SOFIA — In 2013, oligarch Delyan Peevski’s appointment as head of Bulgaria’s counterintelligence agency sparked mass protests over fears that the move was a dangerous alliance of politics and big business.
The protests, which lasted for more than a year, were effective. Peevski ended up stepping down from Bulgaria’s State Agency For National Security, and the government of then-Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski resigned.
Back in 2013, Peevski was known as a secretive oligarch who controlled several newspapers and a significant share of print media distribution networks. Since 2009, he has been a lawmaker for the liberal Movement For Rights And Freedoms (DPS), but he rarely showed up in parliament or was seen in public.
The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described Peevski as a “notorious embodiment” of the “collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs” in the Balkan country. The United States has also sanctioned him because of his “extensive role in corruption in Bulgaria.”
Peevski is now stepping out of the shadows. He is a regular in parliament, could be the next DPS chairman, has talked about wanting to be prime minister, and appears to be trying to play kingmaker in Bulgarian politics.
“Before, Peevski acted behind the scenes, pulling the strings in the party without appearing in the foreground,” Daniel Smilov, an associate professor of political science at Sofia University, Bulgaria, told RFE/RL.
While the DPS is not officially part of the ruling coalition, the party supports its key decisions and is trying to play a greater role in the country’s politics. While broadly supportive of the ruling coalition, Peevski has repeatedly threatened to withdraw the DPS’s support for the pro-Western government.
The DPS “steps into the role of defender of the government. Then, they take on the role of a critic of the government,” said Petar Cholakov, an associate professor of political science at the Bulgarian Academy Of Science. “They are very keen to show that they are an unavoidable factor in Bulgarian politics.”
Building His Empire
Peevski started his political career in 2001, at the age of 21, as a member of the National Movement for Stability and Progress, the party of the former exiled king, Simeon II. In 2005, when the movement was part of a ruling coalition, Peevski was appointed as the deputy head of the Emergency Situations Ministry. Two years later, he was dismissed and investigated over corruption allegations, although the investigation was later dropped. In 2009, Peevski became a lawmaker for the DPS.
Peevski’s family started building its media empire in 2007, when his mother, Irena Krasteva — former head of Bulgarian Sports Totalizator, the state-owned lottery and betting operator — bought several newspapers. In the following years, the family’s holdings expanded and Krasteva subsequently transferred half of her media shares to Peevski. By 2018, the family owned six newspapers, print media distribution companies that accounted for 80 percent of the market, and had control over private television and news websites. In 2020, Peevski announced that he was selling his media holdings.
At the time, plenty of red flags were raised about Peevski’s media holdings. A 2018 report by the Union of Publishers in Bulgaria on media ownership in Bulgaria concluded that his media concerns were not intended to bring him financial profits.
“The media is the necessary tool with which to change the topics on the public agenda,” the Media Freedom White Paper read, “to eliminate opponents or support individual interests, to control the information that reaches the public. Moreover, they are often used for political racketeering.”
In its 2018 media freedom index report, RSF described Peevski as “the most notorious embodiment” of the “corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs” in Bulgaria.
Peevski’s name was also mentioned in the bankruptcy of Bulgaria’s Corporate Commercial Bank (KTB) in 2014. Reportedly close to the majority shareholder of the bank — now-exiled businessman Tsvetan Vasilev — Peevski’s family bought its first media outlets in 2007 with a loan from KTB. According to an investigation by the Bulgarian nonprofit organization Anti-Corruption Fund, Peevski had several links to the bank. But his alleged involvement was never investigated by the prosecutor working on the case, Ivan Geshev, who later became Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor.
In all the time he was a parliamentary deputy, Peevski — now 43 years old — rarely appeared in public. His seat in parliament was often empty, leading Bulgarian journalists to ask repeatedly where he was.
A New Peevski?
But Peevski’s days of being absent in the chamber appear to be over. In recent months, he has regularly attended parliament, engaged with reporters, and has been vocal about his party’s agenda.
In October, he was appointed chairman of DPS’s parliamentary group. In November, following party Chairman Mustafa Karadayi’s resignation, he announced his bid for the top post in the party — and so far he is the only candidate. The change, political science professor Smilov says, “can be explained by DPS’s desire to rehabilitate him” after he was sanctioned for corruption.
Peevski has also floated the idea of being prime minister. While he has said the DPS does not want to officially participate in the government with its own ministers, his party’s press service quoted him on November 26 as saying that he was ready to be prime minister.
“If [the current government] doesn’t know what it has to do to run the country, let them elect me as prime minister. I will not run away from responsibility, and I can handle it,” he said.
Peevski might struggle to achieve such grand ambitions. Apart from a few pockets of support — notably from the DPS founder and former leader Ahmed Dogan, who remains the most influential figure in the party and described Peevski as a “phenomenon in Bulgarian politics,” saying that “with his hyperactivity, combinability, and mediation skills, he managed to return the center of power to the Bulgarian parliament. And from being the most reviled, he has become a significant partner for all parliamentary groups.”
Apart from the very influential Dogan, it’s unclear if Peevski has enough backing within the party to be elected prime minister. He also does not have broad popular support among Bulgarians, as for many, he is still seen as a brash symbol of corruption. And, for now, most analysts say, it’s unlikely that the DPS will try to openly participate in the government.
In June, Bulgaria’s parliament approved a coalition government led by Nikolay Denkov, giving the EU and NATO member a new government after an extended period of political instability and stagnation, which saw five elections within two years.
The government is made up of representatives of the parliament’s two biggest political groups — the reformist pro-Western coalition We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB) and the center-right GERB, which ruled Bulgaria for almost 12 years until it lost its parliamentary majority in 2021.
Since June, Peevski and other lawmakers from the DPS have supported some of the ruling coalition’s key decisions, without the party’s official blessing. Peevski has introduced bills into parliament together with the leaders of GERB and PP-DB. However, several times, he has also threatened to withdraw the DPS’s support for the government. Most recently, the party’s lawmakers left parliament on November 16, refusing to participate in a no-confidence vote against the government that was filed by pro-Russian opposition parties.
Lawmakers from GERB — one of the two main parties in the ruling coalition — also left parliament just before the vote. It was then postponed due to a lack of a quorum. For a no-confidence vote to succeed in Bulgaria, more than 50 percent of lawmakers must vote against the government. Usually, the parties that support the government would vote against the no-confidence motion, but, in this case, GERB refused.
That, Peevski said, was a sign, hinting that the co-ruling party and the DPS might both withdraw their support for the coalition. The DPS has accused the government of unnecessarily prolonging the imports of Russian oil in Bulgaria, instead of banning them in line with other EU countries, and also wants more money from next year’s budget to be allocated to the municipalities. Finally, the DPS said the party had agreed with the government on both issues and its deputies voted for the government to stay in power.
This isn’t the first time the DPS and GERB have worked together. “It’s hard to find an issue where GERB and DPS have been at odds recently,” Smilov said. “And this is not news. GERB has previously governed in a hidden — or at least not explicit — coalition with DPS,” he added, referring to the years when GERB was in power.
In 2020, facing mass protests, GERB leader and then-Prime Minister Boyko Borisov replaced his ministers of the interior, economy, and finance. The party said the move was aiming to “eliminate insinuations that GERB and the three [dismissed] ministers were directly controlled by DPS and Peevski.”
Now the two parties appear to be collaborating openly. “What’s new right now is that it’s being done ostentatiously,” Smilov said. “Before, there was some effort to hide this symbiosis, while now, on the contrary, it is emphasized. And it even leads to such paradoxes that Peevski starts speaking on behalf of GERB or the other way around,” he added.
Why Come Out Of The Shadows?
The rebranding of Peevski is likely motivated by both personal and political concerns, analysts say. Smilov said both Peevski and GERB leader Borisov are seeking rehabilitation “after the various scandals with which they are associated” and they are acting together in order to “have more weight both in parliament and in politics in general.”
Internationally, Peevski has been continually censured. In June 2021, the United States sanctioned Peevski under the Global Magnitsky Act, which aims to target people deemed to have committed human rights offenses, describing him as an oligarch and media mogul who “has regularly engaged in corruption, using influence-peddling and bribes to protect himself from public scrutiny and exert control over key institutions and sectors in Bulgarian society.”
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Peevski was involved in a scheme “to bribe government officials through various means in exchange for their information and loyalty.” The U.S. institution also said he “negotiated with politicians to provide them with political support and positive media coverage in return for receiving protection from criminal investigations.”
Peevski was also sanctioned by the United Kingdom this year in an effort to “root out corruption in Bulgaria.”
Such misgivings only deepened after Bulgarian prosecutors began a probe into Peevski’s activities following the U.S. sanctions, but the investigation ended in 2022 without pressing charges.
According to Smilov, the goal of both GERB and the DPS is to “create the impression that they are pro-European forces and, without them, a pro-European government is impossible.” In that vein, Peevski has introduced bills to parliament — along with GERB and PP-DB leaders — to provide more military aid to Ukraine, ending the ban on imports of Ukrainian grain, and adopting a new tax on Russian gas transit, which aims to cut Moscow’s profits from gas exports.
Bulgaria “must have” a pro-Western government, Peevski said, and that would be “absolutely harmful to the country and the people not to have it.”
Bulgarian political scientist Petar Cholakov also says he believes Peevski is seeking to legitimize his participation in politics by supporting a pro-Western government. But he also says Peevski’s transformation has another goal: to “publicly humiliate” PP-DB, which has campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and has called out Peevski for being an embodiment of graft in Bulgaria. “For years, PP-DB have been saying that Peevski was the main enemy, and now they have to cooperate with him,” he added.
PP-DB officials have dismissed accusations that Peevski and his party have influence over the coalition government. Asked about his role, Prime Minister Denkov, a member of the PP-DB coalition, told public broadcaster BNR on November 12 that he “is playing to the crowd…and tries to act like a boss.”
But there have also been warnings that Peevski’s influence in the ruling coalition could impede the Denkov government’s reformist agenda. DPS votes would be needed for the constitutional amendments to reform the judiciary — one of the government’s top priorities.
There are also concerns within the PP-DB party itself. “Peevski’s presence as a leading figure in [that judicial reform process] is a factor against such public trust,” Radan Kanev, a member of the European Parliament from one of the parties participating in the PP-DB coalition, said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service in October. “He is not a stupid person. It means that he is deliberately harming the possibilities of real reform of the judicial system.”