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Delyan Peevsk in parliament in 2013. Photo: Nikolay Doychinov/AFP via Getty

The Biden administration's decision to sanction three high-profile Bulgarian power brokers landed like a bombshell in the Balkan country and has major political implications.

Why it matters: The sanctions were the first major action Biden has taken to fight global corruption, which he has said will be a major foreign policy priority. They were also the largest-ever single action taken under the Global Magnitsky Act.

The big picture: Bulgaria is considered the European Union's most corrupt member state, and former prime minister Boyko Borissov — who has dominated the Bulgarian politics for the past decade — faced protests last year over his alleged mafia ties.

  • The protesters seized on Borissov's alleged links to Delyan Peevski, one of the figures blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury.

Peevski is a powerful businessman, former member of the parliament and media mogul who once owned 80% of the Bulgarian print media.

  • Even though Peevski sold many of his real estate and media holdings in the past year, he has strong influence on Bulgaria's politics and judiciary.
  • Peevski “has regularly engaged in corruption, using influence peddling and bribes to protect himself from public scrutiny and exert control over key institutions and sectors in Bulgarian society,” the Treasury Department said in its statement. Peevski denied the U.S. allegations.
  • The Treasury also sanctioned Ilko Zhelyazkov, the former deputy chief of Bulgaria's covert intelligence-gathering service, for allegedly working with Peevski "to bribe government officials through various means in exchange for their information and loyalty."

The third man facing sanctions is Vassil Bozhkov, a former gambling and soccer boss, art dealer and one of Bulgaria’s richest men.

  • Known by the nickname “The Skull,” he is currently in Dubai to evade Bulgarian extradition on a number of charges levied in 2020, including leading an organized crime group, coercion, attempted bribery of an official, and tax evasion.
  • The Treasury Department accused Bozhkov of bribing government officials including "a current political leader," leading to intense speculation in Bulgaria about which political leader that might be.
  • Borrisov denied any links to Bozhkov and Peevski and said he welcomed the sanctions.

Six people and 64 companies linked to them were sanctioned in total by the Treasury and State Departments on Wednesday.

What's next: The news has dominated media coverage in Bulgaria since it emerged, and will likely play a role in the snap parliamentary elections on July 11, which will determine whether Borrisov can keep power.

Go deeper: Watergate-style scandal rocks Bulgaria ahead of election

Go deeper

Eastern European countries fall way behind on vaccinations

Expand chart
Reproduced from Our World in Data; Chart: Axios Visuals

While most countries in the European Union have raced ahead after a slow initial vaccine rollout, countries in Eastern Europe are far behind, with little prospect of catching up quickly.

The state of play: While 39% of people across the EU have had at least one dose, just 12% have in Bulgaria, the lowest rate among the 27 member states. The situation is even more difficult for non-EU members that don’t have access to the bloc’s bulk vaccine purchases.

37 mins ago - World

Canadian Indigenous group finds 93 suspected unmarked graves

A makeshift memorial honoring the 215 children whose remains were found in a mass grave in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, last May. Photo: Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images

Indigenous leaders in Canada's western province of British Columbia said Tuesday they believe they've found 93 unmarked graves near a former boarding school.

The big picture: Hundreds of mass graves have been found at the grounds of former residential schools for Indigenous children since last May, when the remains of 215 children were uncovered at one such site in B.C.

3 hours ago - World

Coast Guard searches for 39 people after boat capsizes off Florida coast

A U.S. Coast Guard ship leaving its base in Miami Beach, Florida, in July. Photo: AP/Marta Lavandier

U.S. Coast Guard crews were searching into the night for 39 people whose boat sank off Florida's coast over the weekend after traveling from the Bahamas.

The big picture: A "good Samaritan" contacted the Coast Guard about 8 a.m. Tuesday to say they "rescued a man clinging to a capsized vessel" 45 miles east of Fort Pierce, per a tweet from the agency, which noted it was dealing with "a suspected human smuggling venture."