Bulgaria Murders Threaten EU Entry, Scare Sofia Shop Owners Bloomberg - 2006/2/7
Bulgarian drugstore worker Radka Ilieva says contract murders are common in downtown Sofia.

``I am scared, the last shooting was a few meters from my shop entrance,'' said Ilieva, 42, in an interview. ``What if they miss and hit an innocent passerby?''

Lawmakers in Bulgaria, the nation with Europe's highest per-capita rate of organized crime killings, on Feb. 3 approved laws to help fight crime and curb corruption. The country had 130 contract killings in the past five years, Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev said in November. The overall number of murders in the first 11 months last year fell to 163 from 212.

European Union Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told Bulgarian officials last month to ``address shortcomings'' in the country's justice system to qualify for EU membership in January. Rehn will decide in May whether to postpone the plan. Bulgaria's EU Entry may attract an estimated $5.7 billion in foreign investment next year, according to Sofia-based HVB Biochim Bank.

The demise of communism in the 1990s led to the emergence of organized crime groups, which invested the proceeds of smuggling drugs and alcohol into casinos and hotels, said Tihomir Bezlov, an analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, in an interview.

Lawmakers Probed

Bulgarian officials created a list of 30 former deputy ministers, members of parliament and mayors under investigation for corruption, with more to come once immunity rules are loosened, Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin said on Jan. 31 in Brussels. Prosecutors are also targeting prostitution rings and drug-traffickers.

Police in the former Soviet satellite nation infiltrated a gang that transported prostitutes to and from Spain in October. In November, police helped break up a heroin smuggling ring in Poland, according to the Interior Ministry.

Should the country gain EU entry, it will form part of the southeastern border of the region. The EU first warned Bulgaria on Oct. 25 that admission would be delayed without an overhaul of the judicial system and a crackdown on organized crime.

Kyulev Shooting

The following day, 45-year-old Emil Kyulev, Bulgaria's second-richest man, was shot dead in his car on a street in downtown Sofia. He was the owner of Sofia-based DZI Bank and Insurance Group and economic adviser to President Georgi Parvanov.

After Kyulev's shooting, police and special law enforcement agencies stepped up road checks and detained 4,400 people with alleged crime links. They also seized 2,000 illegal weapons between October and December.

``Organized crime and corruption poison the business environment,'' John Beyrle, U.S. ambassador in Sofia, told an American Chamber of Commerce meeting on Dec. 1. ``As long as Bulgaria is perceived as a country that is not serious about cleaning up, a great deal of legitimate businesses and investment will simply look elsewhere.''

Bulgaria concluded EU entry talks in 2004 and signed accession treaties in April 2005. Bulgaria and Romania will find out May 17 whether they can join next year.

`Safe Haven'

The prospect of EU membership already attracted record foreign direct investment of $4.2 billion in 2004 and 2005, according to Bulgarian government statistics.

``Bulgaria cannot be seen as a safe haven for criminals,'' said EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini at a press conference in Sofia on Jan. 24. ``The climate of impunity has to disappear. A proactive policy of investigation and prosecution by the respective bodies has to be pursued.''

Frattini called for ``a zero-tolerance policy against organized crime. Criminals should be aware that they risk long prison sentences when not obeying the law in Bulgaria.''

Five Bulgarians were arrested in Italy on credit card fraud charges in the fall, the Interior Ministry says.

``The state is using all its resources to fight crime,'' Interior Minister Rumen Petkov told journalists in Sofia on Jan. 18. ``We have to take out organized crime groups involved in the traffic of human beings, drugs and contraband.''

`I Duck'

Foreign companies operating in Bulgaria employ the services of about 300 security and consulting firms, said Ludmil Marinchevski, managing director of the Bulgarian unit of Sussex, England-based Group 4 Securicor Plc, in a telephone interview.

Bulgarian customs authorities have seized 18.6 tons of drugs at border checkpoints in the past three years, according to customs data released on Jan. 25.

``Once the smuggling channel is set up, it can be used for all sorts of goods,'' said Bezlov. ``This involves bribing various customs and other administration officials, as well as employing trucks, boats or planes for transport.''

For drugstore worker Radka Ilieva, the measures to combat crime are falling short.

``The police say the shootings sort out competition within the mafia,'' she said. ``That's not enough. Every time I hear a noise resembling shots, I duck.''


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