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Tuesday 21 May 2019

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Former special Kommersant correspondent Ivan Safronov

Almost a dozen journalists covering political news for the prominent Russian newspaper Kommersant have quit their jobs in solidarity with two colleagues who were fired over an article about a possible change of leadership in the upper chamber of parliament, reporters say.

In a Facebook post on May 20, Kommersant correspondent Gleb Cherkasov wrote that he and 10 other reporters tendered their resignations after a deputy chief editor of the newspaper's political unit, Maksim Ivanov, and special correspondent Ivan Safronov were fired at the request of shareholders as a result of their article saying that Federation Council chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko might be leaving the post.

Federation Council chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko
Federation Council chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko

"A shareholder has a right to make staff decisions, and employees have the right not to agree with them in the only way possible -- by changing jobs," Cherkasov wrote.

Cherkasov's post came minutes after Ivanov wrote on Facebook that May 20 was the last day at work for him and Safronov.

The article about the possible demotion of Matviyenko, a staunch Kremlin ally and former St. Petersburg governor who has headed the upper house since 2011, was published on April 17. It quoted sources close to the government as saying that spy chief Sergei Naryshkin, head of the External Intelligence Service, might replace Matviyenko in May and that she might be moved to a position in the state Pension Fund.

Also on April 17, Dozhd television channel reported that Matviyenko's possible removal from her post was under discussion in the Kremlin and that it might be connected to the arrest in a murder probe of Federation Council member Rauf Arashukov, who was detained during a session of the upper house in January.

Representatives of Kommersant's owner, tycoon Alisher Usmanov, have made no official statements about the journalists.

In March, Kommersant journalist Maria Karpenko said she was fired over her reports about acting St. Petersburg Governor Aleksandr Beglov's election campaign.

With reporting by Novaya gazeta
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."

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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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