Explainer: How Bulgaria became the EU’s mafia state
10 Sep 2020

For two months, Bulgarians have packed the streets every night to protest that an oligarchic mafia has captured the state and extended its reach deep into institutions such as the judiciary, media and security services. They are demanding the resignations of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and Chief Prosecutor Ivan “The Cap” Geshev.

Many Bulgarians are incensed that their prospects and those of their children are being thwarted in the EU’s poorest state, where a mafia elite acts above the law and has a stranglehold over the economy. This summer’s corruption crisis has offered startling examples of the increasing chutzpah of the oligarchs. According to recent surveys, 80 percent of Bulgarians see corruption as widespread, while more than 70 percent broadly support the protests.

Protests have become more confrontational, and police clashed with demonstrators at a “grand national uprising” last week. Another big mobilization is planned for Thursday.

Here’s POLITICO’s explainer on how Bulgaria plunged into a rule-of-law crisis.

Who are the Bulgarian mafia?

Today’s oligarchs and mafia have their origins in the communist-era spy service that filled a power vacuum amid bloody turf wars in the 1990s. They snaffled up prize national industries and smuggled arms and narcotics. The Mr. Big was wrestler and former state security agent Iliya Pavlov, who ran a conglomerate called Multigrup. He was killed by a sniper in 2003, but he’ll reappear in our story as we meet his generation of secret police and other associates, who still loom large.

What was Borissov doing back in the lawless 1990s?

Borissov also has a hardman pedigree as a karate champion and bodyguard of former Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. A prominent mobster has accused him of being tied to a mafia protection racket called SIC, but Borissov adamantly denies this, and styles himself as a corruption-buster. The protesters and the country’s President Rumen Radev, however, do see him as the main enabler of the mafia.

Are there organized crime killings these days?

Not so many. Bloodshed died down greatly after the early 2000s. When the country joined the EU in 2007, Brussels was supposed to impose judicial oversight, and some mafia businesses attempted to go straight. The EU push for judicial reform ultimately failed, however, and Bulgaria never convicted any top politicians or mafia godfathers. The current corruption crisis stems partly from the fact that — now free from fears of EU crackdowns — increasingly brazen oligarch kingpins are reverting to the strongarm tactics of the 1990s to dominate the economy. One of the protesters’ main complaints is that the EU keeps pouring in cash, much of which fuels the mafia, without demanding rule of law.

So EU funds are part of the problem?

Yes. A farm minister and deputy economy minister resigned last year in a scandal over the use of EU funds for work on private villas. Farmers say that farms receiving millions in EU funds don’t exist. Tenders for infrastructure such as motorways are divided into small stretches so as many cronies as possible can receive an inflated cut of the EU cash bonanza. Public works are often shoddily done so new contracts and funds are continually needed. Brussels and Berlin have not, however, criticized Borissov. He is, after all, a key ally to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the center-right European People’s Party.

What triggered the 2020 protests?

Hristo Ivanov, a former justice minister and head of the anti-corruption Yes Bulgaria party, lit the powder keg on July 7. With a livestreamed Black Sea beach landing in a rubber dinghy, Ivanov exposed how one of the country’s main behind-the-scenes powerbrokers, Ahmed Dogan, honorary chairman of Bulgaria’s ethnic Turkish party (and also a Soviet-era agent codenamed Sava) was illegally occupying public land for his palatial headquarters and marina, and was illegally using state security agents as his guards.

Read more at Politico

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