Bulgaria embarrassed by its firearm problem as it enters NATO France_Presse - 2004/4/7
Bulgaria, a new NATO member, is flooded with cheap small firearms that have accumulated since the fall of communism and are fuelling the country's crime wave, according to a study released here this week.
A Kalashnikov assault rifle sells for only 120 dollars on the black market and you can buy a Makarov pistol for 130 dollars from a certified dealer, the British NGO Safeworld and Bulgaria's Centre for Studies on Democracy have found.

Both weapons are Russian designed but have long been produced in Bulgaria, which exported 900 million dollars (750 million euros) of weapons annually to the Soviet Union and developing countries during the communist era.

But the old East bloc states today prefer weapons that are used by NATO and a number of former clients in the Third World are under international arms embargoes.

The study showed that the number of people employed by Bulgaria's arms industry has dropped from 115,000 in 1989 to 25,000 in 2003, and in the regions where the economy relies on the industry unemployment tripled between 1995 and 2001.

The head of the Bulgarian government's unit against organised crime, general Roumen Milanov, said some of those who were laid off by the arms industry were now involved in a roaring trade in stolen firearms.

Matters have been made worse by the restructuring of the army in preparation for NATO membership in which the government cut the number of soldiers from 95,000 to 45,000.

The study said since there were fewer soldiers, roughly 300,000 military weapons are no longer in use and some of these have found their way into the hands of some 300 local criminal gangs.

Another 300,000 of the weapons registered in Bulgaria are privately owned, belonging to hunters, security companies and people who could prove that they need a firearm for self-defence.

The number of firearms in circulation contributed to Bulgaria's high crime rate, according to the study.

Police have said that the retribution killings that are a prominent feature of Bulgaria's underworld are increasingly being carried out with Russian-made gas pistols for which no firearm licence is needed but which have been customised to be deadly.

These handguns are being smuggled out of Bulgaria and sold in Greece, Turkey, strife-torn Macedonia and Spain, Milanov said.

The Centre for Studies on Democracy's Tikhomir Bezlov said the illicit arms trade was thriving because of the lack of sophisticated controls at Bulgaria's harbours and at Sofia's international airport.

Between January 2002 and August 2003 customs officials recorded 23 cases of small arms trafficking but the country has not seen a single charge of selling arms to trouble spots since tightening export controls two years ago, Deputy Interior Minister Roumen Stoilov said.

In 2000, a UN commission fingered Bulgaria as the main supplier of arms to the Angolan rebel movement UNITA, which was under an international arms embargo.

In October 2002, just before Sofia was invited to join NATO, the Bulgarian manufacturer Terem stood accused of exporting engine parts that could be used in tractors but also in tanks to Syria, which is considered a "sensitive" destination by the United States.

The United States has since 2001 financed the destruction of 96,000 small firearms and 6,700 units of ammunition by the Bulgarian state.

A United Nations programme helped the country to get rid of 4,500 firearms, 750,000 cartridges and 4,000 bullets.

But the study concluded that large stockpiles of weapons were still being held by the cash-strapped state, which has not disclosed the amount of weapons it needs to destroy.

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