Bulgarian party leader admits to giving bribes

Bulgarian party leader admits to giving bribes
By Dimitar Koychev in Sofia March 6, 2017

Bulgarian businessman turned politician Vesselin Mareshki has admitted to giving bribes in a television interview, despite claiming his newly formed party is more honest than its rivals, saying he sometimes did so as a last resort when he had “no choice”. 

Mareshki is the founder and leader of the new political party Volya (Will), which is likely to enter the parliament in the March 26 snap election. The party could be an important player in the future parliament, were no party is expected to gain a majority. Its most likely alliance is with Boyko Borissov’s Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), which could result in a third GERB government. 

In an interview with broadcaster bTV that aired on March 2, Mareshki said he was asked for bribes by political formations that ruled the country at various times.

The businessman singled out the demands made by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) during Plamen Oresharski’s government. He added that “did not meet their expectations” and this resulted in negative consequences for him. At the end of the interview Mareshki said this had been the most drastic case of corruption pressure in the 25 years he has been in business.

He also said he would succumb to corruption pressure only when this is in "the interest of Bulgarian citizens”. He gave as an example his latest petrol station, and said that if a petty clerk asked for BGN5,000 for his or her signature, he would make a small compromise so that citizens would have the petrol station.

Mareshki’s acknowledgement this is the way things work could play well with voters, who may appreciate his frankness. He claims that Volya differentiates itself from the other political players with honesty and integrity. His manifesto even contains an estimate of how much wealth Bulgaria is losing because of graft - BGN10bn (€5.1bn) per year.

Mareshki describes Volya as a centre-right party of independent pragmatic people. However, in an interview with the New York Times in February, Mareshki also said he feels there are many similarities between his campaign and that of US President Donald Trump. “I believe I am an anti-establishment candidate like Donald Trump … We can see that Mr. Trump took a very different approach from the mainstream candidates in America, and so do I,” he told the newspaper. 

His party’s pre-election promises include several populist measures with concrete financial benefits for voters. As reported by Capital weekly, these include providing young families with the opportunity to buy homes for just €300 per sqm (a significant discount) to be repaid interest-free over 10 years. Volya is also offering one-off assistance of BGN1,000 for each newly born child to parents aged over 21 who have at least high school education, and a BGN0.2-BGN0.3 cut in fuel prices.

Mareshki is already a household name in Bulgaria, where his main business is a large chain of low cost pharmacies. More recently, he entered the automotive fuel retail business, opening 12 petrol stations in the country that also maintain low prices. His most recent project is the construction of an enormous petrol station in Sofia’s western neighbourhood Lyulin 4, which can serve 45 vehicles at once. 

However, the businessman, who hails from the Black Sea city of Varna, has not avoided controversy. Earlier this year, the specialised prosecutor’s office referred a two-year investigation into Mareshki and two of his employees to the antitrust regulator, Capital weekly reported. 

The investigation concerned Mareshki’s approach to convincing competitor pharmacies to buy from a drug distributor he owns. His company was accused of threatening that if pharmacies refused to buy from the distributor his chain will open its own pharmacy nearby and ruin the business of its rival by selling at lower prices. Prosecutors decided that no crime had been committed, but said it was a case of unfair competition.

Mareshki entered politics relatively recently, running in the presidential elections in November 2016. In the first round of the election, he attracted 430,000 votes, putting him in fourth place. He also took the largest share of the vote in his home town of Varna.

His party was chosen by 5.7% of the respondents in a recent opinion poll by Alpha Research, significantly above the 4% required to enter the parliament.

Volya performed better than three other right-wing formations, including the Reformist Bloc (3.9%), and two newly formed contenders, the Movement Yes, Bulgaria coalition (2.6%) and Nova Republika (1.5%). 

Volya’s better performance seems to be on the back of the stronger public trust in Mareshki. According to the same survey, his rating is 22.2%, putting him in fourth place among Bulgarian politicians, and well ahead of the leaders of the other small right-wing players.

The most trusted politician in Bulgaria is Borissov (31.9%), who has headed two governments since 2009. On the political right, Mareshki’s personal image has the most similarities with the image of fellow populist Borissov. He seems to do what he promises, i.e. selling medicines and fuel cheaply, and his message seems to be a relatively concrete one.