Commission asked to investigate Bulgaria’s ‘Watergate’ scandal
Hannes Swoboda, president of the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament, called yesterday (16 April) on the European Commission to investigate a wiretapping scandal in Bulgaria.
Media in Bulgaria have dubbed the unfolding eavesdropping scandal “the Bulgarian Watergate”, alluding to the 1970s secret taping of the Democratic party headquarters, which led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon.
Bulgarians will vote in early parliamentary elections on 12 May. If the taping allegations prove to be true, the government of former prime minister Boyko Borissov, leader of the centre-right GERB party, would have spied on all major political players in the country.
Borissov resigned on 20 February, following boisterous public protests over electricity bills. Still, opinion polls give his party the chance to come back to power.
Prosecutor General Sotir Tsatsarov said on 15 April that unauthorised wiretapping by specialised police forces has taken place during the current caretaker government, which took office on 13 March.
Unauthorised wiretapping was widespread under Borissov, the prosecutor said.
Normally specialised police use wiretapping methods only following a request by criminal investigators, validated by a judge. It appears, however, that specialised police forces, using a Chrysler Voyager van, have conducted massive wiretapping without any legal authorisation.
Learning about the investigation, the officer responsible for the van erased all the information collected. The car was later seized by the prosecutors and charges were brought against the officer. Tsatsarov said he hoped the information could be recovered.
The prosecution started investigating the wiretapping following a complaint filed by the leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party Sergei Stanishev, who is also leader of the Party of European Socialists. Tsatsarov said that “two-thirds” of the information had already been confirmed, the remaining part being the names of the people illegally tapped.
President, EU commissioner tapped?
Stanishev said he had received an anonymous information according to which those who were tapped were the President Rossen Plevneliev, former president Georgi Parvanov, past leader of the ethnic Turkish party DPS Ahmed Dogan, former prime minister Ivan Kostov, Bulgarian EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, himself and a few others.
Stanishev also said that Tsvetan Tsvetanov, who was interior minister and deputy prime minister in the government of Borissov, had organised a “monstrous” after GERB took power in 2009.
Tsvetanov denied any wrongdoing and personal knowledge of possible illicit use of wiretaps.
The prosecutor general, however, said that Tsvetanov was responsible for making sure that wiretapping is conducted according to law.
‘The truth will be plain to see’
For his part, Borissov said he “guarantees” that Tsvetanov is not to blame for the illegal wiretappings and that “one day the truth will be plain to see”.
In a statement published on the website of the S&D group, Swoboda says Tzvetanov appears to have personally instigated and overseen the wiretapping.
“It is shameful that Bulgaria, as a member of the European Union, has been governed by an administration which clearly violated – with the help and knowledge of the Bulgarian police – the rights and privacy of a large number of people. It also raises questions about other actions that this government may have taken and its overall respect for democratic values,” Swoboda stated.
The S&D group leader also called on Tsvetanov to resign from political life, as he had himself said he would, if the wiretapping allegations were confirmed. Swoboda also called on the European Commission to investigate the scandal and set up “a monitoring mechanism to prevent similar cases in the future”.
Dnevnik, the EurActiv partner in Bulgaria, reported that Stanishev commented that Tzvetanov would not resign, because his election as MP would give him parliamentarian immunity.
Caretaker Prime Minister Marin Raykov, a career diplomat, said he was horrified at the idea that the his cabinet could have been subject to tapping.
EurActiv asked the Commission to comment on the developments. Commission spokesperson Mark Gray said that the prosecutor general Tsatsarov had indeed informed the EU executive about the investigation. But he made it plain the Commission would not comment while the investigation is ongoing, including about the alleged wiretapping of Georgieva.
Asked why the Commission has been too lax about illegal wiretapping on previous reports published under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (see background), Gray said it was not up to him to write history books on EU decision-making.
Several “eavesdropping” scandals in Bulgaria got little attention in CVM reports two years ago. On one leaked tape Borissov can be heard giving instructions to the head of the national customs to “protect” a businessman in the brewery business from checks.
Later, Borissov admitted his statements were true and in January 2011 called a confidence vote which he won.
Organised crime in Bulgaria is "unique" compared to other EU countries because it exercises a deep influence over the country's economy, according to the latest monitoring report by the European Commission published last July.
As shortcomings remained in Bulgaria and Bulgaria regarding judicial reform and the fight against corruption, the Commission has set up a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) to assist both countries with judiciary matters after their EU accession in 2007.
The European Parliament has recently debated the state of democracy in Bulgaria, a country described as the "weak link" in the EU and a threat to European values across the continent.
Guy Verhofstadt, President of the ALDE Group has made the following statement:
"Sanctioning of illegal wiretapping of opposition politicians in Bulgaria by state authorities undermines democracy and the fairness of the electoral process. The European Union monitoring mechanism covers adherence to the rule of law matters and therefore the ongoing scandal should be seriously analysed by the European Commission. With less than one month before elections in Bulgaria, citizens need to be reassured that their fundamental rights are protected."
Heads of the Bulgarian delegations in the ALDE Group, Antonyia Parvanova (NDSV) and Filiz Hyusmenova (DPS) added:
"The current situation is the result of the GERB party systematically abusing their authority. The scandal is evidence of an extremely dangerous process of politicisation within the Ministry of Interior over the last four years. This process is pushing Bulgaria back to the dark times of the totalitarian regime and is driving us further from the European values, the rule of law and democracy. "
Sergei Stanishev, President of the Party of European Socialists (PES), called on Commission Vice President Viviane Reding, responsible for Justice and Fundamental rights, to “break her silence, put party affiliations aside and finally act on this alarming erosion of democratic rights. In order to investigate and prevent these undemocratic practices, independent monitoring needs to be conducted immediately. The legitimacy and good conduct of the upcoming national elections are at stake”.
- 12 May: Bulgarians vote in early parliamentary elections