Ivan Geshev needed just two months at the helm at the Prosecutor's Office of Bulgaria to demonstrate his vast ambition. Following the most transparent and - ironically - controversial selection procedure, the self-described "boy from the city suburbs" started confronting in blitzkrieg-style fashion important political and business figures. From Neno Dimov, now ex-Minister of Environment and gambling tycoon Vassil Bozhkov, to President Rumen Radev, many people in high positions in the public and private sectors alike have become targets of the prosecution's highly publicized operations spanning a mere few weeks.
Not only did Mr Geshev and the institution he leads announce their pursuit of individuals or crimes, they targeted more or less vague concepts. These include the 'criminal privatization' of state assets of the late 1990s and early 2000s and 'household crime'- a widely speculative concept denoting crimes committed with the intention of depriving a person of, or damaging, their personal property, dreaded especially by rural dwellers. Even the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has fallen under the scope of Mr Geshev, with his spokesperson Siyka Mileva announcing it has ordered the Minister of Health to "control institutions responsible for citizens' health."
A new Boyko Borissov in the making
Almost every day the public prosecution ushers in a new investigation, inspection or crime-busting operation. Usually, they are announced by Mr Geshev himself, who recently started wearing a signature newsboy cap reminiscent of those worn by characters in the English TV drama Peaky Blinders about post-WWI gangsters. The announcements are then quickly uploaded onto the newly created YouTube channel of the Prosecutor's Office.
The Prosecutor General seems to have been inspired by gangster movies not only when it comes to his looks. He also responds to questions with memorable one-liners like "the time has come for politicians to pick a side" and "on the one side, you have the interest of the people - security, peace and order, which we intend to protect, and, on the other, the interests of the criminals and the oligarchs."
Mr Geshev's announcements are obviously targeting the wider public. And if at the beginning it looked like he was trying to intimidate the courts, now it is obvious that the Prosecutor General is not concerned about judges' opinions. He frequently disparages them, seeking to portray them as hostile to his take on high-level crime in Bulgaria. Such an approach will help Mr Geshev in the near future when it is quite possible that many of the indictments brought will not hold in court. In the public imagination, however, it would be the Prosecutor General who fights the baddies, while everyone else tries to thwart his newfound quest.
This is a strategy already well exercised. Current Prime Minister Boyko Borissov came under the spotlight while he served as Secretary-General at the Interior Ministry (2001-2005) with his relentless drive to be photographed at every crime scene. In the four years he spent on the job, he became famous for his striking dress sense that included black trench coats and fedoras, as well as for his invariable arrival at any crime scene that attracted public attention - and publicity. His memorable zinger was "I catch them [the criminals], they [judges] release them". The nation wanted a hero cop to fight the rampaging mafia thugs of the late 1990s and Mr Borissov gladly took on that role to later capitalize on it politically.
To sum it up, Bulgaria has found in Mr Geshev a new, somewhat bolder and dramatic version of the early Boyko Borissov. As people hanker for punishments for oligarchs and politicians who got too full of themselves, so Mr Geshev promises to deliver. While it is too early to tell whether the new Prosecutor General has political ambitions akin to Mr Borissov's, it is clear that he has found an opening and gladly exploits it.
Fight the Fifth column
The first victim of the new Prosecutor General was Environment Minister Neno Dimov, who was escorted in handcuffs out of the Ministry of Environment for interrogation and, later arrest, on January 9, as the water crisis in the town of Pernik spiralled out of control. While Mr Dimov, a nomination of United Patriots - the junior partner of Borissov's GERB party in the government coalition, definitely held some responsibility for the severe water shortage, his arrest was a clear publicity stunt because of the need for a scapegoat after tensions against the government started to mount two months into the crisis.
Mr Dimov was not the sole appointment of the United Patriots to be snatched by police on the job. Tsvetelina Kaneva, director of the water authority of the city of Plovdiv and an appointee of VMRO (one of the two parties making up the United Patriots alliance) was taken into custody by masked police officers carrying assault rifles. This happened at the end of February, when an investigation of suspected public property mismanagement was launched against Ms Kaneva by the anti-corruption agency CIAF, now headed by Mr Geshev's predecessor Sotir Tsatsarov. Her arrest was quickly followed by the apprehension of another VMRO activist.
"That's insane  sending masked special police force armed with assault rifles against a woman armed with a pen! Next time around they would do better to send in commandos with tanks," commented Defence Minister and VMRO leader Krassimir Karakachanov. His anger provoked a sardonic response from Mr Geshev: "I heard that tanks should be brought in. Unfortunately, I don't know if these combat vehicles still work."
Opening a second front
And while the prosecution tightened the noose around GERB's most significant nationalist coalition partner, Mr Geshev targeted Bulgarian President Rumen Radev. In the last week of January, the Prosecutor's Office announced out of the blue that it would ask the Constitutional Court to clarify the degree of immunity from criminal prosecution for a present head of state and whether the prosecution can open an investigation against the incumbent president. And that was it - no context, no clue why this clarification is needed right now and definitely no mention of a suspected crime for which the prosecution would investigate the president.
Experts in constitutional law soon banged on the head any notion that the prosecution can investigate the president. But the question "why" remained open for a short while. A hint came from a publication by Pik.bg, the government-friendly tabloid on steroids used to trample the public image and personal life of the government's critics. It said that the prosecution was likely investigating Mr Radev about an episode from 2014, when as Commander of the Bulgarian Air Force he appointed his then would-be wife Desislava Radeva as his PR officer.
Several days later Mr Geshev announced there has indeed been an investigation linked to Mr Radev. A few hours later, in a move that has become standard in recent months, the prosecutor's office published a selection of audio recordings from 2019 in which President Rumen Radev is heard talking to General Tsanko Stoykov, his successor as Air Force commander. They talk about documents required to be submitted to CIAF for an investigation into the appointment of Ms Radeva in the Air Force in 2014. Yet the conversation gives little inkling about what potential crime if any, they allegedly attempted to cover. According to prosecutors dealing with the wiretap (their names were erased from the transcript that was published), there were reasons to believe the president had tried to induce Gen. Stoykov to hide some of the documents requested by CIAF and the latter was actually the person investigated by the prosecution. In the recording, Mr Radev is heard saying that nothing should be hidden.
However, the Prosecutor's Office never said what Gen. Stoykov had been investigated for and why the probe was assigned to the Specialised Criminal Court rather than to the Military Court responsible for investigating armed forces personnel. Secondly, wiretapping a conversation involving the incumbent president should have not only stopped the moment when it was clear who is on the phone, but the recordings should have been destroyed immediately. Lastly, the recordings were made in April 2019 - so why were they published now?
The simple answer is that Mr Geshev wanted to remind the president who is in charge. On November 26, 2019 (the day Mr Radev signed the decree for the appointment of the new Prosecutor General after initially declining to approve Mr Geshev to the post) the president stressed that a reform of the position of the top prosecutor is much needed, as "in the Bulgarian constitutional model the accountability of the Prosecutor General ends with his appointment".
"The Prosecutor's Office is accountable enough," Mr Geshev angrily retorted, speaking before journalists a few minutes later.
Hitting the new bad oligarch
Without taking a break, Mr Geshev went after his next prey - the newly ostracised gambling tycoon Vassil Bozhkov (see at p. 60). Suddenly, one by one, institutions responsible for controlling gambling, up to the Minister of Finance, realised that Mr Bozhkov's National Lottery had not been subject to correct taxation over the past five years.
Then, on January 29, Mr Geshev made his move and charged Mr Bozhkov on seven accounts, including tax avoidance valued at over 275 million euro and leading an organized crime group. "It's time for this criminal transition [to democracy] to end; my whole life, your whole lives have coincided with this," the Prosecutor General lamented before reporters. He later calculated that the 275 million euro unpaid by the lottery would enable Bulgarian retirees to get an immediate 50-euro increase in their pensions. The next day, additional charges of murder, rape and soliciting prostitution were brought against Mr Bozhkov.
Once again, the motives for the actions of the prosecution (and the state as a whole, for that matter) are pretty strange. Mr Bozhkov, colloquially known as The Skull, has been perceived as one of the most notorious figures of the Bulgarian underground over the past 30 years and has been pampered by the state for almost as long. This ambivalence hints at the theory that the Prosecutor's Office and the government are simply part of a charade that covers up the redistribution of wealth and businesses among oligarchs rather than robbing the undeserving rich to give to the poor.
Yet the image of a defender of the man-in-the-street is what Mr Geshev wants to create. He combines high-profile actions with ones aiming to highlight how close he is the average Bulgarian. On February 1, the Prosecutor General declared war on 'household crime' - a controversial and non-legal notion that has become popular in Bulgaria in the past decades. In the public mind, it denotes burglaries and theft of property, mostly in rural areas and predominantly by perpetrators of Roma origin. There are, however, no formal criteria for what constitutes household crimes, so no statistics exist to measure their frequency.
This did not stop Mr Geshev from claiming that the household crime rate in the area of Montana, a town in north-western Bulgaria, has dropped by 40% since the start of his operation. And that's not all - he uses these operations to show through friendly media outlets that the prosecution and he personally are close to the people. On March 7, for example, he can be seen on a video talking to the mayor of the village of Doctor Yosifovo, in the Montana region, about installing a surveillance system. He was also seen talking to grannies nearby, whom Mr Geshev approaches by saying "I was told that the young grannies are here."
A "memorable" highlight was on March 3, when Bulgaria celebrates its Liberation from Ottoman rule. The YouTube channel of the State Prosecution published a "greeting" from the Godlevski Velikden folklore choir with a song dedicated to Father Parteniy Geshev - a revival era teacher and priest - who happens to be an ancestor of the acting Prosecutor General. Self-publicising on the Prosecution's YouTube channel, however, was far from enough for Mr Geshev. So later, an entire one-page article dedicated to the revolutionary and enlightenment activities of Father Geshev appeared as paid content in the vehemently pro-government 24 Hours newspaper.
This amicable relationship of the Prosecutor General with selected media whose main mission is to serve the power of the day is nothing new. Mr Geshev's immediate predecessor Sotir Tsatsarov, for example, had proudly showcased his preference for Pik.bg and had often launched investigations based on publications appearing on this yellow website. The warm relationship seems to remain intact - the Prosecutor's Office was unlawfully wiretapping a conversation of the Bulgarian president on the basis of articles published by Pik.bg, as the website proudly announced. The entire spying scandal involving the Russophile Movement (read more about it in the Foreign Policy section) was based on an "investigation" compiled by Telegraph daily that is controlled by media mogul and member of parliament Delyan Peevski.
Robin Hood with a newsboy cap
Mr Geshev tirelessly attempts to construct a self-image as a rugged, adamant and insolent cop who can face anyone and anything and is doing it all for the greater good of the suffering Bulgarian people. He taps into the justified anger and disillusionment of Bulgarians about the way the transition to democracy and market economy has been implemented over the past 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Another one of Mr Geshev's well-publicised operations announced in February would be a review of the entire privatization process - a feat never completed by most of his predecessors from Nikola Filchev onwards. Mr Geshev acknowledges that the statute of limitation for any potential crimes his institution will uncover will have expired long ago. But that did not prevent his spokesperson, Ms Mileva, announcing the investigation of hundreds of bigger privatization deals with the primary aim of 'educating' the people.
To put it simply - there will be no punishment but selective discoveries of alleged crimes that will be used as ammo by friendly tabloids firing salvos against whoever has to be attacked. Sometimes the targets will be those who dare to protest against the unaccountable Prosecutor's Office, at other times - for the 'circuses' part of modern-day 'bread and circuses', i.e. for their distraction.
The new Prosecutor General has made it clear that he expects Parliament to investigate the possibility of changing the Constitution and handing the prosecution extraordinary powers to investigate privatization deals far after the statute of limitation for the alleged crime has expired.
or an absolute monarch in the making?
If this happens, it will mean that the much-dreaded scenario of Bulgaria becoming the first Prosecutorial Republic would be a fact. And it will have its absolute leader.
While Mr Geshev claims that there will be no impunity for anyone, regardless of their status, he has put prioritized attacking old and new opponents of the current government rather than key figures from the highest echelons of Bulgarian political-oligarchic elite. For example, Mr Geshev prefers not to investigate all those who might have contributed to the bankruptcy of Corporate Commercial Bank in 2014. One of them - Delyan Peevski, remains a taboo for the Prosecutor General, beyond the generalist claims that he will investigate the mogul if he has to.
It is too early to say what Mr Geshev's game is. However, to judge from the first three months of his tenure, it looks like the game will be a long and dirty one. Moreover, he might be trying to ultimately rewrite its basic rules - which would lead to the already messy democracy in Bulgaria becoming ever more tarnished.