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The renowned Austrian newspaper “Der Standard” published Wednesday an interview of Markus Bernath with the editor of Bivol Atanas Tchobanov.

“Prosecution was the most important weapon”

One oligarch uses the justice system in his battle against another oligarch – journalist Tchobanov on the underlying causes of the Bulgarian banking crisis

Interview with Markus Bernath for the online edition of the Austrian newspaper “Der Standard”, derStandard.at

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Bulgarian investigative journalist Atanas Tchobanov explains his viewpoint on the underlying reasons for the spectacular case with Corporate Commercial Bank (KTB) in Sofia – “an oligarch uses the justice system in his battle with another oligarch.” Markus Bernath talks to Tchobanov, co-editor of the news site “Bivol” which, in recent years, has repeatedly written about KTB. Currently, the political power in Bulgaria is still looking to find a financial solution for the bank.

Der Standard: What does KTB’s collapse mean? Is it just about a dispute between two oligarchs?

Tchobanov: Obviously this is a battle between the majority shareholder of the bank Tsvetan Vasilev and his former business partner Delyan Peevski. Peevski uses the institutions, while Vasilev is currently in a weak position. He lost his bank and is now located abroad (Vienna, editor’s note). Bulgarian Prosecution will likely press charges and issue an international arrest warrant, but this is just the picture on the surface. Bulgarian banks and financial supervision have a long history.

In 2006, the then-US Ambassador in Sofia listed in his analysis, published by “Wikileaks”, the names of the four banks, which provide loans to connected parties. He called them “bad apples” and KTB was among them. The Ambassador quotes the chief of the Bulgarian financial police (formerly Financial Intelligence Agency) complaining of very loose financial oversight of these banks. Therefore, there was political pressure on the financial police to not disturb these banks. Oligarchs – wealthy entrepreneurs looking for a role in the rule of the country – are nothing new for Bulgaria. So, the blow that is dealt on KTB now was foreseeable.

Parallels can be drawn with another banker – Emil Kyulev, who was shot dead in 2005 in Sofia. At the time Kyulev was the richest Bulgarian. His “Roseximbank” (later DZI, editor’s note) popped out of nowhere. Kyulev financed the party of former king Simeon and thus contributed to its victory in the 2001 general elections. And then they removed him from the scene. I fear that we are witnessing a similar scenario with Tsvetan Vasilev and his KTB.

Der Standard: KTB grew very quickly; private individuals and public companies have deposits in it. And now, when it went bankrupt, there is a problem.

Tchobanov: That’s right. On one hand the assets of key companies in the energy and transport sector are there. For example, the accounts of “Risk Engineering”, the company that modernizes the “Belene” Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), are now blocked. Moreover, private individuals also have deposits in the bank, probably politicians, judges, senior officials – people who cannot justify the existence of such large amounts. They received special conditions – for example, 8% interest on their deposits, something that is not normal in the country.

Der Standard: Since the State now, that is taxpayers, have to intervene to save the bank, then the legitimate question arises: Who should they be saving? So, the list of these private investors is probably the most secret documents now in Bulgaria. If the origin of their money is unclear, the prosecution should launch an investigation.

But if we follow the developments of the last few weeks, leading up to the collapse of KTB, it all looks like an orchestrated campaign.

Tchobanov: Absolutely. The prosecution was the most important weapon in this case. It announced it was raiding offices of companies connected to the bank. This naturally made headlines in newspapers linked to Delyan Peevski. These media were previously funded by Vasilev, his former business partner. We have evidence of that. Now, however, these newspapers turned against Vasilev and trumpeted that KTB is facing bankruptcy. This provoked the customers’ assault on the bank.

During the next stage, several State-owned companies withdrew their deposits from the bank and Peevski naturally did the same with the money of the companies he controls, such as “Bulgartabac”. It is claimed that he did not want to repay his loans to KTB. So, that was an attack by the prosecution and the media on the bank.

Der Standard: But the attack seems to be out of control if we consider the possible financial consequences for the Bulgarian state and taxpayers?

Tchobanov: I think they already are pushing forward without thinking about further consequences. It’s not just KTB. There is also an insurance company with major clients – “Victoria”, which is associated with the bank. Who will pay now if an emergency occurs, such as in “Bulgartransgaz” that holds the gas transmission network in the country? The impetus for the attack on the bank came from Peevski and the people behind him.

It seems that they just don’t want to pay their debts, especially for the purchase of “Bulgartabac”, which is a key company. “Bulgartabac” is a way of controlling the votes of the Turkish-Muslim minority in Bulgaria. They grow tobacco, and “Bulgartabac” is the largest employer and the company that buys their products. The privatization of “Bugartabac” was done in a very non-transparent way. It was done through offshore companies, and the credit for the transaction was provided by Vasilev. Now his opponents are hoping to pay only a fraction of it, if the bank is destroyed.

Der Standard: Delyan Peevski is a phenomenon. How could a 20-year-old, apparently without any significant qualifications, start a career in the country; become Deputy Minister, investigator, multi-entrepreneur?

Tchobanov: He is a dummy, perhaps most importantly of Ahmed Dogan, the founder of the party of the Turkish minority, Movement for Rights and Freedoms, DPS. Peevski became a public persona after Iliya Pavlov (an influential businessman, head of “Multigroup”, editor’s note) and banker Emil Kyulev were murdered. I would define him as a phenomenon. He is the side effect of the non-transparent merger of politics, finance and media in Bulgaria.

Atanas Tchobanov (46,) is actually a linguist, working mainly at CNRS in Paris, and during the rest of the time he is an investigative journalist of Bivol, together with with Asen Yordanov, the founder of the news site, a recipient of numerous awards, as well as of “Balkanleaks”, the other investigative platform of the tandem. Tchobanov is also the spokesman for “Balkanleaks”. In the European elections in May, he ran on the ballot of the Bulgarian Greens party.

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