The dangers of chronicling crime in Bulgaria
Murdered Bulgarian journalist Bobi Tsankov embraced life in the underworld. Beth Kampschror reports
11 Jan 10

Murdered Bulgarian journalist Bobi Tsankove embraced life in the underworld. Beth Kampschror reports

An author of a recent book on organised crime was shot dead in broad daylight in the Bulgarian capital last week, in a killing that illustrates the often blurred lines between Bulgarian writers and the gangsters they write about.

Boris “Bobi” Tsankov, 30, was shot in the back at midday Tuesday as he was entering a building in a busy part of Sofia. Two men accompanying Tsankov were also critically wounded. The gunmen escaped on foot. “Crime boss” Krasimir Marinov was arrested the same day and charged on Thursday with incitement to murder. Police are still searching for Marinov’s younger brother Nikolai in connection with the case.

Tsankov’s book, “The Secrets of the Mobsters” was published last November. Its contents were sourced from Tsankov’s friends and contacts in the underworld, including figures like drugs boss Anton Miltenov, who was himself shot dead four years ago.

Tsankov, however, was known less for crusading journalism than he was for his own dodgy dealings, said a senior analyst at a Sofia think tank. “He was famous for frauds in radio and TV games, and was the director of a radio station owned by a drug boss,” said Tihomir Bezlov, an analyst with the Centre for the Study of Democracy, referring to Tsankov’s business partnership with the drugs boss Miltenov, and the more than 100 complaints filed against Tsankov by Bulgarians who allegedly lost money through Tzankov’s con games which involved contests and advertising. In 2006, Tzankov received a three-year suspended sentence for taking €26,000 from a local businesswoman for advertisements that never aired.

Nor is Tsankov’s book renowned for its veracity. Top police official Valeri Yordanov told Bulgarian television this week that the book is a mix of fact and fiction, and that Tsankov actually knew less than half the mobsters he’d claimed to have met. Bezlov agreed, claiming the book includes many fictional stories mostly involving dead crime bosses.

These pieces of fiction may have cost Tsankov his life argued a Sofia-based journalist, noting that someone who pretends to have access to mobsters and chronicles false tales is likely to have a long list of enemies. But it’s also entirely possible that the murder had nothing to do with anything Tsankov wrote. “Before that he stole a lot of money from other people, so there were more than enough people who wanted him dead,” said Stanimir Vaglenov, an investigative journalist with the Sofia newspaper 24 Hours.

It wouldn’t be the first time a Bulgarian media figure was attacked for reasons outside journalism, Vaglenov said. In 2008, the editor of online outlet FrogNews, Ognjan Stefanov, was brutally beaten by unknown assailants. “Ognjan was and still is a journalist, but at the same time is a business partner of a rich man [allegedly] connected with criminals,” Vaglenov said. “So he was beaten not because of journalism, but as a soldier in the war between his business partner and his enemies.”

Another writer with dubious connections, a former wrestler named Georgi Stoev who’d written nine books about the Bulgarian underworld, was shot dead on a busy Sofia street in April 2008. The same month, Bulgaria’s interior minister resigned amid a scandal that appeared to link organised crime figures to the country’s top police officials. While both incidents seemed to cement Bulgaria’s reputation as the most crime-ridden country in the 27-nation European Union, reports of fraud, conflict of interest and an organised criminal group siphoning off millions in EU aid proved to be the final straw for the Union. Its executive arm, the European commission froze more than €500m in aid to Bulgaria in July 2008.

In July 2009 Bulgarian voters replaced the ruling Socialists with a conservative government that pledged to crack down on organised crime and corrupt officials. The new government has made inroads against such ills — charging senior members of the former Socialist government with embezzlement and corrupt deals, and arresting more than 20 alleged members of kidnapping gangs last month. The progress prompted the EU to unfreeze more than €100m in farm aid to Bulgaria in September.

But the Tsankov murder shows that the government has a long way to go to stem organised crime. The situation today may not be as violent as the spate of shootings that marked the run-up to Bulgaria joining the EU in 2007 — when criminal bosses moving into legitimate businesses moved to eliminate their rivals — but this time the EU is watching closely. EU spokesman Mark Gray condemned the murder Tuesday, he said. “Any shooting is unacceptable and we hope that Bulgarian authorities will bring those that have perpetrated this act to justice as quickly as possible.”

Beth Kampschror, a former Balkans correspondent, writes for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project