The saga of the arrest of alleged organised crime boss and ex-secret service undercover agent Alexei Petrov has reached a stage when it has become difficult to draw a clear picture of what has been going on between Bulgaria’s organised crime and the country’s political class over the past 10 years.
In the course of one week, since the surprise arrest of Petrov in his Sofia home on February 9, so many things have been said on the issue by public officials, politicians, magistrates and analysts that both the media and the public have problems grasping the complexities.
Almost everyone has had something to say about Petrov, describing him as the most influential crime boss in Bulgaria, with access to classified information and almost unlimited power in his capacity as an agent immersed in the country’s underworld.
Comments from politicians had one thing in common – they all accused each other of giving Petrov this power 10 years ago, and no one wanted to admit allowing Petrov continuous access to classified information and power, given that he had survived as a secret agent during the terms of the past three governments.
Some background Over the past 20 years, Alexei Petrov has had the image of someone who knows all that there is to know about the first decade after the fall of communism, and who knows who benefitted from those turbulent times and how they did so.
This decade saw the (not always very legitimate) redistribution of wealth among a group of men commonly known as "mutri" whose main businesses were security and insurance services.
In the early 1990s, most of these young men were former athletes, wrestlers, weightlifters, and karate athletes who were given their training in the former communist-era sport schools. They were well trained, disciplined, well organised and often ruthless. Because they were very quick to achieve profitable business careers after the the fall of communism, many suspected that the former communist secret services had used them to regain control over the country’s economy and politics.
The rise and fall of these "mutri" was marked by a number of unsolved public killings on Sofia’s streets with new faces coming in to take the place of the opponents eliminated.
Petrov managed to keep a low profile until 2002 when he survived an attempt on his life when he was shot twice in the chest and leg as he was leaving his office at the Spartak swimming pool facility in Sofia. After some digging at the time, the media quickly discovered some interesting facts about his past, most of all of his relationship with the then interior ministry chief secretary and current Prime Minister of Bulgaria Boiko Borissov. Borissov held the interior ministry post during the 2001 to 2005 term of prime minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg.
It became clear that both had had shares in a company in the early 1990s which, in Borissov’s own words, never had any real activity and was set up solely to help develop karate as a sport in Bulgaria. And since both Borissov and Petrov learnt karate together under communism, they had tried to help their sport develop after the democratic changes.
Again, according to Borissov, the reason why the company failed to succeed was because they decided to end their relationship. The reasons have not been made public. As part of the digging around Petrov in 2002, the media found that he was one of the "godfathers" of the Bulgarian insurance industry, having been on the management boards of Apollo & Balkan, Spartak, Sredets and later at the Levski Spartak insurance companies which immediately gave him the "mutra" image as he had all the needed ingredients: a background in sport under communism, the insurance business and an unsuccessful attempt on his life.
After the 2002 incident, unlike other businessmen with controversial reputations, Petrov decided to maintain a low profile and distance himself from anything that could harm his image. This included becoming a lecturer at Sofia’s University for National and World Economy, where he taught company security matters, and becoming a member of an employers’ organisation, the Business Initiative Council. As such, he spent some time on the supervisory board of the National Social Security Institute (NSSI), representing employers.
Petrov also moved to sell shares in his company Levski Spartak insurance. This happened in 2005, when the new owners included two Israeli citizens, one US national and three Bulgarian companies. He did the same with all of his other companies, retaining only minority shareholdings. However, he was later hired by the same companies as a consultant, positions he holds to this day.
At this time, the only negative news about Petrov was a complaint by prosecutor Nikola Kolev, subsequently shot dead in Sofia in 2002, that the then prosecutor-general Nikola Filchev and Alexei Petrov had applied pressure on him regarding several cases. After Kolev was killed, his wife Nanka Koleva alleged that Filchev and Petrov had been behind the murder, which remains unsolved. Filchev and Petrov had denied any link to the crime, ascribing it to Kolev’s alleged connections to the Serbian mafia. This, however, was enough at the time for the media to start speculating about a link between Filchev and Petrov.
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