Accessibility links

Breaking News

Fugitive Bulgarian Tycoon Takes On His Government With Ali Baba Cartoons

Vasil Bozhkov made his fortune through gambling and lottery games.
Vasil Bozhkov made his fortune through gambling and lottery games.

SOFIA -- Bulgaria's richest businessman, who is currently living in self-imposed exile in Dubai, has fired the latest salvo in his ongoing social-media war against the government, comparing himself to folk hero Ali Baba in a Facebook cartoon.

In the June 1 Facebook post, Vasil Bozhkov, a gambling tycoon nicknamed "The Skull," depicted himself as the beloved Arabian Nights character, amassing a great fortune in his cave, only for the government to take it away.

Bozhkov, who built his wealth with casinos and by running gambling and lottery games, has been living in Dubai since January after he was charged in Bulgaria with tax fraud, attempted bribery, and organized crime. Bulgarian prosecutors have charged that Bozhkov defrauded the state by up to 700 million Bulgarian leva ($403 million) in unpaid taxes on his lottery games.

The scandal has highlighted once again Bulgaria's shoddy record on corruption and organized crime while also raising questions about the possible protection Bozhkov received from successive Bulgarian governments.

"Once upon a time, there was a state ruled by 240 outlaws (the number of deputies in the Bulgarian parliament)," Bozhkov wrote on Facebook in a description accompanying one of the cartoons. "Ali Baba also lived there. In 2013, [Ali Baba] discovered a new cave, the National Lottery, which was small, so the outlaws did not notice it and did not impose a special tax on it."

The hero of the folk tale, Ali Baba was a poor woodcutter who happened upon the secret stash of a band of thieves. After a series of tribulations, he emerged triumphant, the only person knowing how to access the treasure in the secret cave.

Naming Names

Depicting himself as a modern-day Ali Baba, with a black T-shirt emblazoned with a skull and Bozhkov's trademark cigar, the cartoon tells the story of a businessman who attracted the attention of the ruling powers, who wanted him to pay more tax.

In 2013, the cabinet of Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski proposed changes to the law that exempted bingo halls, raffles, lotteries, and card games from taxation. In 2014, the changes were approved by parliament.

One of the cartoons published on Facebook by Vasil Bozhkov.
One of the cartoons published on Facebook by Vasil Bozhkov.

Bozhkov's Facebook cartoon ends with a description of Ali Baba meeting with "the deputy chief of finance."

"We helped you. You will work under this law and you will give us 20 percent of your profit," the cartoon politician says, referring to a loophole that Bozhkov says he was promised would reduce his tax burden.

A day later, on June 2, Bozhkov dropped the artifice, posting an infographic on Facebook "for those who didn't understand the fairy tale " -- and this time, naming names.

'Barbaric Junta'

He accused Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov, from the ruling coalition led by the conservative GERB party, of asking him for a 20 percent cut in his lottery business, Bulgaria's largest, in exchange for favorable legislation, a charge he had alluded to in the cartoon.

Bozhkov, who is thought to be worth up to $1.5 billion, wrote that he paid 20 percent of his profits "to specific individuals" as a "helping" fee. He did not name any of those individuals or specify how much he allegedly paid.

Bozhkov also owns the Levski Sofia soccer club and has a large collection of antiques and paintings.

Since his self-imposed exile in Dubai, Borisov has penned almost-daily screeds on Facebook against the government, accusing Bulgaria's leaders of being barbaric, a "junta," and "crossing all moral and ethical boundaries."

Borisov, who returned to power in 2017 for his third term since 2009 and has vowed to wipe out graft, has not commented on Bozhkov's accusations.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov

Goranov has acknowledged meetings with Bozhkov, which he said are standard practice for a finance minister and a large taxpayer.

When asked by RFE/RL, Bulgaria's Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev declined to comment on whether his office was intending to investigate Bozhkov's allegations.

"I am the chief prosecutor, not the supervising prosecutor. Refer to the countless interviews in which I have given detailed explanations of the difference between a prosecutor-general and a supervising prosecutor," he said, speaking by phone.

Out Of Favor

Bozhkov's fall from grace has been swift. Making his fortune in the early 1990s with currency exchanges and casinos, he was well connected and previously enjoyed the goodwill of successive governments.

Now a political pariah, his lottery games have been removed from the marketplace and a number of his family members and associates have also been detained.

Bozhkov is a controversial figure in Bulgaria, with many accusing him of being involved in organized crime.

In May, a special prosecutor's office announced that it was investigating the tycoon for participating in an organized-crime group that had been involved in murders, coercion, and rape since 2012.

A leaked U.S. State Department cable from 2005 , which was published by WikiLeaks, claimed that Bozhkov was involved in "money laundering, privatization fraud, extortion, and racketeering."

According to Transparency International's 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, Bulgaria ranked 74th out of 198 countries, making it the most corrupt country in the EU.

  • 16x9 Image

    RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service

    RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service relaunched in 2019 after a 15-year absence, providing independent news and original analysis to help strengthen a media landscape weakened by the monopolization of ownership and corruption.