Prokopiev casts his NGO net to catch BGN 100m worth of budget money

Organisations affiliated with him are set to distribute funding earmarked for the non-governmental sector

Ivo Prokopiev

NGOs affiliated with the indicted oligarch Ivo Prokopiev are going to distribute the money that the government has earmarked for promoting civil society and funding projects of significance for society as a whole. This is made obvious by the list of 14 organisations that are going to be represented on the new Council for the Development of Civil Society.

The selection procedure was launched at the end of February and hastily finalised last week amid almost complete media blackout and in the presence of a blatant conflict of interest as well as procedural manoeuvring. The 2020 public budget provides nearly BGN 100m for “subsidies and other current transfers to nonprofit legal entities”. The exact sum is BGN 98,152,300.

So,  apparently, while Bulgaria was under state of emergency and the public was solely focused on the coronavirus crisis, these months were used by familiar faces, who for years have been taking money to serve the interests of others, to put their hands on a public feeding rack worth tens of millions of levs. Those “others” are not the citizens of the country, but the people who plundered its economy, and Prokopiev is one of them.

The aforementioned council was created in accordance with amendments to the Nonprofit Legal Entities Act, which entered into effect in January 2018. The amendments set up a 15-member body chaired by the vice-PM in charge of the country's civil society development strategy - in this case, Tomislav Donchev - with the rest of the members selected from NGOs through a voting process conducted on a dedicated online platform. However, neither the opening of the procedure to participate in the voting nor the invitation to candidates to register or the start of the voting itself were publicly announced through press releases in order to guarantee a more transparent procedure and ensure that the information reaches as many people as possible. Instead, the announcement was made exclusively on the Council of Ministers' portal for public consultations, strategy.bg, in the “news” section at that. The result? Out of a total of 30,000 NGOs (according to 2018 data), some 379 participated in the voting procedure, with 123 organisations applying to be included in the council. Half of the 14 members elected to the council have conflict of interest, dubious image, ties to one another, and recognisable faces thanks to taking part in a series of protests serving the interests of indicted oligarchs in Bulgaria.

And so the Association of Parks in Bulgaria, whose chairperson Toma Belev was charged for making anti-Semitic statements during last year's local elections campaign, will have its representative on the council. The charge stems from a Facebook post in which Belev writes that during the Holocaust “Jews travelled cheapest in the 'horse' train carriages - for free”. The Central Electoral Commission had to greenlight his indictment as at the time Belev was running for municipal council member as a candidate from Democratic Bulgaria - a union of the artificially created political parties Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, The Greens, and Yes, Bulgaria - all engineered by former PM Ivan Kostov and captured by his oligarchic lieutenants Ivo Prokopiev and Tsvetan Vassilev. Now Belev is about to be effectively an advisor of the government and have a say in where the money intended to promote civil society goes. It is clear whose interests he is going to serve in this capacity, considering the fact that for years he has been a fixture in all the anti-government and anti-Prosecutor's Office protests organised by Democratic Bulgaria and the oligarchs backing it. Another organisation to be represented on the council was very much present at many of those protests - the Association for Alternative Tourism. By the way, if Toma Belev, who is presently a municipal council member representing Democratic Bulgaria, personally becomes a member of the new body, that would constitute conflict of interest under the statutes of the new council. Article 3, Item 7 provides that the NGO representatives have to be “politically neutral”.

Among those who have managed to attach themselves to this new feeding rack worth tens of millions of levs is also the Association of European Journalists in Bulgaria, which brings together people from the media outlets that are being funded by the indicted oligarchs and publishers Ivo Prokopiev, Ognyan Donev and Sasho Donchev. Irina Nedeva, head of AEJ-Bulgaria, has proven over the years to be a major mouthpiece for the talking points serving the interests of those oligarchs. It is interesting to note that, like Belev, she is in a potentially untenable situation because of a different section of the statutes - “not allowing conflict of interest in distribution of funds, organisation of consultations and other interactions with civil society organisations”. She is a former member of the managing body of another NGO that has secured a seat on the council - the Bulgarian Fund for Women.

In a similar situation are four more organisations set to take control of the distribution of those tens of millions of levs allotted for building civil society. These are Bulgarian Donors Forum and Maria's World Foundation, whose management bodies share as member Tsetska Karadzhova, as well as Parents Association and Karin Dom. Among the futures advisors of the Council of Ministers is also the scandalous Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), known both in the country and abroad as a conduit for the interests of billionaire speculator George Soros and his Bulgarian disciple Ivo Prokopiev. Last year the BHC was at the heart of one of the biggest scandals in the country, surrounding the judicial system, after it helped Kalin Kalpakchiev (former personnel man of the Supreme Judicial Council, current appellate judge and head of the grant-funded Union of Bulgarian Judges, which is the oligarchs' main instrument in the judicial system) set Jock Palfreeman, convicted of murder, free. The listed NGOs are known to the Bulgarian public as supporters of an entire series of protests that went against the interests of citizens in the country, including on the matter of the Istanbul Convention.    

But there are even more conflict-of-interest aspects. It all starts with the very drafting of the council's statutes, which provided the basis for the dubious procedure that eventually led to the selection of these organisations. The whole saga with the establishment of the council dates back to early 2018 when the Nonprofit Legal Entities Act was amended to stipulate that a 15-member council with the Council of Ministers would be set up and headed by the vice-PM responsible for the civil society development strategy - in this case Tomislav Donchev - while the other 14 members would represent the NGO sector. A 24-member taskforce was created to draft the statutes of the new body. The names on it are more than curious. For example, the statutes were drafted by Toma Belev and his wife, Vesela Kavrakova. Belev joined the taskforce as chairperson of the Association of Parks in Bulgaria, while his spouse - as a representative of the WWF-Bulgaria. Also on the taskforce were three other representatives of NGO organisations who eventually got a seat on the council - Nadya Shabani from the Bulgarian Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, Nadya Nikolova from the Workshop for Civic Initiatives Foundation, and Krasimira Velichkova from the Bulgarian Donors Forum. A simple check reveals that they were or still are part of the management of another dozen of organisations in addition to the abovementioned ones. Now it makes sense why a taskforce member's proposal to disqualify NGOs that have ties to each other from participating in the selection procedure or the council itself was rejected. It is also clear why these organisations were the ones who knew about the launch of the procedure and exactly who will get the colossal sums intended to promote civil society. It remains unclear, however, how the statutes were even adopted given that at least one of the members of the taskforce - National Association “Bulgarian Black Sea” - refused to sign the document. It is also unclear why the procedure for selecting council members was opened in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic when the statutes were adopted by the Council of Ministers as early as August 2019 and promulgated in September 2019. Especially considering how the deadlines provided by the law and the statutes were played fast and loose with. For example the invitation to NGOs interested in participating in the voting procedure and the selection of members of the new body was posted on strategy.bg sometime on 20 February with the explicit condition that the 15-day registration period will start at 8.00am on that day. The same happened with the publishing of the invitation to participate in the vote itself, which was posted on the platform on 27 April, without a press release alerting the media to that fact. The 10-day period for completing the vote started ticking that same day. 

Against this backdrop, it is obvious that the procedure never aimed for transparency in distributing the tens of millions of levs supposedly earmarked for fostering civil society. On the contrary, the facts described so far clearly show that the entire process was conceived in darkness and hastily carried out so that certain NGOs, most of which tied to the behind-the-scenes clique in Bulgaria, could gain control over the money.

This is why Telegraph Media insists that the Council of Ministers answer the following questions:

- On what grounds were the statutes of the Council for Development of Civil Society adopted and promulgated considering that at least one of the members of the taskforce that drafted them refused to sign off on them?

- What necessitated that the voting and selection procedure for council members be carried out in the height of the coronavirus crisis, six months after the statutes were promulgated, and what mechanisms were employed to make all the steps involved in that procedure public and ensure its transparency?

- Is the relevant vice-PM and future chairperson of the council, Tomislav Donchev, aware of the fact that there are related persons in conflict of interest both on the taskforce that drafted the council's statutes and on the council itself? Including a married couple.

- Why no mechanism guaranteeing there would be no conflict of interest in the process of distributing the funds earmarked for promoting civil society in Bulgaria was put in place by banning affiliated organisations from participating in the procedure that was to determine council members?

- Does the fact that there are related persons on the council not constitute a violation of Article 3, Item 6 of the body's statutes: “Not allowing conflict of interest in distribution of funds, organisation of consultations and other interactions with civil society organisations”?     

- Is admitting an organisation represented by an active municipal council member from a certain political party, as is the case with Toma Belev, not a violation of another section of the statutes - “political neutrality”?

- With all that said, what guarantees are there that the funds earmarked for the promotion of civil society will be distributed in a transparent manner and will truly go towards promoting civil society in Bulgaria and not towards financing organisations that have proven to work not for the citizens of the country but for shadowy interests of a group of people led by indicted individuals?

We, the publications of Telegraph Media, insist that these questions be answered by Tomislav Donchev, relevant vice-PM and future chairperson of the council. In the coming days, we will make more revelations about the operations of the organisations in question and the behind-the-scenes ties between them.

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