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In Bulgaria, Demise of Top Prosecutor Raises Questions About Judicial Reform

Ivan Geshev’s political aspirations call into question Bulgaria’s goal of judicial reform.

At the beginning of July, Bulgaria’s former chief prosecutor, who rarely took questions while in office, turned to Facebook Live. As Ivan Geshev read awkwardly from the teleprompter, staring stiffly into the camera, he announced plans to establish a new movement, Justice for Bulgaria — the first step, some said, to him entering politics. 

Geshev, who once referred to himself once as “an instrument in the hands of God” and was dismissed as the top prosecutor in June, plodded through his speech, not referring to the years of protests and public outcry about his cozying up to oligarchs and corrupt politicians while in office, and his failure to investigate high-ranking graft.

This attempted return to public life by Geshev so swiftly after he was ousted as prosecutor was another outlandish moment as the new government — which has made no secret of its dislike for him — aimed to course-correct years of stagnation, and as it agreed to focus on eliminating corruption among its ranks.

Bulgaria has long been identified as a major rule-of-law weak spot in the European Union, where organized crime gangs and the Russians have held sway over the country’s politics.

Sorting out the judiciary was supposed to be a major part of fixing that problem.

Geshev’s exit was meant to signal the start of a turnaround from what has been called a “mafia state.” Without his ability to clamp down on investigations, the hope has always been that significant reform will now be possible. Indeed, in a major development since his departure, the European Public Prosecutor has this month swung into action in working with the Bulgarian police and security services to conduct raids over the abuse of EU funds — one of the key sources of mafia income.

The question remains, however, whether Geshev’s removal is simply cosmetic. He has, after all, been replaced by a man who long served as his deputy. Root-and-branch systemic change still seem a remote.

“We live in a country where a handful of people call the shots depending on their business and/or political interests, most often acting against the rule of law and public interest,” said human rights lawyer Mihail Ekimdzhiev, referring to recent judicial scandals.

Bad judicial habits

After years of political turbulence, this year’s election ended with two rival parties — the center-right GERB party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and the reformist anti-corruption alliance of We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria — being forced to build a cabinet together and pledging to bring a halt to political corruption.

For years, politicians campaigned on promises to crack down on rampant graft only to be unable to impose change when the time came, including during the short-lived reformist government of 2022 led by Kiril Petkov, the co-leader of We Continue the Change. 

Under Petkov’s government, Borissov was briefly arrested in a major corruption inquiry, but charges were never brought — with Geshev rubbishing the case as politically motivated. The case was also marred by procedural deficiencies and a court eventually decided the arrest was illegal. Since then, Borissov and Geshev have become enemies, with Borissov bristling at assertions that Geshev blocked his prosecution and got him off the hook.

“You cannot prosecute anybody, on the street, in the parliament or in the prime minister’s offices [without] a normal working judicial system,” said Petkov in a recent interview with POLITICO. “Unless Bulgaria cleans up on this, and has an institutional framework, we will keep on having these political fights with no end result.”

Geshev understood the optics of a strong judicial system even if he did not build one.

After protests about his nomination in 2019, Geshev attempted to repair his reputation. He was the only candidate and there were suspicions that he was a political appointment, with some protesters demanding a more transparent appointment procedure. He toured towns and villages across the country in a bid to be seen as a man of the people. He attempted a crackdown on petty crime and launched a series of anti-hate speech events against the rise of anti-semitism, racism and xenophobia.

In the latter half of his time in power, Geshev proclaimed himself to be like an Italian judge, Giovanni Falcone, who was assassinated by the mafia. Geshev said he and the Bulgarian judicial system were also under attack from the underworld, oligarchs and corrupt politicians. 

Yet Geshev’s dismissal has lawmakers, academics and rights advocates suggesting this could be a pivotal moment for Bulgaria. It can only make progress, they argue, if it can withstand the twin tests of old alliances rearing their heads and Geshev’s political aspirations.

“What is new is that the political parties of the status quo realized that it is politically damaging for them to keep resisting judicial reform,” said Hristo Ivanov, a former justice minister and co-leader of Democratic Bulgaria.

Attempts to reform

The Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), Bulgaria’s top judicial authority, dismissed Geshev in June after a series of scandals.

Weeks before he was fired, Geshev said he escaped a roadside bomb which aimed to kill him but prominent figures allege he may have staged the incident. His own deputy, Borislav Sarafov, distanced himself from his boss, called for him to step down and asked for his own security detail, in fear of retaliation. 

One Bulgarian media headline proclaimed: “Deputy chief prosecutor calls for the prosecution of the chief prosecutor.”

After the criticism from Sarafov, one by one Geshev’s loyal allies and political parties publicly distanced themselves from him. The Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF), a party deemed to have close ties with Geshev, withdrew their support and joined the calls for his resignation. 

Now, Sarafov is acting chief prosecutor. And although the justice minister appealed Sarafov’s appointment, the Supreme Judicial Council refused to remove him.

Geshev points to representatives of international authorities looking into the explosion as part of the investigation, in an interview with POLITICO last month. He accused the government of ordering his firing rather than addressing “the assassination attempt on a chief prosecutor of a European country.”  

“We found ourselves in a Guy Ritchie style of movie where several gangsters are fighting each other. There are no good heroes and it’s only a matter of who is going to outdraw the others,” said Ekimdzhiev, the human rights lawyer, referring to Geshev’s final weeks in office.

When asked about his firing, Geshev described allegations about his ties with politicians as “propaganda cliches.”

“If I had that type of influence and I was conveniently following politicians’ orders instead of fighting them, I wouldn’t have been removed, would I?” he said.

Fear in Brussels

The European Union has expressed concern about the separation of power and judicial independence in Bulgaria ever since Sofia joined the bloc in 2007, watching the country struggle with the rule of law.

In 2020, the European Parliament passed a resolution denouncing Bulgaria for disrespecting the rule of law. Earlier this year, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office opened a search into corruption and potential misuse of EU funds allocated for the capital’s restoration. In its 2023 Rule of Law report, published earlier this month, the European Commission singled out the inability to hold the chief prosecutor accountable and political influence over the judicial system as long-standing issues for Bulgaria. 

“It is inevitable to have some crackdown on corruption but how far the politicians are willing to go remains to be seen,” said Evgenii Dainov, a Sofia-based political scientist. 

“Over the years certain parties demonstrated that they are interested in having a politically dependent judiciary. It seems unlikely that they would change their mind overnight,” he added.

Any change will be slow.

Just prior to Geshev’s dismissal, potentially in fear of being removed from his perch, he announced investigations into a number of politicians, including Borissov, and senior magistrates.

“If he had some smoking gun against his enemies, he would have used it by now,” said Dainov. “I’m afraid Geshev has already been tamed by his previous masters.”

Last month, Borissov secured the support of the MRF and the far-right Revival party, a move which some see as an attempt to show his coalition partners who is calling the shots, and, if necessary, to counter a future pivot to judicial reform that is not in his party’s favor. This has angered GERB’s coalition partners and they threatened to resign if this practice continues.

Much needed order

This leaves Bulgaria facing a bumpy road, filled with obstacles blocking long-term reform.

Only 30 percent of Bulgarians describe the independence of courts and judges to be “fairly or very good,” according to an annual review of the judicial systems among EU member states.

At the end of July, a group of lawmakers from the coalition government, along with MRF, tabled a bill to change to the Constitution and to kickstart judicial reform.

“Having 166 signatures [on this bill] means that we have enough votes to pass the Constitutional amendments by the end of the year,” said Desislava Atanasova, a lawmaker from GERB, after filing the proposal. “We have been talking about judicial reform for 10 years now, it is high time we close that page.”

Some proposals include restructuring the SJP, restricting the powers of the chief prosecutor and allowing Bulgarians to petition the Constitutional Court, a motion available only to institutions at the moment. 

Not only does Bulgaria’s government want to make the hard pivot away from its corrupt past, Bulgarians are hoping for a clean break from the likes of Geshev. A survey, conducted by Sofia-based pollster Alpha Research, from June shows only 3 percent of Bulgarians would vote for Geshev if he entered into politics. 

Geshev, for his part, was coy about his plans to enter the political arena. He stressed the purpose of his movement would be to fight politicians and oligarchs in the country to “serve the people.” 

For now, the current coalition is not worried about Geshev’s return.

“Geshev does not stand a chance,” Ivanov said. 

Source : Politico