Deputy PM, minister and MEP named in Bulgaria’s cash-for-passport scam

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Krassimir Karakachanov and Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva, at a Council meeting during the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU. [BTA]

Updates with Kovatchev rejecting accusations

EXCLUSIVE: A deputy prime minister, a minister and a Bulgarian MEP are allegedly responsible for illegally selling Bulgarian passports to foreigners, according to claims made by a whistleblower who provided a bundle of documents that appeared to confirm the accusation.

Deputy Prime Minister Krassimir Karakachanov, the former Justice Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva (now foreign minister) and MEP Andrey Kovatchev (from Boyko Borissov’s GERB party) are the most senior people accused of running the scam which had enabled thousands of foreigners to obtain Bulgarian passports for cash, and with them offering visa-free travel across the EU, the whistleblower said.

These allegations were made to EURACTIV by whistleblower Katya Mateva, a former director of the Council for Citizenship, a body participating in the decision-making of granting Bulgarian citizenship to foreigners. Mateva was fired by Zaharieva in 2016, after she refused to participate in the scam, she says.

EURACTIV invited Karakachanov, Zaharieva and Kovatchev to respond to the accusations against them and the latter two told this website they were “surprised” by the accusations, while Kovatchev later denied any responsibility.

“I would like to categorically and strongly reject these accusations and repudiate the insinuations made here,” Kovatchev told EURACTIV in emailed comments after the article was published.

The State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad was involved in a huge scandal after revelations that it issued fake certificates of Bulgarian origin, a document based on which Bulgarian nationality and identity documents can be issued.

Thousands obtained EU citizenship for €5000 in Bulgarian scam

Bulgarian prosecutors said Monday (29 October) they have broken up a scam run by state officials which had enabled thousands of foreigners to obtain Bulgarian passports for cash — and with them visa-free travel across the EU.

No agency, no problem

The passports-for-cash scandal could topple the government of Boyko Borissov. The head of the agency, Petar Haralampiev, was arrested upon accusations of being part of an organised crime group. Haralampiev was appointed by recommendation of VMRO, the party of Karakachanov.

As the investigation of the Agency continued, the equivalent of roughly €285,000 in cash was found in a safe deposit-box belonging to Krassimir Tomov, chief secretary of this institution. Tomov is in custody, together with Haralampiev and two more officials, suspected of being part of an organised crime group.

On Monday (26 November) Borissov surprisingly announced that the Agency, which is instrumental for delivering the passports, will be closed. Borissov argued that there were other institutions, such as the ministry of justice and of the interior, to do the job.

However, later on Monday, Karakachanov retorted that his proposal was that instead of an Agency, Bulgarians abroad should be covered by a full-fledged ministry.

Fragile coalition, cumbersome allies

Boyko Borissov’s GERB party majority in parliament depends on its coalition with the United Patriots: Volen Siderov’s Ataka, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria of Valeri Simeonov, and VMRO, a political party who claims to be the successor to the historic Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization.

VMRO is led by Krassimir Karakachanov. When the government was formed in May 2017, Simeonov and Karakachanov were appointed as Deputy Prime Ministers, while Siderov became leader of the United Patriot’s group in the National Assembly. On 16 November Valeri Simeonov resigned as Deputy Prime Minister, after weeks of street protests by mothers of children with disabilities he insulted, and who pressed for him to go.

Whistleblower Mateva told EURACTIV that the main source of income for VMRO, under the leadership of Karakachanov, was the passport-for-cash scheme, which at the time when she was in office applied to Macedonian nationals.

She said she has told the Bulgarian prosecution that Karakachanov has received between €550 to €1,500 for each Macedonian granted a Bulgarian passport under the scam. The number of candidates per day was 150-200, she has told the prosecution.

Under the scam, Macedonians paid cash to obtain a fake certificate of Bulgarian origin. As Mateva opposed the scam and blocked over 7,000 applications, Karakachanov (then in his capacity of VMRO chairman) put pressure on justice minister Zaharieva to fire her and unblock the applications.

Mateva said Karakachanov was under pressure from Macedonians who had paid bribes, but with their documents blocked, wanted their money back.

According to Mateva, Zaharieva herself has been under pressure by Karakachanov, and has resisted in an initial period, until MEP Andrey Kovatchev organised a meeting on 3 June 2016 with representatives of a Bulgarian NGO in Macedonia.

Since then, Zaharieva made a U-turn, Mateva says, and has been pressing for satisfying Karakachanov’s policy of giving passports to paying clients. At the same time, Zaharieva started her efforts to eliminate Mateva from decision–making, and soon kicked her out.

Kovatchev is a prominent Bulgarian MEP, Vice Chair of the EPP Group.

Mateva has reportedly presented ample evidence of her claims to the prosecution, but no one of the three high officials named in this article has been investigated. She claims that her sidelining and the consistent ignoring of her testimony was decided as part of the coalition deal struck between Karakachanov and Borissov.

The European Commission has criticised Bulgaria for the excessive powers of the Chief prosecutor, over whom there is no institutional oversight. The incumbent Chief prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov is perceived as friendly to Borissov.

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Zaharieva called Mateva’s statement “a surprise”, saying that as a superior, she had always offered her “full support”. Zaharieva said Mateva had refused her proposal to appoint an additional five employees and introduce improvements to the IT system.

However, documents provided by Mateva indicate that she had told the prosecution that such attempts “to help the workflow” aimed at planting agents on short contracts tasked with facilitating the illicit delivery of certificates, rather than improving the efficiency. 

Kovachev, too, says he is surprised by Mateva’s interpretation of his role. The MEP says the meeting he had facilitated with the Bulgarian NGO in Macedonia aimed at overcoming the applications blocked by her. In particular, one of the applications concerned the grandson of a historic figure and resulted in embarrassment. “It’s a pity this topic is used for political accusations and dividends”, Kovachev lamented.

Former Bulgarian Ambassador Velizar Enchev told EURACTIV he has written letters to the Commission, including to President Jean-Claude Juncker, Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and to Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová, providing details about the scam and asking the EU executive to take action.

Enchev says the EU cannot look the other way when European citizenship is being granted in a criminal way to thousands of foreigners paying bribes. Many of them have been arrested abroad for criminal offences.

The cash-for-passports scam was briefly mentioned on page 19 of the latest Commission progress report under the so-called Cooperation and Verification mechanism.

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