Trust in Bulgaria’s ruling Gerb plunges as apartments scandal unfolds

Trust in Bulgaria’s ruling Gerb plunges as apartments scandal unfolds
By bne IntelliNews April 1, 2019

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, his government and the ruling Gerb party have lost support amid an evolving scandal related to controversial purchases of luxury apartments at prices significantly below the market value by top party members.

Despite four high-level resignations, support for the ruling party is decreasing ahead of the May 26 European Parliament election, which is seen by local analysts and politicians as indicative of the ability of Borissov’s party to stay in power within the country for its full term. Many believe that an early election is inevitable and forecast it could be held in the autumn along with the local elections.

The scandal broke in March, when independent investigative news outlet along with Radio Free Europe and anti-corruption NGO Anti-Corruption Fund (ACF) published information that Tsvetan Tsvetanov — known as Borissov’s right hand man — had bought an extremely luxurious apartment in Sofia for less than 25% of its market price.

In the following days, the scandal spread as it was revealed that other top Gerb members, including Justice Minister Tstetska Tsacheva, Deputy Minister of Sport Vanya Koleva, Deputy Energy Minister Georgi Parvanov and Vezhdi Rashidov, head of the parliament’s committee on culture and a former culture minister, had all acquired luxury apartments built by the same company, Artex Engineering, for well below market value.

A poll by Alpha Research showed that nearly two-thirds of Bulgarians believe the cheap purchases of luxury property amounted to abuse of power. This includes nearly half of those supporting Gerb.

From a broader perspective, Gerb’s image related to its pledge for a decisive fight against corruption, which brought it to power in 2009, has significantly eroded, Alpha Research noted. Just 12.8% of respondents said they believe Gerb is the party fighting more decisively against corruption. 11.3% of those polled believe this is true for the main opposition party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).

Moreover, trust in the government has plunged to a new historically low level of 13% versus 17% in December. Just 8% trust the parliament, while Borissov personally also lost ground with 28% trusting him versus 43% not trusting him. As expected, President Rumen Radev, who has taken a strong stand against the government on several issues, gained more trust in March – 51% versus 47% in December.

Commenting on the scandal, Borissov said that Gerb was badly hit, but deserved it. However, he also lashed out at the BSP, saying the party’s members had the most luxurious apartments in Sofia in communist times. The BSP is the successor to the Bulgarian Communist Party. 

Alpha Research also noted that, if the EU election was held now, Gerb and the BSP would gain virtually the same amount of votes – 33.9% for Gerb and its coalition partner for the election (the Union of Democratic Forces) versus 33.4% for the BSP.

It is hard to predict whether Gerb would be able to recover ahead of the May voting as the cheap property scandal keeps evolving. In an interview with public broadcaster BNT, Tsvetanov said he does not feel guilty and there is no one who would punish him.

Meanwhile, Radio Free Europe, and ACF have released information that the head of the anti-corruption body that will investigate the acquisitions also bought property at below market value from another seller.

The anti-corruption commission decided to launch an investigation following a signal from ACF in March. The prosecutor’s office has asked the anti-corruption body to probe various aspects. The commission will examine the title deeds and will interrogate all those involved. The investigation also will probe allegations of influence-trading and conflict of interest related to the company and the deals.

Plamen Georgiev, who heads the anti-corruption body, said the report was a “misunderstanding” as a huge terrace of around 190 sqm was not part of his apartment but the roof of the building.

However, on April 1 ACF published pictures on Facebook showing the original ad for the apartment’s sale. The terrace was included in the property and can only be reached from Georgiev’s apartment. Moreover, a sauna, bathroom, barbecue and a winter garden were allegedly built on the terrace.

According to the documents, the price announced in the offer for the luxury three-storey apartment was also significantly higher than the one claimed by Georgiev. Georgiev has not yet reacted to the latest reports.