Rich and famous fall in claws of chief prosecutor
For a few weeks last autumn Central Sofia was paralysed by mass protests. Nothing like the huge outpour of public energy that had kept the city dysfunctional for months in 2013 and resulted in bringing back Boyko Borisov to power, but still a manifestation of people's will that kept the media – and public consciousness – busy and working. The reason? The proposed appointment of Ivan Geshev for the position of chief prosecutor, the Bulgarian equivalent of the US attorney general.
Bulgarians found themselves in the midst of a drama of Freudian implications. The faction of protestors opposed to Geshev's appointment, which they saw as a political ploy rather than a genuine attempt to handle Bulgaria's sorry state of corruption, nepotism and organised crime, was spearheaded by an... Internet site that claims it deals in investigative journalism. The opposed side, which considered Geshev as a fearless champion of the law and someone with the guts to fight organised crime, was led by... another news organisation. Funnily, the mainstream media never explicitly made the connection that one of the news sites was owned by the brother of the person who owned the other news site... The former is being hailed by some people identifying themselves as pro-Western, pro-democracy anti-Communists as a golden standard in journalism and civic valour. The same people denounce the latter as being obsequious to Boyko Borisov and Delyan Peevski.
Welcome to the murky world of Bulgaria in 2020, over 10 years into its membership of the EU.
Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, who stood unchallenged in his bid for the position commanding almost limitless powers to arrest people and keep them in detention, was voted in. The only person who could thwart the appointment, constitutionally, was President Rumen Radev. He did, refusing to endorse the Supreme Judiciary Council's decision. The council voted again, and the president, reluctantly, did appoint Geshev.
Geshev would not forget the public humiliation.
Fast forward a couple of months. Ivan Geshev, whose judicial credentials are being questioned by his opponents, immediately went on a hyperactive spree arresting people and accusing others of serious offences. Just like the now disgraced Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Boyko Borisov's erstwhile right-hand man who happily released tapped and supposedly confidential conversations between real or imaginary criminals, Geshev put out some audio of an intercepted conversation between President Rumen Radev and Gen Tsanko Stoykov, the chief of the Air Force. According to Geshev, that conversation "proved" Rumen Radev was in conflict of interest when he appointed his current wife as a publicist for the Air Force, in 2014.
Among other things, the event marked the first time in Bulgarian history the telephone of an incumbent president had been tapped using special surveillance means – and the conversations were released to the general public.
Radev dismissed the allegations as "small-time tricks." Of course, there was an internal Defence Ministry probe which established the chief of the Air Force had done nothing wrong. Yet, the main purpose was achieved. Some people identifying themselves as being pro-Western and pro-democracy were quick to demand an impeachment of the president whom they do not consider sufficiently anti-Communist – though "impeachment" does not exist in either the Bulgarian language or the Bulgarian Constitution.
Significantly, at about the same time Geshev committed another act which totally stole what some commentators had already dubbed a "political reality show." He issued charges against Vasil "The Skull" Bozhkov, a notorious entrepreneur controlling most of this country's gambling businesses. Apart from being thought of as one of the emblematic figures of the Bulgarian underworld in 1989-2020, Bozhkov is a major collector of... antiques. According to archaeologists and art historians, the collection, which he has amassed through purchases of artefacts from open and sometimes not-so-open sources, surpasses the possessions of the National Museum of History. When Bulgaria acceded to the EU, in 2007, Bozhkov's artworks were displayed – with much media attention and with the endorsement of the highest level of government – at the European Parliament in Brussels.
Now Geshev claims Bozhkov, heretofore deferentially referred to as this country's wealthiest individual, is a gangster. The initial charges that he has failed to pay millions in taxes soon multiplied to include rapes and contract killings. Special police units were sent to ransack Bozhkov's offices in Central Sofia. Videos showing cops carrying priceless antiques in black plastic rubbish sacks were promulgated. Bozhkov left Bulgaria. Currently he is in Abu Dhabi or Dubai – the accounts vary. His comment to what went on back in Bulgaria was to the point. Turn to p 14.
The general public was stunned. Bozhkov's indictment and the subsequent actions by Bulgarian law enforcement significantly deflated the attention even of those claiming to be pro-Western, pro-democracy anti-Communists from the much, much lesser "case" of Desislava Radeva, the president's wife.
Legal experts, analysts and commentators were quick to denounce the prosecutor general. Was this a legitimate action to fight organised crime? Or was it just a cunning publicity stunt designed to smear President Rumen Radev and bring on accolades to Boyko Borisov while targeting the business of a well-to-do Bulgarian businessman?
The waiting list of individuals arrested and kept in detention is long and at least controversial. It includes the likes of Minyu Staykov (an alcohol producer, who has been incarcerated since September 2018), the Banevis and the Arabadzhievis, both hotelier families (in detention since October 2018 and March 2019 respectively), and Ivan Todorov (in detention since July 2019). Todorov is the owner of a software company alleged to have broken into the Inland Revenue Agency as a result of which the personal details of millions of Bulgarians were leaked. Geshev referred to the latter as a "cyber terrorist." The chief of Inland Revenue, who had overlooked the months-long break-in, was recently awarded a salary raise.
In the opaque world of Bulgaria, however, nothing is black-and-white. Some see Geshev as a legitimate and relentless fighter against ills and wrongs. In one of his acts, accusing two Russian diplomats of espionage and getting them expelled from Bulgaria, he won the accolades of the people who identify themselves as pro-Western and pro-democracy – the same people who had vociferously protested against his appointment. In a highly unusual development, both the US and the British embassies put out press releases in his support.
More recently, Geshev announced he would seek to ban a pro-Nazi organisation that celebrates a Second World War general by organising a mass torch-lit rally in Sofia. The World Jewish Congress sent a thank-you letter.
Geshev's most ambitious undertaking so far is indeed grandiose. Following his actions against President Radev and Vasil "The Skull" Bozhkov, Bulgaria's new chief prosecutor ordered all the agencies of the state, including the police, the taxmen and the various countercorruption units to investigate every single privatisation deal since 1989. Notwithstanding the fact that current Bulgarian laws have statutes of limitations, Geshev's démarche infuriated Ivan Kostov, the late 1990s-early 2000s prime minister responsible for much of this country's de-nationalisation. Kostov continues to be a banner for some people identifying themselves as pro-Western anti-Communists, jocularly known as Latter-Day Kostovists. Bulgarians, who inevitably think that most if not all of said privatisation was flawed, applaud.
Yet, these are details. The important thing is that by acting the way he does Ivan Geshev and his men send out a very clear message. We can do whatever we want regardless of anyone's money and influence. We can arrest anyone and everyone, and we can destroy anyone's business. We are out to get them regardless of the various hurdles, one of them being the law. This is a message that rams home with the overwhelming majority of Bulgarians who as a rule do not like wealthy people and who as a rule think behind every fortune there is a crime.
The West, which takes great interest in the affairs of Hungary and Poland – possibly because both Hungary and Poland have expressed criticism to Western policies and values, must not stand by in the case of Bulgaria. Boyko Borisov remains a darling as far as the West is concerned because he strictly toes the line in police cooperation – and never criticises Merkel, Macron and Johnson. Yet the situation in Bulgaria is in some ways a lot more serious than the situation in Hungary or Poland if only because both Hungary and Poland have a longer democratic tradition and a better developed civil society. The Bulgarians have infamously manifested their reluctance or inability to go ahead with meaningful reforms. The West may be preoccupied with events such as Brexit and so on, but it must not let Bulgaria slip even further into Balkan democratorship. Its reluctance to do it now is bound to backfire – sooner rather than later.