The US and the UK announced sanctions on several top Bulgarian politicians and businessmen and one judge for corruption on February 10, less than two months ahead of the country’s fifth general election within two years.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the US, in coordination with the UK, is taking action to counter systemic corruption in Bulgaria by designating five former Bulgarian government officials, including two ex-ministers, as well as five companies, “for corrupt acts that resulted in illicit personal gain, undermined the country’s democratic institutions, and perpetuated its corrosive dependence on Russian energy sources”.
The US Department of the Treasury designated under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act former energy minister Rumen Ovcharov, who is a member of the pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), former finance minister Vladislav Goranov, a member of Gerb, the former MP and current leader of the Russophiles National Movement, Nikolay Mladenov, as well as two former CEOs of Kozloduy nuclear power plant (NPP) Aleksandar Nikolov and Ivan Genov.
Ovcharov, Nikolov and Genov were designated “for a series of illicit dealings and the exchange of bribes related to energy contracts that robbed the Government and people of Bulgaria of hundreds of millions of dollars”, the statement said.
The BSP issued a declaration in support of Ovcharov on February 11, while the former energy minister said as quoted by Dnevnik news outlet he was unaware of why the US is sanctioning him and rejected any involvement in corruption.
“Vladislav Goranov, a former MP and former Minister of Finance, was designated for using his position to facilitate bribery in exchange for favourable legislation, depriving the government of tax revenues,” the US said in the statement.
Although Gerb has officially distanced itself from Goranov, the party’s leader Boyko Borissov said he was sure that his former finance minister was not involved in any corruption.
However, fugitive gambling mogul Vassil Bozhkov previously said that Goranov demanded 20% of his profit and in return pushed for legislative changes that made it easier for his gambling business to operate. He also said he had given millions of euros in bribes to Borissov and Goranov. The Bulgarian prosecution has refused to investigate these claims.
Nikolay Malinov was designated for bribing a judge to permit him to travel to Russia, even though he had been indicted for spying for Russia and placed under a travel ban.
Several companies were also designated, including Goranov’s Trilemma Consulting, Malinov’s Inter Trade 2021 EOOD, MS Konsult 2016 EOOD, the Russophiles National Movement and Russophiles for the Revival of the Fatherland.
“The Department of State also imposed visa restrictions on Ovcharov, Nikolov, and Goranov for involvement in significant corruption under Section 7031(c) of the annual Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act. As a result of these actions, those individuals and their immediate family members are generally ineligible for entry into the United States,” the US statement noted.
Meanwhile, the UK said in a separate statement it has designated three influential Bulgarian individuals involved in offences including abuse of public institution funds. They are Bozhkov, controversial businessman and politician Delyan Peevski and Ilko Zhelyazkov, former deputy head of the unit for control of the use of special investigative devices.
The trio have already been designated under the Magnitsky act.
“Those sanctioned have deprived the people of Bulgaria of resources crucial to its economic and social development. Money that should have been used to fix roads, build hospitals and support economic growth has instead ended up in the pockets of corrupt individuals,” the UK said in the statement.
Peevski was sanctioned for involvement in “attempts to exert control over key institutions and sectors in Bulgarian society through bribery and use of his media empire”, while Zhelyazkov was designated for using his position to redirect a lucrative state contract for his own gain.
Bozhkov was included in the list for using bribery extensively to protect his business interests, the statement said.
Caretaker Justice Minister Krum Zarkov said as quoted by Dnevnik news outlet that the US sanctions are an assessment of the work of the Bulgarian prosecution.
"We still have a lot to do so that we do not fall into the position where [people] thousands of kilometres away can tell us what we are not able to see for ourselves," Zarkov said.
On the other hand, the head of the Bulgarian investigation body, Borislav Sarafov, said the sanctions are actually open support for its actions as Ovcharov has been tried and convicted, while Malinov is also charged. Sarafov also said the Bulgarian prosecution has not collected enough evidence against Goranov and that the statements from Bozhkov are not enough to open pre-trial proceedings.