Katya Mateva started work in the Bulgarian Ministry of Justice in 2005. In 2012, when she rose to the level of director of the Council for Citizenship, there was a change of government. The new parliament decided to carry out an investigation into the granting of Bulgarian citizenship over the previous 10 years – a period that coincided with the two mandates of the previous president.
Her investigation revealed a scam, one that appeared to have strong links with the new government’s party. In 2016, Mateva blocked thousands of dossiers (around 7,000) as they didn’t meet the basic requirement for proof of Bulgarian ancestry. For this, she was sacked and openly criticized by Deputy Prime Minister Karakachanov.
Mateva has finally been vindicated with the arrest of Petar Haralampiev (shown below with Deputy Prime Minister Krassimir Karakachanov), and is still fighting her unfair dismissal. On 29 October 2018, Bulgarian prosecutors reported that they had broken up a scam run by state officials which had enabled thousands of foreigners to obtain Bulgarian passports for bribes of up to €5,000. Petar Haralampiev, the head of the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad who was closely linked to the VMRO-BND party, was arrested along with other officials and suspected intermediaries. Large amounts of hidden cash were also found.
The arrests comes some five years after Mateva’s original investigation and two years after she put her foot down and tried to end this corrupt practice. Mateva told Bulgarian public prosecutors that VMRO-BND (the Bulgarian National Movement) politician Krassimir Karakachanov – now Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence – received between €550 to €1,500 for each Macedonian granted a Bulgarian passport. Karakachanov is a senior member of the government and the country’s law enforcement bodies are subordinate to him.
We met with Mateva to ask her for more about what happened.
Q: When did you realise that there was a problem?
Katya Mateva (KM): In 2012, when I was asked to audit the system for the awarding of citizenship I came to realise many things, which until then had not been obvious – at least not to me. So I started putting together the puzzle.
I had wondered previously, before I became Head of Department, why it appeared that one person who came to the office seemed to represent between 2,000 and 5,000 people.
Applicants had to supply a Bulgarian address, I wondered why the addresses of these people were often the same; there were around ten addresses that kept reappearing. One of the addresses used by the go-betweens was 5 Pirotska Street [in Sofia], the address of the VMRO-BND headquarters, another address, 6 Iskar Street [in Sofia] that was used in the applications was an empty lot owned by a foundation under VMRO-BND. Another is in the village of Belo Pole, region of Blagoevgrad, where a VMRO-BND mayor has enjoyed three mandates. Thousands of people were registered on these addresses.
One address turned out to be a plot of land where there is only an electric transformer station, other addresses were non-residential buildings, or an apartments of 60 square metres in which tens of people, sometimes hundreds, were registered.
My conclusion was that this was a scam and that the applications were an imitation of legality.
Q: What was the parliament’s reaction to your findings?
KM: What I was discovering was a public secret – many people knew that foreigners were making payments to obtain passports. At that time the new parliament had a political goal to discredit the former president [Georgi Parvanov], though the corruption may have been taking place at a lower level.
Q: Didn’t the new government want to take action once they had seen your findings?
KM: What I realised is that they were not serious about the investigation they had instigated. During the time when I was director I was constantly fighting and seeing whom I could signal the irregularities to, I was trying to find like-minded people at all levels, people who considered this practice corrupt. In 2013 and 2014 the Ministry of Justice sent three warnings regarding irregularities in the work of the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, two to the public prosecutor and one to the inspectorate under the council of Ministers. Despite these checks that confirmed the irregularities, the agency continued to work in breach of the law, and this continued until the 2018 arrests.
Q: Is the Bulgarian scheme a “golden visa” system, where people have to invest a certain amount in the country before being awarded a passport?
KM: No, there is a golden visa system in Bulgaria, but very few people have used it – but we are not talking about this. I have noticed that people abroad confuse the golden visas with the reasons for the arrests that took place on 29 October 2018 when the civil servants in the state agency responsible for Bulgarians abroad were arrested.
Obtaining citizenship in Bulgaria is free of charge for people who can prove they have at least one Bulgarian ancestor. However, even people with Bulgarian ancestors who are entitled to citizenship can obtain this through the system of intermediaries and by paying a bribe.
Bulgaria has experienced high emigration over the years for economic and other reasons; successive governments have been keen to help those with Bulgarian roots reclaim their nationality.
In 2012, the-then head of the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad Rossen Ivanov went to Kosovo, his visit was accompanied by massive publicity and media coverage. It was said that Rossen Ivanov can deliver certification of Bulgarian citizenship and therefore an EU passport.
Katya Mateva informed ministers of the irregularities related to the certificates issued by the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad in 2013. In September 2013, then Deputy Prime Minister, Zinaida Zlatanova initiated a meeting with law enforcement officials and a representative of the Cabinet of the Prime Minister. During this meeting all irregularities were discussed and it was decided that the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad must submit the documents showing why the certificate of Bulgarian origin was issued to the Council for Citizenship, something that the agency’s head Rossen Ivanov had categorically refused to do up until this point. The day after that meeting, Rossen Ivanov resigned.
After his resignation documents started arriving in the Council for Citizenship and it became clear that bulk certificates were issued without any real evidence of Bulgarian ancestry. In connection with this finding, the head of the Council of Citizenship filed an alert to the Chief Prosecutor (December 2013). The Supreme Administrative Prosecution found (February 2014) confirmed Mateva findings and made recommendations for stopping illegal practices, including a recommendation to the Council for Citizenship to collect evidence of Bulgarian ancestry.
Q: After you blocked suspicious applications you were removed from office. Were you offered a reason for your sacking?
KM: There was a seven-page document that said that my administrative shortcomings had led to a delay in procedures. The delays were because I blocked the files where I was concerned about the lack of proof of Bulgarian ancestry.
Karakachanov braggs about firing me and has publicly stated that I should be arrested and that this should be broadcast live. Karakachanov likes to pose as the defender of the Bulgarians in the Western Balkans. He describes me as a Bulgarian traitor who works for the Serbian and Turkish secret service against the Bulgarian national interest.
He has said that as a patriot he is kicking me out, so that I will no longer be a problem and Bulgaria will increase its population.
Q: What recourse do you have?
KM: I am pursuing legal action but I don’t expect justice, because the judges depend on political power for their advancement and because they are elected by parliament. I am not fighting for personal justice, I am fighting for this scandal to stop. Even if I won the court case this would not bring me back my health, it will not compensate me for what I have been through. [Mateva has recently been treated for cancer].
The only thing I am fighting for is for the truth about the crimes – so that they become plain to see. I want Bulgarian politicians to see that the use of power for personal gain is not how politics is understood in the rest of the civilized world.
Q: Is there any oversight at a European level?
It is not for me to say, I’ve signalled this at the national level. It is not by chance that the Ministry of Justice has the lowest credibility rate in Bulgaria. But ministers in Bulgaria don’t worry about their low ratings, as long that the prime minister is OK with them.
Q: What do you think of the European Commission’s report under the ‘Cooperation and Verification Mechanism’ – which presents a partially positive picture of steps taken by Bulgaria to meet its commitments on judicial reform, the fight against corruption and organized crime and accession by Bulgaria to the Schengen area?
KM: If it depended on me, I would never accept Bulgaria in Schengen as long as there I such an irresponsible government in my country.
|Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM)
At the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union on 1 January 2007, certain weaknesses remained in both countries in the areas of judicial reform and the fight against corruption, and in the case of Bulgaria in the fight against organised crime. These weaknesses were seen by the EU as barriers to the effective application of EU laws, policies and programmes. The EU also saw these shortcomings as barrier to Bulgarians and Romanians enjoying their full rights as EU citizens.
The Commission insisted that these shortcomings be remedied and to regularly verify progress against specific benchmarks set for this purpose, through the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). The CVM will end when all of the six benchmarks applying to Bulgaria and all of the four benchmarks applying to Romania are satisfactorily met.
Benchmark 4 for Bulgaria aims to ensure that it is able to: “Conduct and report on professional, non-partisan investigations into allegations of high-level corruption. Report on internal inspections of public institutions and on the publication of assets of high-level officials.”
Q: Did you meet a European Commission official with responsibility for looking into the CVM and its requirements when you were in post?
KM: No, as long as I was in office no one asked for such a meeting. As a civil servant, I would only go if I was invited, and I was never approached by the European Commission.
Q: You are visiting Brussels, as a whistleblower, have you met with officials on the situation, your findings?
KM: I can’t say exactly who, but I have met with senior EU officials who were concerned about the consequences and danger to the EU’s public order from the issuing of passports against bribes.
Q: What does the EU need to do?
KM: I think the EU should not accept that a member country can have such corrupt people in their government, there should be no room for such people in government positions. As long as these people attend European Councils and ministerial meetings, as long as they are seen shaking hands with other EU ministers, and are given the air or respectability, the scandals will not stop.
Q: Do you have the support, for example Bulgarian MEPs?
KM: Only one MEP, Nikolay Barkov has been supportive. Barekov has his own media service BI Television, but it is not widely watched. Those who criticise the government are not widely heard in Bulgaria. This is why Bulgaria has a very low score in the world press freedom index.
The problem for some Bulgarian MEPs is that I am still alive. Some of them and their friends have issued a death sentence to me. While I was in hospital recently the authorities stopped my social insurance.
Q: Are you sure that you want to say “death sentence” that is a very strong way of putting this?
KM: Yes, it is the truth, my social security was stopped and if it weren’t for friends and family I would not be alive.
Q: A Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova who was investigating alleged corruption involving EU funds was raped and murdered. Do you think that your life could be in danger?
KM: Yes, I don’t feel safe.
Q: How widespread is corruption in public life?
KM: Leading figures in government should have international credibility, the presence of corrupt people is fuelling despair among ordinary Bulgarians. This is why many Bulgarians choose to live elsewhere and send remittances home. Many see leaving the country as the only way to save themselves and many of them simply don’t want to be of any help to this criminal circus. If there was government of normal people many migrants would return to their country. These people are just offended and disgusted by the state and its government during the last years.
This is the real picture, it isn’t the rosy picture portrayed by the Bulgarian Presidency. What is worse is that younger people brought up in this environment accept the corruption and theft that exists, sometimes not knowing the difference between right and wrong. This is the worst consequence of this government, I remember when people would distinguish between right and wrong.
Q: Bulgaria’s accession to the EU began in 1995, in 2007 your country joined the EU. Are people disappointed that EU membership has not been more transformative?
KM: I feel that a lot of the hope that many felt post-Communism has been betrayed, the positive energy has been wasted. People think that there is something wrong with democracy because it makes them poor. This is not true, democracy does offer a better life, but democracy also means respect for the rule of law. In Bulgaria we have a client state, we have an imitation of democracy; it doesn’t make people happy or allow them to leave a decent life. This is why some people are nostalgic about communism when there was relative sense of security and a sort of calm.
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