DUPNITSA, Bulgaria (Reuters) - The impoverished population of this sleepy Bulgarian town faced a bizarre choice of candidates in Sunday’s general election -- suspected local crime bosses who are also town benefactors.
Exploiting loopholes in the European Union newcomer’s laws, two suspected crime chiefs awaiting trial registered last month to run for parliament to obtain a release from custody, and get temporary immunity from prosecution.
The participation of Plamen Galev and Angel Hristov, who have become a symbol of the climate of impunity in Bulgaria, have shocked many in the Balkan country of 7.6 million and the European Union.
Diplomats say it was further proof that Sofia was not doing enough to clean up its act and crack down on powerful organized crime and chronic corruption.
But for people in Dupnitsa, at the foot of the Rila mountain some 60 km (40 miles) south of Sofia, jobs and prosperity depend on the two former policemen known as the Galevi brothers. If elected to parliament, their immunity will become permanent.
“I’m not bothered that they have been to prison, because there are many others who should be in jail but are not,” said former teacher Stefka Popova, 62. “I trust them. They have money, they work for the satisfaction of doing something about the town.”
“Isn’t it a greater moral crime to be in power for 4-5 years and do nothing?” she said, referring to widespread popular anger with the ruling Socialist party for failing to boost living standards in the poorest EU nation.
The two burly former policemen, whose background and businesses are shrouded in mystery, were arrested in January on charges of racketeering and running an organized crime group.
According to local council officials, the two business partners have effectively run Dupnitsa for years through contacts in the police, courts and tax authorities. They are said to be members of an advisory council to the town’s mayor.
People said they were grateful to Galev and Hristov for renovating Dupnitsa’s park and several schools as well as laying fresh asphalt on potholed streets.
“It is obvious -- they did something for the town. People care when somebody does something,” said a 24-year-old hairdresser who gave his name as Kamen.
Like elsewhere in the Black Sea nation, unemployment is rising in Dupnitsa as its pharmaceutical and textile companies cut production due to the global downturn. Many of the 40,000 population struggle with monthly salaries of about 150 euros.
“We can feel the crisis -- there is no money, no jobs,” said Nadya, 40, unemployed. “The town is dying. I hope that if people elect Plamen Galev, he would do something about the town.”
Some said the upbeat opinions about the two men were partly based on fear but added gratitude was mostly genuine.
“According to me people are afraid. But as a matter of truth, the two have indeed done something (for the town),” said Dimitar Mihailov, pensioner.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.