Bulgaria’s fight against corruption is the best way to combat the Kremlin’s operations in the country, which risks becoming one of Europe’s weak links alongside Hungary, Nicolas Tenzer writes.
Former Bulgarian PM Kiril Petkov recently presented an ambitious seven-point plan to his new coalition partner GERB, whose leader, Boyko Borissov, was in power for more than a decade.
The plan notably includes a roadmap for judicial reform and a warning that the country must urgently flush out Russian influence in its security services if Sofia hopes to succeed in cracking down on corruption.
Yet despite the bold plans, after less than a month, their ostensibly pro-Western coalition is already flirting with collapse — underscoring a perpetual instability which is hampering the long-awaited fight against graft.
Sixteen years after Bulgaria joined the European Union, it remains the bloc’s most corruption-ridden country, according to Transparency International.
Despite Brussels’ repeated exhortations, Sofia has made little progress in establishing a fully independent judiciary and limiting the particularly extensive powers of the Bulgarian public prosecutor and his unparalleled near-total immunity.
While concerns about overreach by the Bulgarian prosecutor have percolated for years, they have reached a fever pitch in recent weeks as allegations of misconduct by the now-former prosecutor general have mounted.
Ivan Geshev was finally dismissed by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) in mid-June, but amidst controversy over his successor Borislav Sarafov and reports that Geshev is embarking on a political career, it’s clear that more needs to be done to address the situation, especially given that failure to do so risks increasing Moscow’s influence in Bulgaria.
The prosecution finally went too far
The dismissal of Prosecutor General Geshev came as encouraging news after the long list of allegations against him, as accusations of protecting oligarchs and political allies had significantly increased in recent months.
In January, Geshev ordered raids on the offices of the FinTech company Nexo, alleging financial improprieties.
The reality, however, is likely far murkier, given that Nexo’s team were known to support the political opposition — expected to get a mandate to form a government just days after the raids took place.
On top of these suspicions of protecting corrupt officials and targeting private companies for political purposes, there have also been suggestions, denied by the prosecutor, that Geshev’s office has slowed down investigations into the explosions of ammunition depots in Bulgaria reportedly carried out by Russian military intelligence.
In early May, Geshev even allegedly escaped an assassination attempt against him after a bomb exploded near his car.
However, the inconsistencies in the official report of the highway blast kicked up significant speculation that Geshev had invented the supposed attack as a tactic to attract sympathy and hamper any attempt to reform the Judicial Prosecutor's Office, a method straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook. He allegedly even let a series of false reports about the case run unchallenged.
To make matters worse, the alleged bomb attack prompted a smear campaign against investigative journalists in the country, with several OCCRP journalists targeted in particular–perhaps unsurprising given that Geshev and fellow prosecutors have launched abusive legal proceedings against investigative journalists (SLAPPs) for years.
Notably, Geshev has repeatedly publicly accused journalists of conspiring with criminals and politicians of plotting against him.
Even after Geshev’s ouster, serious problems remain
The fact that Geshev is now preparing for a political career — he announced he had founded his own party, Justice for Bulgaria, this Wednesday, that is meant to target GERB's and Borissov's voters — suggests that he is unlikely to tone down his aggressive tactics and accusatory rhetoric.
What’s more, the conditions under which he was dismissed as prosecutor general —essentially a political compromise decided by the SJC, a commission whose composition and independence are disputed — hardly suggest a serious commitment to genuine judicial reform.
Controversy immediately arose over the appointment of his successor, Borislav Sarafov, to the point where judges protested vigorously, with the Union of Judges questioning some of Sarafov’s decisions and his professional competence and calling for an open and transparent procedure.
Sarafov's name also made waves amidst the investigation surrounding the Anti-Corruption Fund, notoriously dubbed the “Eight Dwarves” case.
The saga saw a prominent Bulgarian businessman flee the country after exposing a scheme in which the prosecutor’s office apparently conspired to seize control of the flourishing elevator business Izamet.
Astonishingly, no penalties or charges have been brought forth thus far, and Sarafov’s involvement remains unexplained.
Despite opposition from the Minister of Justice, Sarafov’s appointment was confirmed on 22 June, casting doubt on the Bulgarian judiciary’s competence to impartially crack down on corruption anytime soon.
The Kremlin stands to gain
A perpetuation of the status quo in Bulgaria — a flawed judiciary and endemic graft —leaves fertile ground for foreign interference, particularly from Russia.
As Petkov recently noted, “Moscow uses corruption to maneuver their foreign policy.”
Russian influence is already a major pain point in Sofia; Defense Minister Todor Tagarev recently expressed his extreme concern at Moscow’s increasing malign operations in his country.
These Russian actions are nothing new: as Bellingcat investigative journalist Christo Grozev revealed, Moscow operatives were already behind an attempted coup in Bulgaria in 2016.
The Kremlin may well have had a hand in certain policy decisions in Sofia, too — seen, for example, in the fact that the Bulgarian government was the only one in the EU not to condemn the attempted poisoning of the Skripals in the UK in 2018, or the government's failure to implement any of the EU’s sanctions against Russian citizens or companies.
Russian influence also appears to have been decisive in toppling Petkov, a fervent supporter of Ukraine and the fight against corruption, after just six months in office last year.
Bulgarian political life itself is ridden with Russian influence — whether in the form of openly pro-Kremlin parties or officially pro-EU parties nevertheless willing to form alliances with pro-Russian factions or Bulgarian President Rumen Radev’s relatively complacent line towards Putin’s regime.
Many of these elements have seen their own power grow amidst Bulgaria’s instability — it’s hardly surprising, then, that the authorities show little eagerness to combat the manipulation of information on social networks and in parts of the press.
Moscow's malign influence is not without results
These factors have concrete and worrying results: according to a December 2022 survey, only 46% of Bulgarians (sharply below an EU average of 88%) believe that the war against Ukraine is Russia’s responsibility.
As Bulgaria’s liberal defence minister pushes for increased arms deliveries to Ukraine, it is feared that Russian disinformation and interference operations will multiply, playing on conciliatory views within the ruling coalition.
Bulgaria’s fight against corruption is not only an indispensable battle in and of itself but is the best way to combat the Kremlin’s operations in the country, which risks becoming one of Europe’s weak links alongside Hungary.
The long-awaited reform of the judiciary, in particular a reassessment of the chief prosecutor’s role, will be a decisive signal in whether Sofia can genuinely combat graft.
Both the EU and NATO should take a firmer, more determined stance in urging the motley coalition in power to move in this direction.
Nicolas Tenzer is a guest professor at Sciences Po Paris and a non-resident senior fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).
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