The Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office, during the term of the incumbent Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov, has become an actor on the political stage by itself. Krassen Nikolov has the story.
When elections start approaching in Bulgaria the prosecution comes to life and makes moves in key cases. A number of independent observers interpret these cycles as proof for the Prosecutor’s office’s biases.
Sotir Tsatsarov has headed the Prosecutor’s Office for more than six years. The Prosecutor general’s mandate is 7 years without the right to re-election. Tsatsarov took office at the end of December 2012 after he was elected by the Supreme Judicial Council and the decree for his entry into office was signed by President Rossen Plevneliev (president from January 2012 to January 2017). The Judicial Council in Bulgaria is a highly politicized body because 11 of its elected members are appointed by parliament, and GERB and the Turkish minority party DPS (Movement for rights and freedoms) have had a majority in this political quota.
Tsatsarov is a former judge from Plovdiv, who received open support for the post from Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. The Supreme Judicial Council voted in favor of Tsatsarov after strong lobbyist efforts on the part of the executive branch. The Prosecutor General in Bulgaria is part of the judicial branch and in theory should be fully independent politically. After Tsatsarov was approved, information surfaced of meetings he had had with the influential businessmen and MP from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) Delyan Peevski.
The influence the Prosecutor General has in Bulgaria is immense because the incumbent has the power to revert the decisions of any given prosecutor under him. In his seven-year term the Prosecutor General is essentially unaccountable as there are no mechanisms in place to control his actions. Also, there is no obstacle for the Prosecutor General to enter into close ties with political and business players, including the most powerful.
Just before the last parliamentary and president elections in Bulgaria (2016-2017) the Prosecutor’s Office was very active and conducted a number of cases against former and current MPs. The publisher Ivo Prokopiev was charged, along with former energy ministers Traycho Traykov, Delyan Dobrev, Rumen Ovcharov and Petar Dimitrov; former Healthcare Minister Petar Moskov, former Minister of Finance Simeon Dyankov and former Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov. Only a fraction of these cases actually made it to court. The prosecutors’ cases ultimately failed as the courts did not issue a single conviction in any of them.
Even back then suspicions arose that the only time the Prosecutor’s Office decides to be active is before elections and when a report by the European Commission is due, under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). The perceived goal is to make the impression that there is real political will to combat high-level corruption. With the Commission’s final progress report approaching and European elections due in May, the scenario in repeating.
The activism of law enforcement in Bulgaria is also linked to the newly created anti-corruption body with the unpronounceable name of KPKONPI (“Commission for countering corruption and confiscation of unlawfully obtained property”). So far KPKONPI has had two major operations.
In April 2018 the then-mayor of one of the largest districts of Sofia, Mladost, Dessislava Ivancheva was arrested in a flashy operation for allegedly receiving a €70,000 bribe. The trial against Ivancheva is underway and the court is to rule on whether she is guilty or not. She has remained in jail for many months, even though she is in bad health, and the prosecutors had finished collecting evidence in support of their case.
Ivancheva’s supporters claim that she should be taken as an example of anyone who dares to win an election race against Bulgaria’s largest ruling party GERB. Three years ago, Ivancheva surprisingly won the seat at Mladost from GERB as an independent candidate.
Another KPKOMPI case concerns the National Agency for Bulgarians Abroad. Last October all the officials working in this agency were arrested at once. The institution is in charge of issuing an important piece of document, which enables foreigners to receive Bulgarian citizenship. Law enforcement agencies acted now, although the authorities have had enough evidence of wrongdoings in the agency for at least the last five years. Deputy Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev described the operation as “the most serious case of corruption without comparison in recent history”.
But the Prosecutor’s office ‘favorite’ remains Economedia publisher and owner of the financial company Alpha Finance Holding, Ivo Prokopiev. At the end of October prosecutors announced that he is charged with money laundering in connection with selling the “Kaolin” mines in 2012. What is interesting is that the deal itself is considered fully legal by the relevant state institutions. Prokopiev bought “Kaolin” from the state over 20 years ago in a privatization procedure. Back then the Supreme Court ruled that the deal is legal. Prokopiev’s media outlets are famous for criticizing the Prosecutor General and ruling party GERB.
In 2017, Tsatsarov invited another businessman, Sasho Dontchev, who also owns a newspaper, in the office of a businessman, to tell him that “his behaviour has become unbearable”. According to Dontchev, Tsatsarov reproached him his alleged support for a political party (YES Bulgaria), for allegedly supporting a TV station and owning a newspaper (Sega) which star cartoonist Cristo Komarnitski often depicts the chief prosecutor as part of a triumvirate (the Three Fatsoes) with Borissov and Peevski.
The Prosecutor’s Office have been targeting associates of President Rumen Radev’s, who also opposes GERB. Prosecutors initiated a probe into Atanas Semov, who was appointed by the President as a constitutional judge. Semov is currently immune from prosecution as per his position, and the charges against him were dropped.
In August and September three families of notorious businessmen were also targeted by prosecutors. Those are the Banev family (who accumulated capital during the massive privatization), the Arabadzhiev family (who are in the tourism and hotel business, their Marinela Hotel having hosted the guests of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU) and the Staykov family (who are in the alcohol industry). Their business dealings have been subject to inquiries and suspicions as to the legality for decades but the law enforcement agencies acted on them now for the first time. Tsatsarov claims that the reason why the Prosecutor’s Office is acting now is that new substantial evidence had emerged against these families recently.
During the whole course of Tsatsarov’s term the Prosecutor’s Office is actively involved in political meddling. Now the question of who will be his successor is growing more important. Tsatsarov’s term ends in 2019. It seems that his current deputy, Ivan Geshev, is the one being groomed for the post. Over the past two years Geshev ascended quickly to the post of Deputy Prosecutor General, in charge of the fight against corruption and organized crime. He is in front of the cameras during any large operation by the Prosecutor’s Office.
According to the most recent polls Bulgarians have grown accustomed to such pre-election activations on the prosecutor’s part. One poll by Aphis showed 59% of Bulgarians do not believe that the recent cornucopia of charges against well-known individuals will actually lead to convictions. Only 30% expect for some of them ending up with a conviction and only 6% believe that all will be convicted.