In Bulgaria, Global Magnitsky Act could make a real difference

In Bulgaria, Global Magnitsky Act could make a real difference
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In June, The Hill published my op-ed magnifying the potential of a new federal law, the Global Magnitsky Act (GMA) to punish dictators, despots, and their co-conspirators who deprive citizens of fundamental human rights through torture, forced disappearance, and assassination — and the corrupt seizure of lucrative private assets.

The latter corruption, state-sanctioned confiscation of successful businesses, is exemplified by government-led corporate raiding that has grown tragically commonplace in many post-Soviet countries, such as Bulgaria. Labeled by multiple international agencies and organizations as the “most corrupt country in the European Community,” it is not surprising that a capstone example of sanctionable corruption under GMA would occur in Bulgaria.  

In the GMA filing, we included two individuals, one, the state prosecutor and the other, an entrepreneurial member of Parliament — who allegedly set up Bulgaria’s fourth largest financial institution (Corporate Commercial Bank, or CCB) for engineered bankruptcy and nationalization. The noted officials seem to have targeted the bank as part of a retaliation plot against the CCB board chairman, Tzvetan Vassilev, after he began supporting an anti-corruption reformist political party that challenged a broad spectrum of incumbent Bulgarian kleptocrats.   

Following the CCB board chairman’s strenuous plea for the bank’s return, he was charged with the crime of embezzlement — in spite of overwhelming evidence that absolutely no assets ever disappeared from the bank. After seeking asylum in Serbia to avoid further political persecution, the Bulgarian officials charged his wife with money laundering regarding the 2012 purchase of a house using family funds — in spite of persuasive documentation that her husband’s money was earned legally and subject to hefty taxation, all of which he paid.

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When all these rounds of Bulgarian harassment failed, officials launched further retaliation against Vassilev’s family — this time announcing that his daughter, living in the UK, would be charged with an astounding and wholly contrived money laundering offense surrounding the purchase of her home.

Clearly, the Bulgarian officials found a way to stoop even lower to affirm their depravity. In a vain effort to “teach” vulnerable citizens to quietly accept the forced removal of their hard earned property, the officials named in the GMA filing appear willing to stop at nothing.

My organization, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, is working to unveil GMA as a powerful weapon to counter corrupt governments. Thankful for the opportunity to lead this effort, I am gratified that we are not alone. Twenty other GMA filings have been made by NGOs-of-conscience, naming officials from the dregs of worldwide autocracy as culprits in everything from killing their own people to fleecing their own citizens to propping up their despotic regimes — and paying off allied oligarchs.

The names of cited officials may be unfamiliar, but not the countries where officials have been targeted for GMA sanctions—South Sudan, Azerbaijan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and even China and Russia (of course in addition to Bulgaria)—are known for problematic human rights records.

Applications are pending in our State and Treasury Departments and the administration has 120 days from the receipt of recommendations from Congress to determine whether identified oppressors will be denied travel authorization to come to the U.S. or use any facet of our domestic or international banking system. As further validation of the potential of GMA for punishing institutional oppression, both the UK and Canada have passed legislation on a parallel with the U.S. GMA law.

Since my June article in The Hill, there has been significant progress in my effort to build support for the GMA sanctioning effort.

Collaborating with the prominent Washington, D.C., firm Jefferson Waterman International, two applications seeking sanctioning were filed against those whose conduct provides ample evidence of their corrupt motives: Bulgaria Prosecutor General Sotir Tsatsarov, and Delyan Peevski, a member of Parliament who doubles as the country’s media mogul and entrepreneur who holds or had held questionable holdings in firms such as Bulgartabac, which has been suspected of maintaining tobacco-smuggling ties with terrorist organizations.

For the time being, Bulgaria retains the option to regain its lost international reputation by taking decisive executive action against high level corruption.  

With his leadership of the European Union squarely on the horizon, Bulgarian Prime Minister Borisov can assert his prerogative to stand against the plague of institutional corruption and usher in a new era of rectitude.  The case of Tzvetan Vassilev’s persecution has devolved into the most egregious example of political wrongdoing in the country. Borisov would be wise to begin the remediation process by moving to dismiss the cluster of vindictive political prosecutions afflicting Vassilev’s family.

But time is definitely of the essence, and Borisov’s window of opportunity to correct a major national injustice will last only until the U.S. government acts on the GMA filings of Tsatsarov and Peevski.

Bill Richardson is the former Democratic governor of New Mexico. He was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the secretary of energy, both during the Clinton administration. He also served in the House of Representatives. As a diplomat and special envoy, Richardson has received four Nobel Peace Prize nominations and has successfully won the release of hostages and American servicemen in North Korea, Cuba, Iraq and the Sudan. Richardson served on the Atlantic Council with Vassilev and is involved in the case through the Richardson Center for Global Engagement.