Bulgarian Gambling Tycoon Arrested in UAE

The wealthiest gambling tycoon in Bulgaria, Vasil Bozhkov was arrested in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last week after being charged in absentia. Bozhkov, one of the wealthiest people in Bulgaria, was charged with extortion, attempted bribery, and organizing a crime group among other crimes.

The Bulgarian flag flying from a flagpole.

The allegations leveled against Bozhkov have prompted swift action from the Bulgarian Government, which has voted to remove the license of the National Lottery and to ban private lotteries. ©sapviktor

Bozhkov was arrested on the 2nd of February 2020 alongside two other suspects according to the Bulgarian Prosecutor-General, Ivan Geshev.

The charges he was arrested on related to financial irregularities surrounding the lottery company run by Bozhkov, the National Lottery in Bulgaria. Bozhkov is accused of avoiding around €290.5m in taxes and licensing fees from 2014 onwards.

The headquarters of the National Lottery was raided in the lead-up to the arrest of Bozhkov, as were several other addresses that Bulgarian authorities had linked to the alleged fraud. During these raids, another dozen suspects were apprehended. These suspects include current and former heads of the national gambling regulator who stand accused of conspiracy to cover tracks of the gambling tycoon and helping to hide the financial irregularities that have drawn attention.

Among the others arrested was the chairman of the Gambling Commission in Bulgaria Alexander Georgiev, who resigned after his arrest. Georgi Yordanov, the former chief of cabinet at the Ministry of Finance, was appointed as the interim chairman of the regulator until a permanent replacement can be found.

“We will make every effort to take Bozhkov to court. This is another oligarch who has fled Bulgaria. I do not know where Bozhkov is but I know he is not in the country”Ivan Geshev, Prosecutor-General in Bulgaria

Due to the levels of corruption in the Gambling Commission, four new directors were also appointed. These directors will replace previous members of the organization who were detained during the raids. These new directors are Stoyan Stoyanov, the chief secretary of the Ministry of Justice; Paul Ilchev, the chairman of the Bulgarian Institute of Metrology; Krasimir Boyadzhiev, the head of the National Revenue Agency’s special investigations unit; and Emil Zahariev, the director at the State Agency for National Security. The new directors all have experience working to combat crimes in the country and the move can be seen as a message that the Bulgarian government is determined to stamp out crime and corruption in the country.

An additional response by the Bulgarian Government was to vote to abolish private lotteries and to revoke the operating license held by the National Lottery. Geshev announced the charges that were leveled against Bozhkov, who is also known as “The Skull” in his absence in January. He was charged with seven crimes, including organizing a crime group, extortion, attempted bribery of an official and incitement to commit criminal offenses. Shortly after Geshev announced this to reporters a European arrest warrant was issued for Bozhkov.

The tycoon denied any wrongdoing after the announcement, however. “The Skull” spoke to a local Bulgarian TV channel bTV from a “non-European country”. During the interview, he denied any involvement in criminal activities and dismissed the allegations against him as false. He also suggested that, in fact, he was the victim in the situation, saying that the Bulgarian government was responsible for a “gross violation of the laws”.

There is no extradition treaty in place between Bulgaria and the UAE so currently, it remains unclear how the case will progress, and whether Bozhkov will be shipped back to his home country to answer for his alleged crimes.

Who is Vasil Bozhkov?

Bozhkov is believed to be worth around $1.35bn and began amassing his wealth in 1993 after he established his first casino and gambling company alongside Ilya Pavlov. Pavlov was also the founder of Multigroup, which was allegedly a front for one of Bulgaria’s biggest organized crime syndicates.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Bulgarian Mafia came to the fore in the country and dominated both legitimate and criminal enterprises throughout the nation. A leaked diplomatic report from 2009 described Bozhkov as “Bulgaria’s most infamous gangster”. The same report also suggested that he was involved in a litany of crimes including money laundering, privatization fraud, illegal antique dealing, intimidation, and extortion.

In 2005, US diplomats also accused the tycoon of being involved in multiple crimes that are similar to those listed in the leaked report, as well as close ties to organized crime groups.

Bozhkov’s original business partner was assassinated in 2004 just after he testified in a trial investigating the murder of former Prime Minister Andrey Lukanov.

There was a huge amount of money to be made upon the fall of the Soviet Union when Bulgaria made the transition from a communist state to a democratic free-market economy. Bozhkov capitalized upon this, but he was likely assisted by the massive amounts of corruption in the country. Bulgaria was listed as the most corrupt country in the European Union by Transparency International in its 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index. This highlights that the levels of corruption are still high even today.

Today, Bozhkov controls some of the largest gambling businesses in Bulgaria, as well as owning shares in one of the most popular football teams in the country, Levski Sofia. Over the years, he has also gathered a huge number of valuable assets including thousands of archaeological antiques. These assets have reportedly been seized by Bulgarian authorities and may be sold to cover the hundreds of millions of euros that Bozhkov is accused of avoiding in taxes.

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