Mediapool Weekly: 1 September - 7 September, 2018

United Patriots Threaten to Leave Ruling Coalition Over the Weekend but Humble Up by Tuesday, Socialists’ Leader Kornelia Ninova Announce the Party Exits Parliament to Go to the People, Last Week Ministers’ Resignations in a Limbo

United Patriots Threaten to Leave Ruling Coalition Over the Weekend but Humble Up by Tuesday

The three leaders of the United Patriots Coalition: Krasimir Karakachanov, Volen Siderov, Valeri Simeonov

The week began with an expected press conference of the coalition partner, the United Patriots - also a coalition of its own, of right-wing nationalists. During the weekend one of the Patriots’ members, the National Front for Saving Bulgaria, implied they might pull out from the coalition.

Valeri Simeonov, NFSB's leader and vice prime minister, expressed outrage at the government's – and specifically PM Boyko Borissov’s - handling of last week's deadly bus crash which killed 17 on the road to Svoge City. The bus, carrying 33 passengers, was unable to take a sharp turn during heavy rain, went off the road and fell into the defile.

The bus driver from the crash was put under house arrest (and has since been released under bail), but public and opposition pressure grew over the fact that roads in Bulgaria are built and maintained poorly. Public procurement procedures for road construction are notoriously corrupt and one of the notable examples of state capture in the country. Road repairs begin shortly after they are built, then repairs of the repairs begin. Voices that this is the ultimate cause of the crash grew crisper. The notion gained momentum and was also fueled by reports that one, the road indeed was unsafe, and two, various relevant authorities failed to secure it or close it. This led PM Boyko Borissov to demand three of his ministers' resignations late last week: Transport Minister Ivaylo Moskovski, Minister of Interior Valentin Radev and Regional Minister Nikolay Nankov resigned shortly after.

This, however, did not impress Valeri Simeonov, who saw the move as a grand empty gesture whose purpose is to satisfy the news cycle and divert attention from the real issue. Simeonov told reporters only an idiot would think resignations solve problems. He announced there will be an internal party meeting over the weekend to decide whether they will continue to be part of the coalition.

After the meeting, the party reverted the main point from pulling out of the coalition to saying would vote against accepting the three ministers’ resignations. NFSB focused its criticism toward PM Borissov: they declared they stand against the “one-man make-up governance" of this government, clearly referring to Boyko Borissov's leadership style. There was no mention of pulling out of the coalition.

During the press conference, Simeonov expanded on the idea that one person governs the country on his own accord. He highlighted again that the resignations will solve nothing and made a case about how important it is not to be afraid of losing their jobs at any sign of trouble.

It remained ambiguous, however, what the actual problems regarding the Svoge crash are in Simeonov’s view. He was clearly sceptical that poor road quality is to blame. He said “incompetent journalists” had pushed this theory forward in the immediate days after the crash. It was impossible, he continued, to make such an assertion, as samples of the materials in the road “were only taken yesterday”.

In fact, that is true only regarding the second round of samples, taken for the purposes of the investigation. Experts tested the asphalt early last week and the results showed high quantities of limestone, which should not be there.

The commotion the Patriots produced also called for the ruling coalition to schedule a special meeting to discuss the three ministers’ resignations. Coalition members assembled late Monday after NFSB held their press conference. But the meeting became a forum for resolving differences among the members (especially among the right-wingers) and assurances they would work better in the future “for the sake of the people”; the resignations fell off the agenda.

The coalition will take the final decision regarding the three resignations next Monday but there is strong indication that Regional Development Minister Nikolay Nankov will save his post. Representatives of different members of the ruling coalition separately implied to journalists over the week that Nenov’s resignation might not be accepted.

However, out of the three ministries – regional, transport and interior – the foremost responsible for the road conditions is the Ministry of Regional Development under Nenov. The Road Infrastructure Agency, which manages road infrastructure answers to the Ministry of Regional Development. Without this ministry taking responsibility, it is bizarre for the other two to do so.

If this turns out to be the case, however, a separate picture is forming. Sources tell Mediapool that Minister of Interior Valendin Radev’s removal is long overdue and the PM has been waiting for an opportunity to get rid of him. Sources also say Transport Minister Ivayko Moskovski has been wanting to leave the position of minister since February for personal reasons, although if so, it is unclear why he would need to wait for a special occasion to quit.

Road Safety Institute: The Svoge Road Fails All Standards

The Svoge road where 17 lost their lives last week

The section of the road where the tragic accident took place last week does not correspond to any standard for road safety. The relevant authorities have made a number of violations throughout the process beginning with engineering, execution and permitting exploitation, according to the Road Safety Institute, an NGO, which carried out an assessment of the road.

The last institution to have had the opportunity to stop the road from use was the Ministry of Interior, which could have fined the Road Infrastructure Agency, as well as to close the road for the dangerous state of the pavement due to its low quality.

Diana Rusinova of the institute explained also that not one of the road signs along the road are adequate to the danger, and also none of them meet the general requirements for road signs like height, relevant position to the road etc.

Rusinova confirmed the traffic barrier at the turn where the bus went off the road goes into the lane, which makes it harder for a vehicle to keep in their lane, especially if they are larger. The driver of the bus’s attorney claimed the same during his client’s hearing in court last week. The defense argued that the positioning of the barrier is one of the main causes of the accident.

The disastrous traffic barrier has also produced another absurd storyline. While it is becoming more and more apparent that the barrier defies conventional road safety principles, authorities are quick to declare it is not under their jurisdiction, hence, not their fault. The road is the road agency’s but the side of the road – the municipality’s. both institutions claim the road barrier is under the authority of the others.

Rusinova listed a number of violations of dimension standards regarding nearly every element of the road. On top of this the surface of the road was “smooth as a mirror”, a fact “known to everyone”.

The regional directorate of the Ministry of Interior in Svoge had signaled the ministry on multiple occasions that the road – and especially the section of the accident – is unsafe and that the same type of accidents reoccurs there. The ministry has informed the Road Infrastructure Agency seven times but not fined it once.

Meanwhile, the road is undergoing repaving. The company Trace Svoge started initial repairs on Monday and overall repaving on Friday. According to Regional Minister Nikolay Nankov the road construction company refused to repair defects in the road on five separate occasions over the last several years; the company rejected the claims.

The Road Infrastructure Agency will also carry out its own assessment of the 82-kilometer road.

Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov: Bulgaria Will Not Be Part of the European Intervention Initiative

Defence Minister Krasimir Karakachanov

Bulgaria will hold back from the European Intervention Initiative, for the time being, Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov told Parliament on Wednesday.

The government has not discussed the issue of the initiative until now.

The question has only ever come up in public when President Roumen Radev criticized the government for not taking the opportunity to pose the question of “what is the real purpose of this new group” to its European partners during the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.

“The European Intervention Initiative is still merely a political forum for discussing ideas. It is yet to develop and gain definite dimensions.”, Karakachenov said to Parliament.

In his view entering the initiative would make it harder for the country to fulfill its already set goals as it would mean “reallocating yet again the already scarce defense funds”.

He added to this that most of Bulgaria’s military forces are already assigned or employed to NATO and EU forces.

Bulgaria has been criticized for years that it is not a robust member of NATO. Its military equipment is almost entirely Soviet and incompatible with its allies’. On top of this, the Bulgarian military registers a steady human resources’ decline. In fact, according to ex

perts, the only reason for the interest in perusing a military career till about a decade ago was the opportunity for the men and women to be employed overseas. However, with the decline in such missions over the years, this oportunity has also shrunk and with it – the interest in the profession.

Burgas Governor Valcho Cholakov Appeals Construction Plans for Silistar Beach

Silistar Beach

The governor of Burgas, Valcho Cholakov has submitted an appeal Tsarevo City Council’s decision from last week adopting a construction plan in the protected area near the beach of Silistar. The plan permits the building of summer houses across 22 decars (2,2 hectares) of land just 500 meters off the beach.

The governor’s office submitted the appeal Tuesday, a day after it received the official documents regarding the Tsarevo City Council’s decision.

The decision made headlines and received immediate backlash from the public and environment protection NGOs. Later, both the regional office of the Ministry of Environment and the district Prosecutor’s Office both announced the decision unlawful, both in terms of environmental and territorial laws.

Then PM Boyko Borissov instructed the governor of Burgas to block the decision, which he said he would once his office receives the official documents.

Tsarevo’s mayor, Georgi Lapchev initially proclaimed the story that the council had passed a plan for construction near Silistar ‘fake news’. He claimed to reporters that a road would be built. He was countered, however, by the governor – among experts, media reports, and activists – that if the council’s intent was to build a road, this is not the way to do it.

Part of Cholakov’s appeal has to do with this point in particular: the type of procedure to allow for constructing just a road entails a specific type of plan to be adopted. If the future road goes through a non-urban territory – as is the case – the plan reflects this both in form and substance. The council, however, had adopted a full urbanization plan for the territory, which projects road construction but as a consequence of urbanization.

Just hours before Cholakov’s office submitted the appeal, in an interview for bTV, Lapchev still maintained the plan was only for the municipality to build a road to satisfy the condition for open access to the beach

Meanwhile, regarding a related case concerning another beach in the region of Tsarevo, Koral, which has been in the public’s eye for years, Cholakov said Wednesday there is no way construction projects be allowed in the Koral area.

Koral Beach is a hot point of public debate as real estate investors have been eying the area for years. Koral Beach is a favorite camping site; which government officials have been attacking a newer weekly basis especially during high season. Campers are typically also some of the most vocal protesters of building projects along the coast and in mountain areas. They take a special place is government-supportive media outlets, portraying them as just short of savages, destroying both the environment and economic prosperity.

Alcohol Mogul Minyu Staykov Arrested for Illegal Cigarette Production

Vinprom Karnobat Owner Minyu Staykov

The owner of the wine production company Vinprom Karnobat was arrested on Wednesday along with nine others. The charges put up by prosecutors initially were for illegal cigarette production, tax fraud, and money laundering.

The temporary head of the special prosecutor’ s office, Daniela Nacheva announced on Friday that the factory, producing illegal cigarettes in Karnobat managed to launder money through 20 separate firms. The 20 companies were connected, according to prosecutors, and took part in the group executing tax fraud.

Vinprom Karnobat is the largest wine producer in Bulgaria, manufacturing a wide range of wine quality wines, from cheap to high-quality expensive produce. The company also is the second largest producer of spirits in the country. Staykov also owns the top flour mill company in Bulgaria, Topas Mel.

The Prosecutor’s Office held a press conference in the aftermath of the arrests. The chief of the National Investigative Office, Borislav Sarafov, said:

“The illegal cigarette factory that the businessman Minyu Staykovhas owns has cost the country 70 million leva in budget revenues.”

On Thursday prosecutors charged Staykov for being part of a criminal enterprise selling goods subject to sin tax, without tax, tax fraud and tax evasion of over a million leva.

One of the initially arrested was released with the other eight remaining under arrest for another 72 hours. Among them Syaykov’s son and the mayor of Karnobat’s son as well.

Karnobat Mayor Georgi Dimitrov stated that his son had only leased his industrial space where the illegal cigarettes had been manufactured to a company from Stara Zagora. He told reporters his son does not know Minyu Staykov, but he – Dimitrov – did. Dimitrov added the Staykov had backed the municipality of Karnobat with small sums.

Prosecutors have made supplementary charges to some of the accused but it is not yet clear to whom.

Prosecutors will request from the Specialized Penal Court for all accused to remain incarcerated.

Bulgarian prosecutors are hardly known for perusing white collar crime in general. It has been inclined to taking on such cases in recent weeks, however. Although this should be taken with a heavy grain of salt – most likely the initiative aims to divert the public’s attention from more matters, more sensitive to the government (like road safety, for example, which is the pride and joy of PM Boyko Borissov’s). It is more than likely these are trump cards the government has been preserving for times like these when it must employ damage control in a time of crisis.

Apart from the case in question regarding Vinprom Karnobat and other Staykov-owned businesses, last week, the Prosecutor’s Office was the foremost player in raids and subsequent charges against hotel business owners Vesko Abadzhiev and his wife Marinela Abadzhieva for tax fraud and money laundering. Authorities carried out searches in Abadzhiev family-owned hotels. In the words of Deputy Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, officials discovered “astonishing sums of money” on the premises they looked into. Geshev told reports the investigators suspect there a lot more money in these spaces which remain hidden.

Five others were accused of these crimes along with the Abadziev family. Vesko and Marinela Abadziev are currently in France, according to prosecutors. Their son, however, is in Bulgaria and authorities have arrested and charged him with money laundering. A warrant for the arrest of the parents has been issued by the relevant European authorities.

Bulgarian Socialist Party Leader Kornelia Ninova Announces the Party is Leaving Parliament

BSP Leader Kornelia Ninova Speaking to Parliament

On the first day after summer break, BSP leader Kornelia Ninova declared to Parliament her party is leaving to go out to the people and devise a new model of governance. During her emotional speech, Ninova demanded the cabinet’s resignation and said this majority could not solve any of the country’s problems.

She said the parliamentary group of the socialists took the decision to leave. 20 of them, however, will remain “to uphold the party’s positions”.

Ninova held a long and emotional speech marking some of the crises this government faced over the past several months, including the breakdown of the Trade Registry, the surprising bankruptcy of the insurance company Olympic, and the deadly crash near Svoge City.

“All this demonstrates the corruption and theft, and the government’s business ties; the institutions are blocked.”

She went on to criticize the instability of the ruling coalition and the ongoing conflicts within it. She described the country as being in a state of agony and presented a document entitled “A Vision for Bulgaria” – a declaration BSP is the alternative to GERB for governing the country, which outlines BSP’s policy agenda.

Among the points in its policy priorities are lowering VAT for medicine, and changing hospitals’ market status to reflect their ‘social nature’; free preschools and reducing the number of textbooks per subject per year to one for all schools; upholding family values throughout education and “no gender ideology”; reinstating progressive tax; restricting concessions of companies in the no privatization list; not to be quick to adopt the euro.

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