NYT: In Bulgaria, an Organized Crime Standoff

Views on BG | July 20, 2011, Wednesday // 16:56|  views

Aleksei Petrov, a controversial Bulgarian businessman and presidential hopeful. Photo by BGNES

From The New York Times

By Stephen Castle

July 20, 2011

SOFIA, BULGARIA — Arms pinned behind his back, Alexei "The Tractor" Petrov lay with his face pushed to the floor by heavily armed masked police commandos who raided his home early last year. The police then hauled him off in one of Bulgaria's most pronounced efforts to take on the godfathers of racketeering, kidnapping and prostitution who have eroded trust in the country's institutions and day-to-day life.

Released from jail in October 2010, then from house arrest this February, Mr. Petrov still faces serious charges like racketeering and threatening to murder a business partner. But he has taken to taunting the government in an unusual way.

The administration of Bulgaria’s prime minister, Boyko Borisov, a one-time business partner of Mr. Petrov, has targeted purported crime lords in a campaign called “Operation Octopus.” In an interview, Mr. Petrov denied the charges against him while absently twirling a stick with a plastic octopus stuck to its top. He also said he is contemplating running for president.

The case against Mr. Petrov, a former karate champion and intelligence agent, is being watched well beyond this fractious ex-Communist nation, which has faced strong doubts about whether it was ready to join the European Union when it was admitted in 2007.

Now Bulgaria’s battle with organized crime is seen as a test of whether membership can bring with it Western standards of law and order, not only here, but in neighboring Romania, and perhaps in other states like Serbia, which has applied for E.U. admission.

Frustrated with what it saw as rampant corruption, the E.U. withheld hundreds of millions of euros in aid to the country’s previous government.

If convicted, Mr. Petrov would be the first big name to be imprisoned as an organized crime boss here.

“We are watching all the cases closely,” said Mark Gray, spokesman for the European Commission, the European Union’s executive body. “The essential problem on organized crime remains the lack of convictions in important, high-level cases.”

On Wednesday the commission is due to release its latest report on the battle against corruption and organized crime in Bulgaria and Romania — studies that are expected to be critical.

Since he came to power in 2009, Mr. Borisov, the self-styled “Batman” of Sofia, says he has ended a rash of contract killings and kidnappings, rounding up a variety of exotic gangs that use nicknames as casually as the Sicilian Mafia. Among the gangs were “The Killers,” accused of murder for hire; “The Impudent,” investigated for 20 kidnappings; and “The Crocodiles” arrested over an epidemic of robberies on highways.

In an interview at his imposing office in Sofia, the prime minister claimed that, thanks to him, “corruption becomes almost impossible in the government.” He is, he says, confident that Bulgaria will soon be given a date to join Europe’s Schengen zone, where travelers can move between countries without showing passports.

But Mr. Borisov’s own rise, from firefighter, judo coach and bodyguard to the pinnacle of political power, underlines how Bulgaria’s transition from Communism blurred the lines between politics, state security and an aggressive, no-holds-barred form of money-making that sometimes seemed indistinguishable from organized crime.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, security agents, wrestlers and other elite sportsmen formed businesses that offered security and sold insurance but often operated protection rackets.

Though Mr. Petrov says he first crossed paths with Mr. Borisov as a karate enthusiast in 1982, the two men were linked, too, in those early post-Communist days when they operated a company called Budoinvest designed to promote sport. “One way or another this company did nothing,” Mr. Petrov said. “We did not succeed, and we did nothing, and we all withdrew later.”

At this time, mafia gangs — or mutri — mushroomed throughout Bulgaria, protected by leather-jacketed heavies.

Mr. Borisov went into politics, becoming the mayor of Sofia and leading the center-right opposition party, GERB, before being elected prime minister.

Mr. Petrov worked first as a secret agent of the counterintelligence service for seven years until 2007, then as an intelligence agency boss for the government led by Mr. Borisov’s political rival. Critics allege he was simultaneously running a business empire linked to organized crime.

When he solemnly declared war on the godfathers of crime last year, Mr. Borisov coined the name “Operation Octopus,” for a crackdown designed to decapitate an organized crime operation depicted as so vast that its tentacles spread throughout Bulgarian society.

The scope of organized crime in Bulgaria is difficult to identify, though in a report last year the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior said it had identified 223 leaders of crime groups — around 50 of whom had been arrested — and estimated there were more than 1,200 people in their gangs.

No financial figure was put on the activities of organized crime, but one research institute, the Center for Study of Democracy, estimates that Bulgaria’s drug market is worth around ?87 million, or 3 million, a year, and its internal sex trade around ?118 million a year, while the profit from cigarette smuggling is around ?307 million a year, it said.

In 2009, the campaigning group Transparency International said that “corruption and organized crime in Bulgaria remain endemic.”

The original government claims were that Mr. Petrov was at the center of a web of criminal activities including money laundering, violations of tax laws and incitement to prostitution carried out by an organized criminal group, though no estimate was given of the value of this syndicate. But failure to uncover any evidence of a network forced the authorities to suspend the broader allegations, focusing instead on cases from 1997 and 2000.

That explains why the authorities have scaled back the accusations and had to look back to a case in 1997 to mount the charge of threatening to murder, which relates to an incident - denied by Mr. Petrov — in which he allegedly beat a former business partner with a shovel.

Stocky and powerfully built, Mr. Petrov, wearing a smart suit and open-neck shirt during a recent interview, ridiculed the charge that he leads a crime gang engaged in such rackets as protection and prostitution.

“I don’t need this anymore,” he said, waving the brightly colored toy octopus on the end of a stick. “There is no octopus.”

He is misunderstood, he said, and wants to run for president as part of a team dedicated to revitalizing the economy and providing better services to its citizens. It is not for nothing that he is nicknamed The Tractor, a name he earned, he said, because of his relentless determination to plow whatever plot he chooses.

“I am clean, I have been cleared, and I want to become president,” he added, referring to the fact that broader charges against him are not being pursued. Then he reeled off a series of accusations against the prime minister, ranging from claims that Mr. Borisov misled the public over his achievements in the karate world, to hints that he was responsible for an attempt on Mr. Petrov’s life in 2002.

Mr. Petrov has ties to a newspaper, Galeria, which has criticized Mr. Borisov, publishing taped phone conversations purporting to show the prime minister seeking tax favors for a businessman. A small bomb recently exploded outside the newspaper office.

Mr. Borisov, a tall, imposing figure with close-cropped hair and dressed in a dark suit, bristles at the mention of Mr. Petrov’s name during an interview in his cavernous office where he sits beneath the portrait of the 19th-century Bulgarian poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev.

He dismisses the allegations as what he calls “cheap personal attacks.”

“I don’t want to know about this person or what he says,” he said. “For 12 years I have been hearing stupid things like that.”

As for the leaked tapes, which allegedly show Mr. Borisov intervening to secure favors for a brewery owner, Mihail Mihov, the prime minister said they were manipulated. Mr. Mihov died suddenly of a heart attack shortly after the tapes became public.

Yonko Grozev, a lawyer and researcher at the Center for Liberal Strategies, a research institute in Sofia created in 1994 after the fall of Communism, argues that Mr. Borisov’s government created the feeling of a fresh start by going after people once thought untouchable.

“There is an air about Alexei Petrov: you don’t mess with him,” Mr. Grozev added. “If there was a surprise after this government came to power it was that it decided to mess with him.”

Mr. Grozev believes that, though the two men ran similar enterprises in the 1990s, Mr. Borisov’s was more benign and that, now in government, the prime minister is sincere in wanting to crack down on crime even if he has failed to reform law enforcement institutions.

The key problem, he said, is that business, crime and politics are intertwined in Bulgaria. “This is a mild version of Russia,” said Mr. Grozev. “Every government official is an entrepreneur and they use their public powers as a personal asset. Favors are being done.

“The chances of a politician making it into government in Bulgaria without knowing how to deal with those people, all those business interests,’ he added, “well — there is just no chance.”

While the arrest of Mr. Petrov was a bold move that sent a powerful signal, the investigation has stumbled. “In my view there is sufficient information that this guy belongs in jail, but getting the evidence turned out to be surprisingly difficult,” Mr. Grozev said.

But Bulgaria’s Minister of the Interior, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, believes that Mr. Petrov will be convicted.

“There are many people who had companies at this time, but Alexei Petrov and his group used racketeering and extortion to get money, to get companies,” he said. “There were very few people who had courage to become witnesses in these proceedings but there are many people who fear him personally.”

Heavy-handed police tactics highlight how Bulgaria has yet to adopt West European procedures. Because of the links between organized crime and the security services, and the risk of leaks, the authorities often arrest suspects before they have much evidence, said one United States Embassy official not authorized to speak publicly.

Only recently has the country changed the law to prevent lengthy postponements of trials if expert witnesses, or even lawyers, fail to show up. The government is trying to give itself wide powers to seize the assets of criminals but is encountering opposition from a public that, after years of Communism, remains wary of an over-powerful government, the U.S. official said.

Ministers agree with criticism of the judges. “We in the government want the judiciary to work more efficiently and faster,” said Mr. Borisov, while Mr. Tsvetanov reeled off a list of questionable decisions by judges.

Their solution is to create a specialized court for organized crime, due to begin work in August, and which is likely to be the venue for the hearing against Mr. Petrov.

So far, however, even the one success of Operation Octopus has gone wrong. When the police raided the home of one of their suspects they found he was keeping two tigers and a jaguar as pets and promptly prosecuted him for ill treatment of wild animals.

The conviction was recently overturned on appeal.

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Tags: organized crime, Octopus, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Alexei Petrov, Galeria, sofia, Bulgarian, Bulgaria, Borisov, Law aBoyko, order, Prime Minister


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