Le Pen’s Bulgarian ally under the spotlight for cross-border medicine trafficking

Marine Le Pen (L), president of the French far-right 'National Rally' party, and Veselin Mareshki (R) leader of Bulgarian 'Volya' party meet at the Bulgarian Parliament in Sofia, Bulgaria, 16 November 2018. [Vassil Donev/EPA/EFE]

Vesselin Mareshki gained international prominence when French far-right leader Marine le Pen chose him as her political ally in Bulgaria. But things started to go wrong when Mareshki lost the European elections in May. Now, judges have recognised him as the mastermind of a cross-border network of medicine traffickers.

Mareshki, the leader of the populist party Volya, is a successful businessman in Bulgaria. His specialty is hard discount retail. He owns a chain of filling stations and a chain of pharmacies, which – for obscure reasons – enabled him to sell fuel and medicines below market price.

Riding on an anti-monopoly ticket, Volya commands an 11-strong group in the National Assembly since the 2017 parliamentary elections. Although Mareshki is officially in opposition, he supports the government of Boyko Borissov.

Mareshki was chosen by Marine Le Pen as her partner in Bulgaria, a country she visited twice in the run-up to the European elections last May. At the time, Le Pen needed partners in several EU countries in order to constitute a political group in the European Parliament.

To Le Pen’s disappointment, Mareshki’s party flopped at the elections, getting only 3.62% of the vote, well below the 5.88% threshold required for sending Bulgarian representatives to Strasbourg. It wasn’t for lack of campaign expenditure, however: Volya spent €725,000 in the European election campaign, the largest sum relative to the number of votes won in Bulgaria.

Mareshki’s troubles could have stopped there. But when it rains, it pours, as the saying goes, and the Bulgarian businessman later got embroiled in judicial affairs related to a cross-border network of medicine traffickers.

In a long investigative report, Valia Ahchieva, a famous journalist in Bulgaria, exposed Mareshki as the mastermind behind the network. Last week, she won a court case Mareshki intended against her, for defamation.

Until January, Ahchieva was the host of a weekly TV program called ‘Otkrito’, aired on Bulgaria’s national television BNT. But her show was put down and since January, she contributes to the website EUelectionsBulgaria.eu and to EURACTIV Bulgaria.

On 1 October, she published an article on EURACTIV Bulgaria, titled: “Mon cher Vesselin, this is a political process against a journalist!”. She used the French expression ‘mon cher Vesselin’ in reference to Marine Le Pen, who publicly called Mareshki in such terms.

Flasback

In her article, Ahchieva starts with a flashback two years ago, when she was travelling to Merzig, the capital of the district of Merzig-Wadern, in Saarland, to meet executives from Kohlpharma, a German pharma company.

En route to Germany, she received a message from the company, cancelling their planned meetings. “Obviously, Kohlpharma have listened to the advice of their Balkan partner not to stand in front of our camera,” she writes.

Despite the turndown, Ahchieva continued her journey, following a trail she had started uncovering whereby expensive life-saving medicines imported in Bulgaria at low cost and reimbursable by the state were immediately re-exported to companies in European countries. There,  the medicines were sold at much higher prices.

These medicines were lacking in pharmacies in Bulgaria, and the patients who needed them were deprived of treatment. “At the same time, those who run the scheme are making huge profits, obviously without any remorse, at the expense of the sick,” Ahchieva wrote, adding this is how she identified parallel exports in a scheme of companies in the medical business of the Mareshki family.

Ahchieva went to Germany to show Kohlpharma the invoices issued by the Mareshki-related company ‘Tradenet Bulgaria’. According to those, Tradenet Bulgaria was selling to Kohlpharma a medicine called Humira for BGN 2,396 (€1,225).

Humira is intended for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. In Germany, Kohlpharma repackages the Bulgarian Humira which then becomes German. And Humira goes to pharmacies in Germany at a price of €1,862.

Ahchieva writes: “Tradenet Bulgaria is associated with the Mareshki family: the Russian national Nina Katchenko has bought the company in question from the mother of Mareshki – Veska Mareshka, and made the latter its procurator. One has to turn the business around in Bulgaria because Katchenko is over 70 years old and lives in the small village of Dubovka near Volgograd in Russia on a family basis with the father of Veselin Mareshki’s wife, Svetlana Mareshka.”

Achieva explains that Humira comes to Bulgaria from the manufacturer – the American company AbbVie at a price of BGN 1,823 (€932). Once again, the importer is a company affiliated with the Mareshki family – Pharmnet.

She continues: “Given that the family also owns the pharmacy chain ‘Mareshki’ in Bulgaria, it is clear what a huge business it is. They are importing from the USA a low-cost medicine for Bulgaria, reimbursed by the Health Insurance Fund and then they are exporting it to Germany at twice the price! And Bulgarian patients are left without treatment.”

At the same time, Ahchieva has found that in two pharmacies of the “Mareshki” chain, patients were sold Humira, with packaging in Bulgarian, but the writing on the injection solution was in Turkish.

Her conclusion is that Bulgarian pharmacies sell medicines smuggled from Turkey. Imports of medicines from Turkey are banned because it is a non-EU country, which doesn’t have bilateral agreements for such trades. So Ahchieva went to Turkey, where it turned out that the medicine in question in the pharmacies was twice cheaper than in Bulgaria…

Ahchieva writes how surprised she was when the representatives of Kohpharma started speaking about Mareshki and Bulgarian politics before she even mentioned his name. She says she came to ask confirmation about their business with Katchenko, but they started their response with the politics in Bulgaria!

Ahchieva says that in 2017, when she concluded her investigation, she raised the question: is Kohlpharma confirming, that there is a connection between politics and the medical business in Bulgaria?

Political process

The investigative journalist writes that today she can answer: Yes, there is such a connection. And it evolved into a political trial against her.

Veselin Mareshki, together with his mother, 74-year-old Veska Mareshka, as well as two of their family companies, filed a lawsuit against Ahchieva for allegedly inflicting them non-pecuniary damage with seven broadcasts on BNT in 2017 and 2018. Allegedly, Mareshki suffered stress, mental discomfort and anxiety because the broadcasts of her journalistic investigation which also caused negative public attitudes towards the claimants in many other media.

The civil case was heard in the Sofia District Court in two hearings. In the courtroom, the TV broadcasts were viewed. Witnesses were questioned. Mareshki’s attorneys brought two deputies from the Volya Party to testify against Ahchieva.

However, every detail of her journalistic work was confirmed by the court. The case was closed at first instance, and she won it. The court ruled that there was no defamation, and indirectly – that Mareshki was indeed running a cross-border network of medicine traffickers

Her lawyer Alexander Kashumov, with practice in human rights cases, made the case that this was clearly a political trial.

“When a deputy speaker of a parliament and leader of a political party represented in the country’s government initiates a case against a journalist who has investigated his business, there is no other way to interpret and understand such a case,” Kashumov stated.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe

Want to know what's going on in the EU Capitals daily? Subscribe now to our new 9am newsletter.