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24/07/2006

The puppet in the net

Writer Ilija Trojanow writes on the tangled web of business, politics and the Mafia in Bulgaria

The businessman: puppets can become dangerous once they start imagining they're pulling the strings and that the money they manage actually belongs to them. When they speak as though they had their own voices and their own brains. Ilya Pavlov was such a puppet. With private wealth of an estimated 1.5 billion dollars, he was the eighth richest man in Eastern Europe.

Yet he began his professional life as a wrestler, and a mediocre one at that. Just a few years later, he was the proprietor of Multigrup, one of Bulgaria's largest corporate groups. Pavlov received decorations from Russia and Israel, and was a frequent guest of former kings and presidents. At some point, he actually began to believe the role he was playing. He even wanted – he, a puppet! - to act the part of grey eminence. He began appointing Germans, British and Americans to the supervisory board, gradually investing the group's capital in the USA. He detached himself from the Russian-Bulgarian Mafia which had created him in the first place. This, however, was impermissible, for no Mafia can tolerate being abandoned by one of its own.

Apparently, Ilya Pavlov received signals indicating he was on a hit list, because when Vladimir Putin came to Sofia on a state visit, Pavlov managed to force his way into a reception at the Russian Embassy with the help of a forged invitation. He rushed up to Putin, who declined to give him a hearing. Several days later, when leaving his office surrounded by 10 bodyguards, a bullet pierced his heart. That was in March 2003. The country's entire elite was in attendance at the funeral service, the final honour – photographs of the event bear an astonishing resemblance to a scene from a Francis Ford Coppola film. And when he was buried in his home village of Arbanasi in northern Bulgaria, seven bishops - the majority of the nation's holy synod - stood at his graveside. No other Bulgarian had ever been sent off with such fanfare.

Organized crime: like all other contract killings, this one remained unpunished. Small wonder, for as Zviatko Zvetkov, the former acting chief of the political police, explained to a Bulgarian newspaper: "Contract murder is impossible without the acquiescence or cooperation of the police. As an emanation of the state, the police force is a fixed component of organized crime." Year after year, war is declared on the Mafia, against corruption, against weapons and drug trafficking, against protection rackets, false credit and fraud of every stripe. And each time, the war turns out to be ineffective.

The Bulgarian Mafia is a product of the country's totalitarian past. In Sicily, the Mafia was formed when the Habsburg imperial powers withdrew and the majority of those previously employed by the army and police became unemployed. In the ensuing period, the Mafia became an annex of the state. In countries such as Bulgaria or Russia, on the other hand, the power of the Mafia was based on the ubiquitous power of the Communist Party and its state security services. The Nomenklatura created a parallel shadow economy in order to deal in weapons, drugs and all manner of wares - and most importantly, to earn foreign exchange. With the fall of communism, these structures turned out to be quite useful in converting the nation's misappropriated communal wealth into private capital via a multiplicity of metamorphoses and mutations.

If we recall Lenin's proverb that dictatorship is power unchecked by any law, then we are in a position to grasp just how small the Cosa Nostra is compared to the many-tentacled Russian Mafia. The latter has infiltrated its own society, and is in a position to infect the old EU countries as well. The hierarchical structure of the old imperium, with its centre in Moscow, is mirrored in today's Mafia networks - for the umbilical cord has yet to be severed.

The Attorney General: like most high-ranking representatives of the Bulgarian state, Nikola Filchev was an employee of the state security services before 1989 - and probably of the KGB as well. After the failure of communism, he began by styling himself as oppositional, but after the fall of the conservative government of Ivan Kostov, he began travelling regularly to Moscow. His stays there were so successful that before long, Putin awarded him a high decoration for special services to the Russian state and presented him with an illustrated and gilded history weighing 15 kg, entitled "Russia: Glorious Destiny." The ceremony took place in the Russian embassy in Sofia. A somewhat inebriated Filchev rose to recite a poem: "No other country on earth is as powerful as Russia, it is our rock, it is our paragon." Then, with tears in his eyes, he spoke of the common destiny of Russia and Bulgaria, while the numerous uniformed personages in attendance nodded in agreement.

For seven years, from 1999 to 2006, Filchev was responsible for combating crime. There were hundreds of contract killings, and thousands of dead among the lower ranks of the business community, whether black, grey or white. And how many of these murders did his office solve? None! Not a single Mafia boss was ever indicted. Filchev deliberately hindered any investigation that implicated the Russian Mafia. After his tenure in office, the opposition demanded his indictment for a variety of crimes. Instead, for his own protection, he was sent as ambassador to Kazakhstan.

The European Union
: on January 1, 2007, Bulgaria is scheduled to become a member of the European Union. But more hedge clauses will probably be invoked than in the marriage contract between a millionaire and a professional gold digger. In recent weeks, Europe's governing elites have been tripping over themselves to certify progress in the Balkans. And this despite the fact that the specialists they recently dispatched have returned bearing grave warnings.

In March of this year, Klaus Jansen, chairman of the German Federation of Criminal Investigators (BDK) was in Bulgaria: "I asked about the numbers of officers in terms of age and rank. This tells you whether there are officers working there who have been trained according to up-to-date democratic standards, and how many were already professionally active under the socialist system. This information was classified as secret. All you can do is laugh. I was there in order to carry out an inspection, and I repeatedly received the reply: that would endanger national security interests. If the EU conveys confidential information to Bulgaria, it will wind up in the hands of criminal organizations" (from an interview with 24 Tschasa).

How are we to explain the sanitised image that has recently been put on display? For as Mr. Jansen pointedly states: "Beginning in 2007, Bulgaria's problems are going to be my problems."

Problems that cannot possibly be overstated. For the Mafia in Bulgaria is not a part of the state. The state, instead, is a part of the Mafia.

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The article originally appeared in German in Die Tageszeitung on July 5, 2006.

Ilija Trojanow was born in 1965 in Bulgaria. In 1971 his parents fled with him through Yugoslavia to Germany, where they gained political asylum in Munich. A year later the family moved to Kenya. Ilija Trojanow lived in Nairobi from 1972 - 1984, apart from a three year period in Germany (1977-1981). His last book is "Der Weltensammler" (The collector of worlds - review here).

Translation: Ian Pepper.
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