Law & Order

Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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Bulgaria's well-publicised battle against corruption and organised crime experienced a changing of the guard last week, when the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) elected presidential advisor Boris Velchev to the office of chief prosecutor.

The election comes at a difficult time for Bulgaria's oft-maligned justice system, as the lack of judicial reform has been repeatedly cited by the EU as one of the main stumbling blocks for the country's accession into the Union in 2007.

Velchev, who ran unopposed after constitutional lawyer Lazar Gruev and National Investigation Service head Angel Alexandrov withdrew from the race, received an unprecedented majority of 23 out of 25 from the SJC.

Yet while members of the ruling tripartite government coalition praised Velchev's qualifications, integrity and experience, the lopsided victory and lack of other candidates drew criticism from opposition parties.

"For the first time, ruling politicians have agreed publicly on who will be the next prosecutor-general, which is outrageous," Peter Stoyanov, leader of the right-wing opposition Union of Democratic Forces and a former president, told the press.

Stoyanov also questioned the independence of the country's judicial power in light of the fact that Velchev was employed by current President Georgi Purvanov.

The incoming prosecutor-general was also targeted in a statement issued by the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB) party. The statement said that Velchev's nomination was "against everything that the democratic changes had achieved in Bulgaria since 1989", and that Purvanov was "trying to manipulate the election of prosecutor-general".

Velchev, who is also a law professor and serves on the National Assembly's legislative board, will succeed Nikola Filchev when his seven-year term concludes on February 22.

To be successful, Velchev will need to avoid the political controversy that hounded his predecessor.

Filchev's detractors continuously and publicly criticised his apparent lack of progress, accusing him of incompetence, corruption, mental illness and of being connected to the death of prosecutor Nikolai Kolev, who was shot dead in December 2002. Filchev repeatedly denied the allegations and indicated that he believed the attacks on him were an attempt by a group of individuals to drive him from office.

The new prosecutor-general will also have to turn around a justice system that has been woefully ineffective at producing results - namely, successful prosecutions - in order to assuage the concerns of the EU.

In recent years more than 150 people have died in shootings, bombings and other violence linked to powerful crime groups, but the justice system has convicted few for these offences.

The fact that some of the victims are high-profile members of the Bulgarian elite has also not helped the perception that organised crime reaches all the way to top.

One such murder, that of Emil Kyulev, a banker and one of the richest men in Bulgaria, came at the particularly inopportune time - the day after a comprehensive EU report on Bulgaria was released.

Because of the lack of progress in this area, many EU members have expressed concern that the country's inability to tackle the problem will have negative consequences for the Union and spur a wave of violent crime if Bulgaria becomes a member in 2007.

A recent report from the European Commission concerning corruption and organised crime stated that Bulgaria must take "immediately drastic measures, if it wants to be ready for the intended date for entry".

Velchev addressed this issue when he told the SJC that "There is only one criterion for estimating the effectiveness of the prosecutor's work: the number of sentenced criminals."

As prosecutor-general, Velchev will be charged with supervising, leading and directing the activity of all the prosecutors in the country.

Some observers were optimistic that he would be successful in this capacity, given his support of a constitutional amendment currently in parliament that would restrict immunity from prosecution for magistrates, enhance the justice minister's oversight powers and allow the removal of the chief prosecutor under certain circumstances.

With the fate of Bulgaria's EU membership still uncertain and the justice system embroiled in criticism, much is riding on the effectiveness of the newly elected prosecutor-general. If Boris Velchev is able to elicit convictions of organised crime figures, it will be a major victory for the government. But if the status quo prevails, it would mean Bulgaria would join the EU under a cloud.

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