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(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
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy voiced his "disappointment" over Russia having its voting rights reinstated. (file photo)

Ukraine's delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has walked out in protest and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has voiced his "disappointment" over Russia having its voting rights reinstalled at the body after a three-year hiatus.

In a June 25 statement on his Facebook page, Zelenskiy said he tried to convince French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in separate meetings to not allow Russia back into Europe's main human rights body until it meets PACE's demands on adherence to principles of rule of law and human rights.

"It's a pity that our European partners didn't hear us and acted differently," Zelenskiy said of the lopsided vote from the Council of Europe's 47 member states, where only 62 of the 190 delegates present opposed a report that made it possible for Russia to return to the chamber.

In his statement, Zelenskiy cited a specific ruling by a UN maritime tribunal to have Russia comply by June 25 to free 24 Ukrainian seamen whom it has held since November.

Ukrainian delegation member Iryna Herashchenko, who is first deputy speaker of Ukraine's parliament, said that the "Ukrainian delegation challenged the credentials of the Russian murders."

PACE's decision to reinstate Russia marked the first time that a major sanction imposed on Moscow for its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in March 2014 has been reversed.

A total of 118 parliament deputies agreed to welcome Russia back into PACE immediately and to blunt the assembly's ability to impose sanctions similar to those on Russia in the future, while 10 abstained.

Five of the seven Dutch delegates, for example, backed the reversal.

On June 19, a Dutch-led international investigation named three Russians and a Ukrainian as murder suspects in the downing of flight MH17 five years ago in which all 298 people on board were killed from a sophisticated Russian surface-to-air Buk missile.

The assembly said this clarification of its rules was to “ensure that member states’ right and obligation to be represented and to participate in both statutory bodies of the Council of Europe is respected.”

The assembly also invited the parliaments of Council of Europe member states "which are not represented by a delegation" to PACE to present their credentials during the ongoing annual session.

That means Russia can present a delegation to PACE on June 25, paving the way for the country to participate in the election of a new secretary-general for the Council of Europe the next day.

The head of the Ukrainian delegation to PACE, Volodymyr Ariyev, said the assembly's decision sent "a very bad message: do what you want, annex another country's territory, kill people there, and you will still leave with everything."

The head of the Russian State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, Leonid Slutsky, said PACE "made a huge step toward defending the rights of national delegations."

Russia's delegation will not tolerate "any more sanctions, no matter how insignificant," Slutsky also said.

In 2014, Russia was stripped of its voting rights in PACE following Moscow’s takeover of Crimea and its backing of militant separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed some 13,000 people since April 2014.

Russia responded in 2016 by boycotting the assembly, and has since 2017 refused to pay its annual contribution of 33 million euros, roughly 7 percent of the council's budget.

The country had threatened to quit the body altogether if its delegation isn't reinstated and it can't vote on the next secretary-general to succeed Norway's Thorbjorn Jagland.

Germany and France have supported Russia’s reintroduction to PACE, arguing that it’s better to have Russia included to promote dialogue even if there are disagreements on issues.

With reporting by AFP, TASS, and Interfax

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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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