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Bulgarian parliamentary deputy Delyan Peevski has not made a public appearance in the country in over two years. (file photo)

Most politicians can't be seen enough when running for office. Delyan Peevski isn't most politicians.

The Bulgarian multimillionaire hasn't made a public appearance since April 19, 2017, when he attended the first meeting of that Balkan country's current National Assembly after being elected as a lawmaker.

Now Bulgaria's purportedly "undisputed media mogul" appears headed to victory again, this time in European Parliament elections later this month despite his real-life game of "Where's Waldo?"

He is second on the list of candidates for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) party in the May 26 balloting, meaning he will likely gain a seat in the assembly given the party's current third-place standing in opinion polls at about 10 percent.

Peevski's disappearing act in the Bulgarian parliament sparked legal action by an NGO called Boets (Fighter), which appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court after the Central Election Commission ruled the 38-year-old's residence wasn't in question despite all the questions his skulking provoked.

"The issue is of utmost public importance because it concerns the legitimacy of the upcoming European elections. We cannot have legitimate choices if we have illegal candidates," the group said in a letter to Prime Minister Boyko Borissov on May 16.

Business And Media Interests

Peevski's absence may have been less of an issue if it weren't for his business interests.

His New Bulgarian Media Group holds stakes in six newspapers that account for a combined 80 percent or so of print distribution in the country and controls many other websites and information outlets.

His wealth and status as a member of the National Assembly since 2009 have raised eyebrows in a country often chided for its close links between politicians and businessmen.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), for example, ranks Bulgaria as the worst European Union member in terms of media freedom.

"Corruption and collusion between media, politicians and oligarchs is widespread in Bulgaria. The most notorious embodiment of this aberrant state of affairs is Delyan Peevski," the media watchdog wrote in its world media freedom index report for 2018.

Peevski was investigated in 2018 and cleared by Bulgaria's anticorruption agency, which said that audits of his business affairs dating as far back as 2003 uncovered no illegal activities.

Nonetheless, said Daniel Smilov, a professor of political science from Sofia University, appearances, both figuratively and literally, make a difference.

"When a person controls a huge media empire, which regularly destroys the public image of all its critics, after a while people start to close their eyes to legitimate criticisms against him," he told RFE/RL.

"For example, if this person does not go to parliament, he might still be viewed by the public as a politician and parliamentarian. He could even get reelected. With money and political influence, they could make the unacceptable acceptable in Bulgaria; they could turn bad fiction into reality."

All Quiet In Brussels

While EU criticism of Bulgaria's democratic credentials has kept the country outside the bloc's Schengen Area for visa-free travel since it joined in 2007, Brussels has been silent on Peevski's participation in its elections.

His Movement for Rights and Freedoms currently holds four of the 17 seats allocated to Bulgaria in the European Parliament, and the party appears headed for a similar allotment after the May vote.

The party has refused to comment on Peevski's inclusion on its election list, saying only that Bulgaria's courts have also been unmoved by questions surrounding his residency status.

"He is a Bulgarian citizen who has a registered address in the territory of the Republic of Bulgaria or in another Member State of the European Union," the court wrote in upholding Peevski's candidacy.

"The complaint is unfounded," it added.

The European Parliament already has a problem with attendance, according to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who once referred to it in that context as "not serious" and "totally ridiculous."

Ireland, the United Kingdom, Italy, and France have all weathered minor scandals over their MEPs' attendance records.

Peevski's appointment as chief of the State Agency for National Security sparked widespread public protests in Bulgaria in 2013.
Peevski's appointment as chief of the State Agency for National Security sparked widespread public protests in Bulgaria in 2013.

And the Bulgarian contingent doesn't appear to be helping itself either.

In the European Parliament's public rankings of its members' activity, Bulgaria lags behind all but six of the 29 countries or communities by plenary attendance.

Its MEPs fare equally poorly in written questioning, too, though they are near the middle of the pack in proposing motions.

Peevski actually won a seat to the European Parliament in 2014 but didn't take up the position, saying at the time that he ran to help clear his name and restore his reputation after his appointment as Bulgaria's chief of the State Agency for National Security sparked widespread public protests.

Peevski, who has been elected to Bulgaria's parliament four times, eventually stepped away from the post but remained a lawmaker.

During the current European campaign, Peevski has been almost invisible at his party's events, save for his picture on the side of the campaign bus and on the party's Facebook page in a photo.

Peevski (front row, second left) appears with other candidates from his Movement for Rights and Freedoms party in a campaign poster for the European elections.
Peevski (front row, second left) appears with other candidates from his Movement for Rights and Freedoms party in a campaign poster for the European elections.

Boets said it believes there is enough evidence to prove Peevski resides in Dubai, where he has business interests. It also claimed there is evidence of him flying to Vienna several times.

But the courts have rejected the group's bids to examine records from border police and other state agencies to prove the allegations.

In the meantime, Peevski continues to appear on the party list, and even collect his MP's salary.

According to documents filed with parliament, Peevski collected his full 44,580-lev (roughly $26,790) salary in 2017, while the speaker of the house recently acknowledged the same applies for 2018 even though official filings have yet to be published.

Activists have complained about the declaration, since Bulgarian law states that deductions should be made to legislators' salaries when they are absent "without reason."

The speaker's office says it receives a formal letter each week from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms' chairman noting that Peevski will be absent from the legislature because he is "performing party activities."

Beibarys Tolymbekov and Asya Tulesova were sentenced to two weeks in prison for violating public assembly laws. Tolymbekov was then reportedly forced into military service upon his release. (file photo)

Kazakh authorities have moved to conscript two opposition activists for mandatory military service, a move the activists say is punishment for their political protests.

The effort targeting Beibarys Tolymbekov and Aslan Sagutdinov has worried opposition groups who say Kazakh officials are stepping up pressure against political activists ahead of next month’s presidential election.

Last month, during a marathon held in the country’s commercial capital, Almaty, Tolymbekov and a friend, Asya Tulesova, held up a banner alongside the race that read “You Cannot Run From The Truth.” Photographs of the banner circulated widely on social media, along with the hashtag #forafairelection and #ihaveachoice.

Tolymbekov and Tulesova were detained and sentenced to 15 days in prison for violating public assembly laws.

​They were released one day early, but on May 6, a military conscription officer ordered Tolymbekov to a local enlistment office, where he was forced to enter military service according to the Eurasianet news site. On May 17, he left for boot camps, according to relatives and friends.

Under Kazakh law, all men between the ages of 18 and 27 are required to serve one year in the armed forces. However, there are many exemptions, including for higher education and health reason. Wealthy or politically connected people also routinely bribe recruiting officials, or find ways to avoid service.

Kazakh police arrest Aslan Sagutdinov in Uralsk earlier this month.
Kazakh police arrest Aslan Sagutdinov in Uralsk earlier this month.

Another activist, Aslan Sagutdinov, was summoned to his local recruiting office, in the city of Uralsk, on May 15, nine days after he staged a one-man protest where he stood in the city’s main square holding a blank piece of paper. He was detained, but later released after police could not determine what to charge him with.

Sagutdinov said he had a heart condition that exempted him from military service, and before May 15, he hadn’t been contacted by recruiters since 2016.

He said he believed the military recruiters were pressuring him specifically because of his political activities.

"So it appears that at those very moments, when I do something, when I try to organize a demonstration or something similar, they start calling me in, ordering me for service in the army, at the recruiting office," he said in an interview with RFE/RL.

It's unclear whether more activists have also been targeted. Kazakh authorities have not commented on the accusations that they are specifically targeting political activists.

In recent months, the Central Asian nation has seen an uptick in protests, which is widely seen as a sign of discontent with the political system that has been dominated by Nursultan Nazarbaev since before the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Nazarbaev surprised the country when he announced his resignation as president in March, but he said he would retain wide powers as head of a national security council, leading many to believe he still retains ultimate authority. H

is influential daughter, Darigha, was appointed head of the parliament’s upper chamber.

Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, an ally of Nazarbaev, was tapped to be interim president, and he was then nominated by the ruling party to be its candidate in the June 9 election.

He is expected to win easily.

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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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