Bulgarian prime minister goes after suspected crime lords

SOFIA, Bulgaria – Arms pinned behind his back, Alexei Petrov lay with his face pushed to the floor after heavily armed masked police commandos raided his home early last year. The police then hauled him off in one of Bulgaria’s most pronounced efforts to take on the godfathers of racketeering, kidnapping and prostitution who have eroded trust in the country’s institutions and day-to-day life.  

Released from jail in October 2010, then from house arrest this February, Petrov – who is known as “the Tractor” – still faces serious charges like racketeering and threatening to murder a business partner. But that has done little to quash his bravado.  

The administration of Bulgaria’s prime minister, Boyko Borisov, a former business partner of Petrov’s, has taken aim at suspected crime lords in a campaign called “Operation Octopus.” In an interview, Petrov denied the charges against him while twirling a stick with a plastic octopus stuck to its top. He also said he was contemplating running for president.  

If convicted, Petrov, a former karate champion and intelligence agent, would be the first big name to be imprisoned here as an organized crime boss. This fractious, formerly Communist nation faced strong doubts about whether it was ready to join the European Union when it was admitted in 2007. Frustrated with what it saw as rampant corruption, the union withheld hundreds of millions of euros in aid to the country’s previous government.  

Now Bulgaria’s battle with organized crime is being seen as a test of whether, even after meeting the bloc’s entry requirements, Western standards of law and order can truly be reached not only here, but in neighbouring Romania and perhaps in other states, like Serbia, which has applied for admission.  

“We are watching all the cases closely,” said Mark Gray, a spokesman for the European Commission, the European Union’s executive body. “The essential problem on organized crime remains the lack of convictions in important, high-level cases.”  

In a report released recently, the commission said that the number of acquittals in cases involving high-level corruption, fraud and organized crime has “exposed serious deficiencies in judicial practice in Bulgaria.”  

Though it praised police efforts to tackle criminal gangs, the commission said the results needed to improve significantly. The battle against high-level corruption has not yet yielded convincing results, it added.  

Since he came to power in 2009, Borisov, the self-styled “Batman” of Sofia, says he has ended a rash of contract killings and kidnappings, rounding up a variety of gangs with nicknames like “the Killers,” accused of murder for hire; “the Impudent,” investigated for 20 kidnappings; and “The Crocodiles,” arrested in connection with an epidemic of robberies on Bulgaria’s highways.  

The prime minister claims that, thanks to him, “corruption becomes almost impossible in the government.” He is, he says, confident that Bulgaria will soon be given a date to join Europe’s Schengen zone, where travelers can move between countries without showing passports.  

Yet Borisov’s own rise from fireman, judo coach and bodyguard to the pinnacle of political power underscored how Bulgaria’s transition from Communism blurred the lines of politics, state security and an aggressive, no holds-barred form of moneymaking that sometimes seemed indistinguishable from organized crime.  

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, security agents and elite sportsmen like wrestlers formed businesses that offered security and sold insurance, but often operated protection rackets. Petrov says he first crossed paths with Borisov as a karate enthusiast in 1982, and the two men were linked in these early post-Communist days when they operated a company to promote sports. “One way or another this company did nothing,” Petrov said. “We did not succeed and we did nothing, and we all withdrew later.”  

At this time, mafia gangs – or mutri – mushroomed throughout Bulgaria, protected by leather-jacketed heavies.  

Borisov, who would not discuss his relationship with Petrov, went into politics, becoming the mayor of Sofia, the capital, and leading the centre-right opposition party, GERB, before being elected prime minister.  

Petrov worked as a secret agent in the counterintelligence service for seven years, until 2007, then as an intelligence agency boss for the government led by Borisov’s political rival. Critics contended he was simultaneously running a business empire linked to organized crime.  

When he solemnly declared war on the godfathers of crime last year, Borisov coined the name “Operation Octopus” for a crackdown intended to decapitate an organized crime network so vast that its tentacles spread throughout Bulgarian society. In a report last year, the Interior Ministry said it had identified 223 leaders of crime groups – around 50 of whom had been arrested – and estimated there were more than 1,200 people in the gangs.  

One research institute, the Center for the Study of Democracy, estimates that Bulgaria’s drug market is worth about $124 million a year and its internal sex trade about $168 million annually, while the profit from cigarette smuggling is about $436 million per year, it said.  

Stocky and powerfully built, Petrov ridiculed the charge that he leads a crime gang engaged in rackets like protection and prostitution.  

“I don’t need this anymore,” he said, waving the brightly coloured toy octopus on the end of a stick. “There is no octopus.”  

He wants to run for president to revitalize the economy and provide better services, he says.  

It is not for nothing that he is nicknamed “the Tractor,” a name he earned, he said, because of his relentless determination to plow his way to whatever plot he chooses.  

“I am clean, I have been cleared, and I want to become president,” he added, referring to the fact that broader charges against him are not being pursued. Then he reeled off a series of accusations against the prime minister, including claims that Borisov misled the public over his achievements in the karate world and hints that he was responsible for an attempt on Petrov’s life in 2002. Borisov, a tall, imposing figure with close-cropped hair, bristled at the mention of Petrov’s name, dismissing the accusations as “cheap personal attacks.”  

“For 12 years I have been hearing stupid things like that,” he said.  

Yonko Grozev, a lawyer and researcher at the Center for Liberal Strategies, a research institute in Sofia created in 1994 after the fall of Communism, argues that while cases against suspected mobsters have stumbled, Borisov’s government has created the feeling of a fresh start by going after people who were once thought to be untouchable.  

“There is an air about Alexei Petrov: You don’t mess with him,” Grozev added. “If there was a surprise after this government came to power, it was that it decided to mess with him.”  

Grozev said that though the two men ran similar enterprises in the 1990s, Borisov’s was more benign and that the prime minister was sincere in wanting to crack down on crime even if he had failed to reform law enforcement institutions.  

The central problem, he says, is that business, crime and politics are intertwined in Bulgaria. “This is a mild version of Russia,” Grozev said. “Every government official is an entrepreneur, and they use their public powers as a personal asset. Favors are being done.  

“The chances of a politician making it into government in Bulgaria without knowing how to deal with those people, all those business interests,” he added, “well, there is just no chance.” 

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