WASHINGTON/SOFIA—The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions on 64 companies and three Bulgarians over corruption, including an oligarch accused of planning to create a conduit for Russian political leaders to influence the Bulgarian government.
A statement by the Treasury Department said the move was its single biggest action targeting graft to date.
Bulgaria ranks as the European Union’s most corrupt member state, according to Transparency International. The Balkan country has repeatedly been criticized by the European Commission for failing to root out corruption and send a single high-ranking senior government official behind bars for graft.
Bulgarian interim Prime Minister Stefan Yanev said he was informed by the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland by telephone about the move, part of efforts to effectively combat corruption in Bulgaria.
The U.S. Treasury said it imposed sanctions on businessman and oligarch Vassil Kroumov Bozhkov, 64, accusing him of planning to create a channel for Russian leaders to influence the Bulgarian government.
Bozhkov, a gambling tycoon and one of Bulgaria’s richest men, fled the country in 2020 to escape criminal charges, including extortion, tax fraud, and influence peddling, among others. He denies any wrongdoing and is now based in Dubai.
The Treasury also slapped sanctions on Delyan Peevski, a former member of parliament, Ilko Dimitrov Zhelyazkov, a government official, and 64 companies owned or controlled by the three.
The sanctions block the people and companies blacklisted from accessing the U.S. financial system, freezing any of their U.S. assets and barring Americans from dealing with them.
The U.S. State Department separately designated former Bulgarian officials Alexander Manolev, Petar Haralampiev, Krasimir Tomov, as well as Peevski and Zhelyazkov, over their alleged involvement in corruption, barring them and their families from entering the United States.
“The United States stands with all Bulgarians whose work drives reforms forward, and the Department will continue to use its authorities to promote accountability for corrupt actors in the region and globally,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
Peevski, 40, is a Bulgarian businessman, former media mogul, and former lawmaker. Critics at home see him as a powerful behind-the-scenes power broker with a strong influence on Bulgaria’s judiciary and political elites in the country.
In a bid to tame massive anti-government protests over corruption last summer, then-Prime Minister Boyko Borissov sacked three of his ministers to put an end to allegations that they had been working with Peevski.
The Treasury accused him of using “influence peddling and bribes to protect himself from public scrutiny and exert control over key institutions and sectors in Bulgarian society.”