Bulgaria: The Achilles’ Heel of the European Union’s Rule of Law?

Bulgaria: The Achilles’ Heel of the European Union’s Rule of Law?

To adapt Hamlet’s famous phrase, something is rotten in the state of Bulgaria. In particular, many deeply-rooted problems seem to stem from a single individual, Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev, who is facing substantial public and political backlash for his alleged involvement in the erosion of Bulgaria’s justice system.

Geshev, who took office in 2019 after an uncontested election, is now facing international scrutiny as reproaches mount that he is one of the worst impediments keeping Sofia from meaningful anti-graft efforts. US Congressman Warren Davidson called on the US Treasury Department to take action against Geshev for his “corrupt actions” threatening European security. Indeed, to external observers, it seems that Geshev has a fastidious tendency to pursue politically motivated prosecutions over corruption cases that actually need handling.

Geshev is an encapsulation of the political woes Bulgaria faces. Distinctly lacking political stability, the country is on its fifth parliamentary election in the last two years. While the pro-establishment party GERB was able to eke out a win in terms of percentage of votes cast, it has been unable to form a solid coalition so far, and is now facing further scrutiny as its leader Boyko Borisov and Geshev have become locked in a vocal demolition derby, complete with allegations of illicit political and judicial manoeuvring, covert recordings, and threats. Nor has Geshev limited himself to verbally sparring with his habitual ally Borisov—he has also taken aim at the country’s free press in recent weeks, even accusing leading investigative journalists of being involved in a questionable plot to attack him.

Car bombings and press freedom

In a graft-ridden country like Bulgaria, uncovering corruption is not the hardest part of the job for independent journalists – the biggest challenge for them is rather the near certainty of retribution. As Atanas Tchobanov, a leading investigative journalist in the country, argued: “Normally, the findings of investigative reporting should trigger legal actions [against the perpetrators of alleged corruption], but in Bulgaria, they more often trigger institutional retaliation against journalists and their sources.” This statement is endorsed by Geshev accusing journalists of conspiring with a laundry list of wrongdoers: criminals, businesses, and politicians, all in a plot against him and other high-ranking officials in the Interior Ministry.

Despite these recent attacks on the freedom of the Bulgarian press, ironically Sofia’s placement on the 2023 Media Press Freedom Index –released earlier this month– was better than expected. The country jumped considerably from 91 to 71. This is largely due, however, to the fact that for most of 2022, the country was ruled by Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and his pro-western government who ran on an anti-corruption ticket.

The situation looks decidedly less rosy for next year’s Media Press Freedom Index. Petkov’s government collapsed in the summer of 2022 after losing a no-confidence vote in parliament, with Reporters without Borders (RSF) blaming the loss in part due to Sofia’s particular challenge of the “inverted role of certain high-ranking prosecutors.”

Events have escalated past simple accusations of journalists with a vendetta, following the alleged car bombing that Geshev apparently escaped on May 1st. Many in Bulgaria consider the details and the timing of the incident to be questionable. “The staged version should also be investigated”, opposition politician and lawyer Atanas Atanasov warned. “Based on the experience I have, it looks like a multi-purpose active operation. The purpose is to glorify the victim, the victim here is in quotes and divert public attention from the political crisis. This may be a warning to the participants in the political process”, Atanasov cautioned.

Strategies to stay in power; friends in high places

Geshev’s attempts to hold onto power range from dramatic to desperate. Beyond the zealous prosecutions of journalists who he believes are plotting against him, the aggressive prosecutor sees threats to his power everywhere and prosecutes accordingly. An elegant example comes from a press conference this week where he tore up his resignation letter on national television, named his opposition “trash” and said he would finish his mandate.

While the decision to prosecute is a competency that Geshev has alone, his choice of whom to prosecute or not to prosecute appears to be deeply coloured by personal interests and motivations rather than the rule of law. For example, in a shocking turn of events, in March 2022 Borisov himself, along with his Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov—now sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act—were arrested in connection with apparent extortion involving prominent gambling tycoon Vasil Bozhkov.

Their rapid release, however, soon cast doubt on Geshev’s impartiality. Despite the Ministry of Interior apparently having gathered significant evidence against Borisov and his associates, the prosecution opted not to press charges and even accused the ministry of compromising the ongoing investigation. Responding to these allegations, former Minister of the Interior Boyko Rashkov and former Prime Minister Kiril Petkov fired back, accusing the prosecutor’s office of deliberately obstructing the investigation and failing to verify Bozhkov’s claims of having made substantial bribes to Borisov.

Amidst accusations and counteraccusations, trust in the Bulgarian authorities has taken a severe hit, and Geshev is digging the hole ever deeper. In January of this year, for example, he launched a probe into alleged financial improprieties at FinTech company Nexo. Not only did the concrete allegations lack key supporting evidence, as several Bulgarian institutions have noted, it seems likely that, for Geshev, the true crime was rather the fact that several Nexo employees made publicly registered donations to the opposition party Democratic Bulgaria. Prior to the Nexo probe, the pro-European opposition party was well-positioned to receive a mandate to form a government.

From taking on journalists for doing their job, for attacking individuals and companies for their personal political donations, and refusing to prosecute those who have been condemned by international organizations, Geshev’s behaviour highlights the serious rule of law crisis in which Bulgaria currently finds itself.

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