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29th Mar 2020

Sofia bomb highlights EU corruption, border security fears

  • Operation Octopus was an attempt to showcase Bulgaria's anti-corruption efforts (Photo: Adam Polselli)

Brussels has asked for a full investigation into a bomb at a Sofia-based magazine, after it published wiretaps linked to the anti-graft Operation Octopus with the potential to harm Bulgaria's Schengen entry bid.

A whirlwind of speculation began on Thursday (10 February) when 400 grams of TNT seriously damaged a building hosting the headquarters of Galeria, a magazine which in recent weeks has published a series of wiretaps on alleged nepotism and corruption among high-ranking officials, including the country's prime minister, Boyko Borisov.

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"We are aware of the explosion, but not about the circumstances behind it. We expect Bulgarian authorities to investigate this fully and bring those responsible to justice," EU commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenskilde Hansen said during a press briefing in Brussels.

The bomb went off just a few hours before four EU commissioners, including EU home affairs chief Cecilia Malmstrom, were due to arrive in the city. But the commission spokeswoman said the trip would go ahead as normal.

Galeria's editor-in-chief, Kristina Patrashkova, believes the blast was a "political act aiming to intimidate us." "It is obvious that our newspaper is the most critical of the government," she told Horizont newspaper.

Ms Patrashkova recently published material from the so-called Tapegate wiretaps in which Prime Minister Borisov seems to be heard asking for one of his footballing buddies to be re-appointed as a customs official at Sofia airport.

The scandal led to a confidence vote in parliament which nearly cost Mr Borisov his job.

It also shows Bulgaria's border security standards in a negative light amid a frantic lobbying campaign by Bulgaria and neighbouring Romania to show that they are fit to join the EU's passport-free Schengen zone. Both countries were due to join in March. But France and Germany are keen to delay entry for as long as two years due to Tapegate-type issues.

For his part, Mr Borisov, made a sort of joke about the explosion.

"I am at least glad that the bomb was placed professionally so that no people were hurt," he said during a joint briefing with EU health commissioner John Dalli, as quoted by the Novinite news agency.

"At the same time, I am not the least worried by this incident occurring on a day when four EU commissioners are coming to Bulgaria because it is clear to everyone in Europe that my government inherited a country rife with organised crime and corruption, and that we have done a lot in the past months to tackle them."

Tentacles everywhere

The Tapegate wiretaps came out of a high-profile anti-corruption sting in 2010 called "Operation Octopus."

The operation was designed to showcase Bulgaria's crime-busting efforts in a move relevant not just to its Schegen bid, but also to Brussels' more broader bi-annual report on the country's fight against organised crime. The next edition of the report is due in a few weeks' time.

A Bulgarian experts said both Brussels and Sofia have an overly "bureaucratic" approach to the problem.

"Bureaucrats write reports in Brussels and say that what has been done is not sufficient, while Bulgarian bureaucrats are in turn promising to do more. But nothing happens," Ognyan Minchev, from the Institute for Regional and International Studies, a Sofia-based think-tank, said. The EU is confounded by the level of "penetration of criminal figures in politics and secret services" and is a passive observer of the "mafia-type action movies" unfolding in his country, he added.

In a fine irony, Mr Minchev noted that the anti-corruption effort risks damaging the rule of law in Bulgaria. He said Mr Borisov has "good intentions" but does not always use democratic means to reach his ends.

A recent investigation by the Dnevnik newspaper showed that a 2010 law enabling electronic wiretapping has given rise to at least 10,000 such probes, most of them without a court warrant. Loopholes allow prosecutors to ask directly for people's private traffic data from internet and phone providers without a judge being involved.

On top of the bomb query, the EU commission is keen to ensure that phone and computer snooping follows due process and that the judiciary works in an independent way.

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