Hoods Against Democrats

In Bulgaria the distinction between the state and organized crime is clear -- for now

BOGOMIL Bonev, Bulgaria's Interior Minister, a towering, thickset man with wavy black hair, spoke to me last spring in a tense voice as we sat in his vast, gloomy office -- the same office where security officials of the former Communist regime may have worked out details for the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. Now the situation was reversed. Bonev was hunting down the Communist-era security service, which along with former members of Bulgaria's Olympic wrestling teams had broken up into various criminal "groupings."
"One of the reasons our criminal groups became so powerful," Bonev told me to explain this curious turnabout, "is that they were organized by the state itself. The other very important factor was the embargo against Serbia. Breaking the embargo was a catalyst for organized crime in the Balkans to the degree that Prohibition was in the United States. My biggest problem has been that our policemen did not look at the wrestlers as criminals."

The outcome of this battle has major significance, because perhaps no other country in the world has made more progress than Bulgaria toward stable Western democracy in the past two years. In early 1997 street demonstrations against a corrupt and ineffective government of former Communists brought Bulgaria to near anarchy. New elections returned the non-Communist United Democratic Forces (a broader version of the coalition that ruled from 1991 to 1994) to power. Because the UDF, divided as it was into multiple factions, had been neither competent nor orderly, few observers were optimistic this time; I certainly was not. But the UDF united all the factions into one party, and put together a cabinet of young technocrats. Helped , a lawyer in his forties with a methodical, disciplined mind, who was elected in November of 1996, the cabinet seems finally to have put Bulgaria on the road to real stability and reform. Even the International Monetary Fund is happy. Yet, as I found out during a visit of several weeks last spring, this is only half the story.

WITHIN twenty-four hours of crossing into Bulgaria by train from Romania, I began hearing two words over and over again: "wrestlers" and "groupings" -- particularly in reference to Multigroup, the Orion Group, and the Tron Group, names that conjure up a blend of George Orwell and Batman. "They run the country," I was told -- or, at the least, the groupings were as palpable a presence in people's lives as the government.

A Bulgarian friend explained: "In the Communist era, Bulgaria had a great Olympic wrestling tradition, and weight lifting, too. When these regime favorites lost their subsidies, they went into racketeering -- with the help of friends from the security services -- and amassed tremendous wealth during the power vacuum that followed the regime's collapse. The wrestlers all look the same -- big and tough, with cell phones, fancy cars, and Versace suits, and young girls on their arms. All their girlfriends are beautiful in the same way: thin, with blonde hair and vacuous expressions, and adorned with gold. At a restaurant where a meal costs more than most Bulgarians make in a month, I heard one of these girls tell her wrestler boyfriend over and over, 'This is so cheap; I can't believe how cheap this is.' The wrestlers and their girlfriends go to expensive nightclubs with loud metallic music, where go-go dancers sing cheesy lyrics like 'I love shopska ["peasant"] salad.' Everyone knows that his car will be stolen if it is not 'insured' with one of the wrestlers' 'insurance' companies. Another name for the wrestlers is the moutras -- the 'ugly faces.' We're all repulsed by their behavior, but we have to deal with them. This is a country where people have put their life savings into sugar and flour because of inflation, yet there is a criminal class driving stolen Audis and Mercedes."

Jovo Nikolov, a flinty reporter for the weekly Kapital,the nation's most respected news publication, began an article about organized crime in the Fall, 1997, East European Constitutional Review this way:

A couple of years ago, one of the owners of a well-known Bulgarian bank beat up his senior foreign currency dealer in front of the entire staff. The boss was enraged because the dealer had just lost $1.2 million in what appeared to be a routine transaction. There and then, the currency dealer was forced to sign a document stating that he would work for a nominal wage until the bank's losses were restored.

The banker in this incident is a former wrestler. Today he is an influential member of several "economic groups" in Bulgaria.

Frequently I saw the wrestlers as I walked around the capital, Sofia. A high-performance car would screech to a halt, and muscular men in fashionable clothes would emerge with cell phones, their cologne noticeable from fifteen feet away. The boss might have a beautiful woman on each arm. It was both frightening and pathetic. The grounds of the wrestlers' expensive homes -- on the slopes of Mount Vitosha, above the haze of pollution that hovers over Sofia -- are surrounded by two-story-high brick walls and punctuated with satellite dishes.

Organized crime is a common feature of former Warsaw Pact societies: toward the end of the Cold War, Communist parties evolved into large-scale mafias, which, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, divided into smaller mafias that bought off the politicians who served in democratic but weak governments. Also common are allegations of a new Russian imperialism, by way of Europe-wide crime connections and the energy monopoly Gazprom. Nowhere, however, are such phenomena so transparent as in Bulgaria -- a poor, small country of fewer than 10 million people in which democratic institutions are valiantly fighting a Russian attempt to regain a former satellite by criminal stealth. Bulgaria illustrates more clearly than anywhere else how dangerous the evils of the coming century might be, because they are so very ambiguous. It is no accident that the word "groupings" is used instead of "mafias": these firms are dangerous hybrids engaged in fully legitimate enterprises that are audited by Western accountants. Their increasing links to Western multinationals have helped to mask activities like compact-disc pirating, the smuggling and sale of illicit drugs, money laundering, and extortion. One foreign official told me, "These groupings engage in violent intimidation and they corrupt politicians, and their genius is covering their tracks."

The leaders of such groups, and similar ones throughout the former Communist world, should not be mistaken for robber barons like Andrew Carnegie, Edward H. Harriman, and John D. Rockefeller. A century ago these men produced wealth for America (in the form of steel plants, railroads, and oil fields) as well as for themselves. The groupings have skimmed profits by raping state assets. They have shown that global capitalism does not necessarily promote civil society: what counts is the nature of capitalism in each country.

Here is a description of how Bulgaria's crime groupings evolved, what they have done, and how they illuminate Russia's new imperial strategy after the collapse of its armed forces -- a collapse revealed by the 1996 defeat in Chechnya. My information is based on written sources and on interviews with Bulgarian officials, foreign diplomats in Sofia, and, in particular, the investigative reporter Jovo Nikolov, whose old clothes and unshaven face obscure the discerning professionalism he has maintained in pursuing this story. His job is dangerous. In May of this year Anna Zarkova, a local journalist who had exposed these criminal groups in her articles for the daily Trud, had sulfuric acid hurled at her face at a bus stop. Zarkova, the mother of two children, lost her left ear and much of the sight in one eye.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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