EU uneasy over killings in Bulgaria
By VESELIN TOSHKOV, Associated Press Writer
Tue Dec 19, 8:02 AM ET
In this poor Balkan country set to join the European Union in January, brazen slayings — along with gang shootouts and car and apartment bombings — have almost become part of the fabric of everyday life.
The EU is letting Bulgaria join largely because of its promise to crack down on organized crime, but it now looks on in horror as the accession date looms with no end in sight to mafia-style killings.
In November, Krasimir Dimitrov was headed to meet friends at a restaurant on a busy street in Bulgaria's capital. He never made it.
A gunman with a silencer pumped several bullets into the wealthy businessman's head and body as he stepped out of his car.
Many people were walking by when Dimitrov, a 42-year-old former professional volleyball player, was killed. Yet no one came forward in the days that followed to provide the police with details.
There have been more than 100 similar killings in Sofia in the past five years — a rate of almost two a month. Not a single killer has so far been convicted.
Police usually describe the slayings as "a settling of scores between businessmen," often preceded by planting explosive devices under cars or doorsteps as a warnings.
The violence mirrors the atmosphere of lawlessness on the streets of Moscow in the early 1990s, when mafia-style hits on businessmen were a fact of life. The huge opportunities to make money that followed the Soviet collapse unleashed massive corruption and gangsterism.
In Bulgaria, drug trafficking has become a profitable criminal activity, with the State Department calling the country a key gateway for drugs into Europe.
For years, mafia bosses paraded around Bulgaria's Black Sea resorts and upscale Sofia establishments, guarded by black-clad thugs. They have since become more discrete, but police and judicial corruption helps them remain untouchable.
A few days after Dimitrov's murder, another businessman was shot to death on the street. Rumen Peshev, 55, was believed to have "close business ties" to Dimitrov, police said.
The wave of violence poses a serious challenge to Bulgaria's police and courts, which the EU has criticized for inefficiency and widespread corruption.
The European Commission has repeatedly urged Bulgaria to gain the upper hand in its fight against organized crime, money laundering and high-level corruption before its scheduled entry into the bloc on Jan. 1.
Western officials also have warned that widespread corruption in Bulgaria could lead to misuse of $9.3 billion from EU funds the Balkan country is to receive by 2013.
In Sofia, officials insisted Bulgaria was making inroads against crime and corruption, hoping to persuade the Union not to impose "safeguard clauses" that would include not recognizing Bulgarian court decisions for up to two years.
But Klaus Jansen, an expert on organized crime and president of the German Union of Criminal Investigators, who prepared a report on Bulgaria for the European Commission earlier this year, said he feared it could take years for an honest police force to emerge in the country.
During the years following the collapse of communism in Bulgaria, he said, some officers continued to work for the government while others retired and helped establish a flourishing underworld.
Recently, Britain announced it would send detectives to Eastern Europe to bolster crime-fighting techniques, fearing that Bulgarian and Romanian gangs could exploit their countries' EU memberships to export organized crime to the rest of the bloc.
A team of up to five officers from Scotland Yard was expected to travel to Sofia to advise their Bulgarian colleagues on EU crime-fighting techniques.
Bulgaria's new chief prosecutor Boris Velchev said contract killings, drug smuggling, and human trafficking are still a problem for his country.
Velchev has hired a former Dutch prosecutor to help advise him and purge law enforcement officials who are lax or abuse their authority.
"We should have zero tolerance to corruption practices in all its forms — both low-level and high-level. Nobody should feel untouchable," Velchev told journalists.
As EU membership nears, Bulgarians are unsure whether to cheer or dread what local media have called "the ultimate step toward freedom and democracy."
Despite official optimism, the imminent membership has not removed doubts over how Bulgaria will adjust to the EU's stiffer standards. Still, many have high expectations that law and order will prevail once the country becomes a member.
"We are obviously unable to clean up the mess at home," said Albena Milanova, a 38-year-old school teacher. "But the European Union will make us do it."