Vassil Bozhkov, who used to be one of Bulgaria's biggest oligarchs until the state stripped him of his gambling empire in 2020 and he escaped to Dubai in a self-imposed exile - is now back. After hinting at a possible return on a number of occasions since 2020, Mr Bozhkov, a.k.a. The Skull, finally made the move on Friday, 25 August, and - as of now - remains in police custody over several serious indictments, including alleged rape, bribing high-ranking officials and ordering several assassinations.
Below we will revisit who Mr Bozhkov is, how he got "disposed of" his business after years on top of the food chain in the country and even got on the infamous US Magnitsky Act sanctions list - and also speculate what might happen after his return.
Who is "The Skull"
Vassil Bozhkov is an emblematic figure from the transition years since the fall of the Communist regime in 1989 and one of the few who (at least until 2020) had not moved abroad or to the netherworld. It was an open secret for decades that he controls the gambling business in Bulgaria and no one could enter the lucrative industry without his say-so. Mr Bozhkov had already been in the gambling business before 1989 (illegally), and, after the political changes in the early 90s, he established one of the first gambling companies in Bulgaria together with Ilia Pavlov, the Bulgarian oligarch who was killed in 2003.
Mr Bozhkov was among the founders of business associations like G-13 in the early 90s and the Revival Club later that brought together Bulgarian oligarchs in a miniature homegrown imitation of their Russian peers who plundered juicy assets from the economy with the state's active participation. By the mid-90s, he owned a chain of currency exchange shops and a bank, after which he developed a small gambling company and practically monopolized the market. He owned construction companies and enterprises in other sectors but lotteries - especially the National Lottery firm - were the crown jewel of his holdings.
Downfall and exile
In 2020, Mr Bozhkov turned overnight from one of the most powerful shadowy figures in the country, supported by every government since 2001, into an enemy of the state. First the parliament, dominated by GERB and PM Boyko Borissov's then partners, the United Patriots, did their bit and legalized the seizure of his gambling business, and then the Prosecutor's Office under Ivan Geshev's leadership indicted him on 19 charges of various crimes. So far, it is unclear how many of those charges are being upheld.
The abrupt downfall of Mr Bozhkov came as a surprise to many, as his domination of the heavily regulated gambling industry lasted for over a decade, of which GERB was in power for at least eight years. It is unknown to this day why exactly the state suddenly decided to open its eyes to Mr Bozhkov's tax evasion schemes, which had been well-known for years. But what is certain is that in January 2020 the Prosecutor's Office charged him with tax evasion of over BGN 700 million (some of these charges had fallen in court already), leading an organized crime group, his suspected involvement in murders, rapes and racketeering. Before Mr Bozhkov got arrested, he managed to escape from the country and it quickly transpired that he was hiding in Dubai.
Mr Bozhkov remained quite active from his Emirates hideout. He launched a short-lived party, Bulgarian Summer, and many people close to GERB accused him of financing the 2020 protests against the cabinet led by then PM Boyko Borissov. He also shed light on his relations with Borissov, as well as with key figures in his government, accusing them of racketeering and asking him for multi-million bribes to keep his gambling business going.
Also, in 2021, Mr Bozhkov was among the first group of Bulgarian politicians and business figures sanctioned for corruption under the US Global Magnitsky Act along with MRF MP Delyan Peevski.
Return and indictments
After his sudden arrival to Bulgaria - which was announced just a day in advance - Mr Bozhkov was immediately arrested. The state authorities seemed just as surprised by his arrival as the rest of the general public. On the demand of the Prosecution, the Sofia City Court ordered his detention in custody at least until 5 September over the allegations that he had led an organized crime group in the gambling sector.
The lead prosecutor in the cases against the ex-oligarch, Angel Kanev, cited a hotchpotch of allegations, testimonies and evidence against the defendant, seemingly unrelated to the case in point. For example, Mr Kanev quoted former chairwoman of the Gambling Commission, Maria Filipova, who claimed that Mr Bozhkov visited her in her office and exhorted her, after which he began to "grope her, kiss her and tried to rape her."
The Prosecution also reported evidence of Bozhkov's alleged ties to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the ex-head of the private Russian army Wagner, as well as other Russians on the EU sanctions list. It was unclear what their connection to the indictments is, nor the time the purported electronic communication took place. The Prosecution further claimed that there had been an investigation of companies linked to Mr Bozhkov for tax crimes and money laundering in Moldova.
The only mention of corruption by the Prosecution so far is that it has been investigating Mr Bozhkov for bribing another former head of the Gambling Commission, Ognemir Mitev, with up to "BGN 10,000 per day". There has been no sign that the Prosecution has shown interest in Mr Bozhkov's allegations that he was extorted by (or that he bribed - depending on the viewpoint) several senior GERB figures, including former Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov.
Many questions about Mr Bozhkov's return remain unanswered. For example - why now? Intriguingly, one of the indictments against him was for his alleged ordering of the 2015 assassination attempt against another shadowy figure from the 1990s - insurance businessman Alexey Petrov. Notably, Mr Bozhkov returned to Bulgaria just ten days after Mr Petrov was shot dead on 16 August.