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Bulgaria's violent crime problem

Do a recent murder and political corruption scandal signal a resurgence of crime in Bulgaria?

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov attends a news conference in Sofia, Jan. 20, 2010. Borisov said he will appoint Defense Minister Nikolai Mladenov as foreign minister after accepting the resignation of incumbent Rumiana Jeleva. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

SOFIA, Bulgaria — Hours after radio host Bobbie Tsankov was assassinated in broad daylight in central Sofia, Bulgaria's capital, on Jan. 5, cops arrested reputed mobster Krasimir Marinov for allegedly masterminding the shooting. On the same day, they also announced a dragnet to find Marinov's younger brother and alleged co-conspirator, Nikolay.

But two weeks later, Marinov, nicknamed "The Big Margin," was released on bail because the judge said prosecutors lacked evidence to detain him. His brother, known as "The Little Margin," remained at large. On Jan. 21, the elder Marinov was again arrested, this time on drug-related charges. Since then, he's stayed in jail. His brother is still on the lam.

It's not the first time the Margin brothers have treated the Bulgarian judicial system like a drive-through. They have been in and out of court of since 2006 on allegations of plotting other midday street shootings. Because they claim to suffer from ill health, their trial has been postponed several times while they have been under house arrest, where they have continued to oversee their alleged criminal empire.

Sofia City Prosecutor Nikolay Kokinov shrugs when asked why he can't make charges against the brothers stick. "I'm not able to say where the mistake was," he said. "It is hard to prosecute such a case when there is a person who ordered the murder, and you don't have the person who perpetrated the crime."

Crime and corruption have again become a crisis in Bulgaria since Tsankov's death. On Jan. 19, the country's foreign minister, Rumiana Jeleva, resigned after withdrawing her candidacy for a seat on the European Commission amid accusations she lied on her financial disclosure forms. The scandal suggested that high-level political corruption was resurgent while hitmen were gunning down well-known figures in the streets.

Last year, the U.S. Embassy in Sofia released a list of about 140 contract murders in Bulgaria between 1993 and 2008. Authorities arrested numerous suspects connected to those public shootings, but no high-level bosses have been convicted.

The incidents rekindle memories of the unsolved shootings that led the European Union to suspend 500 million euros in aid to Bulgaria in 2008 because of officials' failure to end the country's ongoing crime spree. The move humiliated Bulgaria, the EU's poorest member, and was a key factor in Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's win last year over the then-Socialist government.

Ready to live up to his image as a tough guy, Borisov recently dressed down the country's top law enforcement officials at a press conference, calling for significant convictions by next year. His ministers vowed to end the complacency on crime that has bedeviled past governments.

"Some 250 to 300 emblematic figures of Bulgaria's underworld have been tormenting the country for the last 20 years," said Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov at the event. "We are facing difficulties because of all the time that has been lost."