A tale of the skin of a Bulgarian general prosecutor
Three years after the event, the massive street protests that blocked the traffic in Central Sofia in the course of months, in 2020, seem to have achieved their original aims. Firstly, Boyko Borisov is no longer prime minister, and stands little chance of being reelected again. Second, Ivan Geshev has been fired as general prosecutor, the Bulgarian equivalent of the US attorney general, the British director of public prosecutions, Germany's federal public prosecutor general and France's procureur général. One of his deputies, Borislav Sarafov, was appointed a caretaker replacement. Sarafov, thought to be Geshev's former right-hand man, bitterly fell out with his former boss just before the Supreme Judiciary Council voted to give Geshev the boot.
In the developed democracies, the role of the attorney general – because of the high degree of specific qualifications it requires – is rarely a matter for public debate. Few citizens of Scotland, Spain, or The Netherlands even know the name of whoever happens to be their own prosecutor general. To put it bluntly, unless you are into crime – or you work in the legal administration system – you usually do not have much to do with any prosecutor general.
However, as may have been expected, things are not like that in Bulgaria where the figure of Ivan Geshev has been central to the political debate since his appointment in 2019.
Ever since Bulgaria began its experiment with democracy, in 1989, it has had a rather unfortunate dalliance with whoever it picked up for chief prosecutor.
In 1992-1999, it was Ivan Tatarchev. Before he was appointed for chief prosecutor, Tatarchev was a little known lawyer. He was quick to get onto the anti-Communist bandwagon following The Changes of 1989 and made a name for himself as an anti-Communist. He ranted periodically against the Communists and the gays, and he was a strong nationalist. In favour of reinstalling the death penalty, Tatarchev made some spectacular arrests. He kept Ivan Slavkov, the former son-in-law of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov and at the time the chairman of the Bulgarian Olympic Committee, and Andrey Lukanov, a former prime minister, in jail for several months. Lukanov then sued and won against the Bulgarian state at the International Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg – one of the many such disgraces in this country's recent history.
Tatarchev was a political appointment of the original SDS, or Union of Democratic Forces, the chief anti-totalitarian grouping in the country. Despite the common name, the current SDS, in coalition with Boyko Borisov's GERB, has little to do with its predecessor. In the early 1990s the SDS purged the justiciary system of real or suspected acolytes of the Communist regime. Ivan Grigorov, who was elected chairman of the Supreme Court, declared: "The legal reforms have been completed."
In the meantime, organised crime flourished. The protection racket outperformed the industry, hyperinflation ate up much of the savings of the population. The word mutri was coined then. Young Boyko Borisov, a former fireman, ran a successful protection business.
Tatarchev's successor, Nikola Filchev (in office 1999-2006) was an even worse ignominy. A former judge and a professor of criminal justice, Tatarchev was thought to be the personal appointee of Ivan Kostov, the rightwing SDS prime minister whom some old-school anti-Communists in Bulgaria still glorify – despite the fact that Kostov has been out of politics for about 20 years. Filchev was quick to disown the SDS. Subsequently, he was represented as mentally unstable and even insane. He was accused of putting an assassination contract on a female lawyer and of threatening to murder a fellow prosecutor. Filchev vowed to "de-privatise" the legal system.
Organised crime set up firms, erected hotels, started casinos and went into real estate. The mutri became white-collar. Boyko Borisov protected the would-be prime minister, Former King Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who in turn appointed him this country's top cop.
Boris Velchev (2006-2012) was the grandson of a senior Communist Party official. He did little if anything to delve into the many scandals the early Boyko Borisov and his retinue got involved in. No serious cases of corruption, malfeasance, illegal phone tappings and so on and so fourth got started. Velchev habitually looked the other way. Boyko Borisov wаs safely mayor of Sofia.
Sotir Tsatsarov (2012-2019), a former judge from Plovdiv, was seen as the perfect accomplice of Boyko Borisov and Tsvetan Tsvetanov. He never did anything to investigate large-scale corruption and nepotism. All of those Boyko Borisov's current pals, the DB (Democratic Bulgaria), claim epitomise Bulgaria under GERB. Instead, Tsatsarov started a case against Elena Yoncheva, a former TV journalist and an EMP for the Socialist Party, accusing her of... money laundering. Yoncheva had just started talking about Boyko Borisov's alleged property in Barcelona, Spain. When his term in office ended, Tsatsarov was appointed head of the Seizure of Illegal Assets Commission, a body Bulgaria established in the early 2010s under Western pressure. Known by the acronym KPKONPI, it has been criticised for being used to advance political aims rather than fight organised crime.
Ivan Geshev (2019-2023) was a cop who progressed into law and became chief prosecutor after Sotir Tsatsarov. He had been in change of the prosecuting team for the 2016 bankruptcy of the Corporative Commercial Bank. After several years of evidence gathering Geshev submitted to court a 10,000-page indictment in which the obvious suspects for the CCB collapse had not even been interrogated. Geshev outshone even his predecessor in kowtowing to Borisov and using his office as a baseball bat to bludgeon political or business opponents with.
If the state of the prosecution service is an indicator for the level of democracy and rule-of-law, Bulgaria is in fact worse off than it was when it started. It is a captured state, where the failures of any chief prosecutor so far can be explained with the numerous pressures and under-the-table deals for anything from the purchase of cheap apartments in Sofia to illegal surveillance and shady business associations meeting in restaurants with odd names.
Paradoxically, the media hacks usually eschew the issue as under Boyko Borisov they preferred to intone his commonplaces about the "fulfilled technical requirements" for Schengen. However, the sorry state of the Bulgarian judiciary system is in fact the real reason Bulgaria has been refused – and will continue to be refused – access to the police and justice cooperation system of Western Europe.