A killing complicates Bulgaria’s EU hopes

A killing complicates Bulgaria’s EU hopes

The New York Times

SOFIA — Emil Kyulev, one of the richest men in Bulgaria, was being driven to work in Sofia in his BMW sports utility vehicle on Oct. 26 when, shortly after 9:00 a.m., according to the police, he was shot and killed by a man hiding in the bushes.

A few kilometers away, at the moment Kyulev was slain, Bulgaria’s justice and interior ministers were meeting the press to play down a European Union report expressing “serious concerns” about organized crime in the country. The problem, the report noted, “so far has not been a priority on the political agenda.”

Interior Minister Rumen Petkov said the criticism, issued the previous day, was “not a surprise.” Then, as officials learned of the killing, the press conference was abruptly cut short.

The Kyulev killing has heightened anxieties about Bulgaria’s top political priority: EU membership on Jan. 1, 2007. Under a treaty signed in April, accession can be delayed by one year if Bulgaria is found “manifestly unable to fulfill the requirements of membership.”

The slaying has also focused international attention on one of the weakest Bulgarian institutions: the judiciary.

Five weeks after Kyulev was killed, no one has been charged. There is no known motive for the crime, although speculation has mounted over his business relations with “dirty capital.”

Kyulev was the head of DZI Group, the biggest insurance and banking firm in the country, with more than 12,000 employees and500 million, or $585 million, in assets. He was close to all the major political parties and served as an economic adviser to President Georgi Purvanov.

His murder was particularly shocking because he did not fit the profile of the smugglers, extortionists and drug dealers who have been slain in a boom of organized crime-related deaths.

There have been 157 contract killings in public places in Bulgaria since 2000, Petkov said. There have been no convictions.

Because Kyulev was so close to the political elite, Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev called his shooting a “real threat” to Bulgaria and its aim of joining the EU.

The EU enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, has criticized Bulgaria more than once for never having convicted a senior official for corruption, and has warned the country over dragging its feet on judicial reform. In one notable instance, a new Criminal Code, which was written in the spring, was enacted in October only 20 minutes before Rehn visited the Parliament in Sofia.

“Significant efforts are needed to effectively combat organized crime and corruption, especially at high level,” Rehn told an EU-Bulgarian joint parliamentary committee in Brussels on Monday.

In the aftermath of the Kyulev killing, the government here declared extraordinary measures, flooding the streets with police officers and masked special forces soldiers who stopped and searched luxury cars.

Officials repeated their calls for a new law to expand police powers. More than 800 people with criminal records were arrested.

Many Bulgarians are skeptical of such measures, saying they have been tried before without success.

An Interior Ministry spokesman, Yavor Simov, said that changes needed to stem organized crime have been put in place.

“In Bulgaria,” he said, things “will continue this way until all these groups are uncovered, broken and destroyed in every way allowed by the full force of the law.”

But even the full force of the law has been unable to break through a wall of inertia among poorly paid functionaries – monthly wages in Bulgaria average about $200 – who face public antagonism and often lack the motivation to tackle endemic corruption.

The judicial system in particular is widely perceived as corrupt, inefficient and bureaucratically isolated from the reality of everyday life.

To improve the function of the judiciary, the EU wrote in its report, “major challenges remain.” Yet reform of the judiciary is critical to make progress on crime, experts say.

“The problem is the performance of the judicial system, not the scale of organized crime,” said Ognyan Minchev of the Institute for Regional and International Studies, a research organization that is based in Sofia.

Misha Glenny, a former BBC correspondent in the Balkans who is writing a book on transnational crime and globalization, says the scale of organized crime is often a matter of perception. He cites Italy as an example of a country with organized crime and corruption that, because it is a relatively wealthy society, can absorb it better than a poor society.

In Bulgaria, whatever the real scale, organized crime has taken on mythic proportions in the national psyche. Murders happen on the streets of the capital during the daytime. Gangsters have nicknames like The Beak, The Gorilla and The Doctor. Some killings appear to have been modeled on Hollywood films.

One of the most audacious and bloody was the slaying of Milcho (Brother Mile) Dimitrov last year, when five men carrying shotguns – the press reported that they were dressed as masked policemen – invaded the courtyard of the Slavia restaurant, a gangster hangout owned by Dimitrov, and killed him and five bodyguards.

The killing of Dimitar (Little Mitko) Hristov at a café in Sofia also grabbed national attention. Hristov and two accomplices were reportedly killed by gunmen disguised as Orthodox priests or monks, complete with fake beards.

Whether this gangster tradition will affect the EU once Bulgaria becomes a member is disputed by analysts.

“The EU is the most affluent market in human history,” Glenny said.

He said that Balkan organized-crime groups were well equipped to supply the bloc’s 400 million consumers – “many of whom choose to spend their money taking narcotics, sleeping with prostitutes and smoking untaxed cigarettes.”

After it became easier for Bulgarian citizens to enter the Schengen passport-free travel zone in 2001, EU countries noted an upsurge of crime by Bulgarians, who were able to travel freely for the first time.

A report issued last year by Europol, an EU police body, said that Bulgarian organized crime groups had “established themselves particularly in trafficking in women for sexual exploitation, various counterfeiting activities, especially euro counterfeiting, and debit-card fraud.”

Klaus Jansen, president of the Criminal Investigators Union in Germany, expects the problem to get worse.

“If Bulgaria joins the EU without implementing a modern security apparatus,” Jansen said, “you will definitely see a huge increase in Bulgaria-based organized-crime activity.”

Petrus van Duyne, a criminologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, takes a different view.

“Organized crime is not an entity – it’s a way of doing business,” he said, adding that he did not expect EU membership to contribute to a westward movement of Bulgarian organized crime or its markets.

Upon Bulgarian accession to the EU, said Philip Gounev, who has researched organized crime at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, organized crime groups “would no longer be able to use the weakness of our state administration.”

Haralan Alexandrov, a social anthropologist at the New Bulgarian University, puts the onus on the Bulgarian government to find a solution.

“People in Bulgaria are ashamed and angry, and becoming more cynical, giving up any attempt to envision a better future,” he said.

“This can be solved if institutions start to function more or less normally, not because the EU tells them to, but for the benefit of Bulgarians.”


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