Interview: Experts from Sofia-Based Center for the Study of Democracy BETA - 2005/6/19
SOFIA, 19.6.2005. (Beta) Tihomir Bezlov and Filip Gounev are experts with the Center for the Study of Democracy, a group based in Sofia, Bulgaria. For years they have been closely watching the organized crime situation in the country, as well as the authorities` efforts to combat such crime.
KRIMINAL NET: On June 10 the media reported the arrival of a group of gangsters from Serbia plotting to assassinate Boiko Borisov, a candidate for parliament and until recently an Interior Ministry operative. Is it possible that the Bulgarian Interior Ministry has had such a notable impact on regional organized crime that somebody would want to take out one of its officials in retaliation?
BEZLOV: There are two versions of the story. The first is that the whole thing is about the election campaign because in Bulgaria threats are good for the person they are targeted at, as was recently confirmed by the election of Filip Beiev as mayor of Velingrad. Before an election threats concentrate the attention of the media and the public on the person who is supposed to have received threats.
However, if there really are serious signals from specialized investigators in Serbia then it should have gone through Interpol, because Interpol bulletins are hard to manipulate. It is therefore probable that a threat was indeed the case.
GOUNEV: If the signals are from Serbia then Bulgarian mobsters are not necessarily the source. Bulgaria has extradited a number of people who could be dangerous (Sreten Jocic etc.).
They had connections with the underworld in Bulgaria. After the war in Kosovo a number of prominent underworld figures from Serbia moved to Bulgaria.
BEZLOV: It could be that this is a purely political matter. Everybody knows about that problems sparked by the arrest of Serbia-Montenegro armed forces Col. Cedomir Brankovic, which upset Serbia. I found it interesting how government institutions started taking sides: the Interior Ministry and prosecutors were on Croatia`s side, which wanted Brankovic extradited for alleged war crimes, while a court dismissed the case. His diplomatic immunity was taken into consideration and he returned to Serbia.
KRIMINAL NET: What are the general results of the struggle against organized crime in Bulgaria?
BEZLOV: It is difficult to quantify organized crime. We have considered counting bombings, of which there were 200 in 1994-1995, 120 in 1997-1998, and then 200 once more in 1999-2000. In the last four years the number has dropped. If this is taken as an indication, there appears to be a drop in the number of serious clashes, meaning a an overall reduction in organized criminal activity.
KRIMINAL NET: What about murder statistics, especially hit jobs?
BEZLOV: We have tried to compile such statistics as has the Interior Ministry, but the trouble is differentiating contract murders.
GOUNEV: Overall, there has been a drop in the murder rate in the past four to five years. The murder tally peaked in 2000 at 418, while last year we had 225.
Interestingly, there is no correlation between the number of murders and the overall crime rate, which was highest in 1997. That year was a turning point in Bulgaria`s development, which is when it started down the road it is currently on. Murders reached their acme in 2000, when the unemployment rate was the highest since transition began, which is reflected in the fact that many of the killers were unemployed young people.
KRIMINAL NET: Is there any pressure from the EU to step up the fight against organized crime?
GOUNEV: The police should not be the only ones under scrutiny, because fighting organized crime is a complex process involving a number of institutions. There are many types of crime: money laundering, smuggling, drugs etc. and the measures that are used against each of them are different.
Take smuggling: fighting that type of crime requires not just one or two changes, but several dozen, as well as years of hard work and political will to achieve an adequate level. As for money laundering, alterations in the way banks do business that have been introduced over the years help to create conditions for successful checks.
BEZLOV: Up till 1994 anybody could start a bank. A group that wanted to hide money would open a bank and anything could go through it. Now that is impossible and the restrictive currency system is enough of an obstacle. When you completely control the money supply and when all transactions are registered, it is very hard to launder money.
In addition, Bulgaria is a smaller market and large sums and transactions attract attention. When somebody sees a EUR5 million transfer a chill runs down their spine and they call the Bureau of Financial Reporting. The law requires all transfers of over EUR30,000 reported to the authorities.
KRIMINAL NET: That mean that the money laundering situation is under control?
BEZLOV: We are noticing a new trend, foreign currency passing through the country and carried by people. It is believed to amount to about EUR500 million according to the official statistics, which is based on declarations made on the border.
KRIMINAL NET: What about border security, particularly since Bulgaria is expected to become the EU`s frontier in two to three years?
GOUNEV: Last year the EU invested a great deal of money in boosting border checks. The equipment was mostly donated and it is used to detect weapons, narcotics, and people.
BEZLOV: The number one priority will be the Turkish border. The Black Sea frontier is also a problem, which was recently confirmed when several tons of hashish were impounded in Greece. It turned out that it came from Bulgaria, and the quantity indicates that it must have come in by sea.
KRIMINAL NET: The brunt of Western criticism directed at Bulgaria is related to its judicial system, reform being a key condition of EU membership. Is changing the law enough or will constitutional amendments be needed?
BEZLOV: Amendments will be required. In 1990 when the constitution was drafted it was put together by the old elite which wanted to maintain its position. The entire system is to spread out with so much independence that it cannot function as a whole. Even when there is a great deal of will for that to happen, as in the case of the Interior Ministry or the investigative service, it is obvious that the judges and prosecutors prefer the status quo.
There is a layer of untouchables in the courts that will stay that way for at least the next decade. In the short-term this will be a big problem because an immense part of the nation`s economic resources has been reallocated by the courts. When you take a closer look you realize that the national wealth is distributed in the courts.
KRIMINAL NET: Is the a system that exists at all levels or just the highest one?
BEZLOV: At all levels, starting in the small towns that have only a regional court. There are usually three to four families that are closely tied to the local government, police, and judiciary. In practice you have a structure that is impossible to attack and it monopolizes economic activity: the manufacture of bread, production of fruit and vegetables, and the like. There is no competition because there is no way to enter the market. Entry is barred both physically and legally. The situation is the same in the large cities, only there are more families.
KRIMINAL NET: Will the current situation in the EU and its skepticism about enlargement encourage the EU countries to demand more profound and radical change of Bulgaria?
GOUNEV: The EU does not have a standardized legal system which limits the pressure it can exert. There will be another report or two reform recommendations, but a strong instrument of pressure would be to put off Bulgaria`s membership for a year.
BEZLOV: There is a more pessimistic possibility. Let us say that a country`s membership being postponed causes it to reconsider its membership treaty. The elites have immense differences in how the judiciary works. Also, they completely understand the chaos surrounding the European constitution and the future of the EU while lacking the illusions of the common people, and are ready to use the situation to the fullest. They have invested a great deal of time and money into cornering a certain part of the market and now they do not want to let anybody else in who would, for instance, sell Finish vodka for the price of Bulgarian vodka.
KRIMINAL NET: Is there, after all, some kind of trend affecting organized crime in Bulgaria?
GOUNEV: What has been observed in recent years and continues to expand is a transition from underworld to gray business, which is more difficult to prosecute and offers greater opportunities for influencing politics. When 95 percent of your economy is entirely legal, you have easier economic instruments for securing a say in political matters. For instance, 10 years ago it was easier to convict people for smuggling than now, when they have a monopoly and are no longer in the business. There is a possibility that this gray elite will become a political elite.
BEZLOV: Everybody knows more or less which parties are going to enter parliament and the gray elite will concentrate on them. In the key cities gray businessmen can be seen attending campaign rallies of various parties and coalitions.