WASHINGTON -- U.S. lawmakers called on Bulgaria to respect democratic values and the rule of law as it prepares for national elections next month, warning the current state of its domestic affairs is posing “serious challenges” to the bilateral relationship.
In a statement issued late on March 4 -- a day before campaigning officially begins for Bulgarian parliamentary elections in early April -- the lawmakers said they would like to see stronger relations with the Eastern European nation, including on security and energy issues.
However, “persistent corruption, declining media freedom, politicization of the judiciary, and other threats to the rule of law pose serious challenges to the U.S.-Bulgaria bilateral relationship,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey) and ranking member Jim Risch (Republican-Idaho) said in the statement.
"As the April parliamentary elections draw near, it is imperative that the government of Bulgaria protect these values," they said.
Bulgaria was rocked by demonstrations last summer as thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest against a growing perception of corruption under Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who has led the country for most of the past decade.
Bulgaria, a member of the European Union and NATO, scored lowest in the bloc on both Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index and Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index.
Delyan Peevski, a media mogul and lawmaker close to Borisov, accounts for some 80 percent of the print media in Bulgaria, as well as private television networks and websites, according to Reporters Without Borders, giving him enormous influence, especially during an election season.
“These rankings underscore the breadth of the challenges facing Bulgaria. The Bulgarian government and judiciary must work to uphold the rule of law for all, not just some, and the media must have the freedom to report the truth without facing harassment, violence, or punishment,” the lawmakers said.
Last year’s anti-government protests were driven in part by claims that Borisov’s ruling GERB party is controlled from behind the scenes by Peevski and his Movement for Rights and Freedom.
President Rumen Radev, who supported the protesters, has charged that a "mafia" controls Borisov's government and the country's notoriously politicized Prosecutor-General’s Office.
Two wealthy Bulgarian families hired Washington-based lobby firm Alexandria Group International last year after the Borisov government opened criminal cases against them. The families claim the government is trying to illegally seize their assets.
In a report issued to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Alexandria Group described Peevski as one of the “key architects of Bulgaria’s democratic decline and devolution into a criminal state,” including the capture of privately held assets by extralegal means.
Peevski in December hired BGR Group, Washington's third-largest lobbying firm by revenue, to help him with “issues in the U.S.” Neither a Peevski representative nor BGR responded at the time to a request for comment.
Borisov’s party is expected to come in first in the April elections, according to the latest polling data. His GERB is facing off against a host of parties, including several start-ups.
Borisov’s failure to combat corruption and uphold the rule of law aren’t the only issues that have rankled the United States.
Bulgaria has continued to move ahead with its section of a pipeline that will carry natural gas from Russia to Serbia via Turkey and Bulgaria.
The pipeline enables Russia to reroute some natural gas exports destined for the Balkans and Central Europe around Ukraine.
Washington opposes the project and has threatened to sanction it on the grounds that it strengthens the Kremlin’s influence on Europe’s energy sector and deprives Kyiv of needed transit fees.