SOFIA Bulgaria's former agriculture minister Miroslav Naidenov was charged on Tuesday with corruption linked to a EU-backed food distribution scheme and trying to bribe a subordinate, as the interim government tries to tackle widespread graft.
Naidenov is the first minister to be charged from the previous government led by Boiko Borisov's GERB party that was widely accused of failing to tackle chronic crime and resigned last month after protests against low living standards.
Bulgaria will hold early elections on May 12 with center-right GERB running neck-and-neck with the opposition Socialists (BSP) in the polls. The election winner will almost certainly need a coalition to govern.
"I have been pressed on charges in a case that has been lying around for three years in wait for the right moment," Naidenov told local media. "This shows that the Socialists are ready to do everything they can to return to power."
Prosecutors accuse the 44-year-old of favoring a food producer to win a tender in 2010 to supply an European Union-backed program to distribute food to disadvantaged people.
He was also charged with promising a bribe of 200,000 levs ($131,700) in 2010 to a senior official at the state agricultural fund which disburses EU aid to farmers.
Prosecutors accuse Naidenov of putting pressure on the official to sign orders granting a tax refund to two domestic food producers.
Naidenov denied any wrongdoing. He faces up to eight years in prison if found guilty.
Bulgaria, one of the EU's poorest countries, has been under pressure at home and abroad to impose the rule of law and stamp out fraud and corruption.
Former ministers and other officials have been prosecuted in the past but Bulgaria has found it hard to convict senior officials of graft and has sent to jail only a few crime bosses since communism collapsed 23 years ago.
Failing to show tangible progress has led to sanctions from Brussels, which cut access to millions of euros in aid in previous years.
($1=1.5181 Bulgarian levs)
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Sophie Hares)