Mediapool Weekly: October 19 – October 25, 2019

Supreme Judicial Council elects Ivan Geshev for Prosecutor General amid protests and heavy security measures, local elections to be held on October 27 across the country

Opinion:

Unprecedented and a glimpse into the new normal.

The Supreme Judicial Council voted Ivan Geshev for next Prosecutor General 20:4 while an army of police guarded the building

Ivan Geshev

Unprecedented was maybe the word the media most used to describe the circumstances of the election of the next Bulgarian Prosecutor General this Thursday. Blockades, shocking number of police and gendarmery officers, protests, counter-protests-in-support, a ten-hour hearing and 20:4 votes in favor of the only candidate to take over what is arguably the most powerful office in the country.

Hundreds of police and gendarmery forces guarded the building of the Supreme Judicial Council where the procedure took place. They had set up special checkpoints to let Geshev supporters near the building. The demonstrations were organized by the tabloid PIK, a prominent and often extreme supporter of those in power: particularly the infamous media mogul and DPS MP Delyan Peevski. Just a few months the outlet published naked pictures of the girlfriend of one of the mayoral candidates. The pictures were a part of an ongoing investigation into an alleged revenge porn case. The woman’s former spouse had footage, which they had made in private. After they parted, he uploaded the video on porn sites without her consent. Now the pictures appeared on PIK as part of the smear campaign against the non-parliamentary opposition Democratic Bulgaria’s candidate for Sofia mayor. The woman filed a defamation case against PIK for one million leva. The outlet gets sued in similar cases on a regular basis so court fees and compensation costs might very well be part of their regular annual budget planning. It happily pays these bills because PIK serves a much more important purpose. It is a smear-campaign machine, ready to be tapped at any time in service of those in power, especially Delyan Peevski.

On the day of the procedure for electing the next Prosecutor General, PIK’s editor-in-chief Svetlana Dzhamdzhieva chanted and yelled into a microphone to an expressionless crowd beneath her. Several journalists who managed to sneak in could not get one straight or consistent answer as to why the people from the crowd are there. The counter-protest-in-support was by all means well organized. The police were very aware and particular about who they could let in and who must stay out.

Geshev supporters in front of the Supreme Judicial Council building 

A significant chunk of the crowd were unmistakably hard-lined football fans, the so-called Ultras, who also recently made international headlines. They are another easy resource, always on the ready to be tapped. They have appeared at a number of pro-Geshev demonstrations and different counter-protests throughout the years and are pretty much untouchable: the most law enforcement officers interact with them is to protect them.

The amount of police around the building of the Supreme Judicial Council was astonishing. It seems unthinkable that any democratic (or even semi-democratic) state would need to impose what could only be described as a military emergency, in order to elect a prosecutor general. Not to mention, the effort and resources needed to organize a bunch of people from all over the country to come over and attend this event, paid, no doubt. But as absurd as it looks, and as ridiculously disproportionate the measures are, the way the whole thing was organized offers a glimpse into our every-day over the next at least seven years.

Heavy security measures around the building of the SUpreme Judicial Council

Ivan Geshev was the only candidate for the position of Prosecutor General. He is trained in the police academy, which is the successor of the secret police academy from totalitarian times. The institution has seen almost zero reform or transformation after the fall of communist rule. The unapologetic arrogance of raw total control is baked into the academy’s alumni, and Geshev is exemplary in this regard. It is hardly surprising in this context that he told the Bulgarian National Television about a month ago that he does not believe in the separation of powers.

Geshev is current Prosecutor General Sotir Tsatsarov’s deputy and favorite. Under Tsatsarov the Prosecutor’s Office was turned into a political instrument, which quickly gained more power than any other position or office in the country. Objectively speaking, he completely failed at combating high-level corruption. So has Geshev who also heads the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office, dedicated precisely to that sort of cases. Instead, both prosecutorial heads have made it their respective offices’ sole mission to go after political opponents and protect friends (whereby as a bonus, they are locked in a permanent dependency). The prosecution brings charges to the politically inconvenient, which forces them into a daunting procedure. Later, almost as a rule, the prosecution’s cases collapse in court. But by then enough damage is done. On the other hand, an even more important task the prosecution manages is failing to charge or investigate those friendly to power, regardless of the evidence. Or, rather, especially when there is enough evidence to open an investigation.

The tragic detail in this otherwise crude scheme is that neither Tsatsarov, nor Geshev, nor their subordinate are actually doing anything illegal. As heinous and obvious it is that the heads of the prosecution are using the powers of the office as a political tool, it is also just as legal. The Bulgarian legal framework grants the head of the prosecution an unparalleled autonomy. In a democratic system, typically organized around a checks-and-balances structure, the position of the Bulgarian Prosecutor General is entirely disconnected from any such system. Instead he hoovers above it, having more power than any of the others.

Tsatsarov’s failure to serve the public interest is no failure for him personally or the office he has occupied, just the opposite. He opens and shuts cases at will. He holds much of the executive branch openly in an extortionist relationship. He ultimately decides whether any wrongdoing would ever see a courtroom. And he is clear to do so without having to justify his decisions to anyone. While minor cases receive heavy coverage in the friendly media, the top prosecutors boast about crushing the oligarchy and corruption, the grand cases never reach the courts. Especially cases, related to the PM or Peevski.

Which brings us to the important point of, after all, why Geshev. Besides the obvious, that he is a favorite and a brute (famous for his flair for flashy over-the-top raids, complete with special forces and machine guns). The answer is trivial. He worked hard for it.

In the weeks leading to the election procedure, the head of the Supreme Court of Cassation, Lozan Panov – the only high-ranking figure in the justice system openly opposing Geshev’s nomination and Tsatsarov’s “rule” – inquired about Geshev’s actual accomplishments as a prosecutor. The Supreme Justice Council stalled and tried not to answer. At the end the council patched up an answer, which hardly went beyond crude statistics, but failed to shed light on anything of substance related to Geshev’s professional achievements. It did, however, gave out some important piece of information: over a period of two years Geshev was working only on the indictment for the KTB case.

The Cooperate Commercial Bank (KTB) collapsed in 2014, marking the largest bank bankruptcy in Bulgarian history. The bank’s boss, Tsvetan Vassilev, now lead defendant in the bankruptcy case, was in close partnership with Delyan Peevski. The bank issued millions of loans, which financed Delyan Peevski’s media empire. The two parted ways a little before the bank’s collapse. The ten-thousand-page indictment, which Geshev spent two years on almost fails to name Peevski at all. When asked about it this week, he explained that Peevski had repaid his loans. A year ago, at the same question, he answered that many people are not in the indictment, like Putin and Obama. Experts estimate the KTB collapse at more than five-billion-leva, organized as a bank robbery. During its golden years Vassilev was one of the most powerful people in Bulgaria. Peevski was his closest ally.

It takes an enormous amount of dedication to produce an indictment about 10’000 pages and manage to keep Peevski - a key figure in the story – out of it.

The power of this office is unique and invaluable. Whoever has it, has the country. And the most exceptional and irreplaceable part of it is not what the Prosecutor General and his office do. Rather, the secret to expanding the power of the office far beyond any other institution or position, is exploiting the potential of what they may not do. Both Sotir Tsatsarov and Ivan Geshev have gained the most dividend and leverage from not pursuing investigations, not opening case, not bringing charges and also by not building a solid case that can hold in court.

Anti-Geshev protest at Orlov Most. The protest went on till morning  

The protests against Geshev meanwhile continue. After protesters blocked one of the main Sofia intersections, Orlov Most (a notable anti-corruption protesting site) for nearly 24-hours, the next protest was scheduled almost immediately for the following Friday night. The appointment of Geshev as the next Prosecutor General is now in the hands of President Roumen Radev, who must sign off on the council’s decision. He may veto it, however, which is what the protesters demand of Radev. If he vetoes the decision the proceedure will restart and a new vote must take place. Radev will be obliged to sign the second time around.

In other news:

The European Commission to lift CVM monitoring of Bulgaria

Jean-Claude Juncker (left) and PM Boyko Borissov (right)

In a move both expected and absurd, the European Commission announced this week it will end the post-succession monitoring mechanism of Bulgaria known as the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. The mechanism observed and assessed Bulgaria’s judicial system and published regular reports with recommendations Bulgaria pledged to fulfill time and time again. In its nearly thirteen years, the reports virtually repeat themselves. The most emphasis has always been given to the position of prosecutor general in the country, its unaccountability, unteachableness and overall over-powerfulness.

Although the CVM has almost nothing to show for the time it was tasked with overseeing and guiding the judicial reform in Bulgaria, it is not surprising the European Commission has decided to end the mechanism. For one, obviously, it is not successful. That might very well be enough. Its lack of success must be frustrating: Bulgaria has consistently refused to follow any of the recommendations in the numerous reports, and doesn’t even try to pretend otherwise. In a word, the European Commission gave up trying. It was written all over the last report between the lines: an overall positive review, a recommendation to end the mechanism. At the same time, additions all over the text itself that no progress has been made.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told PM Boyko Borissov the CVM will end before this commissions tenure is up. The Justice Minister Danail Kirilov vowed to resign his post if the CVM is not over by the end of the year: an indication in of itself that the government had good information that the commission will lift the CVM.

The political decision to end the mechanism may be because of exhaustion and realization that it is entirely unable to deliver any real results.

The commission, however, plans to employ a new mechanism: one tasked with dealing with the same kind of problems but this time not exclusive to new member states. Instead, it will monitor the whole of the EU.

The National Audit Office un-deleted data from its report on the national Revenue Agency

The National Audit Office restored the data from its audit into the National Revenue Agency, which suddenly disappeared in the official report, published a few weeks ago.

In early September the audit authority published a key report concerning the of the National Revenue Agency’s effectiveness in collecting taxes. The report covered a period between 2013-2016.

About two weeks ago Mediapool reported that the agency had deleted a massive amount of data from its final report. The information contained crucial statistical data, which shed light about the NRA’s activities during the reported period. The audit authority justified the missing findings by claiming the data was sensitive and confidential. A thin justification at best, given that there is no personal data embedded in the data, for one, and that the office decided to retract the information after it had voted and published the report.

The head of the audit office promised to launch an inquiry following Mediapool’s reporting and ultimately responded all the retracted information has been restored.

The information in question, which disappeared from the report included some 10 billion leva outstanding debts, which the NRA pardoned along with an astonishing 30 billion, 85% of which the agency itself assessed as either difficult to collect or uncollectable altogether.

Local elections to take place October 27 across the country

Bulgaria will hold local elections on Sunday, October 27. Almost 30’000 candidates are running for the various municipal councils and about 6300 candidates are running for district and municipal mayors.

The mayoral elections are decided in two rounds. A mayor may win the elections on the first run if he or she wins more than half of the casted votes. The second round of elections will take place a week from the first – Sunday, November 3.

The number of people eligible to vote are 6’230’000. Voters may vote in the municipality where they are registered as residents. Campaigning is not allowed on the day leading up to the election, and on election day. Initial results and exit polls may be announced only after the election day is declared officially over. The voting booths will open at 7:00AM and close at 8:00PM.

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