Magazine article The Spectator

Bulgar and Nasty

Magazine article The Spectator

Bulgar and Nasty

Article excerpt

It was just as the Crazy Frog had finished belting out across the Tannoy into the gloaming of the Black Sea that it happened: out came the giant flag of Georgi Iliev, surrounded by thousands of smaller Iliev posters, held up by the Lokomotiv Plovdiv faithful. 'We will never forget, we will always follow your way, ' read another banner.

'I think it's a bit sad that they love this guy so much, ' said Tsvetan, my faithful guide. He outlined a few of the rumours about good old Georgi -- the gang rape, the trafficking in people and body-parts, the five homicides and the torture of rivals. He didn't sound very nice, really, and there seemed to be quite a few potential reasons why the Loko club president had been shot by a sniper shortly before the Uefa Cup first-round draw.

Lokomotiv versus Bolton Wanderers, the Naftex Stadium, Burgas. At half-time the home fans did even better, replacing Georgi's giant portrait with a pyrotechnic display that left the pitch swathed in wispy intestines of smoke and the Uefa officials in a dither. The late Georgi's side went one up and it looked as if his presidential spirit really was stalking the turf, before some sort of justice prevailed and two late goals saved the day for Sam Allardyce and the Wanderers (club president Nat Lofthouse:

no known organ-smuggling charges).

'Typical, ' said Tsvetan. 'We Bulgarians always drown at the end of the river.' I asked him what he meant. He said that Bulgarians are always failing at the last minute, grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. 'Like your European Union membership?' I ventured.

Bulgaria. I've been twice now and confess I can never quite understand who runs the place, nor why so many Brits trust it as a retirement home. Tsvetan was doing his best: the government consists of a bewildering coalition of the NDCV, the national movement of Simeon II -- or the yellow party -- the BCP socialists, and the DPC Turks, ranged against the Union of Democratic Forces -- the Blue party -- the Ataka nationalists and a host of others. But then some journalists I met in Sofia the night I arrived had told me about two other acronyms -- SIC and VIS, both of them umbrellas for the gangster underworld, a shadowy mixture of former weightlifters and wrestlers who formed security companies after the collapse of communism, companies which in turn had bought off the necessary politicians in the interior and finance ministries. Iliev's Multigroup was SIC, apparently, linked to the BCP.

So who was really in charge? I again asked Tsvetan, as we went to pay homage at the spot where Iliev had been shot in Sunny Beach, the resort north of Burgas where Georgi and his kind piled some of their millions. As we drove in his small Volkswagen we were edged off the road by a Hummer flashing its lights at us; it roared past, accompanied by three S-Class Mercedes-loads of bodyguards. 'If you don't sell drugs or weapons, you won't get shot, but you drive a Volkswagen, ' said Tsvetan. 'Quite, ' I agreed.

There wasn't so much to see at the Multiplace Buddha bar where Iliev took the fatal bullet. The windows were boarded up and on one piece of plywood a small memorial notice flapped in the wind. 'Georgi Andrijev Iliev . . . we are with you in our thoughts and dreams, your bright memory we will never forget. From the personnel of Multiplace, ' it read.

According to the papers, Iliev had ventured out of the bar, renowned for its prostitutes ('It was a weakness: his wife didn't really like it, ' said Tsvetan) and made a call to one of his underlings at Lokomotiv.

'Come and have a raki with me, ' he said.

They were his last words.

We drove on to the nearby Helena Sands hotel, where the Wanderers were staying. I booked in, hopeful of getting a chat with Allardyce. Behind the reception desk there was a large photograph of George and Barbara Bush. 'Who are they?' I asked.

'Oh, friends of our owner, ' I was told. I made some inquiries and found that the proprietor, Mladen Mutafchiisky, used to manage the state arms company, Teraton. …

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