September, 2009

  1. Death of Big Ginger

    September 26, 2009 by Christopher Buxton

    Or how Bulgarian media distort crime stories

    Students of physiognomy would delight in the expressions of Bulgarian incredulity when foreigners remark how peaceful and crime free the streets of Bulgaria seem in comparison with their home towns in England, France or Italy. Last year, Kapka Kasabova’s statement that she felt safer in Sofia than in Edinburgh was reported in every Bulgarian newspaper and provoked extreme astonishment.

    Bulgarians don’t like to be told about the frequency of murderous violence and vandalism in countries they regard as being more advanced than theirs. While there is abounding evidence of corruption in high places and routine failures of the police and judicial system, at ground level Bulgaria remains an extremely civil society. Standards of public conduct are still enforced on the street. Balkan morality or plain nosiness means that people generally do not look the other way. Streets of big towns do not routinely become no-go areas thronging with drunken youths.

    The perverse belief that the country has unparalleled levels of crime is partly down to Bulgarian desire to see themselves as uniquely unfortunate but mostly as a result of media exaggeration and glamorization. The Bulgarian media’s love affair with crime began in 1990 and the downfall of communism. For the first time since the war newspapers were allowed to report crime. And of course they learnt the simple rule that crime sells copy.

    The recent death of Kaloyan Stoyanov provides a perfect case study for current media values and practice. In their rush to get the story out accuracy of detail is the first casualty. Then in the desperate fog of speculation comes the problem of how to frame the story.

    The bare facts are these: Kaloyan Stoyanov, a relatively insignificant racketeer, was being driven by a friend out of the Meden Rudnik complex – an unattractive high rise suburb of Burgas. At an intersection they were cut up by a 39 year old motorcyclist, Petko Lisichkov. Petko was then attacked and kicked on the ground before first pulling out a truncheon and then a gun and shooting Kaloyan three times. Lisichkov then rang the police, handed over his gun and submitted himself to arrest. Kaloyan’s friends gathered and shouted threats.

    Every criminal seeks glory from their otherwise banal and short lives. Of course the media are keen accomplices so over the past nineteen years we have become familiar with a series of colourful nicknames that reel off the pages like characters in a Batman comic – the Doctor, the Beak, the Potato, the Eyes. And so Kaloyan is better known as Big Ginger.

    First reports had Lisichkov attacked by not two but four assailants. The story then could easily be framed as self defence – particularly as it turned out that Lisichkov was an ex cop and legally entitled to own a gun. Under attack by knife wielding monsters what choice did the older man have?

    However newspapers like to have their cake and eat it, so Standart’s first report uses the word execution more than once in a story which otherwise stresses aspects of heroic self defence. But by the next day all the media seemed to agree on the latter. It was typical of the Bulgarian justice system that the victim of a crime should be the one who suffers. Sympathy was encouraged for poor ex-policeman Lisichkov who faces a possible five years in prison on a strangely verbose charge of causing death under extreme provocation and threat to own life. Demonstrations by former police colleagues and Rocker motorcyclists are planned.

    Ex-policemen do not normally attract such public sympathy. Lisichkov who left his short police career in 1993, was declared to have no criminal record. The fact that he doesn’t even have a nickname must be the clincher – just a normal private citizen going about his business with a gun and a truncheon.

    The media love binary opposites and of course Big Ginger has got a significant record – from petty extortion outside discotheques, to working for drug dealer Dian the Boxer.

    “When Big Ginger’s gang gets out their knives, they show no mercy,” says a Meden Rudnik underworld source. Ah where would the media be without such sources? The knives are of course lovingly measured as though they were giant penises. But If there was ever evidence needed of Big Ginger’s stupidity – it clearly lies in his weapon of choice. You’d think he would have learnt his lesson in 2007 when he attacked Greasy Ivan in the main street in Burgas. A knife however large is no match for a gun and Big Ginger ended up in hospital with a bullet in his loins.

    So that’s that then – virtue triumphed and Big Ginger is dead. His brother Little Ginger is under arrest along with other members of the gang who shouted threats at Lisichkov that he was a dead man and brandished their knives. The only concern is for the safety of a heroic ex-cop. But hang on a moment! Lisichkov does have a past. In 2003 he was arrested at the Kulata border crossing carrying a lorry load of chemicals used for synthetic drug manufacture worth 3 million dollars.

    With no rules of sub-judice, the Bulgarian media will run and run with variations of this story, and their audience’s sense of hopelessness can only increase.


  2. New Turkish Slavery?

    September 19, 2009 by Christopher Buxton



    Grannies under the yoke? Turkish soap operas rule Bulgarian TV channels.

    Bulgarian nationalists eat your hearts out! Pensioners in their thousands have become glued to Turkish soap operas and numerous travel firms (presumably unregistered) are offering trips to the colourful locations and sets where these passionate stories are filmed. Each advertisement of course hints at the chance of meeting the stars in the flesh.

    It’s enough for Ataka leader Volen Siderov to require new teeth to gnash. Just as he had established in his recent election campaign that Bulgarian Grannies love him, he finds himself forsaken and forlorn. As he jumps up and demands public apologies and financial reparation for the five hundred year “Turkish Slavery”, so he finds his very supporters have embraced a new slavery as they sit engrossed in the latest twists and turns of the Turkish plot.

    Presenters at SKAT TV, the mouthpiece for anti Turkish propaganda, certainly suspect a plot – and one of international proportions. American media money and resources must have gone into the making of these shows. Everyone knows (at least at SKAT TV) that Bulgaria is the potential victim of a dastardly Jewish, American, European, Turkish conspiracy. SKAT TV has seated kindly white haired gentlemen on the main squares of major Bulgarian cities, to enlist signatories to the campaign to stop the broadcast of the news in Turkish on Bulgarian National Television. Perhaps a campaign to stop all Turkish Soap Operas would have been more logical.

    Meanwhile the full horror is beginning to sink in. Bulgarian viewers watch these soap operas in wonder. Could it be that Turks do not sprout five serpent heads with fezes and teeth dripping with Bulgarian blood? Could it be that their houses are rather nicely furnished; their estates clean and rubbish free? Why aren’t the women covered from head to foot? Why aren’t they wearing shalvari? Good Heavens – these Turkish women have hair! No wonder Ataka and SKAT sense an evil propaganda campaign. The Turkish Government must be behind these soap operas. They want Bulgarians to think that Turks are just like them – only more prosperous.

    And indeed the characters conform to Balkan stereotypes. The melodrama centres around patriarchs with bristling moustaches, lean suspicious Grannies, smoldering wives with luxurious hair, duplicitous husbands, violently jealous boyfriends, naïve fresh faced girls, precocious adorable children – very similar to their Bulgarian equivalents. The story lines allow for heart rending situations sufficient for hours of shared speculation on the benches where pensioners congregate in the hours between transmissions.

    In Tears by the Bosphorus, Lale is diagnosed with brain cancer. Sure that she will die and unwilling for her husband and children to suffer, she disappears with the help of her long time doctor admirer. Her abandoned husband hires beautiful Zeinep to look after the children and of course they fall in love and marry. Soap Opera fans can guess what happens next. Pearl has a similar return-from-the –dead motif. This time it’s Mehmed who visits his girlfriend’s grave, desperate to expiate the guilt of causing her death in a car crash. Little does he know that seated in a nearby wheelchair….

    Well I thought I’d seen it all, until a cousin introduced me to Marriage with a foreigner. This must be the most ambitious and mischievous Turkish production yet. It feeds on every Balkan prejudice and it’s funny. The plot hook is simple – girl from prosperous family of master Baklava maker falls in love with Greek son of diplomat. There couldn’t be a story more likely to appeal to the Bulgarian viewer who of course understands every Balkan nuance. There’s the Turkish grandfather, chaining himself to a statue of Ataturk and proclaiming that he will never give his grand-daughter to a Greek. There’s the girl’s father, feeling increasingly uncomfortable as he is told that baklava, lokum and Turkish coffee are Greek. There’s the Greek mother who cannot pronounce Istanbul, but must call the city Constantinople. There’s the presence everywhere of the younger generation wanting to forget the past.

    And of course it is the stereotypes created by versions of the past that SKAT and Ataka want Bulgarians to remember – the five hundred years of brutal slavery. Turkey must be punished and of course Ataka fervently believes that every Turk is desperate to get into Europe. Recent statistics prove the opposite. Keep Turkey out of Europe was Ataka’s main slogan in the recent European campaign. French German Italian and perhaps more importantly Turkish opposition to entry of course fades into insignificance beside Ataka’s brave stand.

    In contrast to divisive nationalist campaigns, Turkish Soap Operas remind viewers of their common background. Attitudes displayed in these programmes are exaggerated but the final message is clear. You can keep Turkey out of Europe but you can’t keep her out of Bulgaria.

    (I’d like to thank my consultant Vanya Valkanova for her help with details for this article)


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