The Power Struggle Over The Bulgarian Gambling Industry

The dramatic arrest in the United Arab Emirates of Bulgaria’s former National Lottery boss Vasil Bojkov came as a new chief prosecutor flexes his muscles and the state extends control over the lucrative gambling industry.

Amid major changes to gambling laws in Bulgaria, the most influential figure in the sector, Vasil Bojkov, a billionaire businessman, football boss and former owner of the recently-nationalised National Lottery is facing deportation from the United Arab Emirates after his recent arrest.

Bojkov, who was detained on Friday, is charged with several crimes, including leading an organised criminal group, coercion, attempted bribery of an official and tax evasion. An international warrant was issued for his arrest on January 29 after he fled Bulgaria.

His arrest can be seen as another scalp for the ambitious new Chief Public Prosecutor, Ivan Geshev, who only started in the post at the beginning of 2020.

Geshev earlier this month also ordered the arrest of the Minister of Ecology, Neno Dimov, following a water crisis in the town of Pernik.

Bojkov’s problems started in mid-January, when the leader of the right-wing United Patriots alliance in parliament, Valeri Simeonov, proposed changing gambling laws to nationalise the National Lottery, which, despite its name, was a private business.

The lottery is a highly profitable enterprise, with the head of parliament’s budget committee, Menda Stoyanova, recently saying that Bulgarians spent a billion levs (half a billion euros) on it in 2018.

On January 23, parliament adopted the amendments – and a searching look into the lottery’s affairs has ensued. The prosecution is now investigating whether the lottery prizes were actually ever paid out to people, amid suspicions that this did not happen.

On top of that, taxes that have been avoided in recent years amount to “more than half a billion lev [some 250 million euros]”, according to Georgi Nachev, director of the State Financial Inspectorate.

Bojkov’s arrest in the UAE was followed by a busy weekend for the prosecution: on Saturday, the court decided to leave in custody the former chairman of parliament’s gambling committee, Ognemir Mitev, who had been detained earlier last week.

Meanwhile the current chairman of the gambling committee, Alexander Georgiev, who was arrested in Vienna on February 1 and who has confessed to initiating schemes to help Bojkov, was released on bail of $40,000.

Before his arrest, Bojkov gave a rare interview, complaining of a Nazi-style propaganda attack on his name.

“It seems we are living in Goebbels’ time again, everything that surrounds us is propaganda,” he said on January 30.

He added that he wanted to come home to Bulgaria, but said that after the Chief Prosecutor General’s moves that he was “afraid to come back”.

“If I came back, I would probably be arrested immediately and who knows what’s going to happen with me,” Bojkov said.

Earlier, he had condemned the nationalisation of the lottery, saying it would cause huge damage.

“The unconstitutional suspension of the lottery will have a severe impact on many other businesses that are part of the process, and on 40,000 people who are directly part of the business,” he told Radio Free Europe’s Bulgarian service on January 22.

Known by the nickname ‘Cherepa’ (‘The Skull’), Bojkov was born in 1956 in Velingrad and graduated in mathematics from the University of National and World Economy in Sofia.

He was known to Communist Bulgaria’s state security service for his gambling activities as early as 1985, when they were still illegal. His career took off after the change of regime with a chain of currency exchange offices, and he then expanded into the gambling industry in the 1990s, as well as into road construction and football.

From 1999 to 2006 he was the owner of football club CSKA Sofia and in March 2019 he became the owner of CSKA’s main rival, Levski Sofia. His current plight leaves question marks over Levski’s financial future.

In 2006, Bojkov also became the head of the National Chess Association.

In 2011, his name was mentioned in a diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Sofia, published by WikiLeaks, which focused on links in Bulgaria between business and organised crime.

Since 2004, he has also avidly collected art. On the day before his arrest, last Thursday, police broke into his Sofia villa and confiscated his huge art collection of about 3,000 pieces. The fact that the artworks were stuffed into bags raised concerns among art critics and curators about their preservation.

According to the Thracia Foundation, which is taking temporary care of the collection, all of the artworks’ documentation is intact. Part of the collection is now being stored in the National History Museum.

On Monday, police also started listing all the artworks at Nove Holdings, Bojkov’s main company, but so far without moving them.

More information about Bojkov’s extradition from the UAE to Bulgaria, which could prove to be a slow process, is expected shortly.

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