Vassil Bozhkov leaves the country, police raid his offices in Sofia (Updated)

Meanwhile authorities arrested the head of the State Gambling Commission and seven other employees

Vassil Bozhkov leaves the country, police raid his offices in Sofia (Updated)

Asked by a bTV reporter if he is in Sofia, the owner of the largest lottery business in Bulgaria, Vassil Bozhkov said, he ‘likely’ is not but is not hiding from anyone. He said he does not know why the police are raiding his offices and that if "anyone is looking for me I could be [in Bulgaria] in a matter of several hours."

At the same time, over at the State Gambling Commission’s office, another raid was taking place. The head of the commission, Alexander Georgiev, and seven other employees were arrested and taken in for questioning in civil cars. All but one – who said he had done nothing wrong - refused to comment.

According to Mediapool sources some of the detained employees are accountants and financial clerks who processed declarations by gambling companies.

Both operations were organized by the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office. The exact reason for the raids is unclear but it is apparent Bozhkov has become a target of authorities over the past month.

In mid-January the head of the State Financial Inspection Agency, Georgy Nachev announced that the private lottery companies pay less fees than the state-operated lotto games. This was a clear sign that the government’s attitude towards Bozhkov’s businesses might be shifting.

Two weeks ago, prosecutors again raided the offices of the State Gambling Commission.

About the same time one of the coalition partners’ leaders - Valeri Simeonov - introduced a bill to Parliament, which would effectively nationalize the gambling sector: if passed, private actors would not be allowed to operate gambling games. The bill declares gambling games a state monopoly.

While these events were unfolding, Bozhkov gave his first interview in over a decade to Svobodna Evropa. This was telling on its own, given the overwhelming majority of print, TV and internet-based news outlets are government friendly or dependent. One otherwise more likely choice would have been NOVA TV – the network housing Bozhkov’s games, and whose largest advertisement revenue reportedly comes from his lotteries. Bozhkov told Svobodna Evropa he would sue the country if Parliament passes the bill championed by Simeonov and green-lighted by the ruling party.

Bozhkov’s lotteries are one of the most visible and widespread businesses in the country. Tickets could be found in every grocery store, gas station, news stand, liquor store in the country. The games take up daily prime time of NOVA TV, which is the second largest private TV network in Bulgaria. Bozhkov’s lottery games top the annual list of largest TV advertisers.

By no means are those businesses been out of sight for the government. It seems obvious the question here has less to do with substance (at the very least, open advertisement of gambling games is banned under Bulgarian law, and Bozhkov’s games could only top the list of advertisers year after year thanks to a convenient loophole and likely not without the help of certain authorities choosing to look the other way). The substance question is clearly there, but the more pressing one it seems is what has changed; why now? Something clearly has shifted, and it is nowhere on the surface, or in the realm of ‘official’ politics.

UPDATE 17:50: Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev announced his office is charging Vassil Bozhkov on seven criminal counts. Bozhkov is officially a wanted person and a European Arrest Warrant has been issued in his name. The charges range from leading an organized crime group, extortion, attempted bribery of an official, incitement to commit a crime of office and compulsion.

The Prosecutor’s Office assess Bozhkov owes 559 million. Ivan Geshev said most of that – about 500 million is from tax evasion.

The Financial Ministry till now has discussed only possible losses from fees, not taxes.

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