Wanted Bulgarian Gambling Boss Uses Special State-issued Passport to Flee Country

Fugitive Bulgarian gambling boss Vassil “The Skull” Bozhkov and his business partner Georgi Popov had valid service passports, (a service passport is not a diplomatic passport but it is a special ID issued by the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MFA, to employees of the central and local administration performing official functions abroad – editor’s note). They have recently used these passports to leave the country on their way to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and are currently wanted for extradition from Dubai to Bulgaria. The existence of service passports emerges from an obtained with great difficulty response by the MFA’s press office to inquiries by Bivol. The service passports had been canceled on February 17, 2020, after Bivol sent its first official request to the MFA.

The passports with numbers 440210366 (Bozhkov) and 440210367 (Popov) had been issued on August 26, 2019 “in connection with the expiration of previous service passports,” the MFA explained, revealing that the two had enjoyed this privilege for years.

An international search warrant was issued for Bozhkov and Popov on January 29, 2020 and on January 31, 2020, Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev announced that Bozhkov had been detained in the UAE. In the following days, the Prosecutor’s Office proclaimed that it would send an express extradition request, but it was delayed because Bozhkov was charged on new counts and the entire documentation had to be translated in Arabic.

The Ministry of Justice announced that Bozhkov and Popov’s extradition requests had been sent to the Bulgarian embassy in the UAE on February 17, 2020, on the same day when their service passports were canceled. Therefore, from the moment they were declared wanted, until the official extradition request, Vassil Bozhkov and Georgi Popov had valid Bulgarian service passports, as if they were fulfilling an important mission for the Bulgarian State.

Currently, Vassil Bozhkov does not hold a valid Bulgarian passport at all. His regular foreign passport, the one that is issued to all Bulgarian citizens (in the headline photo), expired on 19 February 2020, and the service passport is cancelled.

Bivol asked questions the MFA and the Ministry of the Interior under the Access to Public Information Act (APIA) on February 13, 2020. We asked on what basis the passports had been issued and when and who is the official that authorized the issuing.

The MFA sent a letter of reply on February 25, 2020, declining to answer our questions, but it turned out that in the process of doing so it had realized the blunder and had canceled the two passports. Separately, we sent a question to the Directorate of Bulgarian Identity Documents at the Ministry of the Interior asking whether the passports had been registered there. Another question went to the Directorate General of Border Police to find out what was the last time when the service passports had been used by Bozhkov and Petrov at a Bulgarian cross-border checkpoint and at which one. We received a denial from both institutions on February 27, 2020.

Despite the refusals, we renewed our request to the MFA, indicating the specific passport numbers. The response we received contains the MFA press office admission that the service passports had been issued “in connection with the expiry of the previous passports of Mr Bozhkov and Mr Popov”. The MFA further reveals that it had issued the passports in accordance with the Ordinance on the Terms and Conditions for Issuing Diplomatic and Service Passports at the written request of the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

Bozhkov with specific foreign policy tasks and the shadow of the former Communist State Security (DA)

In its response, the MFA circumvents the answer about the reason to issue the passports by not specifically saying on what grounds in the Ordinance it had issued service passports to Bozhkov and Popov. Of all the cases cited in the Ordinance such as civil servants, mayors, judges, senior military, etc., Bozhkov and Popov could fall only under two Articles – members of the leaderships of national branch organizations, associations and federations and/or persons to whom specific foreign policy tasks are assigned at the discretion of the MFA.

However, Vassil Bozhkov and Georgi Popov are not members of any branch organization, association or federation on a national scale, according to Bulgarian registries. The two are members of the Board of Directors of the Bulgarian Union for Physical Education and Sports (BUPES), which claims to be the successor in the Communist regime’s sports megastructure. However, it is actually an association that is not registered as a national sports organization within the meaning of the Physical Education and Sports Act. The last license of the BUPES had been issued 15 years ago and since then the Ministry of Sports has not renewed it and has even filed legal cases against the BUPES over real estate disputes.

According to the archives of the Files Commission, the body tasked with examining the Communist era records, Georgi Popov has been an agent of the Communist State secret services, the State Security (DS) at the First General Directorate, which is the regime’s foreign intelligence. He has been recruited as a non-career officer of the Scientific and Technical Intelligence Directorate under the alias “Kitin” (Order No. 5 of March 20, 1989).

Therefore, the only remaining reason for Bozhkov and Popov’s service passports is an assignment of specific foreign policy tasks at the discretion of former and current foreign ministers. The argument that the passports had been simply renewed does not hold water because the reissue of service passports is not automatic and there must be a reason for it. There is no option in the Ordinance for automatic renewal, on the contrary, it is specifically stated that persons from a limited circle are entitled to such privileged documents after a vetting process to establish a legal basis for their issuance.

The conclusion from all of the above is that Bozhkov and Popov’s passports had been likely issued in breach of the law. Prevailing public interest mandates the MFA and the Prosecutor’s Office to disclose #WHO is responsible for the diplomatic status of the two wanted organized crime bosses. By law, this is the Minister herself, Ekaterina Zaharieva, or officials specifically authorized by her.

The MFA refused to say who had signed under the issuance of service passports to Bozhkov and Popov. According to Bivol’s insider sources, this individual is Deputy Foreign Minister Georg Georgiev. Before his appointed to the post he was the leader of the Youth Organization of the ruling party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, GERB. He was appointed to this senior post at the age of 25 without any diplomatic experience, causing a stir in Bulgarian diplomatic circles.

This entire case is yet another confirmation that 30 years after the fall of the Communist regime in November 1989, the MFA remains an unreformed institution where the influence of structures, nomenclature and persons associated with the former Bulgarian Communist Party and with DS is still felt strongly.

From the “most infamous gangster” to a privileged Bulgarian with a service passport and back

Vassil “The Skull” Bozhkov is featured in several classified US diplomatic cables sent from Sofia to the US State Department. They describe him as:

“(C) Bulgaria’s most infamous gangster is Vasil Krumov Bozhkov, aka “the Skull.” Bozhkov founded his first company in 1990 before creating his current business empire, NOVE HOLDING, comprising over 30 companies and numerous subsidies. Bozhkov, whose wealth is valued at USD 1.5 billion, is one of the richest men in Bulgaria and almost made the top 50 richest Eastern Europeans list in 2008. He is now slowly moving out of the organized crime business and primarily owns casinos, hotels, and media outlets. However, he is still reportedly active in money laundering, privatization fraud, intimidation, extortion, racketeering, and illegal antique dealing. He maintains close relationships with many former government officials,” Chargé d’Affaires John Ordway wrote in 2009.

Bozhkov’s ties with government officials span long years and a number of cabinets and have been described in detail on the base of documental evidence. It appears now that GERB has also rolled out the diplomatic rug for him and his associates, issuing them passports for easily leaving the country and traveling anywhere they want.

The ball is now in the Prosecutor General’s court to establish the responsible individuals that have awarded diplomatic protection and status to Bozhkov and Popov with. This will be a good litmus test for the real political (in)dependence of Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev. Maybe these individuals can be charged as complicit in the evasion from justice of people indicted as ringleaders of an organized crime group?

Expect further details…

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