Report from Bulgaria – Europe’s newest member
The Ministry of Extraordinary Situations can be found opposite Sofia’s Saint Nedelya Cathedral – itself the location of an extraordinary situation in 1925 – the communist bomb outrage that was aimed at the then monarchist elite.
The Ministry is not the invention of a Bulgarian JK Rowling, though most Bulgarians could easily believe in a governmental parallel universe of magical mischief.
They have to face an extraordinary situation every fifteen minutes of their waking lives. Extraordinary situations range from the mundane life threatening – the kamikaze mothers who have to push their children’s buggies out into the street against the flow of traffic because the pavements are occupied by parked cars; to the dramatic – finding that a former minister has bought up all the land around your seaside small holding and has cut off all access to your land; to the more extraordinary – that off duty policemen who got drunk and shot a walker in the woods for fun cannot be prosecuted as they are protected by the Minister of Internal Affairs.
Extraordinary situations are so dramatic, so sensational and so frequent that after a flurry of headlines and wild speculation they are swiftly forgotten. Revelation is rarely proved and seldom leads to any judicial closure.
Here today for example the release from prison of drug dealer Mityo the Eyes and a celebration party that involves the alleged rape of two girls. Tomorrow – quite likely – all will be forgotten as the girls withdraw their allegation.
The latest fashion in extraordinary situations can be found in the reported “suicides” of prominent people. Right handed bankers blow holes in their heads with guns held in their left hand. Politicians manage to place multiple bullets in their brains. In the last few weeks the suicide of Ahmed Dogan’s right hand man has led to speculation that there was a plot to assassinate the allegedly corrupt leader of Bulgaria’s Turkish speaking minority. And in a playground Bulgaria’s most famous pathologist was found hanged, leaving sufficient clues to bewilder Harry Potter let alone the Bulgarian police.
Bulgarians did not need to be told by the European Union Commission that their government has not been effective in combating corruption. What perhaps hurts the most is that they are now behind Romania at the bottom of the class. Throughout the country people can quickly cite examples of outrageous bending of the rules in favour of powerful interests. Bookshops are full of lurid best-selling paperbacks describing colourfully named Mafia bosses whose careers are more likely to be ended by a bullet or bomb than by any action by the police. Down the entire Black Sea coast dunes are razed and conservation areas ignored as Las Vegas style spa hotels jostle with gated villages and golf courses.
Specific detail on how all these extraordinary situations came about is hard to come by. There are a few very brave investigative journalists. One of them – Ognan Stefanov – is fighting for his life in hospital having been attacked by men with iron bars. His articles on President Purvanov’s business links may have upset someone. Assen Yordanov who used his Karate training to resist a similar attack following his investigation into land deals around the Stranzha nature reserve, pinpoints a further problem. The same forces that are responsible for high level corruption also own all media outlets. Having found an editor temporarily brave enough to print his article in a national newspaper, Yordanov had to personally deliver copies to interested readers as all other copies were purchased by one person at the point of retail delivery.
Bulgarians no longer need to be told how they were fooled during the heady years following the fall of the Berlin wall. Ilya Troyanov in his book Dog Times has documented how intelligent communists had foreseen the necessity of democracy and filled the ranks of the new opposition parties with trusted former comrades – mainly from former State Security. While “Insurance firms” run by ex-criminals and former wrestlers terrorised fledgling businesses, the big boys in whatever government were busy with money laundering and selling each other choice land and other worthwhile assets at knock down prices. Old trade channels through former Yugoslavia continued to be used for narcotics and people smuggling.
Today the wrestlers no longer swagger down the main street and empty cafes and gangsters prefer to be called businessmen. However many people felt a quiet satisfaction at the withdrawal of EU funds. They thought they could rob Europe like they’ve robbed us, but the Europeans were on to their tricks.
The irony is that despite corruption at the top and the creation of a new tasteless leather-faced aristocracy, middle Bulgaria is booming. Vanya Bichova is typical of the new entrepreneurs. A teacher in Communist times, she found months without pay sufficient stimulus to start up a quality shirt business that now exports across the world.
But the middle class is politically disengaged and cynical. They are not likely to follow their Thai or Venezuelan counterparts and take to the streets. Vania Bichova tells me There’s no point in voting. The politicians just fill their stomachs but so what? They have no power. They are at the beck and call of NATO America and Europe. Alongside this fatalism is a curious optimism based on a blinkered determination to focus on their local interest and to succeed no matter what.
Meanwhile the real Ministry of Extraordinary Situations disperses money for the cleaning of river beds. The belief is that most of the money will find its way into the wrong pockets.