By Michael Busch

Despite having released less than 3 percent of its total stash of secret U.S. embassy cables, the whistle-blowing group WikiLeaks made the curious decision last week to re-release a heavily redacted cable from Bulgaria originally published in December. Critics charged that the edited version—whose length was cut considerably by the Guardian when the paper published it in late 2010—shielded special interests in the country that did not deserve special protections against public scrutiny.

Was it a powerful multinational that had been edited out of the previous version? Not exactly. Perhaps a surprising secret informant of the United States government? Not even close. No, in this case, the names of the individuals that had been censored in the earlier edition of the document belonged to a gang of former professional wrestlers.

Once an important symbol of national pride for Bulgaria, the country’s wrestlers—Olympic competitors who had received handsome state subsidies during the communist era—took up racketeering after the Soviet system collapsed in the early 1990s. Some provided muscle for former communist party operatives that turned to crime during Bulgaria’s turbulent transition from authoritarianism, while others took charge of their own operations, shaking down motorists at highway checkpoints, organizing car-theft and prostitution rings, and tag-teaming with illicit actors throughout the Balkans to expand the scope of their criminal dealings. While former foreign minister and current EU parliamentarian Ivailo Kalfin confidently claimed that the influence of the Bulgarian wrestlers had been “left in the past,” the cable paints a decidedly different picture. Far from being left behind in Bulgaria’s thriving crime environment, the wrestlers have come to control it.  

The cable constitutes the most alarming in a series of WikiLeaked documents that paint a discouraging portrait of the political economy in Bulgaria. In particular, the cables highlight the dispiriting degree to which organized crime has come to dominate the country, and the increasing frustration experienced by the country’s European neighbors with Bulgaria’s half-measures to combat mafia influence over society.

Crime’s grip over Bulgarian society is hardly news. Yet the cable reveals, in shocking detail, the degree to which mafias led by former professional wrestlers have head-locked the country’s economic and political development. The embassy dispatch, which was written in the summer of 2005, notes that “the strength and immunity from the law of organized crime (OC) groups is arguably the most serious problem in Bulgaria today.” And yet, “to date, not a single major OC figure has been punished by the Bulgarian legal system, despite an on-going series of OC-related assassinations.”

The scale and scope of mafia activity in Bulgaria is staggering. According to the cable, crime outfits run by the wrestlers “are known to be involved in narcotics trafficking, prostitution, extortion and racketeering, various financial crimes, car theft, and trafficking in stolen automobiles.” But it doesn’t end there. “Human trafficking for sexual exploitation, counterfeiting, and debit and credit card fraud also are some of the most common criminal activities engaged in by Bulgarian organized crime.”  Crime groups involved in human trafficking are extremely mobile, and victims are often sold or traded amongst various groups.” Making matters worse, the majority of crime groups operating in Bulgaria operate under the cover of legitimate business, both at home and abroad, and several have even “parlayed their wealth into ownership of sports teams, property developments, and financial institutions.”

But the seizure of Bulgaria’s political institutions by mafia groups offers the most alarming evidence of Bulgaria’s troubles. “Organized crime has a corrupting influence on all Bulgarian institutions, including the government, parliament, and judiciary. In an attempt to maintain their influence regardless of who is in power, OC figures donate to all the major political parties. As these figures have expanded into legitimate businesses, they have attempted—with some success—to buy their way into the corridors of power.” And the corruption only gets worse further down the chain, suggesting that its cancerous development has devoured all levels of politics. “Below the level of the national government and the leadership of the major political parties, OC owns a number of municipalities and individual members of parliament. This direct participation in politics — as opposed to bribery — is a relatively new development for Bulgarian OC…OC figures control the municipal council and the mayor’s office. Nearly identical scenarios have played out in half a dozen smaller towns and villages across Bulgaria.”

Its problems with organized crime have complicated Bulgaria’s relationship with its neighbors in Europe, as a second cable dating from mid-2009 and released in December makes clear. Discussing the relationship between the European Commission and the Bulgarian government, the cable relates that a confidential source “told us that the Commission feels they have ‘tried everything” to make the Bulgarians reform their judicial system, but concluded “how do you make them reformwhen they do not want to?”

With respect to a commission report on Bulgaria’s efforts to combat the influence of crime in the country, the cable notes the absurdity with which the Bulgarian government has attempted to convince EU authorities that it has the crime problem under control. “The government keeps presenting the Commission a list of on-going high profile organized crime and corruption court cases…as ‘successes.’ Incredibly…[these] can hardly be called successes as these defendants gained immunity by running for parliament [and] some Bulgarian officials vehemently defend the law that permits this phenomenon…Brussels is also concerned with vote buying and general election fraud.”

The cable concludes by noting that the frustration of one EU contact “with the Bulgarian government's lame and insincere reform efforts was striking. It appears to be spreading in Brussels where at least the working level appears to be feeling ‘buyer’s remorse’ over letting Bulgaria…into the club too early.”

Given the country’s hopelessly corrupt political institutions and suffering economy, it’s no wonder that Bulgaria ranks dead last on a recent global happiness survey. Indeed, according to The Economist, Bulgaria appears to be the saddest place on earth.

Michael Busch teaches international relations at the City College of New York and is a research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Big Ed's Photos

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