A court in Bulgaria wants to extradite a Russian national who burned his passport while protesting the war in Ukraine over allegedly trumped-up tax evasion charges, sparking protests and questions over the legality of the decision.
If the extradition were to go through, it would also create a precedent where the Balkan country of almost 7 million would be the first European Union member state to hand over a Russian national to the authorities in Moscow after Russia's full-scale invasion of its neighbour on 24 February, opening the door for further demands against dissidents who sought refuge across the bloc.
Alexey Alchin, 46, moved to Bulgaria a little over five years ago. His wife Olga Gyurova believes he is being persecuted by Moscow for his political leanings — which he expressed openly in Bulgaria — and outspoken criticism of the war in Ukraine.
Two days into the invasion, Alchin took part in an anti-war protest in Varna, a Black Sea resort city, when he publicly burned his Russian documents. The Kremlin's aggression against Ukraine was the final straw.
In a couple of months, Moscow built a case against him and reached out to their counterparts in Sofia with the claim that there was an international warrant for his arrest and that he defrauded the state by failing to pay outstanding VAT debts of more than 282.5 million roubles (€4.5m) in late 2015.
Alchin claims to have settled his debts before leaving Russia and knew nothing of the charges that Moscow officials insist go as far back as 2018.
They also claim an international arrest warrant was filed in 2020, yet it was only now that Russia remembered he existed, Gyurova told Euronews.
“He never knew of such a thing,” she told Euronews Bulgaria. “The last documents [he received from] the tax office before he moved to Bulgaria are proof that he had no debts […] at the time of his departure,” she explained.
Former metal trader turned aikido coach turns activist
After growing increasingly disillusioned with Russia, Alchin — a former entrepreneur dealing in metal exports — left and made a life for himself and his partner in Varna, teaching children martial arts such as kendo.
He heard of rumours that he might be targeted with a tax evasion lawsuit in part because of his knowledge of the inner workings of the government in his former role in the Committee on Economic Policy and Entrepreneurship at the State Duma, which he abandoned in 2010 due to concerns over corruption.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, he became public in his opposition to the government of President Vladimir Putin.
Burning his passport was his way of saying he was done with Russia in its current state, Gyurova explained.
“He was very worried by the news of the war,” she said. “In his desire to sever all ties with the aggressor state, he burned his documents certifying that he was a [Russian] citizen.”
“Being born in a country does not oblige you to applaud every political decision, you have the right to doubt. And he exercised that right.”
Persecution of those who disagree with the government has become standard-fare in Russia, according to Gyurova.
“This is normal practice in Russia: people who disagree with what is going on in the country are subjected to repression of a criminal nature because they cannot be charged for disagreeing with the policy, for example.
“The case against him is a way for the Russian state to take revenge and repress another opponent of the regime in Russia.”
However, Alchin immediately responded to a note by the Bulgarian Ministry of Internal Affairs in late June stating that there was an international warrant for his arrest and inviting him for an interview.
He spent 12 days in detention and has been under house arrest since.
After his detention, Alchin filed a request for political asylum in Bulgaria, but the prosecutor in charge of his case rejected it, stating that it should have been filed prior to him being brought in for questioning.
This was followed up by the Regional Court in Varna’s decision on Monday to approve Russia’s demand for his extradition, despite Alchin asking for protection because he believed he was being targeted and dozens of protesters gathering in front of the court to express their disagreement with the process and distress over his fate.
If handed over to Moscow, they believe, Alchin might not be given a fair trial, and other criminal accusations, such as referring to the invasion as war and not “special military operation” — a term the Kremlin insists on being used to describe its actions in Ukraine — could be tacked on at a later date.
The Varna court rejected these concerns after receiving assurances from prosecutors in Moscow that he would be tried solely for tax evasion. Alchin was also made to return to detention for another seven days, pending an appeal.
To extradite or not to extradite?
According to Bulgarian law, there are two conditions that need to be met to extradite a foreign citizen from the country: there has to be a pending case against them in their home country for an act that can be criminally pursued in Bulgaria, and that the crime comes with a sentence of no less than one year in prison.
The tax evasion charges against him alone mean that Alchin could be given up to six years in prison.
At the same time, the Council of the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs Council decided in March that member states such as Bulgaria can ignore extradition requests made by Russia due to the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine.
Bulgarian Ministry of Justice has notified the prosecutors in the case of this provision, local media reported. However, the Regional Prosecutor's Office in Varna decided to proceed anyway and the court magistrates approved the extradition, disregarding the ruling in Brussels.
“The Varna Regional Court did not bother to respect the law,” Bulgarian Helsinki Committee Chairman Krassimir Kanev told Euronews.
“Although Alchin was charged already in 2018, it was quite clear that he was targeted by the Russian authorities for extradition after he burned his Russian passport.”
“One wonders why this order was issued four years after the charge. And why did they not pursue trying him in absentia? The only logical answer is that he was targeted for political reasons," Kanev said.
"The Varna Regional Court should have taken this into account, but it didn't. The Varna Regional Court also refused to hear expert evidence on the human rights situation in Russia since 24 February. It thus showed intolerable bias.”
'No one will be able to accept such decision'
According to Kanev, who has been involved in the legal representation of applicants before the European Court of Human Rights in several cases involving extradition and deportations, the court in Varna was more interested in pleasing the Russian government instead.
"I want to believe that this was due to the specific composition of the court, as in other cases, courts in Bulgaria refused extraditions in such circumstances,” he said.
Another politically motivated case was that of anti-Putin activist Nikolay Koblyakov, known for protesting the detainment of the Pussy Riot activist group and the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Koblyakov was originally detained in Bulgaria in 2014, but the government in Sofia refused to hand him over to Moscow, and the red notice in his name has been removed by Interpol since.
“This was before the war in Ukraine, when Russia was still part of the Council of Europe. It is all the more shocking that we had this decision of the Varna court after the war and after it was expelled from the Council of Europe,” Kanev explained.
Whether Alchin is deported or not might have greater repercussions on Bulgaria as it will be seen as the first deportation of this kind by an EU member state, setting a dangerous precedent, he believes.
Bulgaria has been going through a tumultuous political period in recent years, with the parliamentary no-confidence vote that ousted the liberal centrist government of Kiril Petkov in June triggering the fourth elections in two years.
“No one in the democratic world will be able to accept such a decision,” Kanev said. “It sends a signal to the Russians in Bulgaria who oppose Putin that they are not safe.”
Meanwhile, Gyurova is hoping that the decision will not be upheld upon appeal.
“We Russians have chosen to live here, not there. Since we are in a European country, I hope that we also respect European values. We expect the Court to be guided by the principles of European law,” she concluded.