CATCHING THEM REDHANDED

by Dimana Trankova

How to join the eternal fight against corruption in Bulgaria – and is it worth it?

The Slovene gets excited. He's wearing a T-shirt sporting one of those Finnish heavy metal bands known only to a handful of fanatical admirers. Is it really true that there is a special music festival devoted to this kind of heavy metal in Bulgaria? (Thrash Till Death. Location: Kavarna). But then he has second thoughts. "I'd love to come, but I don't think I will," he tells me. "Why?" "Because of the traffic police. If they stop me four times between the Serbian border and Kavarna and then four more times on the way back, and each time I have to give them 20 euros…"

Unfortunately, in Bulgaria corruption ends neither with the notorious traffic police nor with the politicians. The giving and taking of bribes is part of everyday life, an easy way of greasing the slow-grinding bureaucratic machine or of receiving a service. In January 2011 the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a public policy think tank, announced that in 2010 one out of 10 Bulgarians and one out of six companies had made under-the-counter payments to civil servants – and that no one find nothing unusual about it.

In April 2011 the annual US State Department Human Rights Report confirmed these observations. Corruption, especially in high places in politics, is still among Bulgaria's top problems.

Foreigners constitute a small but not insignificant portion of the corrupt practices in the country. In April, for example, two Romanians trying to smuggle 40 cartons of cigarettes were caught trying to bribe customs officials. Along with traffic policemen, customs officers are considered the most corrupt group in Bulgaria.

But what can you do if you refuse to keep the corruption machine going? Who can help you?

A look at the abundance of commissions, sub-commissions and ministries in Bulgaria to whom you can report corrupt practices may make you feel dizzy. There's a parliamentary committee for fighting corruption, as well as a Commission for Prevention and Countering Corruption, or CPCC, within the Council of Ministers. At the Supreme Judicial Council there is a Commission for the Fight Against Corruption in the Judiciary. These three commissions form the National Coordinating Council for Measures of Fighting Corruption.

To these should be added the individual corruption-fighting departments within the ministries of finance and the interior, and other institutions such as the Customs Office and the commissions for the fight against corruption in the utilisation of EU funds. One mustn't forget DANS, the specialised national security agency inaccurately nicknamed "the Bulgarian FBI," and the newly established "super" agency BORCOR, whose responsibilities are known to few and whose acronym comes from the Fight Against Corruption – or maybe from Borko, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's favourite dog.

On the strength of this, one can easily conclude that the number of organisations set up to fight corruption is inversely proportional to the effect they have.

Reporting a corrupt practice is neither easy nor pleasant. The website www.anticorruption.government.bg of the CPCC was set up with funding under the EU's PHARE programme. It has no English language version and its latest update happened in... 2009. The alternative is to write a regular letter or to write an email, in Bulgarian, on the website's Contacts form. The first bit of information that the form requires is your EGN, which is the unique 10-digit ID number that each Bulgarian citizen has. This at once violates the protection of personal data and precludes reports from foreigners.

And yet, if you happen to witness or be a victim of corruption and want to do something about it, it is possible to seek help.

Transparency International Bulgaria is a good choice. As of 2006 the Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre, or ALAC, whose operations are directed towards the fight against corruption, is located there. The Centre's work is supported by the French Foreign Ministry. Transparency International Bulgaria (www.transparency-bg.org) monitors the Bulgarian judicial system. "We conduct advocacy campaigns," they told Vagabond. "ALAC's juridical team provides free assistance to anyone who contacts us, regardless of whether or not the report is about corruption."

"Anyone" includes foreigners. Everyone, irrespective of whether they live permanently in Bulgaria or are just passing through, may report a corrupt practice to the ALAC. The report can be filed in English (in writing or via the telephone) or French (in writing) at www.alac. transparency-bg.org or freephone 0800 11 224.

Between 200 and 300 reports of corruption are filed annually with the ALAC, of which five to 10 are submitted by foreigners. Usually the complaints relate to real estate fraud and border controls or customs infringements. There are also many cases in which representatives of foreign companies which either have branches in Bulgaria or work with local partner organisations have contacted ALAC regarding corrupt practices in public procurement procedures. In such cases, the ALAC has suggested a possible course of action and has approached the relevant institutions requesting that they outline their position.

Unfortunately, the centre is unable to assist in litigation or to undertake investigations. It only "provides expert opinion and recommendations about how to act in each individual case, as well as assistance in the preparation of formal complaints to the relevant state institutions, and then follows the progress of the case," the Transparency International told Vagabond. What has been the outcome of this? "Depending on the nature of the complaint, the effect may be different, but to a large extent the reports we've been sent have yielded results."

With the support of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe and Open Society Institute – Sofia

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