Crime may delay Bulgaria EU bid Dow_Jones - 2005/10/31
Organized crime and high-profile assassinations -- most recently the murder of a wealthy banker this week -- are threatening this small Balkan country's planned European Union membership in 2007.

All told, 155 execution-style murders have been committed in Bulgaria in the past five years, Interior Minister Roumen Petkov said Wednesday, hours after an unidentified gunman killed banker Emil Kyulev as he sat in his car at an intersection in the capital city of Sofia.

The latest killing "aims to destabilize the country," Mr. Petkov told Parliament, adding "obviously the circles behind it do not accept the European orientation of Bulgaria" and seek to undermine the country's bid to join the EU.

A day earlier, the European Commission named organized crime and corruption among the issues of "serious concern" that might cause the delay of Bulgaria's EU membership to 2008. The killing of Mr. Kyulev "reinforces and justifies our worries," Dimitris Kourkoulas, the head of the commission's Sofia delegation, said in an interview Thursday.

To be sure, Bulgaria's economic growth seems unaffected by the violence, as gross domestic product has expanded by a minimum of 4% a year since 2002. The killings also have had limited impact in the country's bustling capital city, where unemployment is low and the narrow streets are lined with trendy sidewalk cafes, as many killings have involved rival drug dealers and other criminal groups. "Why should I care if no ordinary citizen is killed?" says 37-year-old taxi driver Georgi Ivanov. "Let them kill each other."

Still, outside observers fear that organized crime could increasingly buy its way into the legal businesses and government structures, hampering democratic development of the country. Boyko Todorov, a program director at the Center for the Study of Democracy, a Sofia think tank, believes many of the petty criminals of the early 1990s post-Communist era have built powerful business enterprises that might still use some of their old habits. "A large part of the shady business migrated into the legal side and are now in the position to buy themselves politicians," Mr. Todorov says.

Katia Hristova-Valtcheva, program director at the Sofia unit of Transparency International, a Berlin group specializing in corruption research, adds, "It is obvious that having organized crime means that you have corruption as well." The group says Bulgaria has made no progress in fighting corruption in the past four years, ranking Bulgaria 55th of 156 countries this year, down from 54 in 2004.

In an interview before the latest murder, Bulgaria Economy Minister Rumen Ovcharov played down the problem. "This is rather exaggerated," he said. What Bulgaria is experiencing, he added, is "assassinations among drug dealers and not political crimes." He attributed the problem largely to the country's location "at the crossroads of drug transportation" with dealers carrying drugs from Black Sea ports or neighboring Turkey through Bulgaria to ship them into Western Europe.

In his remarks to Parliament Wednesday, Mr. Petkov, the interior minister, said the latest killing "has nothing in common with the murders until now," noting that Mr. Kyulev hadn't been threatened and traveled without bodyguards. "This is another type of hit," he said, adding that the victim was "a serious businessman of considerable public stature."

Mr. Kyulev, 48 years old, owned a majority stake in DZI Financial Group, which runs insurance and leasing companies, and controlled DZI Bank, one of Bulgaria's 10 largest banks. According to annual rankings by the Polish magazine Wprost, Mr. Kyulev was one of Bulgaria's richest men, with an estimated fortune of 413 million ($498 million), the Associated Press reported.

Previous victims have included a former prime minister, the country's first postcommunism billionaire, several high-ranking government officials and other well-known Bulgarian figures with strong business ties.

Andrei Lukanov, who served as prime minister in 1989 and 1990, was shot to death in front of his Sofia home in 1996, in what local authorities said was a contract killing related to business interests. Victims murdered since 2002 include high-ranking prosecutor Nikolay Kolev, billionaire businessman Ilia Pavlov, Bulgarian soccer club and hotel owner Georgi Iliev and Bulgarian customs official Shinka Manova.

Few arrests have been made and one of the only convictions involved five people sentenced to life in prison for the killing of Mr. Lukanov.

"This is the result of corruption, lack of political will, lack of justice reforms and weak law-enforcement agencies," says one high-ranking foreign diplomat in Sofia, who calls Bulgaria "The Wild West of the East."

The emergence of a criminal underworld is the legacy of Bulgaria's nascent democracy of the early 1990s, when porous borders and the war over the breakup of neighboring Yugoslavia triggered smuggling of drugs, guns, consumer goods and prostitutes.

It isn't unusual to see people surrounded by heavily armed bodyguards in Sofia restaurants or driving the capital's streets in black limousines with tinted windows. Bulgaria, with a population of eight million, has 3,000 private security companies, employing nearly 130,000 agents, many formed by police officers and secret-service agents laid off after the fall of communism in 1989. That compares with 700 similar companies in neighboring Romania, a country of 22 million, according to police statistics in each country.

Firearms, prohibited during communism, now are widely available. Bulgaria records 3.9 legally owned firearms for each 100 residents, a higher rate than in Russia or the U.K., though still much lower than many Western European countries, according to the Center for the Study of Democracy.

Violent crime "seems to be a particular feature of this country" compared with its Central and Eastern European peers, says James Roaf, the International Monetary Fund's representative in Bulgaria. "It's bad for the image of the country, and foreign investors are looking at it now."


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