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9th Aug 2020

Interview

Bulgarian 'EU passports' whistleblower wants justice

  • Katya Mateva says her exposure of the scam came at a great personal cost (Photo: EUobserver)

An electric pole in a Bulgarian village is part of a nationwide scam to sell the fraudulent certificates needed to obtain Bulgarian citizenship, says Katya Mateva, a former director in charge of citizenship at Bulgaria's ministry of justice.

Speaking to EUobserver in Brussels, Mateva says a local mayor had registered the pole as an address for Macedonians who had purchased certificates with cash in their efforts to get naturalised in Bulgaria.

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"Thousands of people are registered at the electric pole," she said, noting the village is close to Blagoevgrad.

Mateva had worked in the ministry until 2016, saying she was fired for having refused to partake in the scam.

She says payments were being made in cash in broad daylight "on the side walks in front of the institutions at the heart of Sofia."

In an interview earlier this year with weekly French magazine L'Obs, she said she had cancelled some 60 such naturalisation applications following an alert from Interpol.

Then in October, the Bulgarian police made their fist big arrest after apprehending Petar Haralampiev and around 20 other suspects.

Haralampiev was in charge of the state agency for Bulgarians abroad and is suspected of having sold thousands of bogus certificates that indicate Bulgarian family ancestry.

Such documents are then used to grant access to Bulgarian nationality.

But Mateva says his arrest has not stopped the scams, saying the fraudulent certificates are still being used to gain citizenship.

"I am here to make an appeal that this horrendous practice be discontinued because I fear and I am almost sure that the culprits will bear almost no responsibility," she told EUobserver.

During her 11 years on the job, Mateva estimates at least 5,000 people every year with no Bulgarian roots managed to buy a bogus certificate.

The payments varied between €500 up to €7,000, depending on the wealth of the individual, she says.

The bribes were not exclusive to fraudsters. Even people with legitimate claims were being made to pay, she says.

"Everybody has paid. Nobody has received a certificate without paying and these are not state taxes. The most cynical is that the state claims granting Bulgarian citizenship costs nothing because nothing goes into the state coffer, and it is free, but you have to pay a lot under the table," she said.

She noted that some of Bulgaria's political elite benefitted from the scam, pointing her finger at the country's deputy prime minister, Krassimir Karakachanov.

Karakachanov heads Bulgaria's nationalist VMRO party, a coalition partner in prime minister's Boyko Borissov government. The party and the ministry of justice did not respond to questions from this website.

Glowing report

For its part, the European Commission says it cannot comment on judicial proceedings.

It also noted that conditions for obtaining and forfeiting national citizenship are regulated by the national law of each member state.

"When it comes to alleged fraud or criminal activities related to acquiring citizenship, it is the responsibility of the competent national authorities to diligently investigate such cases," said a commission spokesman, in an email.

Bulgaria, together with Romania, were placed under special EU anti-corruption monitoring schemes when they joined the EU in 2007 - the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM).

This year's CVM report, out in November, praised it in glowing terms, despite Mateva's revelations.

"Bulgaria has continued to make steady progress in implementing the final recommendations we set out," commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said at the time.

It made so much progress that he was "confident", he added, that the CVM scheme could be ended by November next year, when the current commission's mandate ends.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria's new citizens have joined thousands of other newly created EU nationals under golden passport schemes in Cyprus, Hungary, and Malta.

Passports for gold

But these have also attracted criticism as well as EU scrutiny.

Cyprus has in the past sold passports to wealthy Syrians and Russians covered by EU or US sanctions over the Syrian war and over US election meddling as well as to Russians who posed a high risk of money-laundering in the EU banking system.

Hungary, according to an investigation by the OCCRP, a club of journalists in Central Europe, channeled payments for its scheme via opaque offshore firms that may have served to pay kickbacks to corrupt officials.

Senior figures in the Maltese government, including the prime minister's chief of staff, have also been linked to kickbacks from the country's passport scheme, in allegations made by Daphne Caruana Galizia, an investigative reporter who was assassinated by a car bomb last year.

EU passport sales create 'proud Maltese citizens'

Malta says its 'Golden Visas' scheme attracts families that want to become "proud Maltese citizens". Meanwhile the sales to Russian nationals, and others, have generated over €700m in revenue.

Stymied on 'golden passports', EU sets up expert group

The European Commission has described the sale of EU citizenship by Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta as a "golden gate to Europe" for the rich. Unable to stop it, the commission now wants an expert group to probe the schemes.

Analysis

What's behind the sudden political unrest in Bulgaria?

Demonstrators are demanding prime minister Boyko Borissov and chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev resign, following a raid on the president's office. President Rumen Radev has been a vocal critic of the government and its record on graft.

EU on path towards whistleblower protection

EU lawmakers and member states have struck a political deal on the first-ever EU-wide directive on whistleblower protection - following years of big tax-evasion revelations and the laundering of dirty money in European banks.

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