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Bulgar and Nasty

Date: 13.10.2005

By Tom Walker
The Spectator

It was just as the Crazy Frog had finished belting out across the Tannoy into the gloaming of the Black Sea that it happened: out came the giant flag of Georgi Iliev, surrounded by thousands of smaller Iliev posters, held up by the Lokomotiv Plovdiv faithful. ‘We will never forget, we will always follow your way,' read another banner.

‘I think it's a bit sad that they love this guy so much,' said Tsvetan, my faithful guide. He outlined a few of the rumours about good old Georgi - the gang rape, the trafficking in people and body-parts, the five homicides and the torture of rivals. He didn't sound very nice, really, and there seemed to be quite a few potential reasons why the Loko club president had been shot by a sniper shortly before the Uefa Cup first-round draw.

Lokomotiv versus Bolton Wanderers, the Naftex Stadium, Burgas. At half-time the home fans did even better, replacing Georgi's giant portrait with a pyrotechnic display that left the pitch swathed in wispy intestines of smoke and the Uefa officials in a dither. The late Georgi's side went one up and it looked as if his presidential spirit really was stalking the turf, before some sort of justice prevailed and two late goals saved the day for Sam Allardyce and the Wanderers (club president Nat Lofthouse: no known organ-smuggling charges).

‘Typical,' said Tsvetan. ‘We Bulgarians always drown at the end of the river.' I asked him what he meant. He said that Bulgarians are always failing at the last minute, grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. ‘Like your European Union membership?' I ventured.

Bulgaria. I've been twice now and confess I can never quite understand who runs the place, nor why so many Brits trust it as a retirement home. Tsvetan was doing his best: the government consists of a bewildering coalition of the NDCV, the national movement of Simeon II - or the yellow party - the BCP socialists, and the DPC Turks, ranged against the Union of Democratic Forces - the Blue party - the Ataka nationalists and a host of others. But then some journalists I met in Sofia the night I arrived had told me about two other acronyms - SIC and VIS, both of them umbrellas for the gangster underworld, a shadowy mixture of former weightlifters and wrestlers who formed security companies after the collapse of communism, companies which in turn had bought off the necessary politicians in the interior and finance ministries. Iliev's Multigroup was SIC, apparently, linked to the BCP.

So who was really in charge? I again asked Tsvetan, as we went to pay homage at the spot where Iliev had been shot in Sunny Beach, the resort north of Burgas where Georgi and his kind piled some of their millions. As we drove in his small Volkswagen we were edged off the road by a Hummer flashing its lights at us; it roared past, accompanied by three S-Class Mercedes-loads of bodyguards. ‘If you don't sell drugs or weapons, you won't get shot, but you drive a Volkswagen,' said Tsvetan. ‘Quite,' I agreed.

There wasn't so much to see at the Multiplace Buddha bar where Iliev took the fatal bullet. The windows were boarded up and on one piece of plywood a small memorial notice flapped in the wind. ‘Georgi Andrijev Iliev ...we are with you in our thoughts and dreams, your bright memory we will never forget. From the personnel of Multiplace,' it read.

According to the papers, Iliev had ventured out of the bar, renowned for its prostitutes (‘It was a weakness: his wife didn't really like it,' said Tsvetan) and made a call to one of his underlings at Lokomotiv. ‘Come and have a raki with me,' he said. They were his last words.

We drove on to the nearby Helena Sands hotel, where the Wanderers were staying. I booked in, hopeful of getting a chat with Allardyce. Behind the reception desk there was a large photograph of George and Barbara Bush. ‘Who are they?' I asked.

‘Oh, friends of our owner,' I was told. I made some inquiries and found that the proprietor, Mladen Mutafchiisky, used to manage the state arms company, Teraton. I couldn't find Allardyce, but in the Chopard jewellery shop Jay Jay Okocha was looking for a bit of bling for the missus. I wished him luck for the Wigan game on Sunday.

Meanwhile Tsvetan wanted to show me another Sunny Beach phenomenon: the rampant property speculation, 80 per cent of it fuelled by British investors. Adrian Musgrave, at Bulgarian Properties, said he was selling between one and three apartments a day. The Brits were coming from all over, he said, but many were relocating from Spain, where they had grown tired of lax planning laws. He assured me that the rules in Sunny Beach were stricter than those in Milton Keynes, where he and his wife had sold up - they had bought in Sliven, on the road to Plovdiv, and had four other houses in surrounding villages.

Tsvetan said that there are now more than 1,300 property companies registered in Burgas and Sunny Beach, all of them vying for the ever-swelling number of British arriving in the area. In 2001, 69,000 Britons visited Bulgaria; last year 259,000 made the trip, much of the increase down to property-hunting. At the Property Investor Show at the Excel Centre last week, more than half the stands were devoted to Bulgaria.

Tsvetan drove me south, towards the Turkish border and a village called Sinemorets, which he promised would bear comparison with The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The road had been funded by the European Union, we were reminded by regular blue-starred signs, but was fearfully potholed already. As we bumped along we passed relics of Todor Zhivkov's communist era: a decayed pig farm, a coalmine that had never worked because there was in fact no coal, and a shipyard that Tsvetan swore had sold a boat to Bill Clinton.

There was little other traffic, save for the occasional Lada filled with angry-looking peasant types. Despite the sea (‘Just a piss away, as we Bulgarians say,' said Tsvetan) it was a harsh landscape, unforgiving and choked with low scrub. Seeing the way some hotels and apartment complexes were built, with little obvious regard for the houses and beaches they now overshadowed or obliterated, I asked him about Adrian's analysis of the local planning regime. It did seem, he admitted, that the application process went a little quicker if you had the necessary Hummer and the bodyguards and the bags of cash.

‘But is it true that this is how capitalism started in your country and America?' he ventured hopefully. Ever the optimist, Tsvetan wondered how Bulgaria compared with Spain, which surely had been the same ten years earlier. I said I thought Barcelona would probably remain the bigger draw for the weekend tourist. ‘But what about Veliki Tarnovo?' he said. We barrelled on down the road, past donkeys and half-built villas and uncollected rubbish.

Sinemorets turned out to be rather nice, with a strip of sand separating the sea from a sweet-water lagoon reaching back into dense forests. And there was a sort of cove where one could just about imagine the Bulgarian budget version of The Beach. It was dark by the time we got back to Burgas, the socialist tower blocks jutted up into the blackness, and we passed the jagged outline of the Naftex stadium again. ‘The Bulgarian Las Vegas,' announced Tsvetan.

The following morning he picked me up at 5.30 a.m. from the Helena Sands and we drove the four and a half hours to Sofia. The sun of the Black Sea had given way to the teeming rain of the interior, and we sat in a cafe; overlooking the parliament and the golden domes of the Aleksander Nevski memorial church. Across the road a large digital counter on the Banque Nationale de Paris building counted down the days to EU membership.

We were joined by some of the journalists I had met earlier in the week, and I made further attempts to understand SIC and VIS and the government. I found myself compiling a long and confusing list of names that were impossible to spell and probably dead anyway; Konstantin Dimitrov, blasted away on Van Dam square in Amsterdam in 2003 and Ilija Pavlov, a friend of Iliev who founded Multigroup, shot the same year. Pavlov had made his first million by getting hold of a Russian submarine and selling it for scrap. ‘A journalist who is buried started to write about it,' said Tsvetan.

For good measure we also went through the three richest Bulgarians, according to the Polish Vprost magazine, which catalogues these things every year. Worth 500 million dollars is Vassil Bozkhov, aka ‘the Skull' and the owner of the CSKA Sofia football team and various gambling groups. Second is Darina Pavlova, Pavlov's widow, and third is Emil Kulev, a banker and former interior ministry official.

While all three appear to have achieved some degree of legitimacy, there follows a whole swath of Bulgarian gangsterdom that does as it pleases, although not without risk: 60 have perished in the last four years. Current survivors of the SIC versus VIS scrap include men known as the Pussy Cat, the Monkey, Birdy, Slatko the Beret, the Billy Goat from Plovdiv, the Small Olive (I think the big one is a gonner) and the Beak. Most make their money from the heroin- and people-smuggling trades, and the judicial system is too weak to rein any of them in. I scribbled away, only to be interrupted by the trilling of the mobile phone of Dimitar, one of the journalists. A tip-off: there was something happening in Sliven, he was told; someone had been blown up in a VW Touareg.

Which brought us round to Adrian Musgrave and Brits and property prices, and Dimitar reflected sadly that his brother, working in Burgas, was coining it. He had recently been to see him and learn a few tricks of the trade. ‘If someone wants to sell at E150,000, put it on the market at E180,000 because some idiot is bound to buy it for more,' he had been advised. All the hacks knew British retirees living in villages somewhere - in the mountains, near the vineyards, around Sunny Beach - paying peanuts for the servitude of locals happy to augment their own humble Bulgarian state handouts. Most journalists, it seemed, wanted to get into the property business: it was easy money, and certainly better thanthe Small Olive ringing your office asking if he could have a word about your funeral.

The rain persisted, blurring the windows and making the BNP's EU countdown clock indistinct. It is registering at around the 470 mark, but last week in Brussels the Bulgarians were given a dossier with red, amber and green sections, warning of potential delays. In the red section, according to the Bulgarian press, is the judicial system which, until it can deal with SIC and VIS, is clearly pretty hopeless.

At Sofia airport I listened as a gaggle of Wanderers fans described how they had been pelted with bottles and glasses in Burgas; other departing Brits on the bus out to the flight apron talked excitedly about prices per square metre, and 26 per cent rises this year and next. Maybe the land of Slatko the Beret is the answer to the pensions crisis, and maybe Veliki Trnovo will be the new Barcelona. But on taking off through the fog I had an uneasy feeling there could be a little drowning at the end of the river en route.

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