Bulgaria: The referee blows his whistle

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Bulgaria has been shown numerous yellow and red cards by the European Commission. Will it remain on the bench until 2008, queries Yana Buhrer Tavanier in Transitions Online.

Emil Kyulev was in no hurry on Wednesday, 26 October. He stepped into his car at the usual hour – a quarter to nine – taking his usual place next to the driver. The car headed the usual way, down Bulgaria Boulevard towards the center of Sofia, and ended up in a traffic jam at the usual place. 

But what happened next wasn’t the usual, even in a country that has seen several high-profile killings in past months.

Hidden behind a short line of bushes growing at the side of the road, a killer was waiting. He had obviously studied Kyulev’s habits carefully and knew that Bulgaria’s top banker and one of the richest men in the country was not protected. Kyulev, the head of the largest financial group in the country, DZI-Rosexim, and a highly respected businessman, never used a bodyguard. Nor was his car bulletproof. He feared nothing. 

The moment his silver jeep began to slow in the traffic jam, the assassin jumped onto the road and opened fire. The driver was seriously wounded. Kyulev died instantly, with multiple shots in the head and chest. The killer managed to escape. It was ten minutes after nine o’clock. 

Making the grade?

Five minutes earlier, Bulgarian Interior Minister Rumen Petkov had greeted reporters who had arrived for a press conference called to discuss the justice and home affairs chapter of the latest report by the European Commission (EC). 

The Commission’s Comprehensive Monitoring Report on Bulgaria’s preparations for accession had been published the previous day, 25 October. Presenting the report to Bulgarian media, the head of the European Commission’s delegation to Bulgaria, Dimitris Kourkoulas, declared that “Very serious concerns exist about the high levels of organized crime in Bulgaria, which so far has not been a priority on the political agenda. In particular the frequent contract killings of people linked to organized crime groups represent a significant challenge to the rule of law.”

That was on Tuesday. On Wednesday, just as Rumen Petkov reaffirmed the government’s commitment to fighting organized crime, a small note was handed to the minister. The news about the murder of Emil Kyulev put an end to the press conference. 

High-profile assassinations have become a staple of Bulgaria’s public life: Kyulev’s was the eighth in the past three months alone. What makes his death stand out is that most killers target underworld figures, which Kyulev clearly was not. More than 50 mobsters have died in car bombs and shoot-outs in Sofia and other cities over the past three years. 

The reasons why they were out on the streets rather than behind bars are complex. Corruption plays a major role: police say that arrested suspects simply bribe prosecutors and judges, who then blame the police for providing evidence too dodgy to ensure a conviction. But there are also large problems within the judicial system, and it can take years to get a case to court, and yet more years to finally reach a verdict.

Kyulev’s case was different. He was not known to have been involved in illegal activities. The police are investigating whether he may have been murdered because his interests in the tourism sector crossed those of an organized crime group. 

His death sent very strong signals: one to the EU, which led some to believe that the timing of the murder was no coincidence, and another to Bulgaria’s business elite, which has been thrown into a state of shock by this new way of “dealing with the competition.”

To read the article in full, visit the Transitions Online website.

Subscribe to our newsletters