Controversies hit local government in Bulgaria six months ahead of elections
Six months ahead of mayoral and municipal elections in Bulgaria, a series of scandals has begun at local government level, from allegations against mayors of various towns to a massive upsurge in address changes seen as attempts at manipulating vote outcomes.
Prosecutors are having a busy time as media exposes succeed one another.
Local elections were last held in Bulgaria in October 2011, with about 6.5 million Bulgarians eligible to vote. The 2015 municipal elections will be held under electoral legislation twice rewritten since then. At stake will be control of 265 municipalities.
One is Petrich, where mayor Velyo Iliev is in his fourth term of office. The town of about 31 000 residents, in the Blagoevgrad region in south-western Bulgaria, has been in uproar in recent days in May after investigative reporting by Nova Televizia highlighted alleged irregularities in several public procurement procedures.
It is not the first time that allegations have been levelled against Iliev, who in 2011 was taken to court on charges of malfeasance in office in connection with a road-building deal, to be acquitted a year and a half later by a three-member bench of the Blagoevgrad District Court.
The day after the television report, hundreds of residents of Petrich started a series of protests demanding Iliev’s resignation, while the Blagoevgrad District Prosecutor’s Office announced that it had begun an investigation.
Building firms and developers joined the protests, which on May 19 went as far as breaking a police cordon to briefly block traffic on the international road to Greece, one of the busiest in the country.
Local media reported that construction companies in Petrich alleged that small-scale projects routinely went to firms close to the deputy mayor in charge of construction, while large ones went to companies from towns other than Petrich, which nonetheless had put in the highest bids. They demanded the resignation not only of the mayor, but of the entire municipal leadership.
Iliev denied all allegations of wrongdoing and said that he saw no reason to step down, rejecting the protests against him as politically-motivated.
In what has become standard practice in Bulgaria, a counter-protest in support of Iliev was held on May 20, with participants telling reporters that with Iliev as first citizen, life in the town had improved and investments had increased. They alleged that the anti-Iliev protesters had each been paid 20 leva (about 10 euro) to turn out.
One of the anti-Iliev protesters, Dimitar Atanasov, told reporters, “we have to stop thieves like Velyo Iliev, who occupy high-ranking positions”.
Atanasov said, “Bulgaria starts from the town of Petrich” and from this town a “war” should begin against what he called the feudal lords occupying high positions in other towns.
The year 2015 also has been the arrival of the drone as a factor in the practices of media and politics. Aerial footage that has caused controversies about some mayors have led to quips that mayors would be well-advised to invest in anti-aircraft missiles.
One such case was in Pazardzhik, a town of about 71 000 people in central Bulgaria, where the April 2015 deployment of a drone by television station bTV showed mayor Todor Popov as living in a sprawling mansion of a scale of luxury somewhat beyond the norm for the place.
Reports claimed the mansion to be valued at 1.5 million leva, while the mayor was paid a salary of about 2000 leva a month. At the same time, councillors opposed to Popov told the media that the municipality’s finances were in a parlous state, and alleged that there had been huge numbers of deals in recent years in selling municipal properties at below-market prices.
It was not the first time in 2015 that Pazardzhik had made the news after, in January, the mayor’s chief of staff, Tatyana Stoyanova, was shot dead in front of her home.
Popov, who reportedly has not declared income additional to his municipal salary for the past seven years but whose wife has earned 293 000 from recent business enterprises, issued a statement denying wrongdoing and describing his home as an “ordinary house”.
But following the reports, Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov announced that the National Revenue Agency was looking into Popov’s financial affairs, while the Pazardzhik Regional Prosecutor’s Office said at the end of April that it had begun an initial investigation to establish whether there was any evidence of wrongdoing.
A drone above Haskovo, again flown by bTV, found mayor Georgi Ivanov living in a mansion worth 2.5 million leva. Reports earlier in May said that the Haskovo District Prosecutor’s office was investigating, to establish whether there was any evidence of tax evasion.
The investigation in Haskovo was initiated to establish the ownership of the properties and cars shown in the drone footage broadcast on television, their value and whether these are concomitant with the income of the mayor and his immediate relatives. Companies in which Haskovo’s mayoress has an interest also are being investigated.
Ivanov, appearing on bTV’s breakfast show, said that he was proud of his property, and attributed his wealth to his success in the construction business in the town. He added that his financial affairs had undergone five check-ups and each time he had received a clean bill of health.
He, in turn, hit back at bTV, saying that the television station was working “on commission” to discredit a list of mayors before the elections. His list had on it the mayors of Kyustendil, Montana, Shoumen, Sandanski, Haskovo, Sliven, Nesseburg, Kavarna, Varna, Gotse Delchev and Smolyan. (In a role reversal, bTV rejected the allegation, saying that its reporters worked solely in the public interest).
As for Ivanov’s car collection, estimated to have a value of four million leva, Ivanov said that he bought cars in poor condition and then restored them, which increased their value.
He told bTV, “Thirty years I worked in construction. What do you expect – that I should live in a hut? Must a mayor be a pauper?”
Meanwhile, 28km from Pazardzhik and 160km from Haskovo, in the town of Belovo, a place that has the odd distinction in Bulgaria of being the country’s premier producer of toilet paper (a legacy of the communist era, when this roll, sorry, role was given to Belovo), mayor Kostadin Varev has found himself the target of a petition demanding that he step down.
In a town of less than 4000, the petition had gathered more than 800 signatures by mid-May, with farmers and residents reportedly irate over the sale of almost all of the municipality’s land to a Varna company, with the land designation changed from pastoral to agricultural land.
In a report on the issue, bTV said that it had not been able to get an answer to inquiries to officialdom about just how much land had been sold to the Varna company nor the price at which it was sold, but said that it had established that the bulk of the land (allegedly, more than 86 per cent of Belovo’s municipal land) had raised about two million leva.
Varev denied wrongdoing and denied to bTV that the land had been sold cheaply, challenging the station to find other municipalities where land of that type had been sold “at 80 per cent of that price”.
Karlovo, a town of 25 000 in central Bulgaria, renowned among Bulgaria as the birthplace of Vassil Levski, hero of the struggle for liberation from Ottoman rule, and also for its rose oil production, also has its more latter-day controversies.
Mayor Emil Kabaivanov is facing charges from the district prosecutor’s office in connection with alleged misuses of municipal property, charges arising from a 2007 joint venture between the municipality and wealthy business person Hristo Kovachki, according to prosecutor Svilen Bratoev.
In short, the deal did not work out as envisaged and prosecutors say that municipal property that passed into the hands of Kovachki’s company had been seized by the National Revenue Agency because of taxes unpaid by his firms.
Kabainov told bTV that he did not know Kovachki: “I have never seen him, do not know him, have not spoken to him”. He added, “I will give you one direction, look for the link between this prosecutor and a future candidate mayor of Karlovo”.
Across in Botevgrad, a town of 20 000 people, 47km from Sofia, mayor Georgi Georgiev is no longer a member of GERB, the majority partner in the national government, having quit after Prime Minister and GERB leader Boiko Borissov said that the party would not back Georgiev in the autumn mayoral elections.
The parting of the ways came an inspection by Parliament’s anti-corruption committee and after the National Audit Office published a report on Botevgrad municipality’s finances which established breaches in the drafting of the budget, a lack of accountability and “drastic” violations of public procurement rules.
Whether Georgiev will stand again remains to be seen. GERB is not the first party on whose ticket he stood; the predecessors were the National Movement Simeon II, and the Bulgarian Socialist Party.
Aside from allegations about mayors, the distant advent of municipal election season also seems to be inspiring any numbers of Bulgarians to change their address registrations.
A succession of television reports on various stations have highlighted instances of this, with sudden surges in the populations of villages or, for that matter, houses that must be so crowded as to make movement among their purported inhabitants nigh-impossible.
Nessebur, on the Black Sea coast, is a case in point, prompting a letter to Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov from eight political parties, including GERB, the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, the Union of Democratic Forces, the Agrarian Union, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, ABC, Movement 21 and the union of free Democrats.
The letter also called for an investigation and for the relevant authorities to delete from the Nessebur address registration list anyone who had registered there illegally, with prosecutions as a follow-up.
In the letter, the allegation was made that large numbers of people, employed by companies operating in Sunny Beach, Nessebur and Sveti Vlas, had been “compelled” to submit address registration documents for the district, without actually living there. In just a few months, as of mid-May, more than 450 people had “moved in” to the municipality.
Those who had done so feared for their jobs and so had carried out their employers’ orders to change their addresses, said GERB regional leader Zlatko Dimitrov. He argued that it was as plain as day that these employees did not really live in the municipality, pointing to the shuttles of microbuses that transported employees to and from work in the municipality daily.
“We want a fair and regular vote and (not that) the elections are decided in advance through a controlled vote and by people not residing in the municipality, who were registered for the sole purpose of filing the respective declaration and voting in the elections in October,” Dimitrov told local media.
(Photos, of the houses of the mayors of Pazardzhik and of Haskovo: bTV)