WHO IS AFRAID OF VASIL 'SKULL' BOZHKOV?

by Anthony Georgieff

Gambling boss loses bid to sue Former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov over alleged bribes

boyko borisov vasil bozhkov.jpg

While Bulgarians left, right and centre are quibbling over the fate of a pile of stones crowned by some sculpted Red Army soldiers in central Sofia, the state prosecution service quietly terminated a case started by Vasil Bozhkov, one of this country's wealthiest entrepreneurs, alleging he was forced to give north of 60 million leva ($35 million) in bribes to Boyko Borisov (then prime minister), Vladislav Goranov (then finance minister) and Sevdelina Arnaudova (then Boyko Borisov's chief public relations officer).

The case of Vasil Bozhkov, seen by many as Bulgaria's most notorious gambling boss, fairly coherently illustrates how organised crime amalgamated itself with the state under Boyko Borisov – to an extent that it would be next to impossible to disentangle the two in the foreseeable future. Here is the background.

Vasil Bozhkov, under Communism known as an enthusiastic gambler and an illicit money-changer in Sofia, started his official business as soon as Communism collapsed in 1989. Initially, he set up a chain of currency exchange bureaus but quickly expanded into bingo halls and casinos. Some of his associates at the time included Iliya Pavlov (who was assassinated in 2003), the owner of Multigroup, and Mladen "Madzho" Mihalev, then owner of SIC, the ill-famed protection and insurance company in the 1990s.

Through the years Bozhkov expanded his activities throughout the country. They included, but were not limited to, duty-free trade, road construction, hotels, tourism and insurance. Vasil Bozhkov, thought of as a "gangster" and nicknamed The Skull, was a millionaire several times over by the end of 1990s.

But Bozhkov was not the standard post-Communist "protection racketeer" of the type Bulgaria became infamous for at the end of the 20th century. A mathematician by education, The Skull was fond of the arts and especially of antiques. He amassed a collection of antiques, thought to be worth 300-400 million leva ($170-$220 million) that rivals the "official" collections of both the National History Museum and the Archaeological Museum. When Bulgaria acceded to the EU in 2007, the Bulgarian government celebrated by putting up an exhibition of Vasil Bozhkov's collection at the European Parliament in Brussels. It was entitled The Magnificence of Bulgaria. A keen supporter of sports, Bozhkov owned the CSKA football club, which he sold to an Indian entrepreneur, the Levski football club (Cska's arch-rival) and was the chairman of the Bulgarian Chess Federation. By the mid-2010s Vasil "Skull" Bozhkov was Bulgaria's wealthiest man, whose estimated net worth was in the region of 3 billion leva ($2 billion).

This all came to an abrupt end in 2020 when the state prosecution service, then headed by the notorious Chief Prosecutor, Ivan Geshev, suddenly announced it would sue Vasil "Skull" Bozhkov over tax evasion, money laundering and a catalogue of other alleged crimes. An international arrest warrant was quick to ensue. But Bozhkov had been quicker. Just before the Bulgarian police would come to detain him he had flown his private jet into Dubai.

From Dubai Vasil Bozhkov started his counteroffensive. He promulgated numerous allegations of bribery and corruption involving senior figures in then Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's establishment. From his exile, Bozhkov founded a political party, Bulgarian Summer, which the Central Elections Commission refused to register because Bozhkov was sanctioned under the US Magnitsky Act. The cops back home arrested his wife, Elena Dineva, and stashed her up in jail for about eight months. She was later released because she had committed nothing wrong.

One of the most spectacular acts of Bulgaria's law enforcement was the ransacking of Vasil Bozhkov's collection of antiques. Thought to include over 30,000 artefacts, parts of it were impounded in... black plastic bags and cardboard boxes, with the TV cameras rolling across the street. From Dubai Bozhkov accused the Bulgarian cops of total incompetence in dealing with "priceless" art objects. He added he would not be surprised if bits of the collection turned up at international auction houses. Reputedly, a few months later they did.

Whatever remains of the collection is allegedly stored in the vaults of the National History Museum, whose former manager, the late Bozhidar Dimitrov, once a minister for Boyko Borisov, had announced was completely "legal."

Surprisingly, after the self-imposed exile in Dubai, Vasil Bozhkov made a comeback to Bulgaria, in 2023. He announced he was returning on his own volition, and his main purpose was to testify against none lesser than Boyko Borisov, Vladislav Goranov (who was also sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act in the meantime) and Sevdelina Arnaudova. According to Bozhkov, he had repeatedly carried briefcases of cash, in leva and in euros, to the Finance Ministry and given them to Goranov. Arnaudova was a go-between, a mule, often carrying the bribe money from Bozhkov's offices to Boyko Borisov. The chief villain, the "godfather" in this, according to Bozhkov, was Boyko Borisov.

Apparently, the prosecution service thinks otherwise. In its conclusive report, the Bulgarian prosecutors, who are being seen by critics as loyally supporting the intricate power webs spun during Boyko Borisov's rule, acknowledge that Vasil "Skull" Bozhkov withdrew large amounts of cash from his bank accounts. He did go to the Finance Ministry, carrying the cash with him. But the prosecutors conclude there is no evidence Goranov actually received the cash. Somehow, the money disappeared into thin air.

Whether the letter, if not the spirit, of the law has been lived up to by the Bulgarian prosecutors is for legal analysts to elaborate on. What remains, however, is the political message emitted by Boyko Borisov and his retinue. At the moment, Borisov, who heads the largest party in the Bulgarian parliament, supports the ruling rightwing "fixture" of Changes Continued (Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev), Yes Bulgaria (Hristo Ivanov) and Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (General Atanas Atanasov). Should anything happen to Borisov, the fixture will collapse. Though they have been outspoken critics of Boyko Borisov, Hristo Ivanov and General Atanasov are now allied with their former foe. Their political future depends on him. They certainly would not want Vasil "Skull" Bozhkov to talk too much. To remain in power at all costs seems to be a stronger driving force than maintaining any principles.

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