The questions raised around a series of high-profile murders highlight the enormous deficiencies in Bulgaria’s law-enforcement, writes Krassen Nikolov.
Krassen Nikolov is a journalist specialised in judiciary affairs. He works for Mediapool and will be a regular contributor for BulgarianPresidency.eu for the six months of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
Three grave crimes cast a shadow over the start of the Bulgarian EU presidency and reminded of the unresolved problems of the country from before it became a member of the EU. On the New Year’s night, the worst murder in the last decades occurred – six people were shot while celebrating in their house in Novi Iskar, a few kilometers from the center of Sofia. On 8 January, the assassination of an influential businessman, close to the ruling GERB party, was committed in the capital. Before that, on 18 December, a high-ranking tax officer, who is still in critical condition, was shot at in the center of the capital.
The authorities have no explanation for these crimes for now, and panic in Sofia is growing because the return of high-profile killings is harming the efforts to build a positive image for the European partners. The events provoked President Rumen Radev to take an unusual step and call the interior ministry leadership for discussing the situation.
The contract murder of businessman Petar Hristov is emblematic for Bulgaria, considered as one of the most influential people in the country. He is known for his close friendship with the chairman of the parliamentary group of GERB and former Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov. Hristov had significant contacts with important people in the Interior Ministry, which could not prevent his tragic death.
On 8 January, the 49-year-old man was shot dead in a high-profile style in front of his office in Sofia. The moment seems to be well-chosen, assuming that the objective was to destabilise the government. It happened at the very beginning of the Bulgarian EU Presidency and a day before the meeting of the National Security Advisory Council under the President of Bulgaria, which discussed the role of Bulgaria in the common defence of the EU.
So far there is no convincing version that could explain the murder. The police chiefs in Sofia suspects that the assassination is because of business interests. The other version is past cooperation of the businessman with the law-enforcement in disclosing serious crimes. Last September, the businessman was named by a former high-ranking police officer as the person who contributed most to the disclosure of the so-called “Impudent” the kidnapping gang (Naglite). A large part of the “impudent” was imprisoned, which is one of the greatest successes of the Bulgarian law-enforcement in recent years. Hristov’s assassination took place at a time when two of the band members spent their last days behind bars.
There are numerous publications indicating that Hristov was part of one of the two largest gangs in the country in the 1990s – SIC [the other gang is known as VIS]. Later he became a rich businessman and a major donor to the ruling GERB party. In 2007, his company, PH Finance, made the biggest donation to the party – 30,000 leva (€15,500) which were used for the European Parliament elections. According to many, Hristov was the most influential person in Veliko Tarnovo region and one of the most influential in the whole of North Bulgaria. He may have become so successful thanks to his contacts with the “Number two” in GERB – Tsvetan Tsvetanov. Hristov’s business started with security activity back in 1991. He was previously a military officer. In 1996 he bought one of the largest dairy factories – Lactima Balkan, and eventually diversified his activities with construction building, hotel industry, insurance and even publishing. He was a manager, partner or owner of over 52 companies. His miscellaneous business was collected in the holding structure PMG.
Hristov’s assassination reminded to many in Bulgaria of the period 12 years ago when the country desperately needed a positive image in the EU accession talks. Now the country needs the same again because of the Presidency and the efforts to join Schengen.
In 2005, the EU had to decide whether to postpone the accession of Bulgaria and Romania because of the top-level corruption in both countries. But the authorities in Sofia also had a serious problem with organised crime, which was absent in Romania. Then four major contract killings took place in Bulgaria. The banker Emil Kyulev and the criminal bosses Georgi Iliev and Anton Miltenov, aka The Beak, were liquidated. At the beginning of 2006, another symbol of the Bulgarian underground was killed – Ivan Todorov, aka The Doctor.
For the past 25 years, over 150 contract killings of prominent businessmen and gangsters have occurred in Bulgaria, but the authorities have only been able to uncover few of them. In 2006, the EU made a political decision to accept Bulgaria as a member, although the country did not meet the criteria of rule of law. The compromise was the imposition of a monitoring over the law-enforcement system, which has clearly had no effect until now.
On 18 December in Sofia, a high-ranking head of the tax offices, Ivo Stamenov, who was a former policeman, was shot dead in Sofia. He was hit with a bullet through the glass of his expensive BMW X5 SUV. Officials said the assassination was related to his work. He was in charge of the Fiscal Control Directorate, which fights for VAT fraud and fraud. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov stated that the crime would not remain unpunished. Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov added: “This was a shot against the state.” A month later, the authorities seem to be overwhelmed by the new crime problems, and Stamenov is still in critical condition.
The mass murder on New Year’s Eve in the satellite city of Sofia, Novi Iskar, attracted the most attention in Bulgaria. A whole family was killed in a house located a few kilometers from the city center. Five people were shot in their home while celebrating. Like in a mafia film, the dog was also killed. The sixth victim was taken to the nearby forest and also killed.
Two days the investigators gave contradictory information about the serious crime. It was first reported that people were strangled, and the perpetrator committed suicide at the crime scene. Then it was announced that they were killed with one bullet each. It was finally announced that people were shot with extreme cruelty, and the perpetrator had fled.
Rossen Angelov was named as the main suspect, and his background gave many people a reason to wonder about the state of Bulgarian justice. Angelov has been in prison for theft. Eight years ago, he was convicted at first instance for pedophilia, but was released until the verdict was upheld. Since then he was hiding from the authorities, although he made no special efforts. Angelov lived in several addresses in Sofia, signed contracts with mobile operators, did not pay his bills and was prosecuted by a bailiff. He even managed to get a court document that he was convicted. He worked for a while as a taxi driver, although as a person who has been convicted, he is not allowed by law to obtain such a job.
Finally, Angelov began to live an abandoned house in the nearby village of Lukovo. The house is illegal and according to documents it does not even exist. The official version of the murder in Novi Iskar is jealousy. Angelov had a love affair with one of the victims and killed her whole family.
After four days of searching, including special police and military units, Angelov was found dead in the village of Lukovo. His body was found in a neighboring house, which was not originally searched. The official version is that he had committed suicide. When searching for Angelov in the forest around the village, the authorities discovered another corpse that had been floating on the nearby Iskar River.
The series of serious crimes has become the most serious problem for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov at the beginning of the European presidency. Bulgaria is trying to demonstrate a very active foreign policy and playing the role of a bridge between the EU, the Western Balkans and Turkey, but the domestic situation in the country has the potential to darken these efforts.
In the latest report on Bulgaria, the European Commission wrote that there was a reduction in “visible violence” in the country, which the authorities in Sofia took as a compliment as they have finished with organised crime. The series of high-profile murders however is likely to bring this issue to EU’s attention again.