Barcelonagate? An outside observer of the maze of corruption allegations and unfinished investigations in Bulgarian politics might have forgotten what this was about - many Bulgarians already have. But this was one of the most infamous scandals in the later years of GERB rule for two main reasons. It directly concerned the party leader and, at the time, PM, Boyko Borissov. And most importantly, it came from abroad, hence he could not bury it with the tools of the state he had captured so effectively at the time.
The case of the Spanish authorities and media investigating a potential money laundering scheme to fund the purchase of a mansion in Barcelona for 3 mln euro that was supposedly linked to Mr Borissov surfaced in early 2020. It was quickly overshadowed by the pandemic and other scandals involving the then-PM, including siphoning off infrastructure funds to offshore firms and sleeping next to a drawer full of euro notes and gold bars.
For a while it lingered in Bulgaria's public and political discourse, often resurrected by Mr Borissov's opponents before elections. That is, until he successfully managed to coopt them a few months ago. And last week, the involvement of the ex-PM in this scandal - like in all others - was shut down by an ever-friendly State Prosecution. This is the story of what happened:
What was Barcelonagate all about?
Barcelonagate was the name invented by Bulgarian journalists for an investigation by the Catalan police into the purchase of a house in Barcelona, which they thought might have been linked to Boyko Borissov. Suspicions about Mr Borissov's connection to the purchase actually dated back to 2016, when leaked recordings of conversations between two former judges, Vladimira Yaneva and Rumyana Chenalova, and Sofia lawyer Momchil Mondeshki, sparked rumors about the then-PM buying a house for a woman whom he viewed with a "positive attitude" - as it was euphemistically phrased. This was, in fact, ex-bikini model Borislava Yovcheva, by whom Mr Borissov had allegedly already fathered a daughter.
In February 2020, Catalan publication El Periodico reported that local authorities were investigating Mr Borissov's alleged connection to money laundering in this case. This, in turn, forced the Bulgarian prosecutor's office to also launch an investigation. It then requested the available information from its Spanish partners. After that, the investigation in Spain was closed to prevent duplication.
The case arrives in Bulgaria and meets Geshev
Unsurprisingly, the Bulgarian Prosecution under the leadership of Ivan Geshev, who had consistently shown his allegiance to GERB, dragged the case for three years until Mr Borissov and his party set about removing him from office last May. Suddenly, the procedures linked to the investigation intensified, Mr Geshev requested Mr Borissov's parliamentary immunity in connection with it and brought him in for questioning.
Mr Geshev then announced that, in his absence, his deputy Borislav Sarafov had pressured the prosecutors working on the case to terminate Barcelonagate.
Shortly theafter, Mr Geshev was removed as part of the deal to form the current rotational cabinet and the vacant post was filled by Mr Sarafov himself. He appointed an internal probe over the case's handling, which uncovered problems with the way Barcelonagate was handled, including huge procedural delays. This, in turn, led to the removal of the supervising prosecutor Stefan Hristov from the case and the appointment of a brand new team to conduct the procedural actions linked to it. So far, so good.
What did the new prosecution team find out?
Fast forward four months and on 17 October the Sofia City Prosecution announced that the Barcelonagate case had been closed. According to a press release, a team of prosecutors had "concluded that there was no evidence to show beyond reasonable doubt that an organized crime group had sent money by buying a property in Barcelona". The prosecutor's announcement stressed several times that there was no evidence of "independent actions" by Mr Borissov in connection with the purchase of the property, or of money transfers from his accounts, or of his instructions to others to broker and conclude the deal in order to conceal actual rights, etc.
This should come as no surprise to everyone who knows the formalistic operational style of the Prosecution. Formally, the property had been bought by a commercial company with sufficient proven business income, so there is no basis to claim money laundering, while Mr Borissov has never officially declared having that much money anyway, so it is impossible for him to have transferred them to anyone.
If he had indeed financed the purchase of the property, he would have done it via his proxy businessmen friends through fixing tenders and kickbacks - something that the Bulgarian Prosecution has, of course, never investigated and doesn't even imply happens in the country.
At the same time, however, the supervising prosecutors had separated material for a new investigation into four crimes involving individuals with the initials R.R. and B.Y. Behind these initials are probably hidden the names of Rosen Rusimov (a Pernik entrepreneur from the close business circle of Mr Borissov from his time as Sofia mayor) and his alleged mistress, Borislava Yovcheva. It appears that the Prosecution would probe if Mr Rusimov has funded the luxurious lifestyle and business in Barcelona of Ms Yovcheva and her daughter.
The conclusions from the case
We can draw several conclusions from this case. First, the operation to exonerate Mr Borissov's name, agreed to by WCC-DB and GERB in the infamous leaked recording of the WCC meeting, released in May, is continuing as planned. Secondly, the new head of the Prosecution, acting Prosecutor General Borislav Sarafov, is doing exactly what he was assigned to do under the deal to succeed the unpopular Ivan Geshev - he has absolved the ex-PM of any suspicion of corruption. Which brings us to the final conclusion - nothing has changed in the way that the Bulgarian prosecution is handling high-level corruption so far.
So, if you are expecting much from upcoming constitutional reforms, you better rein in your expectations. And, if you insist on remaining optimistic about the fight against corruption in Bulgaria, place your bets on the European Prosecution Office's probes instead.