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Vindication? Ex-Minister Takes Aim At Bulgaria's 'Totalitarian Instinct'

Daniel Mitov arrives for a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Amsterdam in February 2016.
Daniel Mitov arrives for a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Amsterdam in February 2016.

A former Bulgarian foreign minister who has since been targeted by the country's courts has vowed to help pull back the curtain on autocratic tendencies and anti-Western elements in the European Union's poorest state.

Daniel Mitov got word last month that Bulgaria's Supreme Court of Cassation upheld lower-court dismissals in consecutive prosecutions that began soon after the fall, in 2017, of the government in which he served.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service after the ruling, he cited his two-year legal battles as a cautionary tale on the toll of a "totalitarian instinct" in public institutions in postcommunist Bulgaria that has lessons that go beyond politics.

"For 30 years, the prosecutor's office has been used in this way," Mitov, who was foreign minister in two governments from 2014-17, said on May 14. "In the Bulgarian transition [from communism], [the prosecutor's office] has never become the institution that is needed."

Mitov, who as Bulgaria's top diplomat pushed to counter pro-Russian elements and now works for the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, pledged to sue the prosecutor's office under Bulgaria's State and Municipal Liability for Damages Act.

He suggested his suit might discourage prosecutions like his, which he said were aimed at sending a chilling signal to "European institutions and partner countries."

May Date 'No Coincidence'

His warnings are a reminder of the divisive shadow cast by Moscow even as Bulgaria's political and economic fortunes have turned increasingly westward.

Mitov was a vocal critic of Russian actions in Ukraine and he became Sofia's top diplomat just as Europe and the West were imposing sanctions on Moscow for its annexation of Crimea. He also warned of increasing Russian influence in Syria and the Middle East.

"I am convinced of one thing: the very pressure to bring charges not only against me, but also against other ministers, has largely been linked to our position on Russia," Mitov told RFE/RL.

Mitov noted that the initial accusation against him was raised three years ago on May 9, which is celebrated among EU member states as Europe Day but marked in Russia and much of the former Soviet bloc as Victory Day for the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.

"I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but it's not a coincidence," he said. "The whole context was clear."

While solidly pro-EU, Bulgaria has historically close relations with Moscow. Russia has a significant "economic footprint" in Bulgaria that has diminished but still exacerbates internal political divisions with respect to Moscow.

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) says Bulgaria is home to an outsized share of the continent's most conspicuously anti-Western political parties, including Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's ruling GERB party.

Its "overall party system tends towards anti-Western positions" on fundamental questions, the ECFR's Gustav Gressel wrote in 2017, around the time Mitov's prosecution was being ramped up.

If there was a political bias at work against Mitov, according to Petar Cholakov, a political analyst and sociology professor from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, it could be over his "strong pro-NATO positions."

"He has been critical of Russia's policies -- for example, in Ukraine and Syria -- and of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's regime as a whole," Cholakov says, adding that "especially in the fields of defense, police, and judiciary, there are still cadres [in Bulgaria] who are loyal to the former communist regime and/or 'admirers' of Mr. Putin's regime."

Lots Of Problems

Bulgaria has an entrenched reputation as one of the European Union's most corrupt states.

Holes in judicial and other reforms and perceived abuses by senior Bulgarian prosecutors have compounded fears of political nontransparency and a lack of accountability, clouding the country's future and scaring off outside investment.

Bulgarians themselves have spoken with their feet: One in four people has left since 1989 -- one of the sharpest population declines in the world -- and UN demographers warned recently that the current population of around 7 million could fall by another quarter by 2050 and by around half by the end of this century.

But beyond the loss of many of Bulgaria's most talented young minds to decades of emigration, many attribute stalled investment to corruption and rule-of-law issues including selective regulation, enforcement, and prosecution.

Foreign direct investment to Bulgaria has fallen off its 2007 peak despite a low-cost workforce, improving macroeconomic performance, and a rising portion of trade with its EU partners. Sofia has also tried to lure investors with one of the region's lowest corporate tax rates and unfettered ownership limits outside of two dozen or so specific sectors.

Throughout, Bulgaria has seen intermittent anti-government protests expressing anger at corruption and a lack of political progress or transparency.

But the lack of a unified opposition has left Borisov -- the chameleonic former Sofia mayor -- and his conservative, populist Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) in charge for most of the past decade through multiple coalition deals.

High-profile Bulgarian prosecutions have sometimes targeted "those who have lost the blessing of the political elite," according to Cholakov.

At the same time, he says, prosecutors have been seen to spare allies in cases such as what last year became known as "apartmentgate."

Boyko Borisov has been at the top of Bulgarian politics for years.
Boyko Borisov has been at the top of Bulgarian politics for years.

That scandal threatened to dent the showing of Bulgaria's ruling parties in European Parliament elections after senior officials -- including the head of the state's anti-corruption commission -- appeared to acquire swank apartments cheaply or misreport the value of apartments in luxury neighborhoods in the capital.

"Middle-class Bulgarians struggling to pay a mortgage on a small city apartment are deeply resentful" and looked on the unfolding scandal with horror, Anti-Corruption Fund co-founder Nikolay Staykov, whose U.S.-backed group and RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service helped unearth the scandal, told the Financial Times at the time.

The country's Anti-Corruption Commission later said it found no conflict of interest in the case, which had led to four senior government resignations.

More recently, a special prosecutor's office quietly issued a decree late on May 27 declaring its intention to drop one of the last "apartmentgate" investigations, removing the threat of prosecution against former ruling GERB party Deputy Chairman Tsvetan Tsvetanov.

"The intensity of the existing backlash against the corrupt justice system is insufficient to provoke meaningful changes of the status quo," Cholakov told RFE/RL in reference to the broader Bulgarian dilemma.

Prosecutorial Record

Prosecutorial powers and choices have particularly concerned many of Sofia's counterparts and institutions abroad, including the European Commission, both before and since Bulgaria's accession to the European Union in 2007.

And public trust in Bulgaria's justice system is among the EU's lowest.

But in October 2019, after protesters turned out in Sofia to challenge the nomination of the current prosecutor-general, Ivan Geshev, GERB and its allies didn't even bother to nominate an alternate choice.

In December, President Ruman Radev launched public consultations on a constitutional reform drive to revamp the powers and accountability of the prosecutor-general.

The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's advisory body on constitutional matters, had broadly backed such changes.

It based its conclusions in part on an international ruling in 2009 citing the "impossibility" of an effective investigation into the killing of a deputy chief prosecutor due to influence from Bulgaria's top prosecutor at the time.

In that case, brought by a former prosecutor after his dismissal and decided posthumously in 2009, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Bulgarian authorities had improperly detained Nikolai Kolev and bungled the investigation into his 2002 murder after he'd expressly warned "he might be killed as part of a merciless campaign...orchestrated by the chief public prosecutor."

The court noted that Kolev had alleged, and a number of senior officials testified, that the country's top prosecutor at the time had "terrorized and punished every subordinate who dared disobey his orders, including when those were unlawful."

In December, incoming Prosecutor-General Geshev invited the predecessor alluded to in the Kolev case, Nikola Filchev (1999-2006), and another controversial former top prosecutor to join his expert council.

'Meaningless Process'

Mitov said he believed the majority of prosecutors and individuals within the judiciary "want to do their job and stand on the side of the law -- it's just that part of this system is used" for political dirty work. "This system with totalitarian instincts is used by anyone who knows how and has the desire to use it," he said.

The ex-minister blamed individuals "who have been steeped in this relationship for a very long time -- they instinctively reach for such levers of influence."

Mitov was originally accused along with a deputy by Sofia city prosecutors of mismanagement over a perceived lack of controls when he piggybacked on the Agriculture Ministry for purchases of plane tickets and accommodation for his ministry. When that avenue was shut down by a court, he was unsuccessfully charged with breach of trust.

The courts threw out both those cases before the highest court last month also sided with Mitov.

Two fellow Reform Bloc cabinet ministers who served alongside Mitov -- Nikolai Nenchev (defense) and Petar Moskov (health) -- were also accused by prosecutors of wrongdoing in cases rejected by the courts.

"At the end of this absolutely meaningless process," Mitov said, "we must draw our own conclusions and make it clear that this [kind of prosecutorial activity] is simply not possible."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Boris Mitov (no relation to Daniel Mitov) and Ivan Bednov
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    Boris Mitov

    Boris Mitov has been a correspondent for RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service since 2019 and has more than 15 years of experience as an investigative reporter. He has followed the work of Bulgaria's security services and judicial system for various media outlets, including for the Bulgarian News Agency (BTA), Sega, and Mediapool.

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    Ivan Bedrov

    Ivan Bedrov is the director of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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