The Mayor with Luminescent Hands

The Mayor with Luminescent Hands

Desislava Ivancheva rose to fame as an anti-status quo mayor of a Sofia district and fell in the first publicity stunt of the newest institution supposed to fight high-level graft in Bulgaria

© Georgi Kozhouharov

According to the Special Prosecution Office, the Mayor of Mladost District was caught with the largest bribe a public official in Bulgaria has ever been arrested with. This has yet to be proven in court.

In mid-April, a number of Sofia citizens witnessed a rare scene - a demonstration of the state fighting corruption on a boulevard in downtown Sofia. The scene was a specialised anti-corruption operation targeting Desislava Ivancheva, mayor of one of the largest districts of the Bulgarian capital, Mladost.

The office car of the mayor was stopped by police around lunchtime at a major street crossing in front of the Ministry of Youth and Sports; she was taken out of the car and was held handcuffed in the middle of the boulevard for more than four hours. The authorities said she had to be present while the law enforcement officers collected and processed all the evidence. Accidentally or not, dozens of journalists, TV cameras and photographers were allowed to document the sight of a handcuffed mayor "at the scene of the crime".

The head of the Special Prosecution Office was quite expressive when he said that luminescent substance from marked banknotes found in Ms Ivancheva's car was detected on her hands when illuminated with special light: "She lit up like a Christmas tree", Ivan Geshev told a news conference a day after the operation. The same substance was allegedly found on the hands of two officials traveling with Ivancheva in the car - her assistant Bilyana Petrova and the ex-vice mayor of Mladost Petko Dyulgerov, who allegedly acted as mediator in giving the bribe.

The case against the mayor

At the time of her arrest, Ms Ivancheva allegedly carried 70,000 euro in marked banknotes in a cardboard box in the back of her car - the largest sum ever reported to have been seized in a raid by the Bulgarian anti-corruption authorities, Mr Geshev told reporters. According to the Special Prosecution Office, Ms Ivancheva had initially asked for a million lev (500,000 euro) bribe to stop blocking the construction of four new buildings in Mladost District but later cut the price in half.

While there were allegations of pressure exerted by Ms Ivancheva on many investors in construction projects during the past year and a half, only one of them had agreed to collaborate with the authorities "because he had a European mindset," Mr Geshev noted.

Ironically, Ms Ivancheva won the local elections in Mladost in 2016, defeating the candidate of ruling GERB party, by running on a platform of preventing further construction works in the residential district already over-built due to years of poor planning.

Typically, a district mayor does not have much say in granting permissions for large-scale construction projects - these powers rest with the Sofia Municipal Council and the city's Architect-in-Chief. Yet, some minor administrative procedures are part of the portfolio of the district mayor and it is exactly these ones that Ms Ivancheva allegedly used as a leverage to pressure investors. According to a number of these investors Capital Weekly spoke to, no procedure was ever completed on time during her tenure as mayor.

Yet, it is still up to the prosecution to prove all of its claims in court. Even if it does, however, there is another side of the story - Ms Ivancheva announced in late May that she was taking the Bulgarian state to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for the humiliating and abusive way the anti-corruption bodies treated her at the time of her arrest. It is highly possible that she will win such a case - Bulgaria has a long track record of ECHR rulings against it for not observing the suspects' right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and for violating the prohibition of torture and degrading treatment. Some of the people who successfully sued Bulgaria in Strasbourg were politicians who had been subjected to showy arrests just like Ms Ivancheva and her associates.

A lot of unknowns

It is still unclear whether Ms Ivancheva went down the drain because of bad intentions, incompetence or a combination of both. What is clear, though, is that she publicly made contradictory statements, including about her background. Ivancheva lied, saying she had a university degree in Public Administration. She told Capital Weekly she was running a licensed coach company before becoming mayor, but on another occasion Ivancheva claimed running a warehouse and a cosmetics distribution business.

However, Ms Ivancheva was not the only one making contradictory statements.

After the public arrest, Capital Weekly contacted almost every large investor in Mladost to ask them if they were the ones who collaborated with the police. At that time Alexander Vaklin denied that that he had complained to the authorities, but later told other media the opposite, giving details of his alleged blackmailing by Ms Ivancheva.

Secondly, the Prosecution Office claimed that Ms Ivancheva, Ms Petrova and Mr Dyulgerov all "lit up" when the substance that marked the banknotes found in the car glowed on their hands. According to the lawyers of the indicted mayor, she and Ms Petrova only had traces of the substance on the back of their hands, not on the palms or the fingers, which means they hadn't necessarily touched the notes. Also, according to the prosecution, Ms Ivancheva had asked for the bribe in a Sofia mall, while her defence attorney denies she had been there at all - something that can easily be checked on the CCTV footage of the mall.

It is also unclear why the Ms Ivancheva, Ms Petrova and Ms Dyulgerov were not arrested at the cafe where the bribe was allegedly given, but were instead left to ride around Sofia to be captured on a busy intersection a couple of kilometers away.

Ms Ivancheva claims she is a victim of defamation operation by people whose development project didn't go through. She actually filed a complaint with the police several months before her arrest, requesting investigation into alleged threats to her.

Last but not least, it is the question of disproportionality that remains open. According to the European Union directive on the strengthening of certain aspects of the presumption of innocence, which was supposed to be transposed into Bulgaria's national legislation by 1 April, two weeks before the arrest took place, "the state should take all measures to ensure that the indicted persons are not presented as guilty before the court or the citizens".

Arrested development

The case of Ms Ivancheva is interesting in more than one way. The operation against her and the question whether there was disproportionate use of force are important, but there is also her political backstory that deserves attention.

Ms Ivancheva was publicly unknown until 2016, when she became the face of a protest action against what was seen as indiscriminate construction of real estate in Sofia's second largest residential district. Mladost has expanded rapidly in the last decades, with many IT and outsourcing companies opening shops there and many young families moving in. The growth in the neighborhood, however, was not directed by an apt administration and soon over-construction in areas originally designated for public use amidst apartment blocks started plaguing Mladost.

A number of mayors affiliated with GERB - the party that leads the current government coalition and controls over half of Bulgarian municipalities, fell from grace after scandals related to public procurement projects and conflict of interests in the past decade. It was in this atmosphere of public discontent with the status quo that Desislava Ivancheva achieved the unbelievable feat of defeating the next GERB candidate for district mayor and rose to power, winning the vote of over 28,000 inhabitants of the neighborhood in 2016. She led a campaign based on a single promise: to stop indiscriminate construction works.

The logistics of her campaign was carried out by the Normal State party of Georgi Kadiev, an ex-Socialist MP and once Sofia mayor hopeful, who saw Ms Ivancheva as the anti-status quo candidate. By mid-2017 though, she had already lost all her backing, including from Mr Kadiev and most of her vice-mayor appointees. She failed to properly organize a referendum to ban new real estate developments in Mladost because of administrative mishaps and started dealing with various investment proposals on a case-by-case basis, falling into the same trap as the previous mayors.

The blow against Ms Ivancheva definitely plays into the hands of the political status quo - anyone who dares challenging it could face the wrath of the law enforcement agencies. It also tells one or two things about the way the Bulgarian anti-corruption model would look like from now on.

The reaction of the authorities was telling. "On the question of disproportionality, I want all those, who praise the Romanian anti-corruption model, to say why they suddenly changed their mind and call these actions excessive," Danail Kirilov, member of parliament from GERB and head of the legal affairs committee in the assembly, told journalists soon after the arrest of Ms Ivancheva.

Mr Kirilov referred to the criticism leveled by representatives of the public and the opposition against the government for its failure to follow the example of Romania's anti-corruption authority DNA. The independent prosecution office in Romania has put in jail dozens of government ministers and high-ranking public officials of every political stripe, helping the country shed its image of being the most corrupt in the EU. Its place was taken by Bulgaria where the anti-corruption efforts are conveniently targeting low-ranking officials, or when they are aimed at government ministers, they are intended to silence those officials rather than deliver justice. It's no surprise that in this environment Mr Kirilov's threat against anti-corruption activists was not even veiled.

According to the Special Prosecution Office, the Mayor of Mladost District was caught with the largest bribe a public official in Bulgaria has ever been arrested with. This has yet to be proven in court.

In mid-April, a number of Sofia citizens witnessed a rare scene - a demonstration of the state fighting corruption on a boulevard in downtown Sofia. The scene was a specialised anti-corruption operation targeting Desislava Ivancheva, mayor of one of the largest districts of the Bulgarian capital, Mladost.

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