The funds, a cornerstone of the EU's expansion plan, were originally designed to woo Bulgaria's eight million mainly-Slavic-speaking people away from Moscow's sphere of influence - courting favour by rebuilding crumbling roads and railways and replacing drab-Soviet-style schools and town halls.But that effort largely overlooked the fact that in Bulgaria, the corrupt, gangster-ridden political class that emerged in the vacuum of communism's collapse already owed far more to Russia than it did to Europe.
Further crony capitalism is detailed in allegations that another group member was a business partner of a former government minister who, the report says, tried to "influence an ongoing investigation" against him.
Yet although much of the corruption goes undetected, there is little doubt that the whispers Mr Atanasov picks up during his countryside tours are more than mere village gossip.
That much has been made clear by a string of cases that opened in Bulgarian courts in the past month, the first in what Brussels says is a litmus test of Sofia's willingness to clean up its act.
Seasoned observers of Bulgarian political intrigue already claim to detect a crude political hand in the timing of both the Nikolov and Droumev court appearances, as well as last week's arrest of Bulgarian banking and football tycoon, Hristo Kovachki on tax charges.
All three cases, they point out, took place ahead of a scheduled visit from Franz-Hermann Bruener, director-general of the anti-fraud office, to see how things are progressing.