile, found no evidence for some of the
charges brought, leading the court to significantly reduce the bail amount for two people
detained as part of the Nexo case.

Protecting those in power?
In the Nexo case, at least, it’s not hard to divine a potential ulterior motive for Geshev to
bring spurious charges. As some members of the Bulgarian Parliament pointedly noted, the
Nexo raid took place right before Bulgarian President Rumen Radev was set to hand out a
fresh mandate to form an acting government, leading to suspicions that the probe was
intended to quash the chances that pro-European opposition party Democratic Bulgaria (to
which several Nexo employees had made substantial, publicly registered donations) would
receive the mandate and the chance to form a government.

Geshev would certainly have good reason not to want Democratic Bulgaria to come to
power, given the allegations that he is beholden to their political opponent, GERB party
leader and three-time prime minister Boyko Borisov. Geshev has been accused of
deliberately dragging his feet on important corruption investigations into members of
Borisov’s circle of allies. For example, he has yet to bring charges against several prominent
Bulgarian individuals under international sanctions.

Geshev’s failure to prosecute oligarchs has drawn the ire of Bulgarians for years—at one
protest in Sofia, anti-graft activists claimed that “Ivan Geshev transformed the prosecution
into a baseball bat of the mafia and a shield defending its interests”, and called on
international observers, such as the European public prosecutor, to help ensure that genuine
progress is made on the anti-corruption front.

The prosecutor-general’s chequered track record is, encouragingly, finally receiving
significant international scrutiny. U.S. Representative Warren Davidson warned in December
that Geshev’s stonewalling “directly [threatens] the stability and security of NATO allies in
Europe”, while the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body cautioned in January that in
Bulgaria, due to the potential undue influence within the prosecutor’s office, there is a
“striking contrast” between the country’s high levels of graft and the very low rate of
successful investigations into senior government officials.

It’s increasingly evident that Sofia’s anti-graft shortcomings will continue to stymy its
Schengen accession, with the Netherlands recommending that the European Commission
restart its corruption monitoring programme for Bulgaria. Will the government finally
change tack and “do its job”, as Demerdzhiev exhorted this week, or will Sofia remain mired
in the same stalemate?


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