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GERB Deputy Chairman Tsvetan Tsvetanov obtained a new luxury apartment in Sofia in June 2018.

SOFIA -- The Bulgarian Prosecutor-General’s Office says it is launching an investigation into a real estate deal by the deputy chairman of the ruling GERB party.

A recent series of RFE/RL reports documented how GERB Deputy Chairman Tsvetan Tsvetanov obtained a new luxury apartment in Sofia in June 2018 from the Bulgarian construction firm Arteks in a cash-and-property-swap deal.

Tsvetanov received the new apartment from Arteks at a price that was four times lower than its actual market value.

A document showing the price of Justice Minister Tsetska Tsacheva's apartment.
A document showing the price of Justice Minister Tsetska Tsacheva's apartment.

Arteks also resold the two Sofia apartments it received from Tsvetanov in the swap just hours after the deal was completed.

Those properties were purchased by Simeon Velkov, a former employee at GERB’s election headquarters who had been a subordinate and close associate of Tsvetanov.

Tsvetanov denied any wrongdoing, saying: “All I have done is completely legal."

"The completion of three transactions using the same notary on the same day gives rise to well-founded suspicions that these deals were prenegotiated transactions -- not market transactions based on supply and demand on the property market," Nikolay Staikov, an expert from the Sofia-based nongovernmental group Anticorruption Fund, told RFE/RL.

Follow-up reporting by RFE/RL and the bivol.bg news website has revealed that at least three other members of the GERB party also have purchased luxury apartments in the same area from Arteks at prices that were from 30 percent to more than 50 percent of the market value.

They include Justice Minister Tsetska Tsacheva, GERB parliamentary deputy Vezhdi Rashidov, and Deputy Sports Minister Vanya Koleva.

In January 2017, GERB lawmakers pushed through amendments to Bulgaria’s construction regulations in a way that is allowing Arteks to build a lucrative 34-story office and luxury-apartment building in Sofia.

That building, known as Golden Century, will be one of Bulgaria’s tallest structures when it is completed.

Rumiana Arnaudova, a spokeswoman for Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov, says the Prosecutor-General’s Office will examine details in the case to determine whether any crimes were committed – including tax avoidance and violations of anti-corruption laws.

Tsvetanov, who was the interior minister from 2009-13, is widely considered the second-most-powerful politician after Prime Minister Boyko Borislav.

Tsvetanov became the focus of a real estate scandal in 2011 when an audit by tax officials revealed that he owned six apartments in Sofia -- something very difficult to achieve on the salary of a public administrator.

However, tax authorities later dismissed any wrongdoing on his part.

With reporting by RFE/RL Bulgarian Service correspondent Polina Paunova in Sofia
Scuffles And Arrests In Kazakhstan Over Capital Name Change
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ASTANA -- Police in Astana have detained about 20 people who protested against renaming Kazakhstan's capital after former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who stepped down from the post earlier this week.

The protesters, who staged their March 21 protest in front of the Astana mayor's office, were confronted by dozens of people who support the renaming of the city before police took them away.

It was not immediately clear if charges have been filed against the demonstrators.

Nazarbaev abruptly announced his resignation on March 19 after ruling the country for nearly 30 years.

However, he remains chairman for life of Kazakhstan's Security Council and chairman of the ruling Nur Otan party.

The outgoing upper house chairman, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, was sworn in as interim president of the Central Asian country on March 20. He is to remain in office until an election that is due to be held in April 2020.

During the ceremony at a joint session of the parliament's chambers, Toqaev proposed that Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, be renamed Nursultan -- a request that was swiftly approved by parliament.

As the procedure has yet to be finalized, nearly 40,000 people have signed an online petition against renaming the city for a fourth time in less than 60 years.

Astana was known as Akmolinsk until 1961, when it was renamed Tselinograd (Virgin Lands City in Russian language). It became Aqmola (White Grave in Kazakh) after Kazakhstan became independent following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

After the capital was moved from Almaty in southeastern Kazakhstan to Aqmola in 1997, the city was once again renamed, this time Astana (Capital in Kazakh).

Toqaev also called for major streets in all towns and cities across Kazakhstan to be named after the 78-year-old Nazarbaev.

In a separate development, the U.S. State Department said that Washington "deeply values" Nazarbaev's contributions in "establishing and promoting enduring, dynamic relations between the United States and Kazakhstan."

"At this historic moment in Kazakhstan, we salute [Nazarbaev’s] role as the father of today’s modern, sovereign, and prosperous Kazakhstan, and acknowledge the example he sets for responsible regional and global leadership," spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement on March 21.

With reporting by Reuters

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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