EU keeps watch as authorities drag their feet over trial of alleged gangsters Guardian - 2008/9/19
Country may lose millions in funding if it fails to deal with crime and corruption
When two of Bulgaria's most notorious alleged gangsters were arrested in October 2005 and charged with plotting three contract killings and running a money-laundering operation, it was exactly the kind of publicity the Balkan state needed as it nervously waited to be handed the keys to the European Union.
The arrests of Krasimir Marinov, now 44, and his younger brother Nikolay, 36, both former child wrestlers, were the perfect way for Bulgaria to show how seriously it was tackling the organised crime and corruption that had been the main barrier to EU membership.
Three years on, Bulgaria is safely in the EU, but the Marinovs are no longer behind bars. They are out on bail, after a series of events - including the abrupt death of a key witness, Nikola Damyanov, and mysterious illnesses that kept the brothers from the courtroom for long periods - led to the trial being postponed more than 20 times.
The next court hearing is set for November 3. Reports in the Bulgarian media this week say the Marinovs have spent the summer partying in the Black Sea resort of Sunny Beach. The tabloid newspaper Weekend last week claimed the prosecutor was likely to drop all charges against the Marinovs.
"This case is one of the 20 or so under the EU's watchlist so the European commission will use the case's progress to judge Bulgaria's progress in targeting corruption and organised crime," said Ruslan Stefanov, of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a Sofia-based thinktank.
The European commission, which is responsible for the day to day running of the EU, is watching Bulgaria's courts closely after delivering a devastating assessment of the country's judicial system in a progress report in July.
The commission decided that high-level corruption and organised crime remained such a serious problem that it froze almost ˆ1bn (about £792m) in pre-accession funding which was promised to the country to help it measure up to its EU neighbours.
Corruption in Bulgaria is a way of life for many of its 7.5 million citizens. According to a report by the Centre for the Study of Democracy in early 2007, the average number of corruption transactions a month in 2006 that citizens were involved in was 110,000-115,000. Over 30% of people said they had been put under pressure to engage in corruption, such as paying a bribe, when going to the doctor, 14% when dealing with prosecutors and 11.7% with judges.
It has got to the point where Bulgarians expect officials to be corrupt, according to one diplomat. "Expecting Bulgarian officials not to be corrupt is like expecting them to stop breathing," he told the Guardian.
A controversy that led to the freezing of the ˆ723m earmarked to improve Bulgaria's dilapidated roads - part of the ˆ1bn package - came earlier this year, when an investigation by the newspaper Kapital showed that Vesselin Georgiev, head of the state-owned National Road Infrastructure Fund, had awarded contacts worth tens of millions of pounds to companies run by two of his brothers.
When the story broke the Bulgarian authorities initially maintained there was no conflict of interest. But media pressure eventually led to Georgiev's resignation. He is due to stand trial for corruption, but the journalist who broke the story, Ivan Mihalev, told the Guardian he had no confidence that Georgiev would ever be convicted.
"No high ranking person has ever been convicted of large-scale corruption, so why should he be any different?"
Working as an investigative journalist in Bulgaria is a risky business. According to a report this year by Reporters Without Borders, journalists are regularly threatened for uncovering corruption. Stanimir Vaglenov, who has been writing about organised crime for the daily national paper 24 Hours for over a decade, compares his job to that of a miner.
"Every day they are going underground and they risk everything. It's the same with us. If you are a professional and you know what to do and what not to do, if you are careful, you have a good chance of surviving."
To demonstrate the dangers, he fires up his computer and calls up pictures of bloody crime scenes, showing the dead victims of bomb plots and assassinations, all thought to be committed by the Bulgarian mafia. Then he shows another set of photographs, taken at football matches and glamorous parties, showing alleged gangsters side by side with high-ranking politicians.
Vaglenov has been threatened many times, but says he does not worry too much about being killed. "You may have nothing to fear physically, but they can destroy your life with court cases. I've been sued over a period of six-and-a-half years three times, one after another. I won all of them but it was an awful period."
Even the most defensive Bulgarian politicians admit the country is facing huge problems. Mihail Mikov, the interior minister, said that combating corruption was his "No 1 priority". But he said that other EU members underestimated the difficulties Bulgaria faced because of its geographical position. Surrounded by non-EU countries, it has become a route for drug, arms and people smuggling from the former Yugoslav countries, Moldova, and beyond.
Sofia's outspoken mayor, Boyko Borisov, a former karate champion and bodyguard tipped to be Bulgaria's next prime minister, is scathing about how the current administration is dealing with corruption. But, like many people, he rejects the notion that his country is the most corrupt in the EU.
"We're just the only ones who admit that we have a problem," he said.
If Bulgaria does not get its house in order there are other steps the EU could take. It could refuse to recognise Bulgarian court decisions, bar the country from entering the Schengen zone - which has no border controls - or adopting the euro, and also withhold structural funds, which add up to far more than the ˆ1bn in the freezer.
It is a dangerous proposition, as one diplomat told the Guardian. "If they don't sort things out, we could find ourselves in a situation where the EU's poorest state is a net contributor, which isn't good at all."
Author: Helen Pidd