Bulgaria Corruption Case Shows Progress, but Underlines Work to Be Done

Views on BG | December 15, 2010, Wednesday // 16:58|  views

Valentin Dimitrov. Photo by BGNES

By Joe Parkinson

Wall Street Journal

In many countries across New Europe and beyond, school children daydream of growing up to be a professional footballer, an actress, or maybe an astronaut.

But in Bulgaria, being the boss of a "state-owned heating plant" is also on youngsters' wish lists...

Not really. But it wouldn't be at all surprising if they'd watched the way Valentin Dimitrov, the former head of the country's biggest steam-heating firm, used to flash the cash.

Mr. Dimitrov was on Tuesday sentenced to three years in prison by a Sofia court for "misusing" 2 million lev  (.37 million) from the "Toplofikatsiya" heating company, which he spent on various luxury goods. The court detailed that Dimitrov, nicknamed "Valyo The Heating," by the local press, used funds at the troubled firm for 'entertainment purposes'; installing a jacuzzi in his office, spending company money on luxurious holidays and remorselessly indulging his penchant for French cheese. The former boss, who was also alleged to have wired EUR1.5 million to an Austrian bank account, has vowed to appeal against the sentence, which was commuted from an initial term of 10 years, according to local media.

The juicy details are interesting, of course -– but the trial is important because it's been closely watched in Brussels as a test of Sofia's efforts to clamp down on rampant corruption and organized crime. Prime Minister Borisov, himself a former karate black belt who made his name fighting corruption as mayor of Sofia, swept to power in 2009 on an antigraft ticket, and has vowed to confront the country's endemic corruption head-on.

Analysts say the government has made some strides in the battle with organized crime, but caution that Mr. Dimitrov's case does not bode well.

"This was an emblematic case at the center of the anti-corruption drive of Prime Minister Borisov... Its not a very encouraging result – this sentence is ridiculously low," said Ognian Shentov, Chairman of the Center for the study of Democracy, a Sofia-based think-tank.

The government will hope the European Commission take a different view: By showing progress on tackling corruption, Sofia hopes it can access up to 11 billion euros in structural funds due by 2013 and reinvigorate its efforts to join the EU's border-free Schengen zone.  Brussels suspended 500 million euros of grants on suspicions of corruption in 2008, some of which were restored in 2009.

The European Commission's view on the case is not yet known. But this summer Commission President Herman Van Rompuy praised Bulgaria for stepping up its fight against high-level corruption and organized crime, but noted that "too few cases are concluded in the courts" –- a likely reference to weaknesses in the judiciary.

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Tags: Valentin Dimitrov, sofia, heating utility, embezzlement


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