Page last updated at 12:42 GMT, Saturday, 20 February 2010

Bulgaria's war on organised crime

Bulgaria's new government is taking steps to root out the corruption and organised crime that have affected the country for years. The BBC's Oana Lungescu reports.

Nanka Koleva
Nanka Koleva took her husband's case to the European Court of Human Rights

Nanka Koleva looks gaunt under the crystal chandeliers of Sofia's Palace of Justice.

The story she tells me is hard to believe, although Nanka is a prosecutor.

She works in the Palace of Justice but, like so many Bulgarians, she has not found justice here.

Her husband Nikolay Kolev was a senior prosecutor.

On 28 December 2002, he told Nanka he was going out to buy some eggs and batteries. Later they were supposed to discuss their plans for the New Year's party.

But he never came back.

He was shot dead outside his home by two men.

Unsolved murders

"His upper body was filled with holes," Nanka told me. "His neck, his head... they kept shooting at him from close up as he lay on the ground."

Nikolay Kolev's mafia-style murder, like over 150 others since the fall of communism in Bulgaria, remains unsolved.

Only last month, a radio presenter, who boasted of links to the underworld, was gunned down in the centre of Sofia.

Some of his alleged killers have been arrested but, if they are convicted, it will be a first.

If a prosecutor cannot get justice in Bulgaria, what chance is there for an ordinary person?

Last November, Nanka Koleva did achieve justice of sorts. She won a case against Bulgaria at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

In a strongly worded ruling, the court concluded that the investigation had been neither independent nor effective.

It had been controlled by the then chief prosecutor, a man who Mr Kolev had publicly accused of being mentally ill and guilty of serious criminal acts, and who Nanka publicly accused of being linked to her husband's murder.

So if a prosecutor cannot get justice in Bulgaria, what chance is there for an ordinary person?

"Everybody must judge for themselves," Nanka said softly. "Until now, state institutions protected the criminals. Bulgaria is - was - a mafia state. I hope that's now in the past."

Operation Octopus

The investigation into Nikolay Kolev's killing has recently been reopened.

There are plans to question the former chief prosecutor, who was conveniently appointed ambassador to Kazakhstan just before Bulgaria joined the EU.

Bulgaria's interior minister Tzvetan Tzetanov
The Interior Minister says the public back his war on organised crime

And the new government has declared war on organised crime.

Last week, heavily armed anti-terror police burst into homes, bars and strip-joints to arrest 14 alleged members of a powerful crime gang.

They are suspected of extortion, drug trafficking, money laundering and tax fraud.

It is believed they blackmailed businessmen and possibly politicians with secretly recorded footage of their sexual exploits with prostitutes.

The police have widely publicised their own video of what they call Operation Octopus.

Besides scantily clad pole-dancers and muscular men dressed in black lying prostrate on the ground, it shows - bizarrely - the gang's private zoo in a Sofia backyard, with three puzzled-looking tigers and a leopard.

The man charged as the gang leader, Alexey Petrov (nicknamed "the Tractor") personifies Bulgaria's murky transition.

For years, Nanka Koleva has publicly claimed that he too was behind her husband's killing - something he has never been charged with.

His is a complicated CV. A former member of the anti-terror squad, Mr Petrov became a top adviser at the national security agency, the Bulgarian FBI.

He also went into business. Years ago, he even set up a company with Bulgaria's current prime minister.

Mr Petrov says he is now the victim of a political plot, and that his trial is unfair.

Bulgaria's reputation

Sofia, Bulgaria

Only 1% of EU regional aid to Bulgaria had reached the intended beneficiaries since the country joined the EU

No wonder that questions over links between the security services, business, politics and crime have made the EU distrustful of its newest member.

Bulgaria is the EU's poorest country, but EU-funded projects are few and far between, because of concerns that the money may end up in the wrong pockets.

In a recent letter to the Bulgarian government, the European Commission pointed out that only 1% of EU regional aid to Bulgaria had reached the intended beneficiaries since the country joined the EU.

It is a shocking statistic. But the finance minister, Simeon Djankov, told me another.

It turns out that, in the customs agency, one in four employees did not know how to fill in a customs form.

"They weren't there to do their work, but to extract bribes," Mr Djankov explains.

A former chief economist at the World Bank, Mr Djankov has set about reforming the customs service, unchanged since the communist era.

"Nobody dared so far," he told me, "but I came from abroad."

He has also persuaded the EU to unblock access to billions in aid.

But for Bulgaria's new government, the main challenge is to regain something more precious than money - the country's reputation.

And to prove to people like Nanka Koleva that they do not have to go abroad to get justice.

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