Bulgarians welcome U.S. graft sanctions, EU nods approval

Protesters cast their shadows on a Bulgarian flag as they shout anti-government slogans during a demonstration in central Sofia
FILE PHOTO: Protesters cast their shadows on a Bulgarian flag as they shout anti-government slogans during a demonstration in central Sofia June 19, 2013.
REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

June 3, 2021

BRUSSELS/SOFIA (Reuters) -Leading Bulgarian politicians welcomed U.S. sanctions on three Bulgarians and 64 companies linked to them over alleged corruption on Thursday, while the European Union signalled its approval by saying it would not impose countermeasures.

The U.S. Treasury Department said on Wednesday the sanctions were its single biggest action against graft to date, and also targeted plans to create a conduit for Russian political leaders to influence the Bulgarian government.

Leaders of Bulgarian political parties welcomed the sanctions ahead of snap parliamentary elections on July 11, with the leader of the anti-establishment ITN party, Slavi Trifonov, calling them a “friendly hand from a partner”.

The sanctions impose a freeze on any U.S. assets of former lawmaker and media mogul Delyan Peevski, government official Ilko Zhelyazkov, and fugitive gambling tycoon Vassil Bozhkov. Peevski, Zhelyazkov and three other former officials were also barred from entering the United States.

The U.S. government accused Peevski of influence peddling and bribery, and Zhelyazkov of acting as his front-man to conduct bribery schemes. Peevski has denied wrongdoing and threatened to take legal action over the U.S. sanctions. Bozhkov said the decision to impose sanctions ignored his own status as a victim of extortion.

Former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who was in power for much of the past decade and who is accused by his political opponents of weakening state institutions for the benefit of oligarchs, also welcomed the sanctions and denied any links to those blacklisted.

“We have not received one cent from Bozhkov… I have met with Peevski only to discuss political issues. We do not have joint companies or any joint business,” he said.

Bulgaria ranks as the EU’s most corrupt member state according to Transparency International’s index.

The EU, which has complained in the past over U.S. sanctions related to Iran and Cuba, said that the sanctions on the Bulgarians “do not apply on EU territory … so there is nothing that would justify us taking any kind of counter measures”.

“These are the measures that the United States took within their legal framework,” an EU spokesman told reporters.

The EU has a blocking statute to counter U.S. sanctions, although it has never been used. The blocking statute can legally ban any EU company from complying with U.S. sanctions and, if used, would mean court rulings that enforce American penalties would not be recognised.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels and Tsvetelia Tsolova in SofiaEditing by David Holmes and Peter Graff)

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