Arrest of Bulgaria’s Borissov marks start of major EU rule-of-law showdown

Bulgaria's rampant graft gives European Prosecutor Laura Codruța Kövesi a prime opportunity to prove her new role has teeth.

Arrest of Bulgaria’s Borissov marks start of major EU rule-of-law showdown

The arrest of former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov last week is a sign that the country’s new leader Kiril Petkov is serious about his pledge to combat the mafia that permeates public life across the Balkan nation.

But Borissov’s quick release — and the reluctance of the excessively mighty prosecutor’s office to press charges against the former firefighter and karate champion — is an equally clear sign that the inexperienced Petkov will need outside help to stand any chance of winning his anti-graft crusade.

That’s where European Public Prosecutor Laura Codruța Kövesi comes in.

Bulgaria’s quagmire of corruption presents the Romanian enforcer with her first major opportunity to show that her relatively newly created office can play an effective role in instituting the rule of law in a country where Brussels has long ignored rampant corruption, gangsterism and the abuse of EU funds.

Significantly, Kövesi’s first visit to an EU capital as prosecutor was to Sofia last year and she made another trip last week just before Borissov’s late-night arrest — along with his PR chief Sevdalina Arnaudova and former Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov — on March 17. Petkov is playing up the idea that he now has a powerful international ally in his fight to purge the mafia born out of the Communist-era security services.

The political theater of the arrests, organized by the interior ministry and police, almost immediately degenerated into pure farce on March 18, when the trio was released without charge. Since then, Petkov’s government and the country’s prosecutors — both seeming shaky on facts and details — have spent days trading accusations of clerical errors, vendettas and obstructionism. The case is theoretically still alive, with Sofia prosecutors conducting follow-up interviews, but Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev has made no secret of his contempt for the government’s actions.

In truth, the new government knew it would hit this messy impasse. One of Petkov’s main hurdles in his bid to clean up the country is that the Bulgarian judiciary is widely viewed as a fundamental part of the “captured state.” Knowing the prosecutors would wriggle out of taking a big corruption case, Petkov is calling their bluff and showing why he will need to team up with Kövesi if any big fish are ever going to be convicted.

Comparing the clash with the mob to Bulgaria’s long struggles against Ottoman occupation, the columnist Emiliya Milcheva noted on the Toest website: “We are waiting for justice from where Bulgaria has hoped for all its liberations — from outside.”

So far, it’s unclear whether Kövesi has the power to ride to the rescue, and there’s every chance that this will be a long, ugly fight.

Here’s how we got here and what the stakes are:

Why is Petkov doing this?

Bulgarians’ frustration with high-level corruption tops the political agenda and triggered a deep political crisis from the summer of 2020. Every night for months, huge crowds of anti-mafia protesters packed the streets of Sofia, calling for the resignations of then-Prime Minister Borissov and Chief Prosecutor Geshev, nicknamed “The Cap.” Far from being impartial, the state judiciary — backed up by thugs with guns — has been at the heart of chilling revelations that it has engaged in menacing shakedowns of businessmen, sometimes in intra-oligarch feuds.

The 2020 protests were the beginning of the end for Borissov’s more-than-decade-long dominance of Bulgarian politics, but Geshev shows no sign of budging. After Petkov came to power on his anti-graft platform in December, Geshev presented the new Justice Minister Nadezhda Yordanova with a bouquet of flowers. After thanking him, Yordanova promptly offered to discuss the terms of his resignation. Constitutionally protected, Geshev snapped back that he “would discuss all issues of interest to Bulgarian citizens; I doubt this one is interesting.” That exchange sums up Bulgaria’s frustrated judicial reforms in a nutshell.

What can Kövesi do?

Her focus is the abuse of EU funds. This is crucial as this money is the lifeblood of the Bulgarian mafia, which rakes in cash from corrupt projects. On her trip to Bulgaria last week she announced that she was investigating more than 120 cases concerning the abuse of funds, linked to sectors such as agriculture, construction and public procurement. In an interview with the TV show 120 minutes, she congratulated Bulgarians for being the Europeans to have filed the most fraud complaints for her attention. When the interviewer asked whether she could trust Geshev, she simply replied: “No comment.”

Do we know whether Kövesi is investigating Borissov?

No. In an enigmatic statement, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office said only that it had “received several reports from Bulgaria with serious allegations of fraud with EU funds and systemic corruption, involving top officials. Investigations are ongoing.”

What’s the Bulgarian government’s chief complaint against Borissov?

The Bulgarian government wants a full probe into whether Borissov extorted millions of leva from a casino baron called Vasil “The Skull” Bozhkov.

Hang on, there’s a guy called The Skull?

He’s a notorious tycoon. He’s on a U.S. list of sanctioned Bulgarian oligarchs, and is based in Dubai to avoid prosecution in Bulgaria over a laundry list of charges. The reason the current Bulgarian government is keen to take on his case is that he claims to have meticulously collated evidence of how Borissov extorted 67 million leva (€34 million) from him. Bozhkov’s hatred of Borissov translated into his creation of a political party — Bulgarian Summer — in the 2021 elections, but it was a flop and failed to win a single parliamentary seat. Bozhkov publicly asserts he paid bribes to Borissov and Goranov and is now just waiting for the call — which will never come — from Geshev. The U.S. Treasury also states as fact that Bozhkov was bribing government officials, but the case was never taken up.

How are the prosecutors reacting?

With a lot of mudslinging. The prosecutors called the government’s case “pure politics” and are trying every excuse from “there’s a page missing” in the evidence submitted to “it’s not possible to take Bozhkov’s testimony online” from Dubai. Petkov accused the prosecutors of “sabotage” and of acting as the defense lawyers for the accused. Geshev retorted that Petkov’s remarks were “ridiculous” and that the government had acted illegally and unconstitutionally by moving against Borissov, Goranov and Arnaudova. Petkov is firing back that the prosecutors must study the case because Bozhkov’s bribes ensured that contributions of more than 556 million leva (€284 million) owed by his gambling industry never reached the Bulgarian treasury.

And Borissov?

On his release on March 18, a visibly shaken Borissov melodramatically turned to one of his favorite themes and said he was a victim of “repression” worthy of Communism in the mid-1940s. To put some proper perspective on this, he spent a night in custody, while the rightists and centrists of Bulgaria’s political class were systematically executed in the purges of 1945. Not to be outdone by this minor historical detail, Borissov claimed he was worried “next time, they can even kill me.” (Goranov has repeatedly denied taking money from Bozhkov and Arnaudova accused Petkov’s authorities of behaving like the mafia.)

Would this blackmail proceeding ever be a case for Kövesi?

Petkov suggests so. “While facts are being hidden from the Bulgarian public, there is a parallel institution working on the case,” he said. Geshev, by contrast, argued that he was surprised Petkov had invoked Kövesi when the matter was not within her competence. Strictly speaking, the European Prosecutor should be focused squarely on work related to EU funds. When asked by POLITICO whether the Borissov case was among the more than 120 under consideration, Kövesi’s office declined to comment.

Is there really no route to bypass Geshev?

Justice Minister Yordanova is battling to find one and has found herself thwarted in attempts to shorten Geshev’s term. She is now turning to another legislative move to bypass him to some degree. She says the government wants to bring in a new law that allows lower-level prosecutors to sidestep Geshev to work directly on cases with Kövesi on matters related to EU finances.

And what do Bulgarians make of all this?

Bulgarians can be forgiven for being skeptical about whether the EU means business on rule of law. The European Commission’s judicial monitoring program, the European People’s Party and the German government under former Chancellor Angela Merkel have consistently been very soft on corruption in Bulgaria, and never challenged Borissov on his spiraling rule-of-law crisis over the past years. It remains to be seen whether Kövesi’s new role can overcome that skepticism about whether the EU can bring real muscle to bear.

“Many people say that Bulgaria is a captured state,” Petkov said. “Well, we will continue to fight for Bulgaria to be a free European country. The battle will not be short but it has started and we will work with all the European instruments to push Bulgaria to the next level.”

Paola Tamma contributed reporting.