Bulgarian prosecutors said on 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.
The scheme allegedly involved employees of the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, who are suspected of accepting bribes to issue fake certificates of Bulgarian origin, a document based on which Bulgarian nationality and identity documents can be issued.
Prosecutors said in a statement they had launched a probe into the agency’s work on several counts, including setting up an organised crime group, bribe taking, document forgery and abuse of office.
The prosecutor overseeing the inquiry, Angel Kanev, said no further details would be released at this stage.
Local media cited prosecution sources as saying that the head of the agency, Petar Haralampiev, had been arrested in Monday’s operation, along with more than 20 other people — his subordinates and suspected intermediaries between the agency and those seeking Bulgarian passports.
The scheme is alleged to have catered to fraudulent applicants from Ukraine, Moldova and Macedonia, all of which have significant minorities of ethnic Bulgarians.
After Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, there was a rush of passport applications from those countries by people who could prove they had at least one Bulgarian ancestor.
Under the scam, prosecutors say applicants paid up to €5,000 to obtain a fake certificate of Bulgarian origin. Thousands of people reportedly took advantage of the scheme, with press reports claiming the agency was issuing around 30 fake certificates per week.
The agency chief is normally appointed by the government, and the current head Haralampiev is seen as being close to the nationalist VMRO party, a junior partner in the government of conservative premier Boyko Borissov.
VMRO denied media reports that Haralampiev was a party member, saying: “We fully back the work of the prosecutors and insist that all those found guilty should receive the harshest punishment possible under Bulgarian law.”
Justice ministry figures show that the number of naturalised Bulgarians over the past ten years was more than 115,000, most of them believed to be ethnic Bulgarians in neighbouring countries.
Foreigners who obtain Bulgarian nationality seldom settle in the country. Instead, the vast majority use the Bulgarian passport to be able to live and work in richer EU countries.
In Belgium and in France, Bulgarian-language translators employed by the police told EURACTIV that whenever their services are requested in criminal investigations, it often turns out that the suspects with Bulgarian documents don’t speak Bulgarian.
Katia Mateva, the former head of the Bulgarian citizenship department at the justice ministry, told the weekly French magazine L’Obs in March that she had cancelled around 60 naturalisation applications after Interpol alerted authorities to the fact that the applicants were wanted on criminal charges.
Asked to comment on Monday, Commission spokesperson Christian Wigand said they were not going to comment on an ongoing investigation, but recalled that the EU executive is preparing a report on national schemes in many member countries to grant nationalities to investors, also known as the “golden passports”.
He said the Commission is putting emphasis on the background checks for applicants and the report is expected before the end of the year.
On 13 November, the Commission will publish its annual report on the rule of law in Bulgaria, under the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism.