Something rotten in Bulgaria

Corruption runs rampant in the EU’s newest member state

Something rotten in Bulgaria

When Alexander Tasev was gunned down in his black Mercedes in an suburb of Sofia in May 2007, the wealthy Bulgarian businessman became the third president of the soccer club Lokomotiv Plovdiv to be assassinated in as many years. Tasev, who was shot in broad daylight, was also thought to control political interests in southwest Bulgaria. His death came a week ahead of state elections, and four days after a city councillor in the Black Sea resort town of Nessebar was shot and killed with seven bullets—the same number used earlier to kill Yanko Yankov, the mayor of the central Bulgaria resort town of Elin Pelin.

So went the last election season in Bulgaria, the newest European Union member state, where graft and contract killings are routine and a shady group of businessmen are muscling for their take of everything from new hospitals to billions in European aid. Brussels had hoped to encourage reform in Bulgaria—by any measure the poorest, most corrupt and violent country in Europe—by drawing the traditionally pro-Russian state into its orbit. Since it joined the EU in 2007, however, promised reforms have gone unmet, the legal system remains a shambles, and corruption, which taints everything from sausage-making to highway construction, has actually increased, according to the Sofia-based Center for the Study of Democracy.

Bulgaria’s criminal underworld—which has links to the very highest reaches of power, according to lawyer Dimitar Markov, who heads the Center’s anti-corruption initiative—has its hands in a promised $15 billion in EU aid. It’s the “motherlode,” says Sofia-based consultant Mariana Menzies, formerly a political staffer in the office of President Petar Stoyanov. Not only are generous EU subsidies a “new resource to steal,” but, Menzies says, since the start of the financial crisis no new foreign investment has entered Bulgaria, which in recent years had been clocking growth rates of more than six per cent.

Last November, along with a stinging rebuke, Brussels stripped Bulgaria of $315 million in development assistance, galled after millions in aid money was embezzled, and no convictions came of a number of high-profile corruption and murder investigations. In one case, fraudsters qualified for EU development aid to buy new farm equipment, passing off decrepit machinery imported from the former East Germany and pocketing the difference: a 24-fold markup. Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security, created in 2008 to prove to Brussels that the country could “deliver” on fighting crime, has generated more scandals than results. In October, it was found to have wiretapped the phones of 50 leading Bulgarian journalists, allegedly to discover the sources of government leaks; it also gained access to reporters’ cellphone records.

According to Ivan Krastev, chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, a Sofia think-tank, EU criticism is actually welcomed in Bulgaria—an indication of how little faith the public has in its government. It scandalizes people that their country—where salaries average $230 a month and donkey carts still wander the capital—is missing a once-in-a-lifetime chance to modernize, he says. More than 73 per cent of Bulgarians want their government to quit; in January, hundreds clashed with police after a 2,000-strong rally against corruption and the slow pace of economic reforms turned into a riot—the biggest demonstration since 1997, when rallies brought down the then-socialist government, says Rumyana Emanuilidu, a correspondent for the leading newspaper Dnevnik. “For the first time in years, the young and the middle-class are taking part,” adds Krastev. “Before, they’d just emigrate.”

In elections this June, Sergei Stanichev—the London School of Economics-educated prime-minister, dubbed “Mr. Clean,” by president George W. Bush in 2007—will face a tough challenge from a new centre-right party headed by outspoken Sofia Mayor Boyko Borisov, who is taking a hard line against corruption. But Bulgarian politicians always do, says Anders Aslund, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, who has served as an adviser to Russia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. “Corruption is always the main theme, but there’s never any substantive improvement.”

Meanwhile, the list of victims continues to grow. Last September, as the Sofia-based investigative journalist Ognian Stefanov was leaving a downtown restaurant, he was attacked by four men in black who, using hammers, broke his elbows and both legs in four places. Six months earlier, Georgi Stoev, 35, author of nine books on the Bulgarian mafia, was gunned down at midday at one of Sofia’s busiest bus stops. Two weeks ago, the two men suspected of killing Stoev were arrested, only to be released without charges 24 hours later. A conviction would have been a first: since 2001, over 150 gangland killings have gone unsolved. Criminals are untouchable in Bulgaria, says Stefanov, who still travels with the help of a wheelchair.

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