Chronicle of a Death Foretold: Georgi Stoev's Gangster Pulp | The Nation


Chronicle of a Death Foretold: Georgi Stoev's Gangster Pulp

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Dimiter Kenarov
Dimiter Kenarov is a freelance journalist and contributing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

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Before I even knew it, I was on the ground, a gun pointing at my head—for photographing a brazen mid-day raid against a TV studio.

It was a dirty job, but the instructions were clear. No professional assassins or criminals; no ex-soldiers, either. He had to recruit "normal guys" who had never murdered anyone. "Well-trained mercenaries can always sell you out," his boss warned him while they were taking an early-morning jog in the park. The weather was cold and rainy, and the two men were perfectly alone. "I want you to find some hotheaded fools. Tell them whatever you want; tell them they'll be part of our hit squad, keeping the city free of scum. That's going to boost their morale. And don't pay them too much. We might need them again at a later date."

The boss wanted no fuckups. The guns needed to be clean and well greased. The bullets were to be handled with gloves only. The hit man had to approach his victim from behind. "There's no place for heroics here. This job is a bitch. Two shots in the back, then a 'verification' shot in the head. And no running afterward. It's important that your man walks calmly away from the scene, even in the presence of a hundred witnesses. He could be certain that nobody's dumb enough to give him chase."

Georgi Stoev listened carefully to Poli Pantev as he went over the instructions, detail by detail. In the last couple of years, Pantev had asked Stoev to execute all sorts of grisly orders, but nothing as gruesome as this. He was flattered that his boss, one of the kingpins of SIC (Security Insurance Company), a Bulgarian insurance racket, was entrusting him with a job at once so intimate and dangerous. To be like his favorite gangster, Luca Brasi, Don Vito Corleone's ruthless and loyal top button man, had been his longtime dream. The Godfather--both Francis Ford Coppola's movie and Mario Puzo's book--was a sacred text for a whole generation of Bulgarian gangsters, and Stoev was no exception. He was happy to be given the chance to become a fiction character. It was an offer, one might say, that he couldn't refuse.

As it happens, there is no unassailable proof of whether Georgi Stoev organized any contract killings, or if the conversations with Pantev he relayed so faithfully years later in interviews and a wildly popular series of autobiographical books published in Bulgaria were instead the product of his rowdy imagination and unquenchable longing for fame. One fact, though, is beyond dispute, having been processed by death's uncomplicated bureaucracy. On April 7, 2008, in the middle of the day, at one of the busiest hubs in the capital city, Sofia, Georgi Stoev received two shots in the back, then a "verification" shot to the head. The two hit men walked calmly away in the presence of hundreds of witnesses. Nobody was dumb enough to give them chase.

The history of organized crime in Bulgaria is, among other things, the story of Georgi Stoev. The tale can be said to begin on November 10, 1989, when Todor Zhivkov, the country's dictator, was peacefully swept from power by his own party apparatus, effectively ending forty-five years of ignoble Communist rule. Democratic reforms were soon introduced, and Bulgaria's economy moved toward rapid liberalization. Rigorous media censorship disappeared; political dissidents and "enemies of the people" stopped disappearing. A freely elected parliament voted on a new constitution that broke the monopoly of state power, established electoral pluralism and guaranteed the rights of all citizens. Waving the blue flags of the Union of Democratic Forces (the political opposition) and raising victory signs, people marched daily through the streets of Sofia, bubbling with excitement at their newfound liberty. It was a scene worthy of CNN coverage.

Yet when the Wall came down the roof caved in as well, crushing millions of unsuspecting inhabitants of the Soviet archipelago. Bulgaria, once Moscow's most obliging East European satellite, was left decimated in the early 1990s. The dissolution of Comecon, the economic alliance of the Soviet bloc, deprived Bulgaria of the easily accessible markets that had sustained its planned economy. Unemployment soared, and inflation reached a staggering 473 percent in 1991 alone, wiping out private savings and reducing the majority of the population--menial workers and engineers alike--to abject poverty. The country's financial system, saddled with sizable foreign debt obligations incurred by the Communist Party, upward of $10 billion, was near bankruptcy. Bulgaria's dire economic situation was a product of the long-term ineptitude and greed of party apparatchiks, yet in 1990 those same apparatchiks were voted back into power in free elections. (Though numerous legal charges were brought against Zhivkov, many of his associates escaped prosecution and eventually returned to government.) Living standards were all that mattered to the population, but the promises of prosperity under a liberalized economy were proving to be empty. Misplaced nostalgia for "the good old days" became the dominant mood.

The demise of Zhivkov's regime created a power vacuum that the country's fledgling democracy was unable to fill, leaving everything up for grabs. As Misha Glenny writes in McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld, the opening chapter of which fittingly traces the history of Bulgarian organized crime, "Countless states found themselves cast into the purgatory that became known as 'transition,' a territory with ever-shifting borders. In these badlands, economic survival frequently involved grabbing a gun and snatching what you could to survive." In the transitional world of Bulgaria, where trade laws were either obsolete or nonexistent, criminal enterprise thrived with absolute impunity, from the most rudimentary kinds of racketeering, to trafficking in fuel, cigarettes, narcotics and stolen automobiles, to financial scams, money laundering and the siphoning of assets of state companies and banks. Crime became a shadow economy, accounting at the end of the 1990s for 30 to 35 percent of GDP, and anyone who refused to participate in it was usually told, in the Luca Brasi manner, that "either his brains or his signature would be on the contract."

Bulgaria's post-Communist mafia was dominated by a ragtag bunch of brawny boys without jobs, but it did not originate with them. The country had been functioning primarily as a criminal venture long before 1989, supporting what the sociologist Ivan Chalakov has called "a state system of contraband." In the 1960s the notorious State Security had founded Kintex, a trade company that sold military equipment and arms to warring parties in Africa and the Middle East, while at the end of the 1970s the division aptly named Hidden Transit managed the smuggling of gold, cigarettes and other commodities. With its central location in the Balkans, where it is bordered by Greece, Turkey, Romania, Macedonia, Serbia and the Black Sea, Bulgaria also controlled nearly 80 percent of the narcotics traffic between Asia and Europe, from which it extracted enormous cash dividends. Although Zhivkov's iron grip on power had mostly swept the streets of crime, making Bulgaria's towns and villages pleasant and safe, his autocratic government was running a rogue state.

By the mid-1980s, Bulgarian party officials were aware that the Soviet flagship together with its fleet of smaller vessels were heading toward disaster. There was no time to lose. By some estimates, between $4 billion and $9 billion of "red capital" was transferred to clandestine accounts in Western European and US banks in 1989-90. Those who benefited most from the newly liberalized markets were members of the nomenklatura who could exploit their financial and political connections to redistribute national wealth and register the first private companies. High-level functionaries did not so much relinquish power in November 1989 as single-handedly privatize the state they had once governed; the Communist dictatorship simply turned into a capitalist monopoly. The rescued regime did not bother to help the beleaguered nation but instead continued to exploit it for its own benefit. Communist functionaries backed Bulgaria's nascent mafia, exchanging the highly organized, repressive functions of a former totalitarian state for the stateless totalitarianism of organized crime.

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