Bulgarian investigative journalist Hristo Hristov outperforms a series of Bulgarian and British governments in unearthing the truth about the Bulgarian Umbrella Murder
Hristo Hristov is a quiet man with an aristocratic goatee who sits in an office, writes books and appears unharmful to anybody because he looks like an oldfashioned librarian. But in fact he is a very dangerous man. During the past decade he gained access to and meticulously studied hundreds of archive volumes belonging to the Communist-era State Security, or Darzhavna sigurnost. In them he has found some horrifying documents proving beyond any reasonable doubt what now NATO and EU Bulgaria got itself involved in when the Communist Party and the Warsaw Pact were in place. These include evidence of assassinations, or "wet jobs," arms smuggling and outrageous human rights violations perpetrated against ordinary citizens both in Bulgaria and in the ostensibly secure West. Since the early 1990s, when Todor Zhivkov was already a thing of the past but democracy hadn't yet settled in, a succession of Bulgarian governments of all shades and hues have been reluctant to disclose these unpleasant truths. Significantly, they have done all they could in their power to keep the files under lock and key.
But Hristo Hristov is not a man who would give up. He has used various legal ways including court action and finally, with the assistance of the Access to Information Programme, a Bulgarian NGO dedicated to ensuring free access to public records, managed to win a legal battle against the National Intelligence Service, the successor to the First Main Department of the Darzhavna sigurnost. With the court ruling in hand, he was given access to what remains of the Georgi Markov-related files in the highly protected vaults of the Interior Ministry. In the hundreds of pages he studied and photocopied he established the identity of a strange man, shrouded in secrecy and conspiracy, who likely pulled the trigger on Georgi Markov in what would remain in history as the Bulgarian Umbrella Murder.
Since the fall of Communism all Bulgarian governments have expressed in varying degrees their commitment to assisting British justice in identifying and arresting the assassin of Georgi Markov in London in 1978. Have they lived up to their promises?
No. The issue of Georgi Markov's murder has long ceased to be the criminal investigation. It is a purely political issue in which many other issues intertwine. It is about Bulgaria's readiness to face up to its own past; it is about the willingness of the post-Communist Bulgarian rulers to admit the crimes perpetrated by their predecessors. The Bulgarian Umbrella Murder has become the litmus test of Bulgaria's disposition to come to terms with Communism, what the democratic governments of Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary did as early as the 1990s.
The official explanation being given in the end is that there was no umbrella, that Georgi Markov wasn't murdered and that the whole story can be explained with a "medical mistake" by the British authorities. These explanations are oddly reminiscent of the official stand of the Bulgarian government in the 1970s and 1980s when it vehemently rejected any relation to the assassination and vilified Western intelligence. In that sense, Bulgaria has spectacularly failed the litmus test.
Francesco Gullino aka Agent Piccadilly
How did you gain access to the former State Security files?
It is a long story, going on for at least nine years, that comes down to a court ruling ordering the chief of the National Intelligence Service, Gen. Kircho Kirov, to grant me access to the files related to the Georgi Markov case.
It is widely believed that most of what the Markov files contained was destroyed after the fall of Communism.
The legend of the "destroyed" files has been yet another tool used by the former State Security to obscure the truth and convince the public, both in Bulgaria and in Britain, that nothing remains in the archives and therefore they should be left untouched. The truth, it emerged, is quite different. The Markov-related files as they stand in 2008 comprise over 100 volumes. While it is true that some critical documents have been purged, after the fall of Communism and evidently as late as 1999, what remains indicates beyond reasonable doubt that the Bulgarian State Security commissioned a concrete man to assassinate Georgi Markov in London in 1978 as part of a comprehensive campaign to destroywhat it called "enemy émigrés."
Press reports in recent years have revealed the name of that man, Francesco Gullino, an Italian with a Danish passport.
This is no longer a secret. The story of one of the most mysterious Cold War assassins reads like a John le Carré novel but at the same time it is quite mundane, even petty. Gullino had a long relationship with the Bulgarian Darzhavna sigurnost. He was obviously a disenfranchised and disillusioned young Italian in the 1950s and 1960s who'd attended a Catholic school, travelled a lot, spoke French and eventually visited Bulgaria. In 1965 he was arrested and released at the border crossing with Greece as he and two Englishmen tried to spirit a Bulgarian out of the country. He would keep coming back to Bulgaria. On one occasion he stole a Fiat in Greece and sold it in parts in Bulgaria. Darzhavna sigurnost employed a classic trick to force him into collaborationism: they threatened him over his compromised past as a petty criminal. Gullino was a willing victim, however. He signed a Declaration of Allegiance to Darzhavna sigurnost in 1971 and promptly started receiving money from Sofia. He was now Agent Piccadilly.
Gullino wasn't assigned any particular task until 1978. By that time he had already been deployed in Denmark which issued him a residence permit on the basis of his Common Market citizenship. People in Copenhagen might still remember his little flea shop in Blågårdsgade.
In 1976–77 Agent Piccadilly made several visits to the UK travelling on the counterfeit passports Darzhavna sigurnost had equipped him with. He would stay in South Clapham, not far from where Georgi Markov lived.
At the beginning of 1978 Agent Piccadilly was summoned to Bulgaria where he underwent special training including lie detector sessions to test his loyalty and check his ability to withstand "enemy" interrogations.
Immediately after the assassination of Georgi Markov on 7 September 1978 on Waterloo Bridge in London, Gullino flew to Rome where he met with a Bulgarian State Security commanding officer. That was the officer who had recruited him in the first place. There was no conversation, just an eye contact in St Peter's Square in Rome: A task had been accomplished!
After that he was awarded with Bulgarian Interior Ministry medals for services rendered and was given a free holiday in Bulgaria.
Agent Piccadilly wasn't given any task in the 1980s, but he continued receiving payments from Bulgaria and coming here for holidays – right until 1990 when he was decommissioned.
In total, Francesco Gullino aka Agent Piccadilly received about $30,000 from the Bulgarian Darzhavna sigurnost – without doing anything at all, according to the records. In total, Darzhavna sigurnost spent at least $100,000 on him.
At the last communication with Bulgarian intelligence in 1990 his only inquiry was whether the collapse of Communism might crack his true identity.
Are there any documents directly implicating Gullino as the murderer of Georgi Markov?
Almost all of the files pertaining to the year 1978 are missing. They were probably destroyed. However, most files related to Agent Piccadilly before and after 1978, including payment receipts and minutiae of meetings with Bulgarian commanding officers, mainly in Copenhagen and Vienna but also in Malmö, Lisbon and elsewhere, remain.
There is plenty of other circumstantial evidence as well. In 1972 State Security and the KGB in Moscow approved a highly classified protocol whereby the KGB would be supplying Bulgaria with assassination poisons. There are also records of Bulgarian Communist Party and State Security decisions to "neutralise" dissidents both in Bulgaria and in the West. It was all part of a comprehensive campaign to stifle dissent and conduct subversive operations in the West. Interestingly, this happened just after the 1975 Helsinki agreements to which Bulgaria was a party...
For a former small-time criminal and a dormant mole, to use the language of espionage, Gullino was exceptionally well paid and treated. He underwent "special training" just prior to the murder. He dined with Gen. Vasil Kotsev, the head of the First Main Department of State Security, the unit that was in charge of special operations and "wet jobs." Not even Kim Philby knew anyone in the hierarchy above his commanding officer.
Ultimately, whether Agent Piccadilly was the real murderer is for the courts to decide. But all evidence indicates that he is the prime suspect.
Why has Bulgaria been reluctant to cooperate with the Scotland Yard and the British government?
I think the reasons are not very complicated. Firstly, there are people involved in the murder who are still living. Secondly, there are the children of senior Communist politicians and Darzhavna sigurnost operatives who are now in high state offices. Thirdly, Darzhavna sigurnost was officially disbanded in the early 1990s, and its operatives, some of whom very highly qualified with foreign languages etc, suddenly found themselves unemployed – but not for long. They all got jobs in the private or even state sectors. In this sense Darzhavna sigurnost had finally accomplished its main objective: It had penetrated all of Bulgarian society and business. Finally, it is somewhat a matter of pride. The Bulgarians do not like to admit their past faults or crimes.
Especially under the current government, which unofficially celebrates the 9th of September, the day of the Communist coup in Bulgaria, it has become a commonplace to explain collaboration with Darzhavna sigurnost as "working for Bulgaria's national interests." It has become an accepted notion to justify the activities of Darzhavna sigurnost with the interests of Bulgaria. But these were not the interests of Bulgaria. These were the interests of the KGB and the Communist Party.
Most Bulgarians know that some of the senior Bulgarian politicians and public figures are either directly related to State Security, or their parents were. It is difficult to name many people in Bulgaria's big business in 2008 who don't have a "professional" or family relation either to the former Darzhavna sigurnost or the Communist establishment. President Georgi Parvanov himself signed a declaration of allegiance to Darzhavna sigurnost in late 1989, then defended himself by asserting he worked "in the national interest." Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev is the son of a senior Communist Party apparatchik, and so is Boris Velchev, the chief prosecutor. Evgeniya Zhivkova, the granddaughter of Todor Zhivkov, is a member of parliament. And Boyko Kotsev, the son of Gen. Vasil Kotsev, the chief of the First Main Department who dined with Gullino, is now the Bulgarian ambassador to the EU!
In 1991 former KGB general Oleg Kalugin spoke out on the Markov case and revealed that the Russians had in fact assisted the Bulgarians in killing Georgi Markov. Have you seen any Bulgarian documents corroborating or rejecting what Kalugin said?
Darzhavna sigurnost was almost 100 percent subservient to the KGB and it wouldn't do anything half as drastic as an assassination in the middle of London without the approval and the support of the KGB. The files in Bulgaria categorically prove that the Russians not only helped the Bulgarians but were heavily involved in the Georgi Markov assassination and all other planned assassinations of dissidents from the very start. The request for Markov's assassination was sent by Todor Zhivkov to the KGB via then Interior Minister Dimitar Stoyanov. Yuriy Andropov, the head of the KGB, was initially reluctant because he didn't want to resort to the "methods of the past," but he was subsequently convinced to oblige. There was no direct Russian involvement, but the Russians provided both the poison and the technology.
By 1978 the poisonous needles referred to in the 1973 agreement between Darzhavna sigurnost and the KGB had evolved into pellets.
It is important to note that Kalugin was right in the details as well. Georgi Markov was not assassinated with an umbrella, but with a penlike device that used compressed air to inject the tiny ricin pellet into his thigh. The umbrella was a distraction.
Kalugin also named the senior Bulgarian generals who were directly responsible. Are they still alive?
Gen. Vasil Kotsev, the head of the First Main Department, died in an unexplained car crash in 1986. Gen. Stoyan Savov, the deputy interior minister who was tried for the unlawful destruction of the Markov files, committed suicide in 1992, two days before his sentence was to be read out. Dimitar Stoyanov, who was interior minister in 1973–1988, died in 1999. Gen. Vlado Todorov, the deputy chief of the First Main Directorate in 1973–1986 and its chief in 1986–1980, was the only person indicted on anything related to the Georgi Markov murder. He served a 10-month jail sentence for tampering with the Markov's files. Ret. Gen. Todorov is alive today.
Do you think the British police have been serious about the Bulgarian Umbrella Murder?
It is a huge case spanning 30 years and hundreds of witnesses that, as I said earlier, has transformed itself from being a criminal investigation into a political issue. In the 1980s the Scotland Yard was very serious because it didn't like the idea of having Communist agents killing people in London. When Communism collapsed in Bulgaria the issue became political. A succession of presidents vowed to open up the files and establish the truth about Georgi Markov, but they didn't live up to their promises. Zhelyu Zhelev, president in 1990–97, visited the grave of Georgi Markov at Whitchurch Canonicorum in Dorset. Petar Stoyanov, president in 1997–2002, also made promises, but subsequently wouldn't even be interviewed on the issue. The official position now is a British "medical mistake."
Over the years, the original Scotland Yard detectives who started the case changed several times. Probably the new ones are not very well familiar with all the details and intricacies of the huge amount of evidence. It seems that despite persistent questions about Georgi Markov in the British Parliament, posed by people as varied as Baroness Linda Chalker and Lord Bethell in the 1990s and Julian Lewis in the 2000s, the British government has been careful not to overembarrass the new Bulgarian allies.
But things have changed since the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London that bore an obvious resemblance to the Markov case.
The Scotland Yard has renewed its request for access to the Bulgarian Darzhavna sigurnost files. I do not know whether they have been granted access to the files, but I have reason to believe that they won't be given the whole picture.
In the meantime, what is happening to Gullino? He evaded arrest in 1993, when he was interrogated by the Scotland Yard, the Bulgarian police and the Danish Counterintelligence Service in Copenhagen.
That was the closest justice ever came to Agent Piccadilly, back in 1993. At the time he was 47 years old.
Gullino was summoned for an interrogation at the Bellahøj police station in Copenhagen on 5 February 1993. Chris Bird and David Kemp of the Scotland Yard conducted the interrogation. Poul Erik Dinessen, the deputy chief of the Danish criminal police, and Bogdan Karayotov, the Bulgarian investigator of the Markov case, were present. At the interrogation the detectives showed Gullino his declaration of allegiance to Darzhavna sigurnost, but he rejected it as "bogus." They referred to Georgi Markov's assassination, but Gullino said he knew nothing about it. Gullino walked out of the police station a free man.
Because the Bulgarian representative wasn't authorised to render the original documents to the Danes. There is also the "conflict of interest" between Britain and Denmark. In Britain, Gullino was wanted for murder, and Denmark could only charge him with espionage.
Both the UK and Denmark used both diplomatic channels and the Interpol to acquire the incriminating evidence against Gullino so that they could officially charge him. Richard Thomas, the British ambassador to Bulgaria at the time, and Claus Otto Kappel, his Danish counterpart, made several attempts to gain access to the documents, but Ivan Tatarchev, Bulgaria's then chief prosecutor, refused, citing national security reasons.
In the meantime, Gullino left Copenhagen and disappeared for good. There are reports that he was seen in Budapest and in Carlsbad, in the Czech Republic. Gullino is at the moment a free man travelling on a Danish passport. Bogdan Karayotov retired in 1999. Immediately after that the new chief of the National Intelligence Service, Dimo Gyaurov, requested all documents pertaining to the case to be returned to the service's safes. They included minutiae of the last meeting between Gullino and a Bulgarian Darzhavna sigurnost officer, in Budapest in 1990. At it Gullino inquired whether his identity would be revealed if the opposition won the Bulgarian election. The Bulgarian officer said not to worry. Obviously, Darzhavna sigurnost kept its word.
The findings of Hristo Hristov have become major international news, but prompted limited reaction in Bulgaria. No senior politician produced a comment. The Bulgarian Investigation Service announced that it would extend the 30-year statutory limitations, which were set to expire in September 2008, and continue with the investigation. It said that it would request the Darzhavna sigurnost files for inspection.
However, what sounds like a piece of good news in the Georgi Markov case is not particularly pleasing for Hristo Hristov who has his own explanation. "By taking over the files the Bulgarian investigation will automatically declare them confidential, as they pertain to an ongoing investigation. That may mean that the files will be closed and possibly purged again."
Assassinated in London
Georgi Markov was born in Sofia in 1929 and studied chemistry. He turned to fulltime writing in the 1950s while staying in a tuberculosis hospital. Markov wrote a number of novels and plays in the 1960s. His first major work, Men, won the 1962 Union of Bulgarian Writers Prize, but many of his subsequent novels and especially plays were censored for his unabashed criticism of Communism. In 1969 he left Bulgaria and in 1972 he started working for the BBC World Service in London.
The Communist government in Bulgaria gave him a six-year jail sentence for his refusal to return, and his name was obliterated from public records. His books were taken off library shelves: Georgi Markov had officially become a "non-person."
His In Absentia Reports From Bulgaria were beamed by Radio Free Europe in Munich from 1975. In them he was highly critical of the Communist establishment, which made some critics compare him to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Georgi Markov was stabbed with a poisonous pellet on Waterloo Bridge in London on 7 September 1978. He died on 11 September.
Hristo Hristov is a staff writer for the Dnevnik daily in Sofia. His books include Kill The Wanderer!, the story of Georgi Markov and his assassination in London; The Classified Case of the Camps, which deals with the Communist-run labour camps for dissidents in the 1950s and 1960s; Case No. 186, State Security Against Bulgaria's Émigrés, about the kidnapping of Boris Arsov, a Bulgaria dissident, in Århus, Denmark, in 1974; and Socialism's Secret Bankruptcies about Bulgaria's economic policies vis-a-vis the USSR.
Hristo Hristov newest book, The Double Life of Agent Piccadilly, can be read in English on www.hristo-hristov.com/
A rare English-language interview with Georgi Markov can be heard on www.uk.youtube.com/watch?v=czZwkVIF2hQ