- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

SOFIA, Bulgaria | Lyuben Markov has waited decades to find out who killed his cousin with a poison-tipped umbrella. Now he may never know.

In one of the most infamous unsolved crimes of the Cold War, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was attacked in London on Sept. 7, 1978, and died four days later.

With the 30-year statute of limitations coming up, Bulgaria plans to close its investigation of the case, a move that may stymie Britain’s probe and leave unanswered speculation that Bulgaria’s spy service ordered the hit.

“I am bitter and disgusted,” said Lyuben Markov, 64, in an interview near Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. “No one has the guts to resolve it.”

Suggesting involvement by the country’s former rulers “is unpatriotic, so I’m told,” he added.

The assassination silenced Georgi Markov, who used the London-based BBC World Service and U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe to denounce Bulgaria as one of the world’s most repressive communist regimes.

The government now faces fresh criticism that it is reluctant to face up to its totalitarian past and as it comes under increasing pressure to fight corruption.

It lost at least $735 million in European Union aid in July for failing to crack down on graft.

“The onus is on the Bulgarian authorities to show the judicial system works,” said the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, explaining its July 23 decision.

After Bulgaria’s communist rulers were toppled in 1989 amid popular democratic revolutions across much of communist Eastern Europe, the Black Sea nation joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007. It is rated the second-most corrupt in the 27-nation EU, after Romania, according to Berlin-based Transparency International.

“I find it very worrying that the Bulgarian authorities are closing this case,” said Julian Lewis, a British Conservative Party lawmaker who has followed it. “It is up to the Bulgarian secret services now to show they can operate on the level of a Western service, an ally of EU and NATO, and track down the murderer.”

Georgi Markov was a novelist and playwright who defected in 1969. He broadcast 137 weekly “In Absentia Reports” between 1975 and 1978 on U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe, condemning Bulgaria’s regime. His writings were banned from Bulgarian libraries and bookstores, and he wasn’t named in official media until 1989.

He was attacked on London’s Waterloo Bridge while waiting for a double-decker bus by someone who stabbed his leg with the tip of an umbrella, delivering a ricin-laced pellet into his bloodstream.

Mr. Markov died on Sept. 11, 1978, presaging by almost three decades the 2004 dioxin poisoning of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Western politician whose face was disfigured by the attempt on his life, and the 2006 London death of Alexander Litvinenko, a dissident ex-Russian secret agent, via a dose of radioactive polonium 210.

Mr. Markov’s killing was dubbed the “umbrella murder,” and the crime prompted cross accusations. Western governments and media blamed the Soviet Union’s KGB and the Bulgarian secret police. The Bulgarians said the U.S. CIA did it to frame them, supposedly after discovering that Mr. Markov was a double agent.

Bulgaria opened its investigation the year after the communists fell. A suspect was briefly held in 1993. He was released without being charged because authorities had “no solid evidence” against him, said Andrei Tsvetanov, an investigator at Bulgaria’s National Investigation Service headquarters in Sofia.

“Regrettably, the perpetrator remains unknown,” said Mr. Tsvetanov said in an Aug. 13 interview.

Lachezar Penev, the chief of the Bulgarian service’s homicide unit, said there also isn’t enough evidence to blame Bulgarian authorities. He echoed earlier charges that the killing more likely was the work of an enemy of Bulgarian communists, such as the CIA.

“I am 60 percent sure it could be one of the main foreign intelligence services, which at the time had an interest in pinpointing Bulgaria,” Mr. Penev said.

Scotland Yard in London is continuing its own probe, given that the killing occurred on British soil. Detectives from there traveled to Bulgaria in May, said Scotland Yard spokeswoman Lucy Inett in an e-mailed response to questions. British investigators will return this month, Bulgaria’s Mr. Tsvetanov said.

Lyuben Markov, the cousin, said he suspects his nation’s authorities know more than they are letting on. The investigation suffered a setback when Gen. Vladimir Todorov, the last communist-era intelligence chief, destroyed classified documents relating to the case.

That earned Gen. Todorov a 14-month sentence and left the case in limbo, with Bulgaria’s original claim - that Mr. Markov was pretending to be a dissident while spying for his homeland - unchallenged.

“I was sure that one day Georgi will be recognized as a great writer, and his name will be cleared of all other allegations,” Lyuben Markov said. “But given that the files are destroyed, I have little hope now.”

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