Wiretap scandal rocks Bulgarian government

Bulgarian PM Borissov will discuss the issue in Brussels on Thursday (4 December). [Dnevnik]

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov is embroiled in a scandal involving taped phone conversations where he is allegedly heard speaking of the need to "protect" a controversial businessman from customs checks. Dnevnik, EURACTIV's partner in Bulgaria, reports.

Bulgaria is experiencing an avalanche of leaked wiretaps which first targeted the country's interior minister, Tzvetan Tzvetanov (see 'Background'), and now focus on Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.

The wiretaps were apparently made by DANS, the country's national security agency, but were then leaked to Galeria, a tabloid with connections to Alexei Petrov, a controversial figure described by many as Borissov's most powerful enemy.

In an interview for EURACTIV in February 2010, Borissov said his government was at war with the mafia, dramatically adding that the outcome of a high-profile anti-mafia operation in his country, dubbed 'Octopus', was still uncertain.

"It is war," said Borissov. "It remains to be seen who will withstand."

The most prominent personality arrested at the time for being part of an organised criminal group was Alexei Petrov, a former special forces member who infiltrated mafia circles, made a fortune there and apparently became a powerful political player. Petrov is currently under house arrest.

According to one of the tapes, Borissov instructs the country's customs chief, Vanio Tanov, to stop investigating a controversial businessman who owns a beer factory, stating he had "made commitments" not to harass him.

According to other tapes, other officials from the ruling GERB party speak of protecting businessmen who had been "paying" to stay outside state control. On two tapes, two MPs lobby Tanov to appoint controversial candidates for key customs posts, in what appears to be an attempt to put in place smuggling channels.

Bulgaria was rapped by the European Commission in its monitoring reports for high-level corruption and the use of the proceeds for political purposes, including financing political parties.

Manipulation or genuine tapes?

Borissov said the attacks were a "manipulation" and hinted that the tape in which he issues instructions not to investigate the beer factory owner was a montage. An investigation into the authenticity of the tapes is ongoing.

Borissov also says that the attacks against him are a result of his fight against corruption and his fight against the country's former secret services.

The opposition Socialist Party says Borissov must resign if the tape proves to be genuine. Socialist Party leader Sergei Stanishev also said the prime minister had fallen into his own trap, as under Borissov, wiretapping mobile phone conversations in the country had become a real industry.

Mark Gray, a spokesperson for the European Commission, said the EU executive had asked Bulgaria to provide information on the ongoing wiretap scandal. Bulgaria is subject to a "mechanism for cooperation and verification" (see 'Background'), which allows Brussels to put the EU newcomer under pressure on law-enforcement related issues.

Dimitar Loudjev, an anti-communist leader from the post-1989 period and a former deputy prime minister (1990-1991), said the tapes had revealed the real nature of Borissov, whom he described as "a man from the country's underground".

Borissov is a fireman by training and has worked as bodyguard, including for former Communist leader Todor Zhivkov when he was under house arrest, before becoming the successful owner of a security firm called Ipon.

A woman with whom he lived in the past, Tzvetelina Borislavova, daughter of a low-ranking embassy official, amassed a colossal personal fortune. Recently she sold her stake in the Bulgarian branch of KBC bank for some 70 million euros. Her personal wealth is estimated at over 100 million euros.

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Asked by EURACTIV to comment, Mark Gray, a spokesperson for the European Commission, said on 17 January that the wiretap scandal was "first and foremost a domestic issue" for Bulgaria.

But he said the Commission had asked for clarification under its "normal procedures" as to whether the wiretaps were carried out legally, meaning with the approval of a judge, or illegally.

The Commission will wait for a response from the Bulgarian Ministry of Justice before considering further action, he added.

More than other EU newcomers, Bulgaria suffers from organised crime, and many politicians across party lines are often seen sitting at the same restaurant tables as presumed mafia bosses.

The ineffective judiciary has been largely unable to send to jail any high-profile criminals. As criminals often win their cases in court, to avoid libel charges, the Bulgarian press often calls mafia figures "well-dressed businessmen".

Due to deficiencies of its law-enforcement, after its EU accession Bulgaria was placed under a special monitoring system, called a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism.

In the beginning of January, the Bulgarian press published transcripts from wiretaps featuring the country's Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Budget Minister Simeon Djankov and customs chief Vanyo Tanov.

According to the tapes, Tanov complains that Tsvetanov wants him to shelter certain firms from customs checks.

The wiretaps were made by the country's secret police and were leaked to Galeria, a tabloid. Borissov revealed some nervousness about the fact that police tapes had been made public, but said it was "normal" that his minister's phones were tapped.

In the meantime, Tsvetanov, Djankov and Tanov made a statement, insisting that they "work well" together. They even staged a media appearance, smiling in front of a truckload of confiscated smuggled cigarettes.

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