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.