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.
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.
The big change in Petrov’s public image came in 2008 after Saxe-Coburg’s government had been succeeded by the 2005-2009 coalition government headed by Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) leader Sergei Stanishev.
To everybody’s surprise, Petrov was described publicly by the then-interior minister and senior BSP member Roumen Petkov as an interior ministry undercover agent and officer.
Petrov was questioned in Parliament about his contacts with people under investigation, which evetually cost him his post. During Question Time, Petkov said he had a meeting in 2006 with two controversial businessmen, Plamen Galev and Angel Hristov, commonly referred to by the media as the "Galevi Brothers".
The meeting, Petkov said, was arranged by Alexei Petrov, who was employed as an interior ministry officer. These words prompted prosecutors to lay criminal charges against Petkov, accusing him of revealing classified information. Petkov was acquitted, but the surprise that Petrov had been an agent for the country’s secret services in the fight against organised crime remained.
A bigger surprise, however, was Petrov’s appointment as an adviser to Petko Sertov, then the head of the State Agency for National Security (SANS) which was set up at Stanishev’s request in 2008 to fight top-level corruption and crime. According to Sertov at the time, "Petrov had to be found a job after he was revealed as an interior ministry secret collaborator". This gave Petrov a completely new image, as someone working for the benefit of the state and not for organised crime.
In 2009, the committee on the dossiers of the former communist secret services had some revelations of its own. The committee, while checking the backgrounds of public servants including those who had worked for the NSSI, found records showing that Petrov had been an officer at the former communist State Security intelligence service, working in its elite anti-terrorist unit. Just before State Security was closed down, he was promoted to head of department.
After the beginning of the transition to democracy, he continued his special services career in the special anti-terrorism unit, which he left in 1992 to join the private sector. All this augmented the now-legendary image of Petrov as someone with wide experience and knowledge of both Bulgaria’s secret services and underground world.
Petrov’s career with SANS was short-lived after Borissov was elected Prime Minister in summer 2009 and Petrov and Sertov soon resigned from SANS.
Petrov said that his resignation was a sign of disagreement with Borissov’s view on how the agency should work. Three days after he left SANS in September 2009, Petrov took an unusual step, giving a lengthy interview to Bulgarian-language mass-circulation daily Trud, saying that he was ready to be an opponent to Borissov.
"We have been opponents in the past," in karate tournaments, Petrov said. "I am probably the first one who tries to tell Boiko (Borissov) that he is doing something wrong. I know that by doing this, I make a lot of people nervous. However, any concern that I would abuse information that I have gathered during my time at SANS is groundless," Petrov told Trud.
On October 24, Borissov called a special news conference to say that he had been handed a SANS report dating from 2008, when Stanishev was still in power, which reportedly contained classified information about alleged corruption among top government employees.
This report surfaced after Petrov visited Borissov to deliver the report to him, Borissov said, and called Petrov "a loyal citizen" which many interpreted as a warming between the two former karate teammates.
Any warming there may have been turned chilly on February 9, when Petrov was arrested at his home as part of a police operation, dubbed Octopus, aimed against an organised crime group.
This group according to Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, had been involved in racketeering, extortion, prostitution, gambling, trafficking of people, money laundering, tax evasion, influence peddling and economic offences, all in the past 10 years, or since 2000 when Bulgaria’s prime minister was Ivan Kostov, current leader of the right-wing Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, one of the parties supporting Borissov’s Cabinet in Parliament. Naturally, given Petrov’s reputation, he attracted all the attention as the leader of the group, and was even given a nickname "The tractor".
Police footage of the arrest showed that Petrov was not the least surprised to see the armed police arriving at his home and that he duly lay down on the floor with his hands cuffed behind his back.
Naturally Petrov’s arrest raised the question of who had appointed him as a secret agent, and when and what exactly he had been doing since, given his arrest for taking part in an organised crime group. Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov was the first to offer answers to these questions. In a February 14 interview with 24 Chassa daily, Tsvetanov said that Petrov had been appointed a secret agent at the request of then-prosecutor-general Nikola Filchev in 2000. At the time, Petrov joined the National Security Service (NSS), which was later incorporated into SANS.
This was where the political rumblings started, because in 2000 the prime minister was Kostov, and the NSS was headed by Atanas Atanasov, which meant that both had to have had some say in Petrov’s appointment. On February 15, Atanasov called for Filchev to be detained and questioned about the appointment of Petrov. Surprisingly, Atanasov confirmed that Petrov had been appointed to the NSS but that he, Atanasov, had no say in this appointment. The implication was that Filchev had been so powerful that he could appoint people as NSS agents without clearing it with the NSS head, which in this case had been Atanasov.
Filchev fired back in the media, rejecting the statements of Tsvetanov and Atanasov, saying that the only person who could have appointed Petrov was the interior minister at the time, at Atanasov’s request.
"This could be easily checked in NSS archives which are currently with SANS," Filchev said. All three failed to say what precisely it was that Petrov had been doing since 2000, and how he had managed to survive under three different governments. Others pointed fingers at Stanishev, asking why he had appointed Petrov to SANS in 2008. Stanishev, like Saxe-Coburg, has offered no answer to such questions.
All this is expected to be dealt with in the court case which is yet to be launched against Petrov, with analysts already expressing hopes that Borissov’s Cabinet will have the courage to go all the way in unveiling everything about Petrov’s past, given his image as a man who knows everybody and everything in Bulgaria.