Freedom of silence. European journalists die for mentioning Russian oligarchs 

Freedom of silence. European journalists die for mentioning Russian oligarchs
Russian names increasingly frequently carry deadly threats for independent journalists Photo: The CrimeRussia

The murder of Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova has shocked the global media community. The TV host had covered most sensitive issues of the Bulgarian society – but in her last program, she addressed corruption schemes involving Russian oligarchs. Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was slain a year ago. Her last publication was dedicated to shady schemes used by Russian natives to gain the Maltese citizenship. Why are Russian names carrying deadly threats for independent journalists?

Crime to be hushed-up?

On October 17, Germany extradited Severin Krasimirov to Sofia. The 21-year-old Bulgarian citizen has been charged with the murder of TV host Viktoria Marinova. The body of raped and strangled journalist was discovered in Ruse, Bulgaria. Marinova was the primary anchor of TVN channel belonging to her husband Svilen Maksimov. Contrary to the trend to hush-up inconvenient topics currently predominant at the Bulgarian TV, TVN covers most sensitive issues and high-profile crimes. Shortly before her death, Marinova has filmed the first run of her own TV show – Detector – dedicated to corruption in Bulgaria.

However, immediately after the murder of Viktoria Marinova, the Bulgarian police was interested not in the long list of ill-wishers to the journalist and her husband – but in totally different things. Thanks to the police, certain details of the crime leaked to the media: the method of slaying, stolen cell phone, clothes of the victim, etc. Upon creating an image of a crazy person or a maniac, Mladlen Marinov, Minister of Internal Affairs of Bulgaria, has vehemently rejected the version linking the murder with professional activities of the journalist. "No links with her activities," – the Minister has concluded.    

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Viktoria Marinova

Pursuing the “sexual killing” version, the law enforcement authorities have quickly presented a criminal to the public. According to the investigation, it was Severin Krasimirov arrested in Germany – who has confessed to the crime even before the extradition. His confessions are gibberish and fragmentary. Krasimirov denies the rape charges and claims that he had hit Marinova on the head. Amid the atrocious details of the crime, confusing confessions of Krasimirov don’t look convincing. Even his DNA allegedly found at the scene does not make his statements more reliable.

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Concurrently, the mother of the suspect said that her son is a mental retard. To support the collapsing version of the murder, the police announced that Krasimirov has a criminal record – he was convicted in 2007 for the theft of nonferrous metals. Details of the conviction of 10-year-old Krasimirov remain unknown. The law enforcement structures are making every effort to distract the public attention from the sole run of Detector TV show. This broadcast dedicated to an unprecedented for Bulgaria anti-corruption probe became the pinnacle of Viktoria Marinova's career. 

Million-lev consultations

Marinova invited journalists Attila Biro and Dimitar Stoyanov to the pilot run of Detector – these two persons have uncovered embezzlements of hundreds of millions of levs in Bulgarian projects funded by the European Union. The corruption scheme involved affiliated consulting companies retained to carry out expert assessments of everything – from effects of the climate change on water resource accessibility to investments efficiency and cost of big infrastructural projects.

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Accounting charts showing the names of participants of the embezzlement scheme

The scheme pulled off by the Bulgarian ‘consultants’ is pretty familiar to the Russian audience: tenders carried out on a sole-source basis, tender commissions involving people affiliated with the winners, overcharged costs of construction and other works, ‘right’ developers building ‘correctly’ estimated facilities, etc. GP Group had played the primary role in the corruption scheme – the developer had participated in several large projects funded by the EU. The probe has even been dubbed “GPGate” after it. 

There were some specific local details in the embezzlement scheme as well. The fraudsters had kept their accounting books with surprising frankness – alongside with the Debit and Credit columns, there are names of people whose incomes in the reporting period had exceeded all other company’s costs, including the personnel, office rent, etc. The accounting books also include the Commission Fees column supposedly showing the names of Vidin Mayor Gergo Gergov and Krasimir Zhivkov, Deputy Minister of Natural Resources of Bulgaria.

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Krasimir Zhivkov (on the left)  

But the main beneficiaries of the shady scheme were Russian oligarchs Roland Isaev and Paata Gamgoneshvili – partners and friends of Ralif Safin, ex-Vice President of Lukoil. All consultants’ revenues were accumulated in their offshore companies. Isaev and Gamgoneshvili are eager to establish a foothold in Eastern Europe; for the last 15 years, they have been expanding on the Bulgarian market despite all the recent economic crises. According to the journalistic investigation, Lukoil Bulgaria plays an important role in the laundering of money received from European funds.

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Ralif Safin

Those who can’t be named 

After the publication of the inquest results by bivol.bg, the personnel of GP Group started burning archives in the corporate headquarters. Attila Biro and Dimitar Stoyanov, the authors of GPGate, had tried to put the historical event on the record, but the forces were unequal. The police supported the firebugs and issued an arrest warrant against the journalists. The strategic upset in this struggle occurred thanks to Viktoria Marinova’s Detector.

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Arrest warrant against Attila Biro and Dimitar Stoyanov   

The program was aired on TV on September 30, and then the situation has spiraled beyond control.

Unable to continue ignoring the allegations against high-ranked governmental officials, including a Deputy Minister and Mayors, the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office and State Agency for National Security have launched on October 4 a review of the inquest findings. Deputy Minister of Natural Resources Zhivkov and three other civil servants have been suspended. Three days later, Viktoria Marinova was found dead.

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All these events could be considered a tragic coincidence – but there was another similar death in the past. In October 2017, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was blasted in her car. Galizia was a columnist of leading Maltese media outlets; she wrote about drug trafficking in Malta directly linking it with the Azerbaijani President and money laundering. Furthermore, Galizia had criticized Christian Cardona, Minister for the Economy, Investment and Small Business of Malta, for using business trips to Germany for personal purposes.

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Daphne Caruana Galizia

Apparently, any of the above topics could be the reason behind her murder. However, Daphne Galizia was killed after publishing a small article about Russian immigrants purchasing the Maltese citizenship and illegally acquiring electoral rights. Amid the last parliamentary elections in Malta leaving numerous questions, the further inquest into this matter could become a sensation. Colleagues familiar with the style of Galizia had no doubt that the small article was just the beginning.

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The masterminds behind the murder of Daphne Galizia still remain unknown – the investigators don’t dare to approach the persons named in her publications. The husband and son of the slain journalist believe that the assassins’ paymasters reside in Malta and are pretty close to the top echelons of power. Chances are high that the Bulgarian law enforcement authorities won’t really search for the people interested in the death of Viktoria Marinova. Her murder has already been named “execution” and “warning” in Bulgaria. Eleven years ago, the murder of Anna Politkovskaya became such a warning for Russian journalists.

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