by Anthony Georgieff

Government uses its agencies to settle accounts rather than fight crime

An Italian writer, Roberto Saviano, who has lived for years under police protection because he was "sentenced" to death by the Neapolitan Mafia, has put it plainly: "In Italy, democracy has a mafia inside. In Bulgaria, the Mafia has democracy inside." There are of course many ways to say this, one of the most popular being the local mid-1990s adage that "every state has a mafia, in Bulgaria the mafia has a state."

No bons mots can render real life in its complexity, but every witticism has at least some truth in it. In 2018, the truth about Bulgaria has assumed monstrous, Frankenstein-like proportions.

Take the fight against corruption. In March, Desislava Ivancheva, the elected mayor of Mladost, a major Sofia borough, was dragged out of her car in broad daylight, the TV cameras rolling, and handcuffed. She was accompanied by her deputy, Bilyana Petrova. To add insult to injury, the two women were made to remain in the street, in chains, for a few hours with no access to a lawyer and with no… drinking water. Then they were put away. In several court appearances they were banned from talking to the media. Ivancheva, who is 45, resorted to some very unusual practices of making herself heard outside of the courtroom. She scribbled a statement on a piece of paper and showed it to the reporters, Vanunu-style, before being whisked away.

Her alleged crime, for which she has been held since March, was that she reportedly demanded 70,000 euros as a bribe from a developer to issue a construction permit. Her case has dragged on since then. If found guilty, she is threatened with a 30-year jail sentence and confiscation of all her assets.

The key word in the above paragraph is "dragged." In Bulgaria, under current legislation, a suspect can be held without a court trial for many months, even years. As long as it is necessary to "serve justice," or to destroy a person. All the police need to enforce a detention is a request by the prosecutors. A leftover from the times of Communism, apparently, the local, central and supreme prosecuting offices, a Bulgarian version of the US state and general attorneys, have, unlike anywhere in the West, almost unlimited and unchecked powers to order detentions and then drag their feet in piling up the evidence.

The case of Ivancheva and Petrova has assumed some very sinister proportions. In a Kafkaesque turn of events, in November, the two women, both of whom had successfully appealed their detentions, were released by a Sofia court. For a few minutes. The prosecutors were quick to appeal the appeal, and the pair were sent back to jail that very same day. Interestingly, the court imposed a further "measure" on the two women, who had been held under armed guard and appeared in court chained. They are now not allowed… to leave the country. A man, Petko Dyulgerov, who was the one to actually carry the cash that was supposed to be given to Ivancheva as a bribe, has lived in his home under house arrest.

Ivancheva was elected mayor of Mladost in 2016. She was a non-system player, an outspoken opponent of allowing the few patches of green among the Communist-era residential projects in Mladost to be built over by new, now private residential projects. Significantly, she won against a GERB candidate.

This all is being done perfectly legally, abiding to the letter of the Bulgarian law.

Several high-profile cases in the past few months have boosted the image of Bulgaria as a country where those in power can and will use all means available to settle accounts rather than attain the "spirit" of the laws.

Two families of ultra-rich entrepreneurs, the Arabadzhievs and the Banevs, were issued with arrest warrants while both were abroad. The Arabadzhievs, major players in the tourism and entertainment industry and owners of the five-star Marinella Hotel in Sofia, where many of the high-ranking guests stayed during this country's rotating presidency of the EU in the first half of 2018, were accused of money-laundering. They were in France at the time the Bulgarian authorities produced the indictment live on TV. The Arabadzhievs said they would return to Bulgaria voluntarily, and then they promptly disappeared. The Bulgarians responded by arresting their son.

The Banevs, who were also in France at the time the announcement for their indictment came, were brought back by the French police and put in jail. One of their accusations is that they had laundered "1 billion leva" (about 500 million euros). Banev responded that this was ridiculous. How can you launder 1 billion leva?, he said. You have to have made many times as much to be able to launder 1 billion.

The Arabadzhievs and the Banevs are well-respected in the circles of Bulgaria's new rich, but ordinary Bulgarians, who have to survive on a pittance and struggle to make ends meet, are resentful. Deep inside, they are suspicious of anyone who has made a lot of money too fast. They know from the years of Communism and from the 1990s that behind every great fortune there is usually a crime. Deep inside, they approve of the detentions.

Things are usually either very simple or very complicated. In Bulgaria, usually, they are very simple. So, it is not difficult to see the above three cases not as a legitimate endeavour to fight corruption but as ill-concealed attempts by those in power to simulate a fight against corruption and settle some personal accounts in the process. Worse, because they are so high-profile, they may and will be used to justify legal changes to enable even greater state powers to repress citizens of far lesser public stature: doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists…

In this context a relatively new organisation called KPKONPI, or Commission To Fight Corruption and Seize Illegally Acquired Assets, has come to prominence. The commission was set up three years ago under Western pressure. It was modelled on similar agencies in the West that have the powers to seize, without a court order, assets they deem illegal. The commission has already been used to freeze assets in several prominent cases including the properties of Ivo Prokopiev, the publisher of Capital, a newspaper often critical of the GERB establishment, and of a couple of former GERB ministers who had fallen out with Boyko Borisov.

Such changes are already being devised. While Ivancheva, Petrova and the Banevs were safely under arrest, the Bulgarian Parliament adopted some amendments to boost the powers of KPKONPI. With the new amendments, KPKONPI will be able to seize assets even if a court has decided that no crime has been committed. Legal experts were quick to slam the amendments as generating a new Frankenstein, an omnipotent agency of the state with unlimited powers and without any checks and balances over it. Significantly, it will now be able to act over the heads of the courts.

All of the above is further compounded by the idiosyncrasies of the Bulgarian way of doing things. Little pieces of paper get lost, emails do not get answered. The only system that really functions is the car park fees text messages in Sofia and the employees of the super-secret agency to spy on suspected criminals do not show up for work. The rules and regulations keep changing and there is no way to keep abreast of all of them. The prosecutors in charge of the high-profile cases are usually "sent" from other areas on interim contracts that can be revoked by their superiors at any time. Under such conditions, will they seek to serve their superiors rather than the justice system?

Corruption is not just giving cash under the table to major and minor officials to "oil the wheels" of bureaucracy. Corruption in its Bulgarian version is an intricate and impenetrable system where cash bribes are just one element. Another is political preferences. Yet another, a defining one, is the Balkan setup of interdependencies between individuals, families and business groupings that are largely motivated by personal likes and dislikes rather than cash. One wrong word here or there, one side glance or a statement to the media that someone important enough may perceive as critical – and anyone can be in a very rough ride.

Against this background the situation in Hungary and Poland seems rosy in comparison.

Still, the West, while paying attention to developments in Poland and Hungary, where populist regimes have threatened some of the tenets of modern democracy, is oddly quiet that the same kind of thing, if not worse, has been going on in Bulgaria since Boyko Borisov's GERB took the power in 2009. One explanation is that unlike Orban in Hungary and the current rulers in Poland, Boyko Borisov has prudently not defied the West, at least not in words. Yet, despite the "successes" in infrastructure projects, where the big money is, being trumpeted by the docile media, Bulgaria remains at the rock bottom of almost all possible measurable criteria for a modern democracy. The media are hamstrung, high-level corruption is rampant. Median incomes are the lowest within the EU, so is life expectancy, the quality of public services… the quality of the air in Sofia.

Lozan Panov, the head of the Supreme Court of Cassation in Sofia who is seen as perhaps the only senior magistrate to openly criticise the GERB status quo – and who has been put under increasing pressure and even harassment – has put it succinctly: "We are faced with a system… which skilfully uses the law enforcement services, the media, the economy, politics and, of course, the law administration system. Its actions are not divulged. They are kept under the carpet. Its mistakes are not voiced, but concealed. Its opponents are being persecuted mercilessly."

The situation Panov describes is not only because Bulgaria has fallen victim to its own rulers, which it keeps electing in various forms. A large part of the blame falls on the nominal "opposition," especially on those who identify themselves as being pro-democracy and pro-Western, the new anti-Communist intellectuals. Instead of putting up some credible alternative to the current rule, they focus on criticising President Rumen Radev, probably the only senior state official who dares stand up to GERB and whom they have billed a "Russian puppet." Many of them have in fact sided with GERB, deliberately or not, either by accepting comfortable appointments or in some other way assisting Borisov in establishing his almost total control over society. They will probably be the first ones to leave the GERB boat when it starts sinking. For the time being, however, there is still a long way to go, and it is unclear whether any fresh elections, which seem entirely possible especially if the weather in the coming winter gets too cold, will solve any issues.

Bulgaria has been "captured." It is in a state of suspended animation. There is democracy in the sense that elections are being held from time to time, foreign observers are allowed to keep an eye and so on. But in the "captured" state all of those are being used to further private or corporate interests by manipulating the state policies, the judiciary and the economy, rather than to serve the public good. In this sense democracy has caved in, possibly beyond repair. 


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