Europe, Headlines

BULGARIA: Criminal Networks Extend Into Government

Claudia Ciobanu

SOFIA, Apr 15 2008 (IPS) - Bulgarian minister of interior Roumen Petkov announced his resignation Sunday, in the midst of a row about connections between high-level Bulgarian officials – especially from the Ministry of Interior – and corrupt businessmen linked to organised crime.

At the end of March, the chief directorate for combating organised crime (CDCOC) – a branch of the Ministry of Interior – revealed that several officials from the ministry, including the minister himself, had had contacts with controversial businessmen currently under investigation.

In his defence, Petkov claimed that he had only met with the individuals under suspicion in order to further the investigations. “Usually, they called me,” the minister said. “The topics were vague enough and had nothing to do with the work of the ministry. They found my number and they telephoned me.” Not talking to the callers, Petkov added, would have raised their suspicions and jeopardised the investigations.

Several other senior officials from the Ministry of Interior were accused of malfeasance. On Mar. 18, Ivan Ivanov, deputy head of CDCOC, was charged with leaking confidential information. On Mar. 25, Ilia Iliev, chief secretary of the Ministry of Interior, was arrested for his responsibility in granting documents to a Serbian mobster to travel within the European Union (EU).

The row surrounding the Ministry of Interior was accentuated by two assassinations in capital Sofia. On Apr. 6, Borislav Georgiev, the chief executive of energy company Atomenergoremont, was shot dead on the stairs of his apartment building in Lyulin neighbourhood. The next day, Georgi Stoev, a low-ranking mafia member and author of several books documenting his life as a gangster, was assassinated in front of the Pliska hotel, at one of the busier bus stops in the city.

Since 2000, around 150 assassinations have taken place on the streets of Bulgarian cities. To date, only one organised crime boss has been arrested. No senior official has been convicted of corruption. In May 2007, Roumen Ovcharov, then minister of economy, resigned after being accused of accepting bribes and trying to influence investigations.

High-level corruption and organised crime represent one of the country’s most serious problems, standing in the way of important judicial and economic reforms. When Bulgaria joined the EU Jan. 1, 2007, the European Commission (EC) reserved the right to invoke a safeguard clause on justice meaning that, if not enough progress is made in this field, European funds can be halted and basic freedoms and rights granted to EU citizens can be denied to Bulgarians.

Commentators say that the EC may bring up the safeguard clause in its June 2008 report on Bulgaria.

This week, the Commission is sending experts to Bulgaria to assist with implementing the action plan on fighting crime and corruption set out by the EC in its interim report of Feb. 4 this year, EC spokesperson Mark Gray told IPS. However, Gray said, “ultimately, it is for the Bulgarian government to take the measures it needs to do to honour the commitments made at the time of accession to the EU.”

But the deep connections between high-level officials and organised crime dampen the drive of Bulgarian leaders for anti-crime and anti-corruption measures.

According to a report of the Centre for the Study of Democracy in Sofia (CSD), which describes the evolution of crime groups in Bulgaria in the period 1989-2007, the links between organised crime, politicians and business groups were forged in the chaotic period following 1989, when the strong state structures of the communist regime were dissolved to be replaced by an institutional vacuum where “the breaking of law and economic crimes became a political and economic necessity.”

CSD describes the formation of a nexus of three types of illicit entrepreneurs that ended up controlling much of Bulgaria’s economy.

Security providers or “violent entrepreneurs” – many coming from the ranks of the thousands of Olympic wrestlers and policemen left unemployed with the dissolution of the communist regime – established themselves by racketeering in the emerging post-1989 private businesses. Second, the “oligarchs” who are former high-ranking members of the communist party and officers of security services who took control of the state industries and financial institutions. Finally, “risk entrepreneurs”, the former smugglers who kept to their business or got involved in capital speculations. Drawing the lines between the three categories is difficult.

A shadow of doubt hangs even above the most prominent opponents of corruption and crime in Bulgaria.

The State Agency for National Security (SANS), a “super agency” meant to fight drug trafficking, money laundering and top-level corruption, started work in January 2008. Established at the initiative of Socialist Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev, SANS unites intelligence services from three current ministries, and has the right to monitor personal information of both nationals and foreigners, as well as to search and detain people.

But the Prime Minister proposed as head of this agency Petko Sertov, who, before 1989, was in charge of recruiting special agents for the communist secret services.

“SANS brings nothing new, these are the same old people, from the Ministry of Interior or elsewhere,” Tihomir Bezlov, a crime sociologist with the Centre for the Study of Democracy told IPS.

On Friday Apr. 11, the Bulgarian government survived a no-confidence vote in parliament, called for by the opposition which accused the state of being “concrescent with crime.”

“Corruption is a systemic problem here,” says sociologist Tihomir Bezlov. “It is not surprising that the grey economy is so large in a transition country like Bulgaria. Corruption can be found everywhere, in Italy, in Greece, but it is particularly brutal in Bulgaria, also because of the poverty of the country. Ways must be found to contain the grey economy.”

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