Commission: Organised crime in Bulgaria is ‘unique’

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EXCLUSIVE: Organised crime in Bulgaria is "unique" compared to other EU countries because it exercises a deep influence over the country's economy, according to a monitoring report by the European Commission due to be published tomorrow, which EURACTIV has obtained.

Organised crime is an important challenge for Bulgaria, the Commission stresses in a report to be unveiled tomorrow (18 July), which sums up the country's progress five years after its accession to the European Union.

The report is part of  a series of two country assessments made on Bulgaria and Romania, the two countries that joined the European Union in 2007.

As expected, the report on Bulgaria focuses on organised crime and the failings of the law-enforcement. Turning to Romania, the long-standing corruption problems are this time eclipsed by concerns over the executive's attempts to crack down on the country’s democratic checks and balances.

The Commission refers to Europol, the EU’s criminal intelligence agency, according to which Bulgarian organised crime groups are active in 15 EU Member States and therefore among the most widespread in Europe.

According to Europol, Bulgarian gangs mainly specialise in human trafficking and payment card fraud.

“While their role and impact outside Bulgaria is comparable to that of other organised crime groups, their role inside Bulgaria is unique," the report says.

"It differs from the situation in other EU Member States in a sense that still today they exercise a considerable influence over economic activities in the country. From an economic perspective, this restricts competition and deters foreign investment. It also gives these groups a platform from which to influence the political process and state institutions,” the report further states.

Bulgaria is also unique in terms of the high number of high-profile contract killings. “It is accepted that over 150 murders over the last decade can be defined as contract killings,” the Commission writes. The EU executive deplores that few such street executions have come to court, and fewer still have resulted in successful conviction.

“It is also unclear whether those crimes have systematically followed up with financial investigations,” the Commission notes. Indeed, the law-enforcement system in Bulgaria often appears to function to the benefit of the criminals, not of the victims. In spite of various steps taken under EU pressure, the result has been disproportionately modest in terms of the most important cases of high-level corruption, some of which have been monitored by the Commission.

Money laundering and luxurious property

Money laundering appears to be going high scale, in spite of adopted legislation. “Large scale investments in real estate in tourism areas remain an important risk area for money laundering which could be investigated proactively,” the Commission suggests.

In recent years, a lot of luxurious villages and resorts popped up in the country’s most attractive areas, their real owners and the origin of their wealth remaining largely unknown.

What's more, impunity appears to be widespread. Several acquittals took place in important cases, where evidence available in the public domain raised expectations for conviction. Such was the case of the former head of the National tax agency Maria Murgina, who was acquitted by the court last June in spite of considerable evidence of corruption.

Apparently, the Commission based itself on the testimony of various EU companies operating in Bulgaria, who complained of arbitrary court decisions, as well as rigged public procurement tenders.

“The complaints received by the Commission concerning the Bulgarian public procurement system continue to grow, and there are clear cases of serious violation of EU procurement rules,” the report says.

Monitoring to continue

In conclusion, the Commission says its monitoring will continue, with the next assessment to be published at the end of 2013.

What appears as a novelty is that the EU executive plans to continue to monitor the situation also with other member states, which apparently have asked to be involved in the exercise.

While the Bulgarian media published excerpts from the leaked reports, the country’s leaders went incommunicado. The Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who usually likes to talk to the cameras, has not appeared in public for several days, while his ‘number two’ in the government, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, took the invitation of a German foundation and left for Bavaria.

Socialist leader Sergei Stanishev, who was the Prime Minister in 2007 when the country joined the EU and is now in opposition, called the report “the most scathing” for the last five years.

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007, shortcomings remained regarding judicial reform and the fight against corruption. In the case of Bulgaria, problems also remained regarding the fight against organised crime.

A Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was set up to assist both countries with judiciary matters after their EU accession. Moreover, the European Commission retained the right to use special safeguards.

These allow the EU to refuse to recognise court decisions or even freeze payments of EU funds.

However, starting 1 January 2010 Brussels no longer had the power to trigger the clause.

On 13 September 2010 EU countries decided to extend monitoring of Romania and Bulgaria for another year. On 20 July 2011 Romania and Bulgaria were again given one more year before the Commission tabling "appropriate proposals".

  • 18 July: Reports on Bulgaria and Romania to be officially published.

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