Botched Rescue of Bulgarian Football Boss Exposes Mafia's Grip
By David Charter
Fifty days after Angel Bonchev, the chairman of the Bulgarian cup-winning football club, was kidnapped, his wife, Kameliya, decided that there was no alternative but to meet the demands of the Black Sea mobsters.
She left for the rendezvous with a bag containing several hundred thousand pounds in cash. Her nerves were steadied by the knowledge that specialists from the Interior Ministry police were tracking her and that they would ensure that her husband was set free and the ransom intercepted.
Her trust proved ill-founded. Mrs Boncheva was herself kidnapped from under the noses of the policemen as she handed over the money. She remained missing yesterday, while her husband, Angel, a former wrestler, was found wandering "in a helpless condition" through a Sofia suburb, having been tortured during his captivity.
The bungled rescue is being held up as further proof of Bulgaria's inability to get a grip on rampant organised crime days before a damning EU report is to be released.
Even as the 47-year-old boss of Litex Lovech FC recovered in the military hospital in Sofia, opposition parties accused the Government of failing its people. "The case of kidnapping of Angel Bonchev, and then his wife, is another piece of evidence of the inability of the state to guarantee the safety and peace of its citizens and another demonstration of the incompetence of the Interior Ministry," a group of parties declared.
Bulgaria suffers from an epidemic of kidnappings that do nothing to help its reputation as the European Commission prepares to announce that it will suspend millions of euros in handouts to the newest member of the EU.
With в‚¬11 billion (ВЈ9 billion) from EU coffers earmarked to help Bulgarian infrastructure over the next six years, officials in Brussels are horrified at growing evidence that much of the cash is falling into criminal hands.
In a draft of next Wednesday's report, seen by The Times, the Commission says: "Bulgaria has to make the commitment to cleanse its administration and ensure that the support it receives from the EU reaches its citizens and is not siphoned off by corrupt officials, operating together with organised crime."
Bulgaria joined the EU along with neighbouring Romania in January last year, completing an historic enlargement to include the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. There has been concern ever since that the accession was rushed through without requiring Bulgaria and Romania to carry out the basic government and judicial reforms needed to purge their systems of the influence of organised crime.
Being a football mogul is one of Bulgaria's high-risk activities: Mr Bonchev was lucky compared with the three most-recent past chairmen of Lokomotiv Plovdiv, all assassinated by gunmen in mafia-style hits. Alexander Tasev, who ran a large import-export business, was found in his black Mercedes in Sofia with two bullet wounds in his head. His predecessor, Georgy Iliev, was shot dead by a sniper in a Black Sea resort.
There have been about 150 such killings since the fall of communism in Bulgaria but not one has resulted in a conviction, a sign of the country's inability to tackle high-level crime.
The former head of the Bulgarian roads agency is helping police with their inquiries after being forced to resign for handing contracts worth в‚¬50 million to a firm owned by his brother.
The EU's anti-fraud office, Olaf, is investigating a "criminal network" of more than 50 companies centred on two Bulgarian businessmen with ties to senior politicians, said to be involved in the misuse of agriculture aid worth в‚¬32 million. It is no wonder that EU leaders are increasingly worried about their money. The report is set to trigger the worst fears of pro-EU reformers in Sofia with the opposition set to move a vote of no-confidence in the Government of Sergei Stanishev, 42, the LSE-educated Prime Minister. He had been hailed as a reformer but is failing to deliver.
Western EU nations are tired of Mr Stanishev's promises to act and are considering not only the suspension of funds but also freezing Bulgarian accession to the Schengen visa-free zone, which covers most of Europe.
Meglena Plugchieva, the Deputy Prime Minister, said yesterday that the Interior Ministry was being overhauled to tackle organised crime.
"It will take time but in no way can I share the opinion that that Bulgaria is a mafia country. This is not true. We have to look at southern Europe for that," she said.
Corruption and killings
пїЅ" Between 2001 and 2006, 150 people were killed in suspected underworld murders. The victims included Bulgaria's top banker and one of its top importers. There have been no convictions
пїЅ" Bulgaria ranks 64 in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index
пїЅ" In February the head of the Bulgarian roads agency was forced to resign after allegedly handing contracts worth ВЈ50 million to a company run by his brother
пїЅ" In May as Brussels froze ВЈ315 million of aid, Sergei Stanishev, the Prime Minister, admitted to The Times that the Government had failed to tackle corruption effectively for the past year
пїЅ" Independent police units have since been created, paid elevated salaries in an effort to make them resilient to organised crime
пїЅ" Rumen Petkov, the Interior Minister, was dismissed in May after a parliamentary report linked him to organised crime suspects, and his ministry was revealed to have leaked sensitive files
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