What Is a Bulgarian Service Passport? Not Much or Something More?

The Bulgarian service passport gives its bearer the right to travel without a visa to some countries and nothing more, this is how Deputy Minister Georg Georgiev commented in a TV interview on the issuance by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of services passports to wanted gambling boss Vassil Bozhkov and his partner Georgi Popov. The Ministry’s tactic seems to be to minimize this scandal uncovered by Bivol. However, the fact-checking done by our media shows that the service passport gives much more privilege and protection than the ordinary passport.

The service passport is different from the ordinary one, the color of its cover is dark green, while the cover of the ordinary passport is red.

However, the text printed inside the back cover is more important. Here is what it looks like for the service business passport:

This service passport shall be issued to Bulgarian citizens traveling for execution of official duties abroad and may only be used for official purposes. The Minister of Foreign Affairs on behalf of the Government of the Republic of Bulgaria addresses a request to the civil and military authorities to afford to the holder of this passport the necessary facilities for free and unimpeded movement and to render him/her the necessary assistance. This passport is the property of the Republic of Bulgaria. It is valid for all countries.

For comparison, here is the text on the back of diplomatic passports:

The Minister of Foreign Affairs on behalf of the Government of the Republic of Bulgaria requests all Civil and Military authorities to extend to the holder of this diplomatic passport all courtesies, privileges and immunities to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to render all assistance and protection. This passport is the property of the Republic of Bulgaria. It is valid for all countries.

The difference is that diplomats have the privileges and immunities under the Vienna Convention, which requires not just assistance but help and protection.

However, even without privileges and immunity, the service passport clearly shows the government’s commitment to the person to whom it has been issued. It is enough to look at the back cover of the ordinary passport to see the privileged status of the service passport holder:

This passport is the property of the Republic of Bulgaria. It is valid for all countries.

Apart from the fact that the government stands behind the service passport, this type of passport provides some very specific benefits:

Visa-free travel to a number of countries that normally require a visa. These include, for example, Russia and South Africa;

The right to use corridors for diplomats at cross border checkpoints at home and abroad;

The right to spend the night in Bulgaria’s diplomatic missions around the world;

Visa-free travel is not at all a harmless bonus, especially when it comes to wanted persons. As it became clear, Bozhkov and Popov have had valid business passports until February 17, 2020, when the MFA canceled them. They were declared wanted on January 31, 2020.

Imagine the overall absurdity in a case of a particularly dangerous individual wanted by the Prosecutor’s Office, accused of a number of crimes, for whom the government advocates and asks other governments to assist them.
Travel restrictions in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic are also relevant. Some countries, such as India, prohibit access to their territory, with the exception of business trips and diplomats. That is, if someone holds a service passport, they have a chance to get to where commoners with an ordinary passport will not be allowed.

Is Bozhkov entitled to a service passport at all?

The issuance of service passports is regulated by the Ordinance on the Terms and Conditions for Issuing Diplomatic and Service Passports. Of all cases cited in the Ordinance such as civil servants, mayors, judges, senior military, etc., Bozhkov and Popov could fall only under two Articles – members of the leaderships of national branch organizations, associations and federations and/or persons to whom specific foreign policy tasks are assigned at the discretion of the MFA.

However, Vassil Bozhkov and Georgi Popov are not members of any branch organization, association or federation on a national scale, according to Bulgarian registries. The two are members of the Board of Directors of the Bulgarian Union for Physical Education and Sports (BUPES), which claims to be the successor in the Communist regime’s sports megastructure.

Bozhkov and Popov have obtained service passports precisely as members of the Board of Directors of the BUPES, first in 2011, with renewals in 2016 and August 2019. This was the MFA explanation.

However, the BUPES is actually an association that is not registered as a national sports organization within the meaning of the Physical Education and Sports Act. Its last license had been issued 15 years ago and since then the Ministry of Sports has not renewed it and has even filed legal cases against the BUPES over real estate disputes.

Bivol asked the MFA whether other passports had been issued to other members of the Board of Directors of the BUPES but the press office refused to answer journalistic questions and asked for questions under the Access to Public Information Act, APIA.

The explanation that Vassil Bozhkov had been issued a service passport in 2011 raises another problem. There is no evidence that Bozhkov had been a member of the Board of Directors of the BUPES in 2011.

Therefore, the only remaining reason for Bozhkov and Popov’s service passports is an assignment of specific foreign policy tasks at the discretion of Nikolay Mladenov, then Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister.

The probe initiated by the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office and assigned to the MFA Inspectorate will probably clarify all of this, but even without it, it is obvious that for many years Vassil Bozhkov had enjoyed a privilege not extended to an ordinary citizen.

So far, the MFA is not answering the questions of who had issued the most recent service passports of Bozhkov and Popov in August 2019. According to Bivol’s insider sources, this had been Deputy Foreign Minister Georg Georgiev, the same one who claims that the Bulgarian government’s request to the authorities of foreign countries to provide facilities and assistance is simply visa-free travel and nothing more.

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This post is also available in: Bulgarian