Prosecutions, politics and stalled constitutional reform in Bulgaria

  • Prosecutions, politics and stalled constitutional reform in Bulgaria

    Prosecutions, politics and stalled constitutional reform in Bulgaria

    Any company doing business in Central and Eastern Europe will want to understand the legal context in which it is operating. Regrettably, it is not always clear. Six months on from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission report – and nearly twenty years since the Kolev murder that generated the original investigations – Bulgaria still struggles with some fundamental rule of law issues. Nowhere is this more evident than at the élite level of national politics. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s recent calling of an extraordinary meeting of his party to refute what he describes as kompromat is only the most sensational instance of the problem; however, it draws attention to a wider issue, that of the effective continued unaccountability of the Prosecutor-General’s office and the seemingly politically-influenced nature of its activities.

    A leaked recording of someone who sounds like Borissov being scandalously indiscreet surfaced in media circles. This was followed recently by photos of Borissov asleep in his official residence, next to a bedside locker stuffed full of cash and gold ingots. On top of the locker is a handgun. Borissov has angrily denounced the publication of the recording and the images, but not denied that he keeps a personal handgun. He claims the recording and the photos have been doctored to create kompromat against him and has named a few political rivals as being responsible.

    As a long-serving Prime Minister and former mayor of Sofia, Borissov does not lack rivals. It is also true that his party – Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria or GERB in its transliterated Cyrillic abbreviation – has strong influence when it comes to the administration of the rule of law.

    The activities – and occasional inactivities – of the General Prosecutor’s office continue to cause complaints that it is a tool of a government whose senior members are increasingly mired in suspicions of corruption.

    Borissov’s administration has been dogged by allegations of corruption arising from last year’s so-called “Apartmentgate” scandal, in which senior GERB members benefited from the purchase of brand-new luxury apartments at a fraction of their true value once the government had given the developer a green light to proceed with construction. Justice Minister Tsetska Tsacheva, Deputy Sports Minister Vanya Koleva and former Deputy Energy Minister Krasimir Parvanov resigned from the party pending the outcome of an investigation by the Anti-Corruption Commission. The Commission, appointed by the ruling GERB-led coalition, took three months to find no case to answer. GERB Deputy Chairman Tsvetan Tsvetanov also resigned, and was under investigation for fourteen months, but also eventually acquitted. He has since quit the party.

    By contrast, the final acquittal of former diplomat Daniel Mitov took nearly three years, in a series of appeals and persistent prosecutions of a high-profile opponent of the Borissov government. Mitov took a strongly pro-Western, pro-NATO view of the region’s geopolitics, and was critical of Russian involvement in Ukraine, to which he attributes Sofia’s determination to pursue him through the courts. Two of Mitov’s Reform Bloc political allies, Nikolai Nenchev and Petar Moskov, were also pursued by the prosecution service, only to have the cases against them dismissed by the courts.

    Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s (former) richest man, Vasil “The Skull” Bozhkov, has hunkered down in Dubai, having fled Bulgaria prior to his attempted arrest by the authorities. He has been named as involved in organised crime by Western diplomats in the past, but has gone on to amass a fortune in the gaming world. However, in January this year, the government decided to acquire a greater direct share in his businesses, causing him to flee to the UAE (which has no standing extradition agreement with Bulgaria).

    Sofia has lodged papers seeking Bozhkov’s extradition on a variety of charges including murder; meanwhile, as the legal wheels grind, Bozhkov has taken to social media accusing Prime Minister Borissov and Finance Minister Goranov of extorting large amounts of cash from him (more than 33 million euros over the last two years). He claims to have records which will sustain the allegations. Borissov denies this, though the publication of pictures of his cash-filled bedside locker are making his position less and less comfortable. Bozhkov has also threatened to return to Bulgaria to run for office, which he clearly sees as the appropriate route to dealing with legal difficulties, in itself a telling indication of the perception of the role of politics and its relationship to the pursuit of criminal justice.

    The wider public perception of the justice system was reflected in demonstrations against the appointment of the current Prosecutor-General, Ivan Geshev, who was nominated unopposed last year by GERB. Geshev subsequently added a couple of highly controversial prosecutors to his team, including Nikola Filchev, a feared former Prosecutor-General at the time of the murder of one of his senior staff, Nikolai Kolev, in 2002. That case drew strong criticism of the Bulgarian criminal justice administration from the European Court of Human Rights. President Ruman Radev has initiated a consultation exercise to examine the accountability of the role of Prosecutor-General, and has publicly criticised Borissov’s government for its unwillingness to tackle corruption, but the Presidency is a largely ceremonial office and Borissov has been dismissive of Radev.

    That said, he has now named Radev as possibly responsible for the bedroom photographs incident and accused him of spying using a Chinese-provided drone. Borissov has also implicated his former deputy Tsvetan Tsvetanov, and two new opposition figures, one a former ombudsman, the other a TV entertainer. Borissov is also known to be at odds with Bozhkov as described above, and with the former banker Tsvetan Vassilev, now in Serbia. All of which suggests that he is busy casting around for a scapegoat in the wake of the shock of such invasive and unwelcome publicity.

    Meanwhile, the prosecuting authorities have opened a couple of lines of enquiry into recent events. Borissov and Finance Minister Goranov have been interviewed as witnesses in the matter of Bozhkov’s extradition. As to the “kompromat”, the prosecutor’s office has launched an investigation into the alleged manipulation of the leaked recording – but not the content of the tape

    To date there are no reports of any investigations into extortion by senior government figures, adding to the perception that Bulgaria’s criminal justice system remains heavily influenced by political power.

    As we go to press, however, reports are emerging that Borissov and members of GERB are being interviewed by the Prosecutor’s office in connection with influence peddling involving businessman Plamen Bobokov. The matter is at an early stage and Borissov sees the hand of President Radev at work, underlining the apparently political nature of the investigation. In the meantime there is still no serious prospect of the fundamental legal oversight reforms called for by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. When it comes to the administration of justice, therefore, it seems that politics still trumps the rule of law in some instances.

    Mark McGuigan is TSG’s geopolitical risk advisor specializing in the CEE region. An Executive-in-Residence at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, he is a former financial sector intelligence consultant and an ex-RAF officer. He writes here in a personal capacity. TSG is a research (including due diligence) specialist, also offering Ethics Compliance and Advisory services to its clients. TSG offers expertise in Eastern Europe, as well as East Asia.