Bulgarian Criminals Invest Heavily To Buy Influence

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 EUR100 million to buy votes in October’s municipal elections alone, according to the study by the Center for the Study of Democracy, an independent nongovernment 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 E.U. 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 where we should concentrate our efforts on.” 

The largest chunk of organized crime profits comes from prostitution and trafficking in women, the report said, generating an estimated EUR1.8 billion a year for the gangs involved. 

Some 5,000 prostitutes were estimated to be working in Bulgaria, a country of 7.7 million, while up to 20,000 are believed to be working abroad, mainly in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Greece. 

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 Center for the Study of Democracy, said Thursday. 

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 E.U.,” U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle said during a presentation of the report. “It makes Bulgaria weak and we need Bulgaria, as our partner
and ally in NATO, and as a member of the E.U., to be strong.”

Source: AP

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