The opaque and profitable business around citizenship

In the run up to the European elections domestic scandals can have huge consequences, as their fallout is difficult to predict. It’s even worse if the scandal would have an international dimension. Such could be the case with the business with Bulgarian citizenship, which could embarrass more than one political force. This is why even information which normally should be public is considered a state secret.

Despite the stern criticism of the European Commission, Bulgaria continues to keep secret all data relating to foreigners that managed to buy citizenship against investments. Malta, Cyprus and Bulgaria are the only EU countries that sell citizenship directly. (There are some other member states that grant right of residence for investments, but stop short of selling citizenship.) The Commission said the biggest problem with the “golden passports” scheme in Bulgaria is the complete lack of transparency of the procedures.

This website can confirm that despite the Brussels criticisms, the Bulgarian authorities have no intention of making the procedures and outcomes public.

The right of permanent residence in the country is granted by the Ministry of Interior. A foreigner can request a Bulgarian passport after a year of residence if he or she has made an investment of at least €500,000 in a project considered important for the state. Then follows a check by the State Agency for National Security (DANS). The foreigner must not be convicted, must not be a threat to the national security of the country and must prove its investment.

The final step before the passport is granted is the issuing of a presidential decree. This activity has been delegated to the country’s vice president.

The presidential institution refused to provide the list of foreigners who received “golden passports”. The information was requested under the Access to Public Information Act. Information about the investments made for obtaining Bulgarian – and therefore European citizenship – was also denied. The explanation for the refusal is that this information in Bulgaria represents “personal data”. It turns out that the “economic” data about the foreigners who receive Bulgarian citizenship is a secret under the Bulgarian legislation. Presidential decrees are also kept secret.

The presidential institution could demonstrate a certain transparency if it had provided information about foreigners using their initials. In this case, the most important element is the evidence of investments that were made, as well as the breaches to national security. In the last two months, media reported about cases of investigated and convicted foreigners who have received Bulgarian passports.

Six years ago, the head of state provided a list with initials of pardoned prisoners who have the same protection from the law [pardon is another prerogative of the presidential institution]. The motives for granting pardon were made public. The unprincipled cases of presidential pardoning became obvious. This had a healing effect on procedures.

Bulgaria is the only country in the EU that keeps in secret the foreigners who have received passports for investments. Malta publishes reports on approved candidates, and in this country there is parliamentary control over the procedure. In Cyprus, there is an institution that controls the procedure for “golden passports”. There is neither any public information, nor is there a special control mechanism or a code of conduct for passport applicants, says the report of the European Commission published in the beginning of the year.

In Malta, information about all foreigners who have received citizenship is published in the State Gazette. Bulgaria and Cyprus have no such procedure.

The EC insists on strengthening the control. This should ensure that anti-money laundering rules are not circumvented. The Commission wants permanent monitoring to ensure that no one takes advantage of these citizenship schemes to avoid taxes.

Just a day before the Brussels report was released, the Bulgarian Ministry of Justice announced an initiative to abolish the “golden passports”. A month and a half later the ministry has not made any proposals for law changes.

Passports-for-bribes scheme

The secrecy surrounding the “golden passports” is strange, given the revelations of corruption in the procedure of providing Bulgarian citizenship. At the end of October the prosecution arrested almost the entire management of the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad. The Agency issues documents of Bulgarian origin to people who apply for citizenship based on their Bulgarian origin. The prosecutors said the bribes paid to obtain the document were of €5,000 euros.

The main suspect is the head of the agency Peter Haralampiev, who was appointed with the political protection of the nationalist party VMRO. The leader of the party is Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Krassimir Karakachanov. He explained that the party had not taken bribes for passports. Karakachanov said “I will shoot myself in the square” if this was proved. The investigation is a big embarrassment for the nationalists before the European elections. Recent opinion polls show that support for the United Patriots coalition, of which VMRO is one of the three members, has declined almost threefold to 3.7%. At the last parliamentary elections, they obtained 9.3% and entered the government as junior partner to Boyko Borissov’s GERB.

Citizenship, or right of residence, are issues of common EU interest. Any person who acquires the nationality of a member state acquires the nationality of the Union. Thus, they get the right of free movement and access to the EU internal market. Along with this, the foreigners are given the right to vote and to be elected in European and local elections.

A tiny leak of information

The authorities obviously cannot deny information about the issuing of passport to foreigners to MPs or MEPs, at least from the ruling coalition. MEP Andrey Kovatchev published on Facebook an interesting post, suggesting that the authorities have made checks to whom passports have been issued. On 5 March, he wrote that at least 10 MPs from the VMRO-DPMNE party of former PM Nikola Gruevski have received Bulgarian passports. At the same time, they engage in anti-Bulgarian activity, he notes.

Kovachev says he will propose legislative changes to make sure that those who have received Bulgarian citizenship, but use hate speech or do actions against Bulgaria, should be publicly declared as holders of Bulgarian citizenship. If their actions continue, their Bulgarian citizenship shall be revoked, the MEP writes.

If the information about granting Bulgarian citizenship was published in the official gazette, the authorities would not need to make such “disclosures”. As in any democratic country, the press would do its job and expose the scandal.

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