* Minister charged with mismanaging vaccine contract
* Bulgaria eager to regain EU trust, avoid aid cuts
(Adds damage, request to suspend minister)
By Irina Ivanova and Anna Mudeva
SOFIA, March 30 (Reuters) - Bulgarian prosecutors charged Health Minister Bozhidar Nanev with graft in connection with flu vaccine contracts on Tuesday, a new step in the country’s drive to clean up its image as the most corrupt European Union nation.
Prosecutors said Nanev caused 2.45 million levs ($1.67 million) of damage by signing two contracts last December with Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding AG ROG.VX for the delivery of the influenza drug Tamiflu.
Nanev, who was not immediately available to comment, was the first minister in the Balkan country to be charged with corruption since communism collapsed 20 years ago. He faces up to 10 years in jail if found guilty.
“It is important we have proved that there are no untouchable people,” said prosecutor Nikolai Kokinov.
Prosecutors said Nanev had chosen the vaccine offered by the Bulgarian arm of Roche rather than the cheaper one on offer from Britain’s National Health Service, and said they would ask the Sofia City Court to suspend him.
The health ministry said it would issue a statement later.
Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, whose centre-right GERB party came to power last July on promises to end a climate of impunity, has promised to be uncompromising when there are suspicions of corruption among his officials.
Brussels will assess Bulgaria’s progress in fighting graft and organised crime in July, and failure to show results may threaten access to some of the 11 billion euros ($15 billion) in aid promised to the EU’s poorest member between now and 2013.
In an interim report last week, Brussels said the new government had the political will to fight graft but criticised the lack of convictions. [ID:nLDE62M18H]
A number of former ministers and high-ranking officials have been prosecuted, but Bulgaria has so far convicted only one former senior official of graft and has jailed just one crime boss.
Punishing officials within GERB’s ranks found guilty of fraud is a vital test of the new cabinet’s anti-graft drive, EU diplomats have said.
Prosecutors have charged three ministers in the previous Socialist-led government with corrupt practices and arrested members of powerful crime gangs since the new cabinet came to power but no trial dates have been set yet.
Borisov has put more pressure on the inefficient and graft-prone judiciary to wrap up a number of high-profile trials, which Brussels and the Bulgarian public see as a test of the government’s ability to rein in corruption.
On Monday, a Sofia court sentenced six Bulgarian businessmen to jail for laundering 7.5 million euros in EU farm aid in one of the closely watched trials. [ID:nLDE62S0SJ] (Editing by Tim Pearce)