{"title": "Scathing report on Bulgarian organized crime and graft","content": "
SOFIA (AP) – Bulgaria’s powerful organized crime gangs are spending heavily to buy political influence, while Russian-style oligarchs are gaining sway in the former communist country, according to a new study. Criminal groups spent up to 100 million euros ($147 million) to buy votes in October’s municipal elections alone, according to the study by the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD), an independent non-government organization based in the capital, Sofia. The report, published Wednesday, singled out bribery cases involving public prosecutors, mayors and other municipal officials.“It is possible to identify some 20 deputies in the last two parliaments who have actively promoted legislation in the interest of economic structures linked to organized crime,” the report said.Bulgaria joined the European Union in January, despite concerns by other member states about rampant organized crime in the East European country. The EU has repeatedly warned the country to curb organized crime and overhaul its criminal justice system, or risk losing economic aid.Government officials acknowledged more effort was needed to fight crime, as well as better coordination between government agencies and departments. “One of the conclusions of the report is that there is insufficient will on behalf of the state to tackle organized crime,” Interior Minister Rumen Petkov said. “This forces us to rethink the areas on which we should concentrate our efforts.” The largest chunk of organized crime profits comes from prostitution and trafficking in women, the report said, generating an estimated 1.8 billion euros ($2.6 billion) a year for the gangs involved.Other sources of profit for crime groups are drug trafficking and stolen cars, the study said, adding that most of the money has been invested in construction and property buyouts.The report also warned of the increasing power of so-called oligarchs – businessmen who became hugely wealthy by buying up state assets at often undervalued prices following the collapse of communism. “There are cities in Bulgaria where the entire economy is in the hands of Bulgarian oligarchs,” Ruslan Stefanov, of the CSD, said yesterday.The report said there were similarities between Bulgaria, Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries, where former communist bosses and secret police officers have turned into oligarchs with the support of current politicians.“The big problem in Bulgaria is that this oligarchic model began to become legitimized,” said Tihomir Bezlov, another analyst at the center. “Organized crime in Bulgaria is not just a problem for Bulgarians. It is also a problem for America and the EU,” US Ambassador John Beyrle said during a presentation of the report.Major exporter of prostitutesSOFIA (AFP) – Bulgaria is one of Europe’s biggest exporters of prostitutes and has one of the largest and most developed networks of prostitutes in the continent, a new study said on Wednesday.In the southern town of Sliven, which has a population of about 100,000 people, the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD) estimated that one out of every 15 women aged between 15 and 30 was engaged in prostitution. “This is a social catastrophe,” said CSD analyst Tihomir Bezlov.The non-governmental think tank found Bulgarian prostitutes working abroad earn the equivalent of about 7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), a similar proportion to countries such as Taiwan and South Korea. “According to even the most conservative estimates, Bulgarian prostitutes working abroad earn between 0.9-1.8 billion euros (1.3-2.7 billion dollars) a year, the equivalent of 3.6-7.2 percent of GDP in 2006,” Bezlov said.The study estimated there were 18,000-21,000 Bulgarian prostitutes working around Europe, mostly in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Greece.Given its nature, it is difficult to compile reliable statistics about sex trafficking. But the scope of the problem can be gauged by the number of cases where victims of sexual exploitation contact the police for help.Police estimate that one out of every 10 prostitutes seek help, Bezlov said. In Germany, reputed to have one of the most developed sex services markets in Europe, 12.7 percent of sexual exploitation victims are of Bulgarian origin, compared with 1.2 percent who are Russian. In the Netherlands, the ratios stood at 14 percent and 10 percent, respectively, Bezlov said.Bezlov said that Bulgaria’s accession to the EU this year was likely to reduce crime. “Bulgaria’s EU accession led to the gradual curbing of the most drastic forms of organized criminal activity,” the study said. “This is largely due to the increasing pressure on Bulgarian institutions from Brussels, which in turn has resulted in the taking of more resolute action against organized crime.”