The United States has sanctioned three Bulgarian individuals, including a power broker and a gambling tycoon, and dozens of companies they allegedly own or control for their “extensive roles” in corruption in the Southeast European country.
The Department of the Treasury said in a statement on June 2 that the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has put former member of parliament Delyan Peevski, prominent businessman Vassil Bozhkov, and ex-national-security official Ilko Zhelyazkov on the Global Magnitsky list, along with a total of 64 entities said to be linked to them.
Bulgaria, a NATO and European Union member, has struggled to end endemic corruption that has held the country back economically. Bulgaria is the EU’s poorest member state and routinely comes in toward the bottom of the bloc's annual corruption perception polls.
“The United States stands with all Bulgarians who strive to root out corruption by promoting accountability for corrupt officials who undermine the economic functions and democratic institutions of Bulgaria,” OFAC Director Andrea M. Gacki said in a statement issued by the State Department.
“This designation under the Global Magnitsky sanctions program shows that we are committed to combating corruption wherever it may be.”
Peevski, who controls large swaths of the Bulgarian media landscape, including newspapers and television stations, is considered to be one of the most powerful people in the country.
Bulgarian opposition officials say he had been behind the appointment of ministers and members of the judiciary.
Peevski “has regularly engaged in corruption, using influence peddling and bribes to protect himself from public scrutiny and exert control over key institutions and sectors in Bulgarian society,” the Treasury Department said in its statement.
The Treasury Department said Peevski sought to influence municipal elections in 2019 by providing politicians with positive media coverage in exchange for protection from criminal investigations.
Zhelyazkov was Peevski’s “frontman,” carrying out various bribe schemes, the Treasury Department said.
In material distributed on Capitol Hill last year by Washington lobbyist Marshall Harris, Peevski was described as one of the “key architects of Bulgaria’s democratic decline and devolution into a criminal state.”
Harris, a former State Department official, called Peevski the “oligarch in chief” and the “ultimate puppet master” in Bulgaria in the material published on the Department of Justice’s foreign lobbying website.
Harris represents two businessmen who accuse the Bulgarian state of seeking to seize their assets under false pretenses.
Bozhkov, who made a fortune in the Bulgarian gambling industry, has “bribed government officials on several occasions,” including the former chairman of the now-abolished State Commission on Gambling, the Treasury Department said.
The businessman paid the former chairman $6,200 a day to revoke the gambling licenses of his competitors, according to an investigation by Bulgarian prosecutors.
It also accused Bozhkov of providing money to a former Bulgarian official and a Bulgarian politician earlier this year to help the tycoon “create a channel for Russian political leaders to influence Bulgarian government officials.”
The sanctions could impact snap parliamentary elections this summer.
Peevski had been a key member of the Movement for Rights and Freedom (DPS) party, which polled fourth in parliamentary elections in April.
A party backed by Bozhkov received less than 3 percent of the April vote, just missing out on a seat in parliament.
New elections were called for this summer after the parties that entered parliament failed to form a government.