EMPIRE BURLESQUE

by Anthony Georgieff

Tsvetan Tsvetanov's spectacular arrests mean nothing unless they result in convictions. Which they don't

empire burlesque bulgaria.jpg

Increasingly, many Bulgarians have started to think that something has gone very wrong with the new establishment dominated by Boyko Borisov's GERB, or Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria. To start off with, there is a sharp discrepancy between that political party's name and the methods it uses to govern itself – and the country. Younger and more knowledgeable Bulgarians especially discern few traces of "Europeanness" in the government's autocratic style, while most private businesses that are not directly protected by the intricate network of friendships and preferences created by GERB and its predecessors see few signs of any "development" either. In fact they see the opposite: Bulgaria is in the grip of a severe economic crisis and those in power are doing nothing to alleviate it. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one major entrepreneur in Sofia told Vagabond: "These people will not stop until they see the end of all private enterprise that is not on friendly terms with them."

But the GERB government is not all incompetence and failure and, as regards now former Health Minister Anna-Maria Borisova and still incumbent Minister for Bulgarians Abroad Bozhidar Dimitrov – grotesque. Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov stands out as a beacon of safety and security in a country whose population considers "being left alone" the chief social virtue.

Tsvetan Tsvetanov has roots in the pre-1989 Communist-era militia. During the 1990s he built up a career in the militia's successor, the Bulgarian police force. Since 2001, when Boyko Borisov, a former fireman, became a senior official in the Interior Ministry, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, who is a trained gym instructor, has been his right-hand man.

It seems that Tsvetan Tsvetanov is the only person in the present government who is actually doing something for all Bulgarians to see: he is chasing down alleged criminals. In a country that has become synonymous with organised crime and corruption, his job is, predictably, extremely popular, and it is small wonder that recent opinion polls indicate that Mr Tsv. outshines even his boss in popularity. Tsvetanov constantly delivers Interior Ministry press releases on TV, and his masterful use of video techniques to document spectacular arrests of alleged criminals stun audiences now used to reality shows of the Big Brother kind. The interior minister appears to strike where the Bulgarians want most: at the big underworld bosses, at the white-collar criminals, and at his own government's predecessors, who are largely blamed for the mess Bulgaria finds itself in at the moment. Significantly, Tsvetanov uses strong language to denounce the country's judicial system, a sentiment shared by most Bulgarians who have been unfortunate enough to have had any interaction with the Bulgarian courts.

But a closer look at Tsvetanov's activities will reveal that what he says and does is at odds with his declared aim of making Bulgarian a really "law-abiding" state.

For one, Mr Tsv. is a staunch defender of police over-reaction, something so typical of the pre-democracy times where people could be sent to labour camps for telling political jokes. During his term in office, he has successfully imposed his boss's heavy-handed manners on Bulgaria's largest ministry. Importantly, Tsvetanov rarely apologises for the numerous instances of collateral damage perpetrated by his black-clad special forces. The list of wrongful arrests and police brutality is long, and some very striking cases include the recent assault of a family in Kardzhali and the wrongful arrests, presumably in instances of mistaken identity, of a pop singer and the French manager of a major bank in Bulgaria. At his home, in the early hours of the morning, the latter was forced to lie handcuffed on the floor while orders were shouted out in a language he did not understand. It is true that Tsvetan Tsvetanov is not known to have consorted with underworld figures of the sort his predecessor, Rumen Petkov, used to dine with, but equally inexcusable is his unquestioning support for members of the police force accused of and indicted for the killing of alleged criminals while in police custody.

More importantly, Tsvetanov's arrests have resulted in few if any meaningful prosecutions. In many instances, the courts have found that the evidence presented by the police was so flawed that they have ordered instant dismissals. Similarly, most members of "organised crime gangs" have been released after a brief period of arrest.

"There have always been wet squibs in Bulgaria, both now and previously; but I cannot see any real change," comments German investigative journalist Jürgen Roth, who has written books about organised crime in Bulgaria. Roth adds: "Nothing has been done against the TIM grouping, nor against the oligarchs in various countries that have in some way or another been related to the power circles of current Prime Minister Boyko Borisov." TIM is a powerful Varna-based consortium with multiple economic interests throughout Bulgaria.

Sometimes Tsvetan Tsvetanov orders his forces to take part in downright farcical situations. A much publicised police raid of an art auction resulted in precisely nothing, but was shown repeatedly on TV, much to the bemusement of anyone with any knowledge of the arts.

Worryingly, however, crime affecting ordinary citizens is on the increase in spite of – or perhaps owing to – Tsvetan Tsvetanov's police actions. Home burglaries, petty thefts and traffic offences have all gone up. Unless they have surveillance systems installed, few citizens even bother to report such crimes, possibly because they know that they will be made to wait for hours in their local police station to file a report and then nothing will happen.

There are no TV crews and press conferences in these instances – the public prefers the big-time cases that look good on TV. But the way to fight organised crime is not through the lens of a cameraman. Unless Tsvetan Tsvetanov and his team start implementing some serious reforms in the very ministry he heads, any show of law enforcement resoluteness will be burlesque.

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