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Protesters waive the Georgian flag near the parliament building in Tbilisi early on June 26.

TBILISI -- Thousands of protesters have rallied in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, for the sixth consecutive day, demanding the resignation of the interior minister.

The protesters were also angered by the announcement that an opposition lawmaker is facing prosecution over the anti-government protests.

Former President of Georgia Giorgi Margvelashvili joined the crowd gathered in front of the parliament building on the evening of June 25, and expressed his support for the protesters.

"The truth and strength are here…a true wish for a bright future of Georgia is here,” Margvelashvili said.

Former Georgian President Margvelashvili Joins Protests Outside Parliament
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Several demonstrators announced that they had started a hunger strike. One of them was taken to hospital due to low blood sugar, the Health Ministry told RFE/RL.

The protesters are demanding, among other things, the dismissal of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, whom they accuse of using excessive force to break up a demonstration five days earlier.

Demonstrators initially gathered outside parliament on June 20, when they attempted to storm the parliament building. Violent clashes between protesters and police resulted in hundreds of injuries and arrests.

The protesters were angered at a Russian lawmaker who had sat in the Georgian parliamentary speaker's seat while addressing a council of deputies from predominantly Orthodox Christian countries.

The move sparked the ire of the public, opposition parties, the president, and members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition in a country where ties with Moscow remain strained after a five-day war in 2008.

Earlier on June 25, prosecutors said they summoned Nika Melia, an opposition lawmaker and a leader of former President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement party, the next day to be formally charged with organizing violent actions by protesters.

The Prosecutor-General’s Office said it had appealed to the parliament with a proposal to consider stripping Melia of parliamentary immunity and agreeing to his detention.

Melia rejected the charge against him as "absurd,’ while opposition parties issued a joint statement denouncing the move as "political persecution."

According to the Prosecutor-General's Office, 121 people were detained on charges of confronting police and obstructing public order on the night of June 20-21. Some of them have already served short jail sentences, while 54 remain in custody.

Meanwhile, the parliament elected a Georgian Dream party candidate as the chamber’s new speaker following the resignation of his predecessor, Irakli Kobakhidze, amid calls for his ouster.

Archil Talakvadze was elected unanimously as opposition lawmakers left the session in protest after the ruling party refused to consider the interior minister's sacking.

The Georgian Dream party has so far accepted one of the protesters’ demands, agreeing to hold the 2020 parliamentary elections under a proportional system.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters
(Left to right) Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Tsetska Tsacheva, Krasimir Parvanov, and Vanya Koleva were all forced to resign senior Bulgarian government positions after being implicated in a corruption scandal. (combination file photo)

SOFIA -- Bulgaria's Anti-Corruption Commission says it has found no conflict of interest in a property scandal that led four senior government officials to resign after they were found to have bought luxury apartments at discount prices.

Four high-level government officials from Bulgaria's ruling GERB coalition resigned from office amid a criminal investigation launched after their suspicious real estate deals with the Arteks development firm were uncovered in March by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, the Bivol.bg news website, and Bulgaria's nongovernmental Anti-Corruption Fund.

Those who resigned include GERB's former Deputy Chairman Tsvetan Tsvetanov, who resigned from parliament and his post as one of the party's top leaders over the scandal; former Justice Minister Tsetska Tsacheva; former Deputy Energy Minister Krasimir Parvanov; and former Deputy Sports Minister Vanya Koleva.

But the Anti-Corruption Commission said on June 24 that after a three-month investigation it concluded there was no conflict of interest on the part of any officials from the ruling GERB-coalition when GERB lawmakers amended the country's construction code to the benefit of Arteks.

All four of the politicians bought property from Arteks at prices far below their market value after GERB deputies in January 2017 had amended Bulgaria's Construction Code in a way that allowed Arteks to continue building a 34-story luxury apartment tower in Sofia.

Ultimately, construction of the Golden Age skyscraper was halted in April after the investigative reports by RFE/RL and others focused the attention of inspectors and the public on the validity of Arteks's construction permits.

'Compromised Officials'

But the Anti-Corrupton Committee's verdict has left critics in Sofia crying foul -- saying the probe appears to be a case of a fish declaring that nothing smells fishy in the fish can.

In fact, the members of the Anti-Corruption Commission were elected by GERB's ruling coalition in parliament. That has fueled allegations that their official investigation was flawed from the start.

Sofia-based attorney Greta Ganeva says Anti-Corruption Commission Chairman Plamen Georgiev has failed to provide "logical explanations" for discrepancies in his own property declarations.

An artist's rendition of what Sofia's Golden Century tower was meant to look like if construction is completed
An artist's rendition of what Sofia's Golden Century tower was meant to look like if construction is completed

Sofia-based criminal lawyer Nikolay Hadjigenov says Anti-Corruption Commission Deputy Chairman Anton Slavchev, who signed off on the investigative report, also is among those "compromised" by the scandal.

Hadjigenov says it was a GERB-led probe in a case of "compromised officials" investigating political allies who've been "compromised" and declaring there was nothing wrong.

Bulgaria's nongovernmental Anti-Corruption Fund says it is clear that the GERB-appointed investigators did not examine the issue at the heart of corruption allegations -- the actual market value of the properties GERB officials bought from Arteks compared to the prices they paid.

Defending their conclusion, the state investigators said none of the officials who bought luxury apartments from Arteks owned any shares in Arteks or had any "private interest" with the firm in January 2017, when GERB lawmakers changed the construction code to benefit Arteks.

Bulgaria's law on conflict of interest in January 2017 defined a "private interest" as "any interest which results in a material or nonmaterial benefit for the person holding public office or the related person."

Second-Most Influential Politician Had 'No Influence'

The law explicitly stated that such benefits included "any income in money or property, including...the receipt of goods or services free of charge or at prices lower than market value."

Tsvetanov was Bulgaria's interior minister from 2009 to 2013 and was widely considered as the second-most-powerful politician in the country after Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.

Despite his powerful sway over GERB's rank-and-file and over officials at all levels across Bulgaria, the Anti-Corruption Commission said Tsvetanov could not have influenced the decisions of parliamentary deputies or Sofia's municipal administration in connection with the Arteks project because they were not his "direct subordinates."

Tsvetanov was the chairman of GERB's parliamentary group when the vote to change the Construction Code took place.

The commission also argued that Tsvetanov was not a member of the committees in parliament that had considered the amendments to the country's building legislation.

The Anti-Corruption Commission noted that former Justice Minister Tsacheva voted to adopt the building code changes. But it said she also did not have any "private interest" in Arteks at the time.

Bulgaria's so-called Apartment Gate scandal is also the focus of a criminal investigation by the Prosecutor-General's Office.

It has been examining the origins of the funds the politicians used in their real estate purchases from Arteks, potential trading in influence, and conflict of interest in the passage of legislation.

Arteks is also under investigation for its potential links to the GERB political party.

But the international media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) notes that Prosecutor-General Sotir Tsatsarov is also reported to have bought a home near the town of Peshtera for a very low price.

RSF said on June 18 that it was concerned the state Prosecutor's Office is now conducting what the media watchdog described as an "absurd judicial probe" against two investigative reporters from Bivol.bg who helped expose the real estate scandal that implicated senior government officials -- including Tsatsarov himself.

Meanwhile, the European Commission said in April that Bulgaria's GERB-led government has to do much more to combat fraud and corruption.

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague with reporting from Sofia by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service

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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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