Further details of the investigation that led to arrests at the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad were given by prosecutors at a news conference on October 31, as political controversy continued to swirl around the episode.
Those facing charges include the head of the agency, Petar Haralampiev, its chief secretary Krassimir Tomov, a Serbian citizen and a woman from the Bulgarian town of Kyustendil. They are the only four facing charges after 20 people were held in raids by special prosecutors and anti-corruption officials two days earlier.
Allegedly, the accused and the others were involved in illegally providing false certificates of Bulgarian ancestry – grounds for claiming citizenship – to nationals of Macedonia, Ukraine and Moldova.
Prosecutors allege that the illicit fees charged for these certificates ranged between 5000 and 8000 euro.
The news conference was told that Haralampiev put the scheme in place soon after his May 2017 appointment to head the agency.
Opponents of Bulgaria’s government made much of Haralampiev’s connection to Deputy Prime Minister Krassimir Karakachanov, a co-leader of the United Patriots – the minority coalition partner in government – who admitted he backed the appointment at the time but said that he now regretted doing so.
Karakachanov’s nationalist VMRO has been at pains to distance itself from Haralampiev, saying that he is not a member of the party.
In a television interview on October 31, Karakachanov responded to allegations made earlier this week by Velizar Enchev, formerly a member of the party of another of the United Patriots’ co-leaders, Valeri Simeonov.
VMRO never received money from the sale of documents in support of Bulgarian citizenship applications, Karakachanov said, adding that his party always had defended the cause of ethnic Bulgarians in Macedonia, Moldova and Ukraine to receive citizenship through a fast-track procedure.
Volen Siderov, the third co-leader of the United Patriots and head of his Ataka party, told the media on October 31 that what was happening regarding the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad was a “political strike” against the grouping.
Siderov refused to say who he believed was behind this “political strike”, saying that it would “become clear”. The attack did not originate from the prosecutors, he said.
The State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad arrests, and the pointing by critics to links between the leadership of the agency and the United Patriots, come after months and weeks of public infighting among the “Patriots”, recently particularly between Siderov and Simeonov.
The opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party called for an investigation into the political connections of those in the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad.
Chetin Kazak, an MP for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the fourth-largest out of five groups in the National Assembly, said that political responsibility for the agency lay with Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov.
Parliament’s smallest party, Volya – which has 12 MPs – reiterated a call it had made earlier, on other grounds, for Karakachanov to resign as Deputy PM.
The socialists want Simeonov and Karakachanov to both resign. This is apart from the repeated calls of late from the BSP and the MRF for the government to resign. Last week, Bulgaria’s Parliament rejected the third of three motions of no confidence in the government, tabled by the BSP.
Tsvetan Tsvetanov, head of the parliamentary group of Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s GERB party, responded to these calls for resignations by saying that the government had shown clear political will to fight corruption, and both Simeonov and Karakachanov supported the investigative bodies.
Head of state and regular critic of the government President Roumen Radev said that there many operations in Bulgaria – referring to well-publicised arrests – but few convictions in court.
Radev said that the presidential administration (where the vice president has delegated authority over granting citizenship) had received tip-offs about irregularities at the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad and had told prosecutors about them.
Deputy Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev told the October 31 news conference that the investigation had begun following a tip-off from Interior Ministry staff in Kyustendil and everything else was “urban legends”.
Geshev described the investigation into the agency as the most serious into high-level corruption in Bulgaria “without analogy in our recent history”.
Only four people had been charged “because we are interested in the big players,” he said. Geshev said that prosecutors would seek a court ruling remanding the accused in custody pending the outcome of the trial.