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Bulgaria sounds alarm over EU’s mafia-run border

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Bulgaria’s outgoing government is using its last breath to sound the alarm over how mobsters seized control of a key border crossing into the EU — undermining food safety and the supposed common standards of the bloc’s internal market. 

For many years, the Kapitan Andreevo border checkpoint at Bulgaria’s border with Turkey has been notorious as an entry point for drugs into the European Union, and as a place where importers would be extorted. Now, the anti-corruption crusaders heading a short-lived reformist government are shining a light on how a criminal group has — under previous political administrations — allowed vast amounts of food into the EU without proper checks. 

Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who came to office just seven months ago on an anti-corruption platform, resigned last week after losing a no-confidence vote. But his allies, still in office until a new government takes over, are escalating a highly public campaign targeting an organized crime group on the frontier. 

The crackdown against Bulgaria’s infamous mafia-linked border corruption — long a reason why Bulgaria has not been allowed to join the Schengen passport-free travel area — comes as Petkov’s party positions itself for a potential general election in the fall. By confronting both the Kremlin — Sofia last week expelled 70 Russian diplomats and spies — and organized crime, Petkov is trying to draw a clear dividing line between himself and previous administrations that were tarnished by their connections to both.

Tackling Bulgaria’s powerful mafia interests is not for the faint-hearted. Ivan Hristanov, the deputy agricultural minister spearheading the work at Kapitan Andreevo, now needs to live under guard because he has faced threats, as have other officials and their relatives.

When Hristanov first requested a file on the border checkpoint in January, he received a warning from the mob the very next day.

“There was this message from the mafia guys,” he said in an interview with POLITICO. “It was like a question: ‘Would it be a war with you? Or we’ll have peace?’”

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Kiril Petkov | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

Europe’s ‘private border’

The Bulgarian government’s investigation focuses on an organized crime group that used its position as a de facto monopoly controlling one of Europe’s busiest border crossings to generate illicit income and permit food into the EU that, under normal circumstances, would be rejected or destroyed for regulatory reasons. 

Assen Vassilev, the outgoing finance minister, has released estimates pegging the financial damage stemming from corruption at the border checkpoint at €2,500 per hour — or nearly €22 million annually. Speaking to Bulgarian television, Vassilev said there had effectively been a “private border” at Kapitan Andreevo for a decade.

The criminal group, according to officials, had a monopoly on the border checkpoint, taking bribes and extorting companies — with no interference from the authorities. 

“There is evidence,” said Deputy Agriculture Minister Hristanov, that “foods that were not subjected to proper control — and very, very likely had abnormal levels of pesticides — entered the European Union and were placed on the European table for consumption.

“We are taking this particular issue extremely seriously,” Hristanov added. “Not just for the European citizens, this is our children too.”

The Bulgarian government has now brought the border post under its control and asked for assistance from foreign governments and organizations.

“For the last 10 years, everything at Kapitan Andreevo has functioned in a blatant conflict of interest, which was not beneficial for the health of Bulgarian and EU citizens,” said Hristo Daskalov, executive director of the Bulgarian Agency for Food Safety (BAFS). 

A private company “had the responsibility both for the loading and unloading activity of the cargo and at the same time they were responsible for the phytosanitary and veterinary control,” Daskalov wrote in a note in response to questions from POLITICO.

“In this way,” he said, “the operators had an interest in having fewer problems with the loads for which they were responsible and had all the incentives to hide data since they were the only control of their own work.”

The situation at Kapitan Andreevo was a “public secret,” said Konstantin Bachiyski, a member of the Bulgarian parliament from Petkov’s We Continue the Change party. “In the past, everybody knew but nobody wanted to find out until seven months ago,” he said. 

Up to that point, the corruption on the border was “possible” because “high-level politics” provided an “umbrella”  protecting the criminal activity, the parliamentarian said, adding that “for the first time in the last 30 years,” Bulgaria over the past months had a “government which wants to fight” corruption. 

Bulgaria’s border with Turkey has also raised concerns among European officials. 

In 2017, then-member of the European Parliament Kati Piri, a Dutch Labour Party politician, complained in a question to the European Commission that “thousands of EU citizens once again suffered serious inconvenience due to corrupt practices in Bulgaria, such as people being compelled to pay bribes at the border.” 

But for years, all these concerns were largely ignored, both within Bulgaria and at an EU level.

Policing a captured state

In the spring, Petkov’s government began the process of taking control of the checkpoint in a bid to restore order. Bulgarian officials also invited foreign customs officials to visit, with a delegation from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety arriving on Wednesday. 

When the government took over the checks, its suspicions about the lack of rigorous controls were confirmed. 

“Our laboratory data shows that in the last month and a half, we have had a higher percentage of samples found with pesticides than last year,” said Daskalov, the food safety chief. 

And while the government faced “tremendous sabotage and resistance” during the transition away from the private company’s control, Daskalov said that now officials are in the process of building a new state laboratory at the border and recruiting more new staff.

“What is important for Bulgarian and European citizens,” he said, “is that now they can rest assured that after years of abuse, the Bulgarian government has restored order at this border and have established functioning sanitary control.”

The key challenge for Bulgaria’s reformist government is that its officials have to operate in a “captured state,” where they complain that the country’s judiciary largely turns a blind eye to high-level mafia cases. Because of that, the officials in Petkov’s government say they now fear retribution both from organized crime and prosecutors because of their efforts to bring public attention to the border. 

“I’ve got tons of evidence here,” said Deputy Minister Hristanov. But there is “nothing” from prosecutors, “not even a single question,” he said. 

“We are very, very confident that once we are not in office, they will chase us instead of the groups that have created this entire setup. And does this worry me? Yes, absolutely.”

Former Bulgaria’s Prime Minister and leader of centre-right GERB party, Boyko Borisov | Nikolay Doychinov/AFP via Getty Images

Bulgaria’s prosecutors and former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s GERB party, which dominated the country’s politics for more than a decade, were the target of massive anti-graft protests in 2020, in which protesters accused the judiciary and government of supporting mob interests. While Borissov fell from power last year, the all-powerful chief prosecutor’s position is protected from political interference and he has refused to buckle to a demand from Petkov’s government that he resign.

Europe’s problem too

Seeking outside support to combat the mighty mafia web in their country, many Bulgarians are keen to stress that the scale of the corruption should attract a pan-European response.

“This is not only the border of Bulgaria, this is the border of European Union, and the protection of the border is protection of the interests of the Europeans,” said Bachiyski, the member of parliament. The financial damage is “not only for the local government budget, but for the budget of the European Union — so the European Union also has an interest to stop this problem.” 

Over the past decade, however, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission administrations led by the center-right European People’s Party took a consistently soft line on Bulgaria and avoided throwing the book at their ally Borissov.

A Commission official said Brussels recently sent an “urgent audit on the spot” in response to concerns, but that “for the moment, the Commission has no evidence indicating that public, animal or plant health has been compromised.”

Miroslav Naydenov, a former agriculture minister under the GERB administration, has accused Hristanov of lying about the process by which the state handed over responsibility for the food checks. In Bulgarian media, Naydenov is quoted as arguing that the monitoring of pesticide levels was “never” passed over to private hands. GERB did not respond to a request for comment. In the face of a welter of accusations about large-scale corruption on its watch, the party publicly claims that it has a “zero tolerance” approach to graft.

Some analysts observe that the focus on the border crossing by politicians from reformists in Petkov’s outgoing coalition is part of maneuvering in an expected showdown with GERB in elections.

“Petkov is rallying support, sticking to his guns,” said Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe think tank, adding that “the people at Kapitan Andreevo are well-known mafiosos who have judicial protection.”

“If you chase corruption for real,” he said, “GERB clientele might start defecting.”

This article was updated with a comment from a European Commission official.

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