Bulgaria Fights Coronavirus with Dates from UAE

The touted by the Bulgarian government shipment of 15 metric tons of medical supplies from the UAE for the fight against coronavirus turned out to be much less, insignificant quantities actually. On April 13, 2020, two aircraft of the national flag carrier Bulgaria Air delivered from Abu Dhabi cargo consisting mainly of dates, an investigation by Bivol shows. Against them, a poultry company dubbed Gradus and a company linked to controversial lawmaker and media mogul Delyan Peevski have taken to the UAE sheikhs 32 tons of meat and dairy products and have paid for the flights. The odd barter looks like another Peevski public-private-propaganda partnership but there may be deeper reasons connected to fugitive gambling boss Vassil Bozhkov.

The roundtrip to Abu Dhabi featured the personal presence of Bulgarian Economy Minister Emil Karanikolov. The deal enjoyed huge positive media coverage and praise by the national coronavirus taskforce. An official government message was broadcast across all media and boasted the following – the UAE provides 15 tons of medical supplies to Bulgaria, masks, gloves, disinfectants, and clothing, as well as food.

“Two companies, Gradus and Intrust, have concluded a very serious deal with the United Arab Emirates. It concerns the exchange of 32 tons of food with the UAE against which we received 15 tons of medical supplies. The companies funded the transport and the State paid nothing. This is great help because the shipment consists of protective gear such as masks, gloves and clothing,” said General Mutafchiyski, the head of the taskforce at its regularly scheduled press briefing on April 14, 2020, at the Council of Ministers.

A reporter of Bivol tracked the medical supplies shipment from the Customs to the temporary warehouse in the village of Dolni Lozen near the capital Sofia, where the Bulgarian Red Cross is based, and found out that it was much less than the touted 15 tons.

Mysterious firefighter training

On the evening of April 13, 2020, Bivol’s reporter took pictures of several fire safety trucks at the Customs area of the Sofia Airport. Workers were loading brown boxes in them. Asked what was going on, Customs officials said firefighters were conducting a training exercise.

However, the press office of the General Directorate Fire Safety and Protection of the Population at the Ministry of the Interior denied conducting any training at the Sofia Airport.

In fact, the fire department trucks were used to haul the medical supplies from the UAE to the Red Cross base in the village of Dolni Lozen, where they were unloaded late on the evening of April 13, 2020. The statement about some imaginary training remains a mystery.

The fire truck waiting to carry on the medical supplies from the Customs to the Red Cross. Photo: Bivol

Approached for information on the following day, the Bulgarian Red Cross provided a detailed account of what had been received in the warehouse with a letter it sent to Chief Commissioner Nikolay Nikolov, Director of the General Directorate Fire Safety and Protection of the Population and distributor of the medical supplies received from the UAE.

The disposable protective gear includes 80,000 masks, 49,000 gloves, and 32,000 footwear. In addition, the shipment contained 3,970 half-liter bottles and 1,824 250-milliliter bottles of disinfectant.

In total, this amounts to about three tons of cargo, far from the officially announced 15 tons of medical supplies, masks, gloves, disinfectant, and clothing.

“Dates are good, nutritious food”

The rest of the shipment, as announced by the Council of Ministers, consists of “food”. According to insider information obtained by Bivol, the entire food shipment comprises dry dates, tons of which awaited Customs clearance at the Sofia Airport on April 14, 2020.

Bivol got in touch with Minister Karanikolov, who has been quarantined since his return from Abu Dhabi. He confirmed that the food was dates, but could not say the exact quantities.

Karanikolov praised this UAE product and assured that it would also be made available to the Red Cross. “The dates are good, nutritious food,” he said. According to the Minister, they will be distributed to social patronage.

The entire deal had been concluded and conducted between private entities that also paid for airplane transport, Karanikolov was adamant. However, the official press release emphasized the role of the government: “The delivery is organized by the Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forests and is provided by Bulgarian companies.”

Asked why a Minister had to accompany the dates, he replied that he had used the occasion to declare goodwill to the UAE and speak about future partnerships.

Peevski, Gradus, the government

Intrust, the company of MP Delyan Peevski, is one of the two Bulgarian firms that have organized the export of Bulgarian goods under the patronage of the Ministry of Agriculture. The other company is Gradus from the southern city of Stara Zagora, with which the Minister of Agriculture Desislava Taneva has past business relations. Thus, both private entities are closely linked to people in power.

A reference in the Bulgarian Daxy registry shows that Minister Taneva was a Member of the Board of a company, together with Ivan Angelov, now owner of Gradus.

According to insider information obtained by Bivol, part of the exported products came from another company affiliated with Peevski, dairy producer Lakrima, which is already present in the UAE’s market. The company is part of the portfolio of the business empire of the MP, who at the beginning of his career declared an old Opel as his only asset but managed to acquire in a few years assets for over a BGN 1.5 billion, declaring only a small part of them.

It is not clear which UAE companies have sent the dates and the medical supplies, but it is obvious that this is not a fair deal. Dates are traded on stock exchanges for slightly over USD 1 per kilogram, while a kilogram of yellow cheese or lamb meat trades for at least USD 3-4 dollars. Moreover, 32 tons were shipped from Bulgaria and 15 tons were received in return.

The massive bragging about successful cooperation with the UAE and the provision of 15 tons of precious supplies, as well as the repeated emphasis on the role of Peevski and the owners of Gradus, can maybe make up for the lack of business logic in this deal.

Or maybe a ransom for the blunder with Bozhkov?

There is another hypothesis that explains the strange barter involving Peevski and companies linked to powerful people. It is no secret that relations between Bulgaria and the UAE have been strained in recent months. The planned visit to Bulgaria of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on March 3, 2020, was canceled without explanation.

According to the site Frognews, the reason for this is a “cowboy” operation by Bulgarian senior prosecutors, who were sent to Abu Dhabi by Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev to advance cooperation with the prosecutor’s office there in the context of the request for extradition of exiled gambling boss Vassil Bozhkov and his partner Georgi Popov.

There is insider information that the prosecutors had been accompanied by police intelligence officers who attempted to kidnap Bozhkov and Popov, brandishing Interpol orders issued by the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office. There had been even physical confrontation with the local police.

Following this incident, relations between the UAE and Bulgaria have come to a complete halt. The Bulgarian Ambassador to the UAE has been summoned several times by the UAE Foreign Ministry for explanations.

In Bulgaria, however, there was a sudden decline of Ivan Geshev’s presence in the daily news headlines, and he resurfaced only after the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis.

In this context, sending two planes with yellow cheese and lamb meat very much resembles the ancient diplomacy approach to give gifts to appease angry sheikhs. Whether this approach will work, remains to be seen.

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