Gunfire from Kalashnikov assault rifles interrupted the usual hustle and bustle of Wednesday afternoon business in the upscale Lozenets district of downtown Sofia last week, signalling the violent end of a recent lull in organised crime-related murders.
Ivan Todorov, also known as "Doktora" (the Doctor), was killed when two gunmen cut off his black Porsche Cayenne SUV with a white Audi and opened fire with assault rifles. According to police, Todorov was killed instantly and over 30 shell casings were found at the scene of the crime.
His driver remains in serious condition after doctors removed nine bullets from his body during surgery.
Witnesses said the two gunmen fled the scene in the Audi. The police have yet to identify any suspects in the murder.
Todorov, who was a defendant in a Lv99m (50.7m euro) money laundering case, survived a previous attempt on his life in 2003 when a car bomb destroyed his armoured Mercedes. But while the reputed smuggler and kidnapper was able to evade prosecution from authorities, he was not able to escape the law of the underworld.
The bold assassination in broad daylight comes as a blow to the government's recent efforts to retaliate against brazen underworld figures who appear to operate with impunity throughout the country.
Following the previous high-profile murder of banker Emil Kyulev, who was killed under nearly identical circumstances in October, the Ministry of the Interior launched a campaign to curtail organised crime, dubbed "Operation Respect".
Until Wednesday, the operation appeared to be having some success as the Interior Ministry reported a decrease in murders. But as the news of Todorov's untimely assassination became public, there was no shortage of finger pointing and blame placing in parliament. The target of choice was Minister of the Interior Rumen Petkov, who bore the brunt of the criticism for the failure of the ministry to prevent the latest broad daylight murder carried out in Bulgaria's capital.
Petkov's immediate resignation was demanded by former chief of the National Security Service and current parliamentarian Atanas Atanassov from the opposition Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB) party.
Ataka party leader Volen Siderov also called for the immediate stripping of immunity of deputy Milen Velchev and the investigation of his suspected ties with Todorov.
New chief prosecutor Boris Velchev, who took office Thursday, has repeatedly brought up the matter of immunity for parliamentarians, and last month the assembly approved proposed amendments to the constitution limiting lawmakers' immunity from prosecution. Discussion on the matter was further fuelled when outgoing prosecutor Nikola Filchev left behind a list of allegedly corrupt officials within the government.
The implications of the most recent murder go far beyond a simple turf battle of shady underworld figures. The larger issue here is Bulgaria's apparent impotence in combating organised crime - a problem that if persists will be one of the biggest stumbling blocks on the road to EU membership.
The government, for its part, has been publicly outspoken in its effort to combat organised crime, and has made concerted efforts to show its resolve on the matter.
"We attach a particular priority to efforts in the area of justice and home affairs," Minister of European Affairs Meglena Kuneva recently told OBG. "I would not pretend that the difficult issues of corruption and organised crime can be solved overnight. However, we have made very serious steps and the first results are already evident."
Minister Kuneva went on to cite several pieces of recent legislation specifically targeting these issues. They included the new Penal Procedure Code, constitutional changes to enhance the transparency and efficiency of the judicial system, and new Civil and Administrative Procedural codes.
Despite the progress on paper, an apparent lack of real world results has caused some EU member countries to question whether Bulgaria warrants membership in 2007.
Even before Wednesday's unpleasant events, there was concern over Bulgaria's progress on this front. Before eventually ratifying Bulgaria's EU accession treaty, members of the Christian Democrat and socialist parties urged the Dutch parliament to delay ratification until the EU's final progress report on Bulgaria in May. The parliamentary members, who were in the minority in voting against the ratification, cited concerns over corruption and crime.
German print media has also published numerous articles portraying Bulgaria, and particularly its judicial system, in very unflattering terms.
"Isn't Bulgaria too criminalised to be a member of the EU?" and "New Wave of Scepticism in EU Regarding Bulgaria" are among the recent titles of articles slamming Bulgaria's preparedness - or lack thereof - for EU membership.
If the negative publicity and critical EU monitoring reports are enough to bring about the majority vote against Bulgaria's accession needed to delay entry, there are some who wouldn't be so disappointed. Those who operate in Bulgaria's substantial unregulated grey economy stand to benefit as long as the status quo remains. Meanwhile, others point to the fact that the Ataka party captured 8% of the vote in the last election on a nationalistic, anti-integration platform as another warning of what might follow a rebuff from Europe.
Despite the harsh publicity, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Cyprus, Greece, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, Malta and Latvia have already ratified Bulgaria's EU accession treaty, with more countries expected to follow suit soon.
Minister Kuneva explained that a delay in the country joining the EU would not only harm Bulgaria, but it would be a step backward for the Union as well.
"Bulgaria will be better placed to complete its transformation as an EU member state from 2007," Kuneva told OBG. "A delay of the membership would discourage the Bulgarian people, who bear the heavy social cost of the reforms. A delay would also unjustly punish those economic operators who have made the necessary efforts in time and would reward others, who have procrastinated."