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'Golden Century': Towering At The Heart Of Bulgaria's Real-Estate Scandal

Is the uncompleted tower the symbol of a "golden age" -- or political corruption?

SOFIA -- It's been billed by its Bulgarian developer as the "beginning of a modern golden age" -- an "iconic sign" that will take Bulgaria "into the future as a truly dignified European country."

But now, with the Golden Century skyscraper caught up in a real-estate scandal that involves members of the ruling GERB party, it is unclear whether Arteks Engineering will be able to finish the 34-story luxury tower in Sofia.

The future of the project depends upon a court ruling on one key issue: Did Arteks' construction permits expire in 2017, as opponents of the project maintain? Or were the permits automatically renewed in January 2017, when GERB lawmakers amended Bulgaria's construction code?

Arteks argues that GERB's amendment to the Spatial Planning Act means their permit is valid until 2020 and that they can continue work on what is meant to be one of the tallest buildings in Bulgaria.

The firm cites a 2017 letter from GERB member Valentin Yovev, the deputy minister of regional development and public works.

In that letter, Yovev told Sofia municipal officials that the duration of Arteks' permits should be extended as a result of GERB's changes to the construction code.

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

But since March 22, when joint investigative reporting by RFE/RL and Bulgaria's nongovernmental Anticorruption Fund began to uncover suspicious real-estate deals between Arteks and GERB politicians, officials in Sofia have stepped back from declaring that Arteks' permits are still valid.

The Regional Development and Public Works Ministry has not answered RFE/RL's enquiries about Yovev's letter or whether it considers the skyscraper project in Sofia's Lozenets neighborhood to be legal.

Aleksandar Nenkov, a parliament deputy from GERB who wrote the amendment to the construction code, said in late March that the amendment did not apply retroactively to the Golden Century project.

But Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova has said that "the question of whether construction is legal is not that simple."

Sofia's chief architect, Zdravko Zdravkov, says the Golden Century construction permit expired in November 2017 and has not been renewed. The same argument is being made by Marian Bashur, a neighborhood resident who formed the Lozenets Initiative Committee to protest against Arteks' ongoing construction work.

Bashur told RFE/RL on April 3 that his protest group was infuriated by Bulgaria's Directorate for National Construction Control, Sofia's city administration, the Regional Development Ministry, and parliament. "We are very angry at these four institutions because they can't tell us whether the construction of a building is legal or not," he said. "Now they tell us that there is a court case and they are waiting for the decision."

"We have been protesting against this project since 2017," Bashur added, noting that RFE/RL's investigative reports on GERB real-estate deals had made the complaints of his group "more visible to the public."

Political Scandal

Four members of the GERB's ruling coalition have resigned from office amid a criminal investigation into lucrative real-estate deals they made with Arteks after party lawmakers amended the construction code in early 2017.

They include GERB Deputy Chairman Tsvetan Tsvetanov, who resigned from parliament, former Justice Minister Tsetska Tsacheva, former Deputy Energy Minister Krasimir Parvanov, and former Deputy Sports Minister Vanya Koleva.

The Prosecutor-General's Office in Sofia and Bulgaria's Anticorruption Commission are investigating the terms of their real-estate deals with Arteks.

RFE/RL found that they had all bought luxury apartments from Arteks since the beginning of 2018 at prices that were 30 percent to more than 50 percent cheaper than the market value.

The focus of the criminal investigation includes the origins of the funds the politicians used in their purchases, potential trading in influence, and conflict of interest in the passage of legislation.

Arteks is also being investigated for its potential links to political parties, its party donations, and its participation in public procurement.

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague with reporting by Polina Paunova and Ivaylo Vezenkov of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service in Sofia