{"title": "Bulgaria struggles to topple gangsters","content": "
Rumen Petkov, Bulgaria’s chain-smoking interior minister, was riding high last Friday after the Socialist-led government survived a no-confidence vote on allegations of having close links with organised crime.Two days later Mr Petkov held a press conference to announce his resignation, which he described as “not a sign of weakness ... but a sign of a desire for deep reform of Bulgarian law enforcement agencies”.The unrepentant style of Mr Petkov’s departure says much about attitudes to corruption and organised crime in the European Union’s poorest member state.“The perception in Sofia is that bosses of big crime groups frequently influence decision-making by a weak coalition government,” says a diplomat from another Balkan country.Mr Petkov admitted to having met several suspected crime bosses, after a scandal broke last month over allegations that interior ministry officials were leaking information to local crime groups.Two more gangland-style shootings in Sofia last week, including the killing of crime writer Georgi Stoev, brought the list of unsolved contract-style killings since 2001 to more than 120, local analysts say.According to the latest corruption perceptions index by Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog, Bulgaria slipped seven places in 2007 to 64th out of 180 countries – just ahead of Romania, the lowest-ranked EU member.Sofia-based diplomats said Sergey Stanishev, the prime minister, who presides over a fractious three-party coalition, sacked Mr Petkov in response to pressure from Washington and EU leaders.The country faces possible EU sanctions, including suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in structural assistance, as well as non-recognition of Bulgarian court decisions, if progress in combating corruption and crime is deemed inadequate. A new report by European Commission monitors is due by June.Mr Stanishev had pledged to reinvigorate a crackdown on corruption and organised crime launched ahead of EU accession in January 2007.His earlier reforms have produced some results. For example, the National Security Agency, an independent body founded two years ago, uncovered the interior ministry leaks by tapping the telephones of senior officials.But the 42-year-old prime minister, known to members of his party as “the kid”, is constrained by powerful Socialists such as Mr Petkov and Rumen Ovcharov, the former economy minister.Rather than retiring from public life, Mr Petkov is expected to lead the party’s re-election campaign in next year’s parliamentary poll.To some extent Bulgaria’s problems with meeting EU standards on the rule of law reflect the continued influence of communist-era intelligence and security officials, according to local analysts.“The problem is systemic. The interior ministry is no worse than the prosecution or the judiciary. They all leak information to criminal groups,” says Ognian Shentov of the Center for the Study of Democracy, a Sofia-based think-tank.Bulgaria’s secret service under communism was known to be actively involved in drugs and weapons smuggling. It took a cut of the heroin trade from Turkey to western Europe and sold arms and ammunition to pro-Soviet groups in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.The first business groups to emerge from Bulgaria’s transition specialised in trading, mixed with smuggling and organised crime. They recruited former secret service men, police officers, soldiers and wrestlers, according to McMafia, a book by Misha Glenny on the globalisation of organised crime, published last month. “The hopelessly weak states that emerged throughout the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe had simply no capacity to define what was ‘legal’ and what was ‘illegal’,” Mr Glenny writes.Alexander Ivanov, a Sofia lawyer, says: “The few court cases against high-ranking officials and big gangsters have been dragging on for years. If the government and judiciary are really fighting corruption and organised crime, why do we see convictions so rarely?”Author: Kerin Hope and Theodor Troev