EU prepares to embrace a land of greed, killing and corruption ALL - 2006/6/15
NEVENA LUBENOVA was lying on her couch in the small hours when the bomb blew in the front door of her flat, throwing her across the room, knocking down walls and smashing windows over seven storeys of the decrepit Soviet-style block.
Surveying her flat as it was being rebuilt this week, the retired dentist wept as she recalled her encounter with the Bulgarian mafia last month. “I thought I was in hell,” she told The Times. “There was fire and I couldn’t breathe.”
The bomb was intended for her son, Vassil Ivanov, a chain-smoking investigative journalist for Nova TV who has exposed corruption in Bulgaria. He was out that night.
“Every time I do a story I get threats,” he said as his bodyguard stood outside the door. “Usually I get e-mails or phone calls saying I will get beaten. I expected something, but I didn’t expect such a big bomb.”
Asked whether he thinks the police will catch the perpetrators, he laughs wearily. “No.”
The power of organised crime in Bulgaria is finally beginning to alarm the European Union only seven months before the former communist state and its neighbour, Romania, are due to join.
Since 2001, 150 people have died in daylight killings in Sofia, the capital, including Bulgaria’s top banker, a football company boss and one of its top importers. On Wednesday another businessman, Ivo Markov, was shot dead outside his home. But despite the blizzard of contract killings — which cost £30,000 each — no one has been jailed.
The Government is widely suspected of turning a blind eye to organised crime, which holds sway over the country’s political, business and judicial systems. Although the European Commission will consider those concerns in its recommendation on the country’s entry date next week, for political reasons it is unlikely to suggest even a year’s delay in admitting Bulgaria.
Would-be member states are supposed to meet strict criteria for membership, including a market economy, an independent judiciary and respect for human rights. But many EU leaders privately believe that drawing Bulgaria into their embrace is the best way to encourage reform. One senior EU diplomat said: “There is a society of evil here. These gangs are everywhere and control everything — private industry, municipalities, members of parliament, everything.”
Privatisation after communism and smuggling during the Yugoslav wars produced a band of immensely rich oligarchs whose businesses veered between the legal and the criminal. More recently they have moved into legitimate areas of the economy such as tourism, mining, ports and construction, but their business practices remain the same.
Boyko Todorov, research director at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, an anti-corruption watchdog funded by Western governments, said: “There are a couple of oligarchs who have purchased half the MPs in the national assembly. Sometimes contract killing is the easy option.”
Corruption is widespread in Bulgaria, a country so poor that donkeys pulling carts still wander around the capital and average incomes in the countryside are £100 a month.
A study by the centre estimated that the number of bribes paid by Bulgarians rose from 80,000 a month in 2004 to 130,000 a month last year. “Almost all senior politicians are corrupt. The sky’s the limit,” Mr Todorov said.
The study concluded that in Bulgaria “organised crime and the related corruption are among the most serious obstacles to the establishment of the rule of law and a competitive market economy. Organised criminal groups’ activities threaten the stability of democratic institutions”.
John Menzies, chairman of the Canadian mining firm EurOmax, learnt about organised crime when he upset a Bulgarian rival by winning a licence to prospect for gold.
The rival organised and financed violent protests. EurOmax’s site was occupied and its equipment sabotaged under the eyes of local police. Mr Menzies was told that he would be beaten to death with hammers. “It is an incredibly confrontational society,” he said.
He now warns other international investors to be wary. “This is a risky place for foreign investment. Every foreign investor has had the same experience — it’s universal.”
The Government insists that it is clamping down. Ivailo Kalfin, the Foreign Minister, said: “We do have a problem, but it’s not a problem that makes Bulgaria very different from other EU countries. We are fighting it.”
But Klaus Jensen, a German investigator sent by the EU to assess Bulgaria’s fitness to join, came away shocked at the Government’s complacency, declaring. “They believed they would get into the EU anyway, and I encountered a ‘kiss my ass’ attitude,” he said.
The irony is that EU membership could boost Bulgarian corruption rathen than combat it by flooding the country with money: Brussels would give a country of eight million people a total of £10 billion in development funds between 2007 and 2013.
Mr Todorov said: “In the first two years the money will be entirely wasted — it will go into the pockets of politicians and their client companies.”
JOINING THE CLUB
The Copenhagen criteria, or requirements that would-be EU members are supposed to fulfil:
• Stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for minorities
• A functioning market economy
• Adherence to the various political, economic and monetary aims of the European Union
Author: ANTHONY BROWNE