Underworld still looms in Bulgaria's EU path Reuters - 2006/5/8
Last month, a bomb tore through Vasil Ivanov's apartment, blowing out sturdy brick walls and smashing windows throughout his 12-storey building.
Ivanov, a Bulgarian investigative journalist who has uncovered cases of crime and abuse of power among police, notaries and state officials, had received threats over his stories before, but was shocked by the brutality of the attack.
"I expected something like this to happen. I thought I might be shot at, or beaten up, but I didn't expect them to try to kill so many people," he said.
No one was hurt, but the blast has had deep reverberations across Bulgaria, a poor Balkan state that is struggling to shed its "wild-east" reputation and prove it is ready for European Union membership next year.
The explosion was far from unusual. Car bombs are common.
Even more frequent are shootings, usually by snipers or machinegun-wielding thugs, who since 2001 have killed some 150 people, including Bulgaria's top banker, the owner of a first division soccer team and a leading customs official.
But no one has been convicted for any of the crimes, and in most cases police have no leads on who the shooters were.
Diplomats and analysts lay the blame on the graft-prone judiciary, saying it has created a "climate of impunity" in which underworld gangs operate without fear of prosecution.
They say crime barons born from former communist secret services control large parts of the economy through networks of legitimate and illegal businesses, helped by corrupt high-level officials.
"There is a society of evil here," said a senior diplomat from an EU state who, like many of his colleagues, would speak about the issue only if he was not named.
"These gangs are everywhere and control everything: private industry, municipalities, members of parliament. Everything."
The head of the Supreme Civil Court, Ivan Grigorov, denied accusations that the judiciary was to blame.
"The observation that the Bulgarian judges do not work is wrong and insulting. They are in the front-line on solving cases," he said.
The EU's executive Commission has marked graft and crime as the key stumbling blocks to Bulgaria's 2007 accession bid.
It gave Sofia an end-April deadline to show "concrete results" ahead of a May 16 report where it will either recommend Bulgaria be allowed to join next year or be delayed until 2008.
But the date has come and gone, and Western experts are baffled by a lack of progress.
Murders still go unsolved, while last month police found two men in a car full of illegal guns -- sniper rifles fitted with silencers, the favoured weapons of underworld hit men -- but did not detain them because of their "poor health".
The Socialist-led government has pushed through new laws including a penal procedure code simplifying investigations and constitutional amendments to boost judiciary accountability.
It is also moving to strip immunity from seven members of parliament against whom various criminal charges were shelved after they were elected last year.
The government says this is proof it is dealing with the problem and says the EU and media have exaggerated the issue.
"We do have a problem, but it is not a problem that makes Bulgaria very different from other EU countries. We are fighting (it)," Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin told Reuters in an interview last month.
"This is not a country of cheaters who are trying to say one thing to Brussels and then act another way at home."
But, according to the EU diplomat, the legal changes are a "ridiculous detail" in the light of heavy criminal activity, and the deputies are small fish when compared to the dozens of notorious criminals known to be running loose.
Besides the usual criminal activities of prostitution, drug and people trafficking, counterfeiting and extortion, the criminal world has also tried to push into legitimate spheres. Criminals have used ill-gotten gains to establish or take control of major banks, insurers, building companies and pharmaceutical firms, among others, and dominate the booming real estate sector and tourism in major Black Sea coast and mountain ski resorts, diplomats and analysts say. They continue to use gangster tactics, bribing top-level politicians and killing rivals to further their business goals. "There are heads of what are widely considered underworld gangs who have easy access to government ministers," said Ognian Shentov, head of the Sofia-based anti-corruption think-tank the Center for the Study of Democracy.
"And in some industries you can't operate unless you do so in the full spectrum of white, grey and black economies, using tactics that range from high-level bribes to contract killings."
The poorest EU member or candidate save Turkey, Bulgaria's $27 billion economy, cannot afford such stumbling blocks. Although it has posted solid foreign investment figures -1.9 billion euros ($2.4 billion) last year - it has yet to lure any of the massive production plants most analysts say Bulgaria needs to close a yawning wealth gap with the richer West.
John Menzies, head of mining company EurOmax, has experienced trouble first hand. He is not sure if criminals were involved, but says after his company won a tender to search for gold and made a find, it came under pressure from a local mining firm that had good contacts with the local municipality and judiciary officials.
Last year, a prosecutor filed an injunction halting EurOmax's exploratory operations, saying it needed to provide an environmental impact study. EurOmax said no such study was required and a court later agreed and overturned the injunction, but not before the company had sacked dozens of workers.
"It broke down when it was obvious we would never get the support of the Bulgarian government because the commercial interests arranged against us had their ear," Menzies said.
"I now tell people to be very careful about investing here."
Author: Michael Winfrey