|While names such as SIC, VIS and Multigroup ring hollow to many foreigners and younger Bulgarians alike, these shadowy consortiums of wrestlers and state agents from the 1990s and early 2000s still exert a sinister influence over the country's political and economic life
"Mutri - van," as "Thugs - out" is loosely translated in Bulgarian, as well as "Mafia!" has been the signature chants of this year's summer protests. Partially, this is due to the public perception of the main structures of power. The GERB-dominated government and Parliament, through to the prosecution and down to key parts of the administrative apparatus - are widely perceived to work like a mafia family. Elements of this system include appointments to key positions on the basis of loyalty rather than merit, graft, taking out businesses in favour of allies through institutional pressure (see the Hippoland example) and many, many others.
Who are the mutri?
The use of "mutri" and "mafia" to describe those in power is partly due to the nature of the political and economic genesis of some of them - including Mr Borissov, as part of the murky post-Socialist underworld of the 1990s. Many influential people in business and politics in Bulgaria nowadays have direct or indirect links to the "power structures" of this decade, which they obtrusively try to bury.
One particular incident during the protests resurrected discussion of the "thugs" and how are they related to the country's current governance. This is what happened: Democratic Bulgaria co-chair Hristo Ivanov was making one of his regular Facebook Live videos during one of the evening marches when he was approached by Dimitar Lambovski, ex-MP from the party of the ex-king/ex-Prime Minister of Bulgaria Simeon II. Mr Lambovski rose to prominence as one of the witnesses in the Anti-corruption Fund investigation "8 Dwarfs" that dug into a business raiding party consisting of senior ex-prosecutors, investigators and members of the Specialized Prosecution and courts.
"I've turned off my phone because that guy started calling Madjo," Mr Lambovski told Mr Ivanov during the broadcast while trying to shake his hand. The ex-MP was referring to Mladen Mihalev - Madjo, an infamous member of one of the two leading criminal consortiums of the 1990s, SIC, that masqueraded as a security and insurance company while fuelling trafficking and racketeering activities.
Mr Lambovski, who once worked in the managing council of a bank owned by Madjo, was referring to how the ex-head of the Bulgarian Development Bank Stoyan Mavrodiev tried to pressure him through their mutual acquaintance from the mafia. On the video, however, the line he said sounded out of context and pro-governmental media outlets picked it up and made their best to connect the names of the mafia kingpin with that of the Democratic Bulgaria co-chair Mr Ivanov.
The problem, however, is that there is very little that can stain Mr Ivanov's public persona as a long-time NGO activist for justice reform. The same could not be said about Mr Borissov, who was deeply involved with the "power structures". By bringing the topic up, the pro-governmental media actually undermined the Prime Minister because many people started recalling his own exploits in the 1990s.
And why are they still relevant?
Before getting to these, it is important to pin down the "power structures" of that decade and their main protagonists. As the name suggests, those were organized crime groups, consisting mostly of retired security agents and sportsmen (mostly martial artists and rowers), trained together during the socialist era. Finding themselves unemployed and unemployable in the crumbling post-centralized economy, or simply realizing that the weakened post-1989 state no longer had a monopoly on violence, they turned to crime.
First, they operated protection rackets; basically, business owners had to pay a fee for protection of their property from the protectors or their competitors. They also controlled prostitution and car thefts during the early days. When the authorities cracked down on the "security firms" they were remodelled as insurance companies, with the two most famous being SIC and VIS.
During the heyday of their power, the power structures developed into a full-fledged gangster war on the streets of Sofia, with dozens of assassinations of high- and mid-profile gangsters like the original creators of SIC and VIS, Ivo Karamanski and Vassil Iliev, who were killed in 1998 and 1995 respectively. This did not stop other gangsters. On the contrary, they got even richer and more powerful when they took over the protection of contraband fuel illicitly shipped to ex-Yugoslavia during the several rounds of UN sanctions in the 1990s. Their next business adventure was in the drug and cigarette trafficking area, which boomed with the start of the USA's Middle Eastern wars.
The pinnacles of corruption
Business brought money and money brought power and power led to influence and sophistication. During the early 2000s, the boys from the streets and wrestling rings donned collared shirts and learnt about offshore havens. It was perfect timing - for them, if not for the average Bulgarian. The country had finally ousted the ex-communist party from power in 1997 and a process of economic liberalization was underway.
The power structures needed just to launder their money and make inroads into the real economy. They were at the forefront of privatization, taking control of key assets in the food, alcohol and tourist sectors. Government efforts to quash them were becoming increasingly half-hearted for one simple reason - the thugs began bribing state representatives in order to avoid any interference in their activities. There was no space for political preferences - you paid whoever was in power to get things done.
What about Borissov?
Enters Boyko Borissov. Before he entered public life in the early 2000s, when he was appointed as Secretary-General of the Internal Ministry, Mr Borissov was in the security business for about a decade. While he was not famous for his participation in street shootouts or intermafia wars, he was not just anyone - the high-profile clients of his Ipon company included ex-dictator Todor Zhivkov and the ex-king, soon-to-be Prime Minister Simeon II. He also shared stakes in companies with kingpins such as Rumen Nikolov - Pashata, member of SIC's top brass. Mr Borissov always maintained that the joint ownership of firms was purely for the sake of supporting the Karate Association (he has always been a fan of the sport).
"Business is a dynamic thing, everyone wants to make more, to move forward. I have a clear conscience because I have never entered into unprincipled associations," he told Capital weekly in 2001 when his nomination for Secretary-General raised more than a few eyebrows. "I know many people in these [the power structures] circles, but that's that. I have no commitments to them. If the question is do they control me - the answer is "no", he added. He concluded that "my knowledge of this people is a plus, not a minus because I know them and they know me. We've played football together and they know what happens when I get angry."
Over the next two decades, Mr Borissov's power only grew and the thug wars ended, but hardly for the right reasons. Those kingpins who survived the mafia wars of the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s still thrive, to say the least. Very few, if any, of the surviving mafia bosses have spent time in jail - and even when they did, like the co-founders of SIC Nikolay and Krasimir Marinov - Marginite - they only spent a couple of months in prison, got released and vanished afterwards. Most, however, either retired from public life and rarely appear in public places, or moved abroad. Both types, however, still retain significant financial and material holdings in companies-offshoots of SIC, VIS and Multigroup, the consortium that inherited their legacy in the early 2000s.
While Mr Borissov rose to prominence as a tough-guy who would smash the mafia and organized crime, this never happened. Actually, by the time of his meteoric political ascent in the mid-2000s, moving from Police Secretary-General to Mayor of Sofia and then Prime Minister, the mafia wars had simmered down and the process of whitewashing their businesses had been completed. Yet, very little was done to bring any of these very well-known names to justice. What is more, one member of the underworld who bought a new image throughout the years - Vassil "the Skull" Bozhkov, now exiled in Dubai, said in a recent interview for bTV that while the mafia's instruments had been updated, its methods are largely unchanged.
"What did the thugs do back in the day? There is a problem, they come and say: 'We will help you, just pay.' Then they start protecting you, then they take over part of your business. If you say 'no', they come with bats and destroy everything. What do the thugs of today do? They still come and say: 'We will help you, just pay.' And then they ask you for your business and come with the bats if you refuse. But this time the bats are not made of wood, they are the State Prosecution, the National Security Agency, the National Revenue Agency," he said. And then added: "Do you know what is the common thing between the thugs then and the thugs now? Borissov! He was there then and he is here now. And you know what's different? Peevski. He wasn't there then and he is here now."
| Who was who in the Bulgarian mafia?
Brothers Vasil and Georgi Ilievi were, respectively, the founder and the inheritor of the VIS1 and VIS2 security companies. An unknown assassin ambushed Vasil Iliev on his way to a Sofia club in April 1995, while his brother was shot dead in front of his seaside club in Sunny Beach in August 2005. Another member of the family was Konstantin Dimitrov Samokovetsa, a drug smuggler who was shot dead in Amsterdam in December 2003.
Krasimir Marinov, known as "Big Margin" his brother Nikolay Marinov or "Small Margin" and Rumen Nikolov - Pashata were the co-founders of VIS' biggest rival, SIC. The two brothers faced trial for the planned assassinations of a number of high-profile mobsters, including their ex-associate Ivan Todorov - the Doctor, a drug smuggler who was shot dead in February 2006. The trial, which was supposed to mark a turning point for Bulgaria - then an EU-candidate country - ended in a fiasco, with the two brothers released from arrest after 18 months. Milcho Bonev or Baj Mile was another co-founder of SIC who was considered to be an important link in the drug trafficking and distribution network in the Balkans. Bonev was the victim of probably the deadliest shootout in modern Bulgarian history - he and five of his bodyguards were murdered in broad daylight by gunmen posing as police officers in a Sofia restaurant in July 2004.
Other key figures from the same period were Pantyu "Polly" Pantev, a drug smuggler who changed affiliations from VIS to SIC and was shot dead on the island of Aruba in 2001. Rumour has it that he had stolen half a ton of cocaine from the Russian or Colombian mafia. Ivo Karamanski was the Bulgarian Godfather, creator of an early competitor of VIS and SIC - the Korona insurance group (or Crown in Bulgaria). He got shot by a drunken acquaintance at a birthday party in Sofia in December 1998. Iliya Pavlov, the founder of Multigroup, was widely considered to have been the wealthiest Bulgarian of his time despite there being no direct evidence for his criminal activities. He was shot dead in front of his office in Sofia in July 2003.
One of the key associates of Pavlov was Vassil Bozhkov - the Skull, who partnered with him and with Mladen Mihalev-Madjo in the gambling company IGM and merged a bank he owned with the conglomerate. Apart from gambling, his interests spanned into the acquisition of antiquities, road infrastructure and others. While he consistently tries to focus on state attempts to raid his businesses, he fails to acknowledge that he was probably one of the longest surviving, best-adapting members of the 1990s underworld until earlier this year.