| - Bulgarian arms trader Emilian Gebrev survived poisoning in 2015 by an unknown substance that might have been Novichok nerve agent - For several years, Bulgarian authorities have refused to acknowledge that a Bulgarian businessman might have been poisoned with a substance used by Russia's intelligence services |
-The case shows yet again that Bulgarian law enforcement services have poor investigative capacities, unduly influenced by political and business interests
"They first tried to take me out physically, then judicially and - from last year - economically," arms trader Emilian Gebrev told Bulgarian broadcaster bTV in January. Gebrev was alluding to a string of grisly events that first befell him about four years ago when he announced his plans to bid for ammunition producer Dunarit - one of the most valuable assets of the then freshly bankrupt Corporate Commercial Bank (Corpbank). First, he barely survived an attempted poisoning by an undisclosed pesticide substance in the summer of 2015. The incident in question bears an uncanny resemblance to the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK last summer. The story resembles an eerie spy drama (allegedly starring the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate, widely known as GRU), but what makes it more alarming is that - unlike a good spy thriller - it seems to have no good, moral "cop" bent on uncovering the truth. On the contrary, the same institutions tasked with investigating the suspected attempt on Mr Gebrev's life are simultaneously pressurizing him and his enterprises to prevent the acquisition of Dunarit - a business deal that might have been the motive behind his alleged attempted assassination in the first place. It seemed that Bulgarian authorities did everything possible to help Delyan Peevski, the media mogul and Member of Parliament from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) get hold of the company. Because, when Mr Peevski, perceived as the eminence grise of Bulgarian politics of recent years, wants a business, bad things tend to happen to its owner. However, on this occasion, most leads also point to Moscow. Can it be a coincidence that all attempts by the Bulgarian authorities to suppress the investigation actually help Russia's interests? The attempted poisoning and its aftermath At the end of April 2015, Mr Gebrev, his son Hristo and the production manager of Dunarit, Valentin Tahchiev, were rushed to three different hospitals in Sofia with symptoms of heavy poisoning while having dinner together in the Panorama restaurant of the capital's Marinela Hotel. All three survived and the incident went relatively unnoticed by the media. However, 24 Chasa daily reported that "the poison used is a rapidly decomposing rare substance", claiming that "there are reasons to think a Russian could be involved, as Gebrev had recently completed a large deal with Ukraine". Significantly, despite the seriousness of the case, its investigation was not handed over to the National Security Agency (DANS), the anti-organized crime unit of national police or the Specialised Prosecution, but to the Sofia Metropolitan Police. Almost four years later, the case remains unsolved. Mr Gebrev sent samples from all three victims to two laboratories - Spiez Lab in Switzerland, which examined the Sergei Skripal case last year, and the Finnish Institute for Verification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, VERIFIN. The former refused to examine the samples but, according to Capital weekly sources, the latter laboratory agreed. It established that the poison used was a type of organophosphate or insecticide that is not forbidden under the Chemical Weapons Convention. But the substance might have been a nerve agent called Amiton/Tetram. This substance is considered to be one of the less toxic members of the Novichok family of nerve agents - the same one used in the now notorious poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, England, in March 2018. The Bulgarian authorities, including DANS, the Ministry of the Interior and the Prosecutor's Office, initially all declined to comment on the case. It is clear that they have been lax at best in their investigation, with Mr Gebrev noting that he urged them to consider the new evidence provided by VERIFIN, but to little avail. In the meantime, the state has engaged a number of institutions to pressurize Gebrev and EMCO, a private arms trader he launched, to drop their Dunarit bid. So their behavior becomes more suspicious still. Subsequently, some vital details emerged following a Capital Newspaper probe that fueled suspicions that the Bulgarian authorities were trying to shove the case under the carpet. The investigative site Bellingcat picked up on the story and found out that Sergey Fedotov (a GRU alias), the third suspect in the Salisbury poisoning, had visited Bulgaria at the end of April 2015 and had left on the day of the incident with Mr Gebrev. Later, Capital verified Bellingcat's findings via a source in the Bulgarian security services.
|The state institutions entrusted with investigating Mr Gebrev's poisoning are doing their best to dissuade him from acquiring the lucrative ammo factory that was targeted by the eminence grise of Bulgarian politics of recent years - Delyan Peevski|
Only after the media probed the case and made the link between Mr. Gebrev's poisoning and Mr Fedotov's visit to Sofia, did the Bulgarian authorities react and send information to other EU capitals. The UK showed a keen interest and London's ambassador in Sofia and an MI6 officer met with the Bulgarian prime minister. However, Bulgaria's reaction was still comical. The Prosecutor General Sotir Tsatsarov claimed that the chemical found in Mr Gebrev's salad back in 2015 was chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate pesticide. Despite the discovery of other corroborating evidence, Mr. Tsatsarov implied that the poisoning could have been an accident, not an assassination. According to the Bulgaria's top prosecutor, no chemicals were found that are proscribed under the Chemical Weapons Convention (OPCW). However, Novichok was developed precisely to evade OPCW, mimicking organophosphate pesticides. Mr Tsatsarov at least confirmed that Sergey Fedotov had visited Bulgaria three times. Incredibly, the Bulgarian secret services failed to uncover any valuable information about the poisoning during the course of their three-year investigation. Yet it took British security services just two weeks work with their Bulgarian counterparts to find out that Fedotov had resided in an apartment in the same building in which Mr Gebrev worked in Sofia. They also found footage of him entering and leaving it. This proves either the manifest incompetence of the Bulgarian authorities or, much worse - their malevolence. Who is Gebrev? Mr Gebrev's career in the sector spans over four decades, starting from the state-owned arms exporter Kintex. After the fall of Communism in 1989, he used the contacts he had created during his time in the company to launch EMCO. During the 1990s, EMCO expanded through exports to Soviet-era clients in Africa and the Arab states. It also got embroiled in some controversy, including the temporary withdrawal of its export license after US customs officers captured an allegedly illicit shipment of munitions produced by EMCO en route to Nicaragua in 2001. The company expanded significantly after 2008 and especially since 2012, when conflicts in many Arab and African states fuelled a six-fold increase in Bulgaria's arms sales - from 219 million euro in 2012 to 1.2 billion euro in 2017. EMCO generated a 100-million-euro turnover in 2017, which made it one of the top ten export companies in the sector in Bulgaria and put Mr Gebrev in a position to bid for the indebted, yet lucrative Dunarit. The company was up for grabs after Corpbank's bankruptcy. Flush with cash and enjoying good contacts with the bank's fugitive former owner, Mr Gebrev made a move. Based near Ruse, on the Danube River, Dunarit has had its share of highs and lows. Founded more than a century ago, the factory turned into a Socialist-era munitions behemoth, and then entered the transition of the 1990s with a bang - literally. An explosion at a munitions warehouse killed five and is still remembered by many locals for shattering apartment windows miles away. The incident was followed by two decades of stagnation - not only for the factory in Ruse, but for the Bulgarian arms industry as a whole. In the mid-2000s, a large chunk of Dunarit was acquired by companies close to Corpbank and its majority owner Tsvetan Vassilev, currently standing trial in Bulgaria on charges of embezzlement, and living in exile in Belgrade, Serbia. Then, just as the company started making profits again after 2012, with the advent of conflicts in traditional markets for Bulgarian armaments like the Arab countries and Ukraine, Mr Vassilev fell out with his then-business partner Delyan Peevski. This rift led to the collapse of Corpbank, the fourth largest lender in the country, in the summer of 2014. The demise of the bank sparked a war for its assets that is still raging. The rediscovered profitability of Dunarit made the company one of the crown jewels of the bank. Red alert When Mr Gebrev learnt details about the poison and its possible link to the Russia's intelligence services, he was at a loss. He may be one of the largest arms traders in Bulgaria, but globally he is a small player. Mr Gebrev did supply weapons and ammunitions to Ukraine, but among the many traders that did the same, he doesn't seem the most likely person to be targeted by Russia's intelligence services. In 2015, Mr Gebrev tried to acquire Dunarit after Mr Vassilev unsuccessfully attempted to shift the ownership to a Belgian investor with links to the Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev. Mr Malofeev is mostly known as the bankroller of Kremlin ideologue Alexander Dugin and for his involvement in the separatist conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Mr Malofeev makes no attempt to hide his support for the pro-Russian separatists. His involvement in the Ukrainian region of Donbas almost certainly includes deep ties to Russia's intelligence services. Given his background, poison could have been part of his business arsenal. However, it was not Mr Gebrev who prevented the Dunarit takeover, but the Bulgarian authorities. Another contentious issue is Mr Gebrev's arms business abroad. He inevitably competes with Russian companies because most Bulgarian armaments, including exports, are versions of Russian originals. Russian businessmen are not shy of using their intelligence contacts either, especially since most of them have had previous careers in the very same spy services. In fact, the name Novichok became known in 1995 after Russian banking magnate Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary were poisoned in Moscow. A Russian scientist who worked on Russia's chemical-weapons program confessed to secretly supplying the toxin via intermediaries to Mr Kivelidi's competitors. Even more significantly, in April 2015, the same month when Mr Gebrev was poisoned, a Bulgarian military manufacturer was shaken twice by explosions. By that time Bulgarian security services had questioned whether this was the result of sabotage because a mere fortnight separated the two blasts, suggesting that the incidents could hardly stem from negligence. The investigation still has not uncovered the culprit. The production stored in the plant was intended for export and Syria could have been its most likely end destination. This makes the involvement of Russian military intelligence quite probable. As of September 2015, Russian troops began arriving in Syria to support Bashar Assad's regime and any action that could weaken the opposing forces could be deemed legitimate by GRU. Or a Bulgarian involvement? Since 2016, the state has employed various tools to dissuade the arms dealer from purchasing the ammo plant. The profitable company by that time had become a prime interest for Mr Peevski. This is what Mr Gebrev alludes to all the time.
In August 2017, Economy Minister Emil Karanikolov announced the government would try to repay the loans of Dunarit to prevent insolvency and redundancies, actually attempting a de facto nationalization. Before the Ministry of Economy announced its plans to buy off Dunarit's debts, EMCO was battling in court for control of the ammo maker with Viafot Investment Bulgaria - an offshore company represented by Alexander Angelov, Mr Peevski's lawyer. In July 2017, EMCO had its trading license revoked by the state authorities, suddenly risking bankruptcy despite its huge profitability. Only after a protest by hundreds of EMCO workers in front of the government building in Sofia and a meeting between Mr Gebrev and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, was this attack against EMCO halted and its license restored. Yet, other fronts also opened up. The Commission for Protection of Competition moved to stall the Dunarit acquisition; the Prosecutor's Office charged Mr Gebrev with being part of an organized crime group, alongside Tsvetan Vassilev, that aimed to take control of the company. Under Bulgarian law, this indictment prevents Mr Gebrev from running his arms business. This was accompanied by a series of additional swoops by the National Revenue Agency and the anti-corruption commission. Who was behind it all? It seems incredible that the possible use of a Russian military-grade nerve agent in Bulgaria and frequent visits by undercover GRU officers is a coincidence. Except for Mr Malofeev, however, it is hard to establish any direct link between locally operating businesses and Russian intelligence services. Not that there were no contacts, given that big Russian-sponsored projects are always a way for Kremlin to promote its political interests. For example, it was with credit from Russia's VTB bank that Mr Peevski acquired a majority stake in Bulgartabac (Bulgaria's former tobacco monopoly) in 2011. Mr Peevski would have also profited handsomely from South Stream - Gazprom's project for construction of a pipeline for transit of Russian natural gas to Europe via Bulgaria. If the project had not been canceled in 2014, a company related to Mr Peevski would have been the main local contractor for the construction works. Despite its affiliation to Bulgaria's ethnic Turk population, MRF has, on occasions, pledged more loyalty to Moscow than to Ankara, as in the case of the downing of Russian Su-24 over the Syrian-Turkish border by Turkish jet fighters in 2015. However, it is highly unlikely that Mr Peevski could mobilize such support in Moscow. Now he is even trying to move away from his previous ties in Russia. His media conglomerate has switched sides too and scolds every opponent of the Bulgarian oligarch for being anti-American. It's much more likely that Russian interests were involved in Mr Gebrev's poisoning. This could be a lone job carried out by the Russian intelligence services in the wake of Moscow's Syrian intervention. Or it could even be a private interest that uses the resources of the Russian state to whack competitors. Whatever the reason, there is uneasy irony because Bulgarian intelligence services are supposed to be well prepared to counter such threats. After all, they were specialists during the Communist period in using poisons to liquidate political opponents of the regime. So it seems likely that a perfect storm against Mr Gebrev is brewing. His troubles would appear to be far from over, even though he survived a poisoning attempt, in addition to a coordinated onslaught on his business by the state.